Luke Stanley: Ending rough sleeping will require building a better understanding of its causes, not just more homes

29 May

Luke Stanley is Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond and Senior Parliamentary Researcher to Anthony Mangnall MP. He writes in a personal capacity.

“How did this person end up sleeping on the street?” is a question that most of us will have asked ourselves at some point in our lives, walking past homeless people bedding down for the night. While it seems a straightforward question, the underlying factors that result in someone sleeping rough are anything but.

Boris Johnson’s One Nation Conservative Government is making encouraging progress in supporting rough sleepers to rebuild their lives, with street counts down three years in a row.

Their landmark Rough Sleeping Initiative, which funds accommodation and health services for rough sleepers, has been found to reduce rough sleeping by one-third and received a £200 million boost earlier this month.

But if we want to end rough sleeping for good, we need to do more than support existing rough sleepers. We also need to prevent vulnerable people from ever reaching the streets.

Writing for this website last year, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, rightly described rough sleeping as being “as much a health issue as it is a housing issue”. As with most health issues, the conditions that can eventually result in rough sleeping are far easier to treat, but much harder to detect, in their early stages.

Ramping up early interventions to prevent rough sleeping will require a forensic understanding of the long-term process by which a vulnerable person ends up on the street, a depth of knowledge our society currently lacks.

Existing research suggests there are two broad groups of factors that can contribute to rough sleeping.

First, there are structural problems in our society, such as levels of affordable housing and insecure tenancies. Second, there are individual problems that make certain people more likely to end up on the streets, like poor mental health, addiction, and relationship breakdown.

These often fuel one another, for example, untreated mental health problems fuelling addiction, resulting in vicious cycles that leave people with broken lives, unable to hold down a home.

To try and get a deeper understanding of this issue, the May Government commissioned a Rapid Evidence Assessment of research into the causes of homelessness and rough sleeping. This agreed that both structural and individual problems were factors, but that the latter played a larger role in explaining rough sleeping than it did in other forms of homelessness.

That general conclusion aside, the report highlighted a number of gaps in the evidence base.

First, there is a lack of robust data on the immediate causes of rough sleeping. The report noted that much of the third-party research in this area uses simplistic surveys which have limited use for informed policy making. For example, one such survey had “Asked to leave or evicted” as the top reason for rough sleeping, but sought no information on the context behind this. A greedy landlord increased rent; someone with mental health problems was unable to hold down a job; a gay person was rejected by their bigoted family. Three wildly different scenarios, each of which would be captured as the same by this survey.

Second, and more crucially, there is a lack of evidence on the long-term causes of rough sleeping. As discussed above, many of the individual problems linked to rough sleeping exacerbate one another. Understanding this process is key to improving early interventions and preventing people from becoming rough sleepers.

Ultimately, we can build as many houses as we want, and introduce as many restrictions on landlords as we please, but until we’ve untangled the causes of the chaotic lifestyles that drive vulnerable people onto the streets, we will never end rough sleeping.

This can be achieved through more qualitative ‘pathway’ studies, which seek to map individuals’ journeys into rough sleeping. As the report noted, pathway studies are especially important for designing preventative policies but many use small samples, limiting their usefulness. In their words, more pathway studies, with larger samples, would help us “further understand both interactions between causes and the order of events that can lead to homelessness”.

Third, we need a better understanding of rough sleeping risks for different demographics. The factors behind rough sleeping are complex and affect different people in different ways, rendering one-size-fits-all approaches unhelpful. To its credit, the Government is already undertaking research to better understand the causes of rough sleeping for one specific demographic: gay and trans people.

But going further, the Government could also consider commissioning research to gather robust evidence to plug the first and second gaps on the causes, both short-term and long-term, of rough sleeping. With their landmark ‘Everyone In’ campaign housing over 26,000 rough sleepers and homeless people at risk of sleeping rough, there is a golden opportunity to explore the causes of rough sleeping. For the first time, we have a large number of people with lived experience of rough sleeping in secure accommodation, where they are far more accessible to researchers.

We should seize this opportunity to better understand how to help vulnerable people, use this to develop stronger preventative interventions, and confine rough sleeping to the history books.

Luke Stanley: We need a greenprint for restoring native species across our country

25 Oct

Luke Stanley is Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond and Parliamentary Researcher to Anthony Mangnall MP. He writes in a personal capacity.

Back in 2013, while still Mayor of London, Boris Johnson said that “one of the few mad ideas that I’ve not been able to put into practice was to reintroduce the red squirrel … I got absolutely obsessed with it for a while but they told me it would basically involve creating a huge aviary patrolled by G4S security people to shoot all the grey squirrels that tried to get in.”

The Prime Minister showed the same conservationist zeal last month when he committed to protect at least 30 per cent of British land by 2030. This, together with the Government’s landmark Environment Bill, will set biodiversity in our green and pleasant land back on the road to recovery.

As a rule, when it comes to restoring nature, the best thing mankind can do is get out of the way. But in some cases we cannot rely on nature to heal itself. Getting out of the way would see our Scottish wildcat die out, allow invasive species like the grey squirrel to wreak havoc on our environment, and leave extinct keystone species absent from our islands.

Sometimes nature needs a helping hand. Fortunately, volunteers across our country are already stepping up to protect and restore British wildlife.

In Northumberland, local wildlife enthusiasts have displaced the invasive mink from Kielder Forest and reintroduced 1,500 water voles. In Gloucestershire, wildlife groups have reintroduced pine martens, once common across England, back into the Forest of Dean. Perhaps most ambitiously of all, environmentalists Derek Gow and Ben Goldsmith, are breeding litters of the Scottish wildcat, extinct across the rest of Britain for 150 years, with an ambition to reintroduce them in England by 2022.

But the biggest success for species restoration to date has been the return of beavers to our islands, four hundred years after they were hunted to extinction. After a population of beavers of unknown origin were found to be living on the River Otter in 2010, the Government initially planned to have them removed. After the local Devon Wildlife Trust interceded, Natural England agreed to a five year trial to monitor the impact of the beavers on the local environment.

When the River Otter trial ended in August, the Government announced that the beavers could remain in perpetuity and that they would consult on a national strategy for the management of beavers in the wild and future releases. They came to this conclusion because of the significant benefits for the local area, with evidence from the trial showing improved biodiversity, flooding mitigation, and boosts to the visitor economy. These benefits were such that DEFRA Minister Rebecca Pow suggested maintaining a beaver population could be considered a “public good” under the forthcoming Environmental Land Management system, with farmers paid to have them on their land.

Such benefits resulting from species reintroductions have been shown to be more the rule than the exception. For example, studies have shown the invasive grey squirrel to be more vulnerable to pine martens than the native red. This has raised hopes that marten reintroductions can help halt the seemingly relentless march of the greys, whose bark stripping causes significant ecological damage to woodlands and cost the UK forestry industry £10 million each year.

Given the significant benefits, both ecological and economic, what more can the Government do to support communities to restore British species in their local areas?

First of all, the Government’s consultation on a new national approach for any further beaver releases is a great step forward. The Government should complement this by continuing plans to develop and consult on a code and best practice guidance for assessing the merits and risks of species reintroduction projects in general, as committed to in the 25 Year Environment Plan. While legal approval is not required for most reintroductions, only for those where species are no longer native to the UK, such a code of best practice would allow wildlife groups to better plan and execute their projects.

A second way to help volunteers and wildlife groups would be to offer greater tailored support from rewilding experts. While these projects should continue to be led by local community groups, a lack of experience in such endeavours can hamper their success. The Government could consider making use of the wealth of expertise in rewilding across our country by inviting some of the most experienced individuals to form an independent panel to advise community groups on best practice for reintroductions.

Thirdly, the Government should continue to support research and innovation in biodiversity. Despite the tireless efforts of volunteers and local wildlife trusts, the fate of the British red squirrel, vulnerable to the squirrel pox which the greys carry, hangs in the balance. Before Covid-19, the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency was conducting research into delivering contraceptives to humanely reduce the grey population. Once the pandemic has been defeated, the Government could redouble its efforts to deliver this contraception and explore whether similar initiatives could be appropriate for other invasive species, such as the mink.

Finally, the Government could explore ways to encourage more people to volunteer their time supporting their local environment. In his recent independent report into communities, commissioned by the Prime Minister, Danny Kruger suggested a National Volunteer Reserve with members “invited to sign up for environmental and conservation projects across the country” such as “monitoring biodiversity”.

Moreover, in its 2019 report, the Environmental Audit Committee praised New Zealand’s plans to train 150,000 people in biosecurity by 2025 and called for a similar UK “biosecurity citizens army”. Both are ideas well worth consideration.

While Johnson’s One Nation Conservative Government is already making excellent strides in protecting biodiversity, by considering further ways to support communities restoring British fauna, the Government could renew our green and pleasant land even faster.

Luke Stanley: With rising unemployment, Ministers should look beyond work-related paths out of crime – to families

27 Sep

Luke Stanley is Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond and Parliamentary Researcher to Anthony Mangnall MP. His views are his own.

Oscar Wilde once said that “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”. While a noble sentiment, this is not presently the case. Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high, with the same individuals committing offences again and again, trapped in a life of crime.

Robert Buckland recently set out welcome proposals to help address this. While the headline proposals in the Government’s A smarter approach to sentencing White Paper focused on keeping serious offenders behind bars for longer, it also includes a number of reforms on rehabilitation for offenders.

The White Paper proposes measures to reduce the time periods after which some sentences cease to be flagged in criminal record checks, which will help more ex-offenders into work and away from a life of crime. Likewise, the new alcohol abstinence tagging technology will help those with substance abuse issues break patterns of alcohol-induced offending.

The Government is right to combine tougher sentencing with measures to rehabilitate offenders. While serious offenders should be kept off our streets for as long as possible, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they will eventually be released back into our communities. Ensuring these individuals do not commit further offences is therefore integral to our crime strategy.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of successive governments, reoffending rates have remained broadly stable over the last twelve years. The latest figures show that more than one-in-four commit an offence within one year of their release, increasing to almost two-thirds for those jailed for less than one year.

Reoffending costs the UK economy and society more than £18 billion a year. With the latest figures showing around 80 per cent of those convicted or cautioned having already received at least one previous caution or conviction, reducing reoffending rates will have a significant impact on reducing overall crime across our country.

Employment can be a powerful route out of crime. A Government study found that offenders who went on to find employment within a year had reoffending rates of six to nine percentage points lower than those who did not. Accordingly, most of the rehabilitation proposals in the White Paper, along with the policies the Government announced in its Education and Employment Strategy for prisons, relate to getting ex-offenders into work.

However, we are not in normal times. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast in July that the unemployment rate will balloon up to more than 10 per cent next year, and that this figure will remain well above the recent rates of around three per cent through to 2024 at the earliest. With jobs so scarce, the route out of crime through employment will become a more difficult one. So what else can we do to reduce reoffending?

The Government could consider taking more action to support other pillars of rehabilitation, such as relationships. In his recent independent review, Lord Farmer called for family ties to become a “golden thread” running through prisons.

Indeed, research has found that offenders visited in prison by their family were 21 percentage points less likely to reoffend within a year of release than those who were not. While the Government has taken forward a number of recommendations from the Farmer Review, it could go further.

Following a recommendation in the Farmer Review, the Ministry of Justice trialled secure video calls to help prisoners to maintain family ties in situations where visits were not possible. In response to the pandemic, the Government rolled out secure video calls further across the prison estate, but only as a temporary measure. As argued in the recent Justice Select Committee report on the impact of Covid on prisons, the Government could consider making the provision of secure video calls permanent and fully rolling them out across the prison estate.

Releases on Temporary Licence (ROTL) are another way to strengthen family bonds and reduce reoffending. Recent government research found that, in the six months before release, each overnight ROTL was associated with a five per cent reduced odds of reoffending within the next year, suggesting that home leave had a significant impact.

Despite this, only 8,700 offenders were granted ROTL in 2019 at all and, while this marks a welcome fourth year-on-year increase, more could be done to boost this number still further. For example, in a recent paper, the Centre for Social Justice suggested creating a new type of ROTL, built around earned release and community payback, to help strengthen family ties.

If we are to make Oscar Wilde’s witticism a reality and break the cycle of reoffending for good, we must do more to help ex-offenders rebuild their lives. The proposals in the White Paper are an excellent step towards this, but augmenting these measures with further action to strengthen family ties could get reoffending rates falling even further, even faster.