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Thursday, February 14, 2019

The consequences of the Welsh Government's misguided popularism

I am a bit behind in catching up with this article on Wales-online, but that does nothing to lessen the seriousness of the issue that they have highlighted or its impact on public policy.

The news site reports that the independent board which monitors Cardiff prison has found that half of the men released from HMP Cardiff have nowhere to stay when they are released and many will deliberately reoffend in order to be sent back to prison, where they can at least get regular meals and can be warm:

Of 23 men interviewed on the day of their release, only 13 had a definite place to sleep that night. There was then further monitoring and a pattern emerged where half of those being released each day had no accommodation to go to.

One man was released and left with a travel warrant to Coventry, 44p in his pocket and nowhere to sleep that night, the report says.

Appointments were made for the men to make a housing application but "there was a clear expectation that none would be offered".

During the winter, there was "great concern" about the cold temperatures people were being released into.

Even those who said they had a place to stay were relying on a friend or relatives sofa or temporary hostel accommodation.

However, many told the board they expected to be sent to Huggard, a hostel in Cardiff city centre - something they feared.

"There was a general expectation held by men without accommodation that they would be sent to the Huggard Centre hostel. A number of men expressed fears in relation to the hostel, citing being pressurised into taking drugs, facing violence or having possessions stolen".

The article adds that Welsh Government statistics for 2016-17 showed 12% of those who were homeless said their reason was due to leaving prison.

This was an issue I sought to tackle when, as a Deputy Minister in 2001, I pushed through a change of the law in the Welsh Assembly that re-established clear categories of people, who have a local connection, who should not just be rehoused first but would also require additional support to enable them to remain in their new home.

These categories were a care leaver or person at particular risk of sexual exploitation between the ages of 18 and 21; a 16 or 17 year old; a person fleeing domestic violence or threatened domestic violence; a person homeless after leaving the armed forces; and a former prisoner, homeless after leaving custody.

Unfortunately, in 2013 he Welsh Government decided to succumb to pressure from some councils and, in the face of all the evidence, removed the priority for ex-prisoners. This was a change I fought at every stage, including this article for the then-website, Wales Eye. I wrote that the removal of the statutory duty to rehouse ex-prisoners is a serious misstep:

That proposal is being made for purely popularist reasons and belies the evidence in the government's own research, published in 2008, that concluded that 75% of those offenders most likely to reoffend have a housing need compared to 30% of the general offender population. That report suggested that more joined up thinking is needed to prevent re-offending. It said:

'Securing appropriate accommodation has long been one of the main problems associated with leaving prison as well as a central focus of resettlement work. Research published by the Home Office in 2001, and cited in the Social Exclusion Unit report, noted that around one-third of prisoners do not have a settled home prior to going into prison and around one-third will lose their home during their sentence, making the resettlement role a significant and challenging one. If an offender/ex-offender lacks a suitable place to live, it is more difficult for them to get and keep a job or to engage effectively with any other interventions in relation to their needs. Accommodation is therefore identified as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the reduction of re-offending.'

As Shelter Cymru points out, if this is the case then surely the solution is not to destabilise the 'necessary' condition but rather to ensure that the supporting conditions are more effectively met. They argue that the new duty would be more effective if it were underpinned by priority status to guarantee a right to temporary accommodation while prevention work is being carried out. They say that without a right to temporary accommodation, it will be virtually impossible for local authorities to work with homeless prison leavers effectively.

Gofal Cymru is also scathing about the proposal to drop this particular priority group. In their submission to the government they say: 'It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of prisoners have a mental health problem of some kind and that more than 70 per cent of both male and female prisoners have at least two mental disorders. Many are from disadvantaged backgrounds, have substance misuse issues and poor literacy rates. It is clear that a significant proportion of the prison population is vulnerable and we therefore question the benefits of amending the priority need definition. We fear that an unintended consequence of this proposal will lead to many vulnerable former prisoners being denied access to accommodation.'

Shelter Cymru say that if these individuals end up street homeless on release, it is highly likely that they will fall out of touch with prevention services and back into a cycle of reoffending. This has consequences for community safety, healthcare, social services and, eventually, for homelessness as well.

Cymorth Cymru, an umbrella group for supported housing providers concur. They say: 'It is clear from the conversations that we've had with our members that simply putting a roof over someone's head is not enough. This is as true for those leaving prison as it is for many others. As such, we strongly feel that removing the housing element is the wrong response and that instead we should be focussing on the factors such as support that complement the provision of accommodation.'

My concern is similar, that without a statutory duty to rehouse prisoners underpinning rehabilitation, councils will just not bother to do the work and reoffending rates, which are already higher than those in England will rise even further.

It gives me no satisfaction to see those concerns realised on the streets of Cardiff.
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