Women in prison inquiry
In response to the Justice Committee’s inquiry into women in prison, I am writing to you in my capacity as Chair of the London Assembly Housing Committee to submit evidence for your consideration. The Housing Committee examines and reports on matters relating to housing in London, and leads on the scrutiny of the Mayor’s housing responsibilities.
Prior to the London Assembly elections earlier this year, the Housing Committee initiated an investigation into London boroughs’ experiences of the ‘Duty to Refer’ process under the Homelessness Act 2017. The Housing Committee, now appointed with new membership, is continuing this work. The Act places a duty upon the Prison Service to refer prison leavers to the relevant local authority where they are at risk of homelessness. This enables the local authority to fulfil their own housing duties. Our findings may be particularly useful in providing evidence for the questions outlined in your call for evidence: “What support is available to ensure that women are successfully resettled into the community upon release and reduce reoffending? Are there any barriers to effective resettlement, and reduced reoffending?”
Our work was prompted by the ‘Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison’ report, from St Martin in the Fields, London Prisons Mission and the Prison Reform Trust, published in October 2020. That report highlighted a range of challenges and inconsistencies in supporting women leaving prison into safe accommodation; and indicated that a proportion of women are continuing to leave prison with no fixed abode.
In February 2021, on behalf of the Committee, my predecessor as Housing Committee Chair wrote to all London boroughs to invite them to set out their approach to providing safe and secure accommodation for vulnerable women released from prison, particularly following a referral under the 2017 Act. We received 19 responses from local authorities. Below we have set out a summary of what we heard.
Many boroughs commented that the duty-to-refer system was useful; some told us that it had facilitated constructive multi-agency partnership working and, importantly, enabled the identification of clients that may otherwise slip through the net. However, for most, the benefits were tempered by some specific shortcomings in the duty-to-refer process, many of which chimed closely with the findings of the 2020 ‘Safe Homes’ report.
We asked boroughs about their processes for responding to referrals under the duty from the Prison Service. We found that a reasonably standard approach is in place across boroughs, although there is a variation in the time councils take to respond to referrals, from one day, up to a week. For most councils, a full needs assessment of the prison leaver is not normally possible until the day of their release from prison. The predominant emphasis by most local authority housing services is upon identifying an interim housing solution - particularly for those assessed as at-priority risk, although one borough emphasised its focus on securing long-term accommodation from the start.
Effectiveness of the duty-to-refer system
We asked boroughs about their opinion of the effectiveness of the ‘duty to refer’ process. The lack of ability to engage with clients in prison, together with the short notice about a forthcoming release, and limited advance information prior to release were common criticisms made by many boroughs. It was also noted by more than one council that the Prison Service takes an inconsistent approach to the duty to refer, and one borough stated it would prefer a stronger duty to ‘prevent’ homelessness to be in place – including access to information about whether the woman concerned had a tenancy prior to incarceration, so that the local authority can look at options for maintaining this. This chimes with some of the issues highlighted by the 2020 ‘Safe Homes’ report.
We also heard about issues that were administrative in nature. One council stated that referrals were being provided without contact details for the client, and another cited a lack of access to computers for people in prison, meaning they cannot fill in the appropriate forms before release.
Clearly the lack of timeliness for councils to be able to assess and respond to the needs of women leaving prison creates a potential pressure point for councils in responding effectively. This potentially increases the risk that some women may obtain accommodation that does not meet their needs, which may then increase the further risk of their subsequent homelessness and potential for reoffending.
As a result of our findings, we support the calls for a review of the duty to refer, as outlined in the 2020 ‘Safe Homes’ report.
In the short term, we also support a review of administrative processes to ensure that referrals to local authorities are timely, accurate and informative, and to provide women with the facilities (including computers and phone calls) they need to engage with local authorities prior to release. We have recommended that the Mayor takes leadership on this in London.
Vulnerable women leaving prison
We asked boroughs to tell us if they give priority to vulnerable prison leavers, such as those with complex needs or at risk of domestic abuse. Many boroughs emphasised the importance of partnership-working with other services in supporting vulnerable clients; some referred to having access to independent domestic violence advisers. There did not appear to be dedicated services for prison leavers at risk of domestic violence, but services were available for all women at risk of abuse. A small number of boroughs highlighted they had developed or engage with a range of local initiatives supporting female survivors of domestic abuse.
Women leaving prison may have a mix of vulnerabilities that puts them at heightened risk of abusive relationships and/or homelessness; and access to safe and secure homes is a key aspect of rehabilitation following release from prison.
Barriers to housing for women leaving prison
As commented above, many boroughs indicated to us that the time frame in which they were notified of a prison release was a barrier to being able to effectively respond to housing needs; they also noted an insufficiency of timely information about needs. We heard that the time pressures are particularly acute for women leaving prison, as they typically receive short sentences.
In line with this, the ‘Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison’ report made a recommendation that the Ministry of Justice should review the purpose and use of short prison sentences for female offenders, as these sentences do not provide opportunities for rehabilitation and often result in loss of tenancies, interruptions to the care of dependent children and a high risk of reoffending. Additionally, in 2018, the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee released a report on improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. A key finding was that short prison sentences are unhelpful in preventing reoffending, as the system cannot deliver an effective package of provision in that time and it can worsen complex issues.
In addition, the challenge of responding to complex client needs, which may put clients at risk of homelessness or situations that risk reoffending or a return to abusive relationships, was also seen as a challenging dimension for councils. The costs of providing housing support, particularly in relation to the private housing market, was also seen by some boroughs as a barrier.
We would like to see Government undertake a review of sentencing for women, with particular emphasis on implementing alternatives to short-term sentences.
In the absence of changes to short sentences, we would support the Prison Service to introduce a process to refer women at risk of homelessness on short sentences to local authorities at the commencement of their sentence, or as soon as possible after they enter prison. This would better enable the local authority to conduct a needs assessment and identify suitable accommodation for the day of release.
Finally, we asked boroughs to tell us about any good practice they had experienced. The main examples of good practice referred to by many boroughs were partnership-working and data-sharing agreements with other agencies and services, including third-sector support agencies, mental health services and probation services. This collaboration is particularly beneficial if undertaken as early as possible. In addition, the development of ‘wrap around’ or ‘holistic’ support services that take account of the range of situational, social and health needs of the client was referred to by several boroughs as beneficial. Pre-release engagement with the prison leaver directly, or indirectly via the Prison Service, was mentioned by several boroughs as something they would like in place.
We look forward to the findings of your inquiry and hope the above evidence will be of use. I would be happy to meet with you to discuss further, should that be of interest.
Sian Berry AM
Chair of the Housing Committee
Women leaving prison and ‘Duty to Refer’: analysis of borough responses to information-gathering
In March 2021, London boroughs were invited by the Housing Committee to set out their approaches to providing safe and secure accommodation for vulnerable women released from prison, particularly relating to the ‘duty to refer’ obligation under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Nineteen London borough councils responded to the request for feedback.
This was requested in response to six key points, and a summary of feedback by each point is set out below.
Note: within some of the responses, reference was made to the ‘duty’ upon public authorities to notify local housing authorities about persons they consider will be homeless or threatened with homelessness within 56 days. The duty to refer is set out under the Homelessness (Review Procedure etc.) Regulations 2018 made under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, both of which entered into force in April 2018. Feedback from the boroughs, as summarised below, implies that within the 56-day window, during which a referral may be made under the regulations, there is a variable amount of notice provided to local authority housing services about the housing needs of women prison leavers.
In summary, a reasonably standard approach in responding to requests for support from housing services is in place across London. Most boroughs clearly highlighted that the process is initiated upon their receipt of a duty-to-refer notification – such as an email or online form. There are variable response times in place, however, and full assessment of client need is not normally possible until the day of release. This is when the client would attend an assessment interview with the council, which could be in person or by phone. A small number of boroughs have highlighted they already have, or are piloting, methods to support clients in advance of release through closer partnership-working with projects and agencies.
In summary, there is evidence of a variable but short time frame from referral receipt to response by the council, which appears to extend from one day to a week. The predominant emphasis from services seems to be upon identifying an interim housing solution, particularly for those assessed as at-priority risk – although one borough emphasised focusing on securing permanent accommodation from the start.
3. Whether your housing processes give any priority to vulnerable prison leavers, and other women with complex needs, such as victims of domestic abuse.
In summary, many boroughs showed the importance of partnership-working with other services and some referred to having access to an IDVA. There didn’t appear to be dedicated services for prison leavers at risk of domestic violence, but services were available for all women at risk of abuse. A small number of boroughs highlighted that they had developed or engage with a range of local initiatives supporting survivors of domestic abuse.
4. The effectiveness of the duty-to-refer system for prison leavers at risk of homelessness within your authority.
Predominantly, responses indicated shortcomings with the process, particularly relating to lack of timely information, although overall the duty-to-refer process was found to be useful. The lack of ability to engage with clients in prison, together with the short notice of release, clearly creates a potential pressure point for some councils in responding effectively to a client’s housing needs.
5. Any barriers to preventing vulnerable female prison leavers being released to homelessness within your authority.
Overall, a mix of factors such as a lack of timely information – particularly in advance of release – and complex client needs may increase the risk of homelessness. Both of these factors may relate to a mismatch between the client needs and the accommodation offered, either because a full needs assessment may not have been undertaken at the point of providing housing, or because the available accommodation doesn’t meet the client’s sometimes very complex health, behavioural or social needs. Where boroughs said they had experienced no problems, this may be in areas where the duty-to-refer process is not used as frequently.
6. Any good practice you would recommend for replication throughout Greater London to provide appropriate accommodation for vulnerable women leaving prison and support their full rehabilitation.
In summary, the main themes drawn from responses were the importance of multi-agency partnership-working to facilitate information-gathering and service delivery; optimising the use of funding opportunities; and taking an holistic approach to supporting client needs. Furthermore, a mix of examples of good practice were highlighted, where some boroughs had developed processes based on local learning and demand levels.
3 November 2021
 Policy Fact Sheet: Duty to refer specified public authorities, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities), 2018