Homelessness and failure to cooperate: we need to talk about this

There’s an aspect of Welsh homelessness legislation that we’ve always been deeply uncomfortable with.

When the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 gave new powers to local authorities to discharge their homelessness duties if they decided that a household is ‘unreasonably failing to cooperate’, we and others predicted it would lead to highly vulnerable people being excluded from assistance.

But trends are now emerging in our casework which suggest that the effect of failure to cooperate is running even deeper, even working against Wales’ whole approach to prevention.

Let’s illustrate this. A few weeks ago, one of our caseworkers took a call from a council homelessness officer who said that they were investigating failure to cooperate in relation to a client of ours. The client was a private tenant who’d been threatened by her landlord and illegally evicted. The homelessness officer wanted to know whether she’d been in touch with us – saying that if she hadn’t, then the council would be looking to refuse to provide her and her family with temporary accommodation.

This, of course, rang immediate alarm bells for our caseworker. We confirmed to the council that the only reason our client hadn’t been in recent contact was because there hadn’t been any change in her situation, not because she was failing to cooperate. Thankfully, the council had a change of heart and agreed to accommodate her and her family.

This isn’t the only time we’ve been asked to inform against our clients in relation to failure to cooperate. It raises a number of worrying questions.

  1. How much resource are councils spending on investigating failure to cooperate? The Housing Act was supposed to signal a shift of resource away from investigations and towards helping people. But while intentionality has fallen to historically low levels, failure to cooperate has taken its place: since April 2016, rates of failure to cooperate have been eight times higher than rates of intentionality. Failure to cooperate is the outcome for 6.3 per cent of households owed a duty – a sizeable chunk of the 20 per cent who are currently dropping out of the system due to failure to cooperate, withdrawal of application or other reason. In short, failure to cooperate has become the new intentionality – the new reason not to help people.
  2. How aware of this are other providers? Do support workers realise that if they give information to the council about their clients’ engagement, they might be unwittingly jeopardising their rights to homelessness assistance?
  3. Some councils are clearly taking failure to cooperate extremely seriously. One urban authority is requiring applicants to keep a ‘reasonable steps diary’ to account for all the time they spend house-hunting. The Code of Guidance encourages councils to put in place a wide range of interventions – but with this narrow focus on failure to cooperate, lots of reasonable steps might actually work against people’s best interests. The more comprehensive the Personal Housing Plan, the more hurdles there are to catch people out. There’s a tension here at the heart of the legislation and it needs to be addressed.
  4. Finally, there’s a valid question to be asked about councils’ interpretation of ‘engagement’. The statutory Code of Guidance is not very specific about this. Are councils taking into account what the stress of homelessness does to a person’s ability to be fully on the case? Have they had training in trauma-informed practice? How sustained does ‘failure to cooperate’ have to get before a person has their rights removed?

More research is needed to understand what’s going on. In the meantime, perhaps the next review of the Code of Guidance can provide some clarity, and remind councils that support, not investigations, is the best use of resources.