The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has this month called for the establishment of a new Housing Regulator role to assist local authorities in fulfilling their statutory duties consistently.
The recommendation was contained in a report on the homelessness review process in Wales in which the Ombudsman, Nick Bennett, claimed to have found evidence of “systemic maladministration” by councils.
This maladministration put vulnerable people facing homelessness in Wales at risk of grave injustice, he added.
The report acknowledged evidence of good practice, but pointed to “unacceptable delays in the review process, inadequate processes, poor communication and vulnerable people being offered unsuitable accommodation” as issues of serious concern.
The investigation focused on three local authorities – Cardiff, Carmarthenshire and Wrexham – and considered evidence provided by the Welsh Government and third sector organisations such as Shelter Cymru.
The report said a review of homelessness cases from the investigated local authorities highlighted the following concerns:
- Human Rights and Equality Act 2010 duties are not always taken into account in assessments and reviews.
- Delays throughout the Assessment and Review Process.
- Significant matters are sometimes missed during the assessment process.
- Clients do not always understand unclear and insufficient communication.
- Failures to appropriately consider the suitability of accommodation.
- Failures to provide support to vulnerable clients and those with complex needs.
The investigation also found that each investigated authority applied a different approach to the Homelessness Review Process.
The Ombudsman said this made a strong case for creating a Housing Regulator role in Wales, “to add value to the development of homelessness processes and act in support of local authorities”.
He also recommended that such a regulator should provide clear guidance to ensure consistency and address the concerns raised by his report.
Nick Bennett, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, said: “I am proud to introduce this report, the first I have produced following an investigation undertaken on my own initiative under the new powers granted to my office by the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2019. Those facing homelessness are amongst the most vulnerable people in society. It is essential that they have a voice and that their lived experience shapes the ongoing improvement of the public services they are entitled to.
“The challenges of increasing homelessness have been widely recognised by bodies in Wales, including the Welsh Government and third sector organisations. With a consistent increase in demand for accommodation for those classed as homeless and in priority need, local authorities have a critical role in preventing homelessness as well as supporting people who have found themselves homeless.”
The Ombudsman noted that in 2018/2019, more than 31,000 households in Wales were assessed as homeless, and many more received support with homelessness issues. “This figure has continued to rise. The absence of complaints to my office about this matter suggests that the individuals affected may be unaware of, or unable to exercise, their right to escalate their complaints to me.”
The Ombudsman said that the evidence showed that a high proportion of homelessness assessment decisions were being overturned on review, and in some local authorities, this was the case year on year. “This suggested systemic maladministration and a failure to identify and learn lessons, and my investigation found this to be the case.”
Mr Bennett praised the work undertaken by homelessness teams in Wales during the pandemic as admirable.
“However, as we look towards a post-pandemic future, anybody at risk of homelessness should be able to expect consistent service from their local authority, wherever they may be in Wales,” he said.
“It is important that those assessed not to be homeless or not to be entitled to support are aware of the right to request a review of the assessment decision. It is also vital that when decisions are overturned at the review stage, lessons are being learned and shared across the authority to improve services.”
Bennett said he recognised that responding to the pandemic had been challenging for the investigated authorities, and their commendable response had enabled the identification of opportunities for the longer term and wider improvements. “However, the good practice demonstrated in response to the pandemic must be maintained and shared to improve the services provided to homeless people – both now and in a post-pandemic future.
“Whilst I have identified several areas for service improvement during my investigation, I also wish to recognise the good practice identified. This good practice must be shared and considered by all local authorities in Wales to support a shared commitment to learning and improvement.”