Homelessness charities frustrated by social services’ secrecy over clients

T he Homelessness Act 2002 is meant to bring housing and social
services departments together to house vulnerable people but a new
report by Shelter has found that joint working on the ground is
proving ineffective at times.

The research, released last week, reveals that implementation of
the act is being made difficult by social services’ reluctance to
share information on clients. Some 77 per cent of council housing
departments surveyed are calling for improvements in joint

The information not being passed on by social workers relates to a
range of issues such as mental health problems, drug abuse, HIV and
Aids or a history of violent behaviour.

The report covers 30 English local authorities and is part of a
12-month project, which started in July 2002, to evaluate their
progress in implementing the act.

The Homelessness Act, which came into effect from 31 July, requires
every council with housing responsibilities to carry out a
homelessness review and use it to form a homelessness strategy
within 12 months of the act’s implementation.

To achieve this goal the act stipulates social services “shall give
such assistance in connection with [the homeless review and
strategy] as the authority may reasonably require”.

The act also places a duty on councils to increase their category
of homeless groups in priority need of housing to include 16 and 17
year olds, care leavers, people forced to flee their homes because
of domestic, racial and other forms of violence, and people leaving

Alastair Jackson, Shelter’s director of policy, says: “The act
enshrines in law the importance of providing support, as well as
housing, as a way of preventing and responding to homelessness. New
duties on both housing and social services towards vulnerable
people such as care leavers, makes it essential that they link up

Shelter’s findings suggest this is not happening enough.

Tarig Hilal, a policy manager at Crisis, says the homeless charity
has also had experience of social services being reluctant to share
information, and a recent Audit Commission report highlighted the
need for councils to improve joint working between departments in
order to reduce homelessness.

Graham Sharp, a homelessness strategy officer at Colchester Council
housing department, says social services are sometimes reluctant to
disclose full information on clients, not because they don’t want
to help but because they incorrectly believe it will have a
negative effect on their client gaining housing and support.

“They want to help people but it has the reverse effect,” he says,
explaining that lack of information can work against clients.

“Clients’ referrals are sometimes not accepted because of
uncompleted forms that don’t provide enough information.”

Sharp adds that there are also cases where enough information is
provided to get people housed but not enough to ensure that the
person receives the relevant support. This means that if a crisis
occurs it is difficult for housing staff to respond

It is understandable why social workers might be reluctant to
impart personal information concerning clients, such as mental
health problems and drug use, but housing staff say that not
knowing the whole picture has placed them in a number of difficult

A hypothetical example given by one housing officer is of someone
with mental health problems, who is rehoused after leaving
hospital. The housing officer is not given full information about
their condition, but suspects they may have mental health issues.
The client then disappears.

“The housing officer has to investigate the abandonment of the
property; they may even call the mental health department to find
out if the tenant has been admitted to hospital. But the mental
health worker cannot hand over this information because of fears it
will breach their confidentiality policy and the tenant is not in a
condition to give their consent. The result is the client loses
their home while they’re in hospital,” the officer says.

Another problematic situation that has been reported is where a
client is potentially violent, raising issues of staff safety as
well as public safety, and is being referred by a large
organisation to a small one. While the large agency is well
resourced with adequate security and safety arrangements for its
own premises it may send the person without warning to a lone
worker, working in an environment with few safety or security

One way to get around confidentiality issues is to clear any
disclosure of information with the client first.

Ian Johnson, director of the British Association of Social Workers,
says there is no excuse for social workers not sharing information
if clients have agreed for details to be passed on. But in
situations where this has not happened social workers and housing
officers have different interpretations over what constitutes
“need-to-know information”.

Johnson says it is up to the social worker and the client to assess
the effect that disclosure will have.

“Do you tell a housing provider that somebody is on a methadone
programme? That may give them a negative view. A social worker’s
job should be to discuss it with a user and to do a cost-benefit
analysis,” he says.

It is within the social workers’ code of ethics to be
non-judgemental, but Johnson says others may not treat sensitive
information with such care.

“It is desirable that information is shared by people who are
collectively responsible,” he says. “But you cannot be sure that
some individual may not misuse that information.”

One social services manager explains that when resources are tight
it is often the homeless who miss out.

He says:”There is a huge amount of pressure on operational managers
in social services departments. They are measured on a range of
performance indicators, which are monitored by the Department of
Health. None of these indicators is specifically about
homelessness, so it is not seen as an immediate priority.”

Confusion on the part of social workers over what information is
allowed to be disclosed under the Data Protection Act 1998 has also
been highlighted by housing agencies. Even data sharing between
departments in the same organisation has proved problematic.

“A lot of myths are going around about the Data Protection Act and
that is causing fear,” says Sharp. “It’s definitely affecting the
way departments are sharing information.”

David Behan, president of the Association of Directors of Social
Services, says there is a need for directors of social services and
housing to develop protocols on how information should be

The Shelter report recommends that the government gives clear
guidance to social services on how it expects them to work with
local authorities in pursuance of the Homelessness Act but Johnson
does not think this is the answer.

He believes the government should place a requirement on local
authorities to form their own transparent arrangements for
information sharing between housing and social services.

The new act has been praised by many for putting pressure on social
services and housing departments to work together, but it will only
be in July when all the councils’ reviews are completed that its
success or otherwise can be judged.

As one member of staff at a housing agency says: “The act is a
great opportunity, let’s just hope local authorities take it.”

– Local Authority Progress and Practice is available
from website www.homelessnessact.org.uk

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