The use of professional discretion in English statutory homelessness services
The role of Local Authority Housing Option Services (LAHOSs) in England is to prevent homelessness, provide housing advice and make statutory homelessness assessments. For a household to be accepted as statutorily homeless and be owed a main housing duty they must pass a number of ‘tests’. That is, they must satisfy decision makers that they are eligible, homeless within 28 days, have not caused their homelessness intentionally, reach the threshold of priority need and have a local connection. Over the last quarter of a century investigations have shown that LAHOSs may at times resort to unlawful gatekeeping in an attempt to ration services (Lidstone, 1994). For the purposes of this article gatekeeping refers to actions taken by frontline LAHOS workers to actively impede statutory homeless presentations.
The well documented connection between resource shortages and the likelihood of gatekeeping being practiced in LAHOSs suggests that its incidence is likely to increase in the current austere political climate. This is because service users at threat of homelessness are increasing, yet housing and welfare spending has fallen to its lowest level in over 60 years (Nevin and Leather, 2012:14). Alongside this welfare reform has been cited as the primary cause of homelessness over the last few years (Fitzpatrick et al, 2015). Yet despite these recent challenges homelessness acceptances and use of temporary accommodation remain a primary political objective (CLG, 2012). In summary LAHOS’s are experiencing an environment in which service users have increased, but resources to tackle this have not risen to meet demand; if anything, they have reduced.
To explore in greater detail how the current political climate is impacting on LAHOSs a national baseline survey and follow on interviews with a selection of line managers and staff were carried out by the author between December 2012 and July 2013. A total of 272 practitioners completed the survey, and 27 practitioners in 12 LAHOS departments participated in interviews.
In line with the findings discussed above many interviewees had either witnessed or practiced gatekeeping in response to a lack of resources and a target driven environment. It was found that the use of negative discretion in the form of gatekeeping tended to be linked to organisational and central level concerns, whereby decision makers were more motivated by the desire to protect resources, as opposed to applying strict criteria for its own sake. For example many officers advised that whilst groups assessed as ‘vulnerable’ tended to be prioritised, resource shortages would result in authorities practicing unlawful gatekeeping. The most reported pressures included a lack of temporary accommodation and concerns around an increase in households wishing to make a statutory homeless application. Ultimately, frontline decision makers have little freedom to apply more positive discretion due to pressures around keeping statutory homeless acceptance levels low.
Whilst LAHOSs are a perennially lean service the findings of this research indicate that greater challenges are faced in the current austere climate due to a lower level of available resources and greater workload levels. Further, the evidence shows that housing law is at times being deliberately misappropriated due to higher level policy pressures. Yet there is a concern that Central Government give tacit approval to the practice of gatekeeping as it ensures that official statistics relating to homelessness acceptances are minimised.
More information regarding the context and findings of this research can be found in the latest issue of Social Policy & Society and we invite you to read the full article ‘Discretion on the Frontline: The Street Level Bureaucrat in English Statutory Homelessness Services‘ here
DCLG 2012. Making every contact count: A joint approach to preventing homelessness, London, Crown Copywright.
Fitzpatrick, S., Pawson, H., Bramley, G., Wilcox, S. & Watts, B. 2015. The homelessness monitor: England 2015, London, Crisis.
Lidstone, P. 1994. Rationing housing to the homeless applicant. Housing Studies, 9, 459-472.
Nevin, B. & Leather, P. 2012 Localism, welfare reform and housing market change: Identifying the issues and responding to the challenge a report for nash London, Nevin Leather Associates.