Government warned over ‘lack of transparency’ on coronavirus homeless response data

Written by Beckie Smith on 8 June 2020 in News

Statistics regulator writes to MHCLG to criticise lack of publication of information 

Credit: Tanja Mason/Pixabay

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been rapped for failing to publish the numbers behind ministers' claims about how the department has supported homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Office for Statistics Regulation this week criticised the "repeated use" by ministers of figures relating to rough sleepers and homeless during the coronavirus crisis, which the department has not made public.

In a letter to MHCLG permanent secretary Jeremy Pocklington, Ed Humpherson, director general for regulation at the statistics watchdog, called on the department to publish the statistics in a format "which is available to all, with definitions and limitations explained".

In the last two months, communities secretary Robert Jenrick has said more than 90% of rough sleepers have been offered accommodation during the coronavirus crisis, and MHCLG has on several occasions in April and May published the claim that 5,400 homeless people have been helped during the pandemic. 

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A press release in late May then put the total number of people who had been housed at nearly 15,000.

"Currently, none of the underlying data and associated limitations have been published by MHCLG," Humpherson said, and urged Pocklington to ensure the figures were published "as soon as possible".

In a statement to parliament on Tuesday – two days after Humpherson's letter was sent – Luke Hall, minister for rough sleeping and housing, said local authorities had provided data to MHCLG on the number of people they had accommodated since Covid-19 broke out, which was 14,610 in total.

"This includes people coming in directly from the streets, people previously housed in shared night shelters and people who have become vulnerable to rough sleeping during the pandemic," he said.

He did not directly address the OSR's letter in his statement, but added that the data from local authorities was management information rather than official statistics. "Local authorities continue to hold the most recent information," he added.

He said his department was publishing the data "in order to be transparent".

The data, published on GOV.UK, gives a breakdown of the figure inside and outside of London.

Explaining the discrepancy in the two sets of figures, Hall said the number "should not be compared to the official autumn annual snapshot of rough sleeping numbers because the data sets are not comparable".

He said a "significant proportion" of the 14,610 people who have been offered accommodation were not classed as rough sleepers but had been housed "in order to prevent any risk of them sleeping rough during the pandemic".

"The work local authorities have undertaken during the pandemic has assisted many who were sleeping rough or living in accommodation where they share sleeping spaces, for example in hostels or night shelters, where they wouldn’t be able to fully self-isolate. Local authorities have also housed those at risk of rough sleeping, or who have presented to local authorities as at risk of sleeping rough throughout this pandemic," he said.

In his letter, Humpherson said the department and ministers should clarify what they mean by the terms "rough sleepers" and "homeless" in statements about emergency accommodation.

"We appreciate the challenging environment your department is operating in and the need to manage the demand for up-to-date information. Given the impact that Covid-19 is having on the rough sleeping and homeless communities and the clear media and public interest in these figures, there is likely to be a continuing need for this information," he wrote.

"Decisions on use of data such as those on rough sleeping, and the best approach to publication, should be informed by advice from your department’s head of profession. A lack of transparency risks undermining public trust in the data, as well as the organisation producing the data."

Responding to Humpherson's letter yesterday, after the management information was published, Pocklington said the data "supports the statement that nearly 15,000 people have been provided emergency accommodation by local authorities in response to this crisis".

"You will see that in the publication we have noted the comments you make around the definition of the terms used and given a clear explanation of them throughout," he said.

"I have further noted the principles you have outlined, and I will remind officials of the importance of publication of figures to which public statements refer."


About the author

Beckie Smith is a reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @Beckie__Smith.


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