Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 21 of Session 2003-04, dated 20 May 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today he found the spiralling levels of homelessness in Northern Ireland very worrying, and the numbers of families spending long periods in B&B accommodation unacceptable. He said it was essential that the £28 million investment proposed in the Housing Executive's homelessness strategy should include firm, measurable targets for dramatically reducing homelessness levels overall, and for meeting the particular needs of vulnerable groups.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 21st Report of this Session, which examined: the extent of homelessness in Northern Ireland and the effectiveness of measures to prevent it; the adequacy and cost of temporary accommodation provided to homeless households; the extent to which the needs of homeless individuals are met; and performance in minimising lengths of stay in temporary accommodation.

Homelessness levels in Northern Ireland are proportionately higher than in other parts of the United Kingdom, and have been rising steadily since 1988. Between 1999-2000 and 2002-03, the annual number of households presenting as homeless rose by 50%. Northern Ireland's reliance on private sector (bed and breakfast-type) accommodation is also higher than in other parts of the UK.

The Committee found that planning for the provision of homelessness services has been inadequate, and NIHE took 14 years to develop its first formal homelessness strategy. This shows a disturbing degree of complacency about meeting its statutory duty towards some of the most vulnerable members of society. The Committee considers that, during this period, there was a breakdown of competence in dealing with homelessness, because a proper framework for getting to grips with the problem had not been devised. The Department is culpable for not taking sufficient action to ensure that NIHE produced a strategy at the outset and for not monitoring service standards closely enough to ensure that real improvements were being delivered. The special circumstances of Northern Ireland make the management of housing issues both sensitive and challenging. This is precisely why proper strategic planning and active Departmental oversight are essential if the homelessness problem is to be brought under effective control.

NIHE acknowledged the unsuitability of B&B accommodation, except for emergency use. Nevertheless, it used B&B for over half of its homeless clients in 2000-01, at an estimated cost of £7.5 million. This cost could only be estimated because of shortcomings in management and costing information. Most of the B&B rents paid were higher than the Housing Benefit limit, resulting in an NIHE top-up of £1.23 million in 2000-01. This is evidence of poor management and it underlines the need to reduce B&B usage to the absolute minimum.

Case example evidence revealed some extraordinarily insensitive mismatches between homeless persons' special needs and the accommodation with which they were provided. The Committee is deeply concerned that NIHE took no action in relation to one particular B&B establishment that had been the subject of repeated complaints from residents about drug-dealing on the premises, and where hygiene standards were poor.

Length of stay in B&Bs is three times longer than the target. Although the proportion of clients allocated to this type of accommodation is falling, actual numbers are rising. The Committee considers that the Department must review urgently its projections for the numbers of new social housing units required, and the level of funding needed to provide them.

Mr Leigh said today:

"I am very concerned that it took NIHE so long to devise a strategy for getting to grips with the growing homelessness problem and that the Department exercised so little control over the quality of service being provided with the money it grants annually to NIHE to tackle it. The improvements built into the homelessness strategy are encouraging, if long overdue. It is essential that NIHE and the Department both maintain a high level of commitment if proper prevention and control measures are to be brought to bear on this most difficult, and complex, social problem."

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