Rough sleeping figures cannot be trusted, says statistics chief

Claims that rough sleeping is falling in England should not be trusted until the government has explained how an emergency funding scheme for the worst-affected areas might have skewed the latest figures, the chair of the UK statistics Authority (UKSA) has said.

Sir David Norgrove’s comments are the latest development in a row over the apparent 2% fall in rough sleeping in England in 2018, which ministers said was a sign the government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) was tackling the homelessness crisis.

In a significant intervention, Norgrove said the official figures for 2018 should not be used to make claims about rough sleeping in England until the government addresses concerns that some councils that received RSI funding had deliberately underreported the scale of the crisis in their area.

Rough sleeping in England statistics

The official rough sleeping statistics for England, based on estimates and spot counts from all local authorities on a single night in autumn, are intended to include everyone about to bed down or already bedded down on the street, in doorways, parks, tents and sheds, but not hostels or shelters.

Estimates, akin to a local census, are typically agreed by agencies who work closely with rough sleepers in the area all year, whereas street counts are one-night snapshots.

After the official figures for 2018 were published at the start of the year, the prime minister, Theresa May, hailed an apparent 85% fall in rough sleeping in Southend from 2017 to 2018.

Southend was among several local authorities that changed its methodology after it received short-term RSI funding, along with Brighton, Southend, Redbridge, Eastbourne, Medway, Worthing, Thanet, Exeter, Basildon, Ipswich and Warwick.

All councils recorded significant falls in rough sleeping from 2017 to 2018 after switching from an estimate to a count, which critics said occurred because of the methodology change and did not reflect the reality on the streets.

For the second time since the 2018 figures were published, Norgrove said they “should not be used to draw firm conclusions about recent trends in rough sleeping and cannot yet support public claims about the success of the Rough Sleeping Initiative” until the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) provided clarity.

Norgrove made the comments in a letter to Conservative peer Nick Bourne after he said in a Lords debate that rough sleeping had decreased by 19% in the 83 councils that received RSI funding and was showing a downward trend in England. The letter was also sent to the housing secretary, James Brokenshire.

When contacted by the Guardian, a MHCLG spokesperson said: “In areas where the government has targeted funding and interventions through its Rough Sleeping Initiative, the number of rough sleepers has fallen by 19% as compared to the national decrease of 2%.

“The Rough Sleeping Initiative funds local authorities to provide specialist services to help the most vulnerable people in society off the streets. We will publish an evaluation later this year, which will help to understand the impact of the initiative.”


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