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Wales makes rough sleeping a priority

December 01 2022

In a new law, Wales has made people sleeping rough a priority group when applying for accommodation assistance with their local authority. Jamie McGowan explains what this means

Wales have just brought in a law change making it easier for homeless people to get help. From 24 October, any person sleeping rough will be able to demonstrate to local authorities that they belong to a priority group for being offered assistance obtaining accommodation.

Housing policy in the UK is devolved, which means Scotland and Wales can (and increasingly do) have different rules to England. We’ve already seen both countries take a bolder stance on no-fault evictions: Wales significantly extending landlords’ notice period for issuing them and Scotland abolishing them altogether. This latest example of innovation by the Senedd (Welsh parliament), should come as good news to anyone experiencing or at risk of homelessness in Wales. Better still, it’s just the beginning of a raft of new measures that ministers hope to introduce down the line.

Wales and England both brought in emergency homelessness measures during the pandemic which saw rough sleeping figures fall. But Wales are making it very clear that they plan to springboard off of these short-term successes and bring in major new legislation as part of their ‘Ending Homelessness Action Plan’. Julie James, the minister responsible for introducing this regulation on 18 October, emphasised that it was just a start, saying:

“I make no bones about the fact that this is a sticking plaster on a system that doesn’t work, but it’s a necessary sticking plaster”.

Unfortunately for anyone reading in England, that ‘system that doesn’t work’ is essentially what they will have to contend with for the time being. Although there are a number of longer-term projects in the pipeline aimed at ending rough-sleeping entirely ‘within this parliament’, it does not look as though there is the same desire to bring in interim measures as bold as this recent regulation in Wales.

What exactly does the change mean?

It is worth mentioning that the simplified summaries in this article should not be relied on as legal advice by anyone. The ‘statutory tests’ that councils use for establishing if someone will be offered homelessness assistance can be complicated enough already, as many readers will know. And now this new regulation in Wales means there are three separate tests in Britain.

They are set out briefly here but if anyone is unsure please make sure to get advice from somewhere like Shelter or Citizens Advice.

In England the four tests for getting statutory assistance are that someone is:

1) Homeless: more complex than it sounds, but essentially means unsuitably housed.

2) Eligible for assistance: basically the need to have correct immigration status.

3) In priority need: can be very complicated, some groups are automatically, such as people at risk of domestic violence, but not street homeless applicants who still need to show another vulnerability like a medical condition on top of this.

4) Not intentionally homeless: a question of how someone became homeless, you can’t have deliberately left or refused suitable accommodation.

In Wales it will still be necessary for most applicants to meet all four tests as in England. However, following the introduction of The Homelessness (Priority Need and Intentionality) (Wales) Regulations 2022 in October street-homeless applicants are one of the groups that will automatically be regarded as in priority need.

In Scotland where we have probably seen the most significant departure from what was once mainly shared British homelessness law, step 3) the ‘priority need’ test was abolished altogether in 2012. Applicants now only need to meet the other three steps above to get statutory assistance.

So it has become even more important to check that any advice you read applies to the region you’re in as the rules in England, Scotland and Wales diverge. There are promising plans to continue significantly reducing rough sleeping in all three British countries, although probably more cause for optimism in Scotland and Wales right now. What we know for now is that this recent change in Wales will make it much simpler for anyone who has been sleeping rough to demonstrate to local authorities that they need to be offered assistance.

Jamie McGowan works in social welfare policy research and the advice sector