Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Housing the homeless (1280-i)

Public Accounts Committee 17 Nov 2003

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Evidence presented on Monday 17 November 2003 by Department for Social Development, Northern Ireland

Q63 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Mr Hunter, we tend to look at reports which are not very good and sometimes one report jumps out and smacks you in the mouth because it is so bad, and this one is appalling, it seems to me to be a prime example of how government, and I include you in the word "government" abdicate responsibility, pass things on to quangos, give them a load of money and let them get on with it without any supervision whatsoever. I have to say if you turn to the last page in the NIAO's Report it makes staggering reading. I just wondered what you as the Permanent Secretary have actually done and what your Department has done? If you read the shortcomings in management, and it is worth reading them: "NIHE may not be aware of the extent and changing nature of the statutory homeless client base for which it is responsible". That is an incredible thing to say. "Future temporary accommodation requirements may not be accurately identified. NIHE has not been fully monitoring the extent of each Area's reliance on expensive and unsuitable private sector accommodation; and NIHE cannot access accurately the extent of alternative accommodation required. The exclusion of long-term residents who are still in temporary accommodation means that total and average length-of-stay statistics are inaccurate and potentially understated; NIHE cannot accurately benchmark its performance in minimising the length of stay with local authorities elsewhere in the UK. NIHE does not have a robust method for identifying shortfalls in particular types of temporary accommodation, or accommodation shortfalls in particular locations. NIHE does not know which type of accommodation is the most cost effective, and is almost certainly incurring unnecessary costs as a result, through allocating individual households to inappropriate types of accommodation. NIHE cannot monitor whether expenditure on the least desirable accommodation option is increasing/decreasing". That has to be one of the worst indictments I have seen in a Report since I have been on this Committee in five years. When I read it I thought, "What do they do? What they have been successful at?" They have been blundering away for 14 years and frankly you and your predecessors have sat on your backsides and let them do it, you just handed them a cheque of £20 odd million each year. Why was something not done about this? It is appalling.

Mr Hunter: We have a system of management controls between the Department and the Executive and they are built up from the framework document, which specifies the relationship between the Department and the Executive. That is backed up by a dossier of controls, which includes some 20 documents which identified the financial and management controls applied by the Department in respect of the Executive. We monitor their business ---

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Again it is Civil Service speak. Mr Hunter, I am sure you think we come from the time on the kipper boat - that is an expression we use in the North East.

Chairman: Can we have a translation?

Q64 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am not sure there is one. It is a bit like the mushroom scenario, I will not exactly quote it but I am sure you know it, if you speak long enough and give us enough Civil Service speak we will let it go and pass it as an answer. Page 15, numbers of homeless presenters 1989-90 to 2000-01. In 1989 there were 6,500 people homeless, in 2001 12,600. I think in the memorandum you sent us it has gone up to about 16,000. In the space of 13 years it has virtually more than doubled, it has almost trebled and you have just sat there and done nothing about it and blundered on for 14 years. They did not have a clue what they were doing, because the Report says so, and taxpayers' money has just gone down the drain.

Mr Hunter: We sought to liaise regularly with the Executive to the extent of the homeless services they deliver. On an annual basis we have looked with them at the way they deliver those services and what the needs are in terms of additional temporary accommodation for the homeless, those have been built into our own housing plans in terms of the development of housing.

Q65 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is rubbish. Mr McIntyre said that you inherited four hostels.

Mr McIntyre: Two hostels.

Q66 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You built four a year for the last 13 years but homelessness has gone from 6,500 to 16,000, so the policy has not been very successful, has it, really? Building four hostels a year has not made a jot of difference, has it?

Mr Hunter: As we were saying earlier we are not responsible for the numbers presenting as homeless, we are responsible for the way in which we address their needs and for the way in which we assess those needs and for the measures we take to meet those needs.

Q67 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You say that you are not responsible for the homeless, and you may well not be, if I was sitting in your office and I saw the figures coming through each year, apart from two years out of the 13 years when it dropped, I am just assuming in 1993 you thought to yourself, "it is all right, it is going down now", and it then went up in 1994 and you thought, "it has gone up a bit it might come down next year". You waited until 1999 when you saw it was 11,000, and in 1999-00 it went down, but in the meantime it has gone up 5,000 in those years. I would have gone to Mr McIntyre and said, "we are giving you £20 odd million a year, you are building four hostels a year but homelessness is going up fantastically, what are you going to do about it?" You did not, you let them get on with it and muddle their way through it.

Mr Hunter: There were a range of measures introduced, of which building new hostels was the most obvious response to the rising tide of homelessness. Beyond that we worked with the Executive in respect of developing responses which took into account the availability of private accommodation and other measures that we could work with in the voluntary sector. Over that period we housed 60,000 people.

Q68 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Homelessness was going up all of the time, you were not getting a grip with the problem. Rather than the last page let us turn to the first page, let us go for a look to the front. As I said before you have been responsible since 1988 for a strategy, yet the first time you produce the strategy plan, and I think Mr Williams mentioned this, was in September 2002. It took you 14 years to get a strategy plan. When I asked you what your strategy plan was you said, "we were presented with two hostels and we produced four more every year for the next 14 years". Was that your strategy plan? That was the strategy.

Mr Hunter: During the period before 2002.

Q69 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The total strategy was to inherit two hostels and provide four more hostels for the next four years. That was the strategy and how you dealt with the homeless.

Mr Hunter: We believed that by providing additional hostels one was helping to meet the need. It could not be seen exclusively as meeting the need because as you point out the numbers have continued to increase, so we have been working on a variety of ways of identifying accommodation for those made homeless, temporary accommodation pending secure tenancies.

Q70 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Let us move on. I looked at some of these case studies and I could not believe them. Then I thought I can believe them because they seem to be so incompetent that anything could happen. The first case study is on page 18, Mr Williams mentioned it, I do not know how any organisation can have somebody evicted because the rent is too high, in other words it was £400 you were paying in Housing Benefit, the rent was £600, so you had them evicted and then you paid £1,400 a month, £800 pound a month more than they were paying before they were evicted. That is unbelievable. That is the first example. Case study five on page 32, I could not believe this, I really could not believe it. You have been doing this job for 15 years, you have been in a province where there has been troubles for 30-40 years and along comes a mother with two children from a nationalist area who needs help and what do you do, you send her 15 miles away to a loyalist area. It is incredible. Not only is it not insensitive, it is stupid, nobody would do it. You did it as an organisation, why?

Mr McIntyre: It should not have happened. This lady had previously been offered temporary accommodation, it should not have happened. I should say to you that a survey we carried out as part of the review that we initiated showed that 90% of all families living in temporary accommodation were satisfied with the temporary accommodation that was provided. Where we had difficulties tended to be round location, but this should not have happened.

Q71 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Can I answer one question before I finish. You have used bed and breakfast as a solution and it has totally failed. To keep people in bed and breakfast for a year is ridiculous. After this Report you are going to do something about it, what savings are you going to make in the next two years in terms of bed and breakfast? What is your target to save in terms of actual money?

Mr McIntyre: Our target is to do with the use of bed and breakfast, it is to stop using bed and breakfast for families with children during the first two years of the strategy.

Q72 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How much you are going to save?

Mr McIntyre: I would not be in a position to calculate that now. I can supply that by way of a note to the Committee.

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