Government claims that rough sleeping rates are falling cannot be trusted, says UK statistics chief

May Bulman
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Government claims that rough sleeping rates are falling cannot be trusted, says UK statistics chief

Government claims that rough sleeping rates in England are falling cannot be trusted because they are based on unreliable figures, the UK’s statistics chief has warned.

Sir David Norgrove said an “apparent methodological change” in the way local authorities record rough sleeping meant the statistics “should not be used to draw firm conclusions” or to support claims about the success of the government’s emergency funding scheme to tackle the issue.

In a letter to Tory peer Lord Bourne, Sir David raised concerns that some councils that received funding under the Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) – which has given £30m to local authorities with high levels of rough sleeping – may have deliberately underreported the scale of the crisis in their area.

During a Lords debate on rough sleeping on 1 April, communities secretary James Brokenshire said the number of rough sleepers in England had decreased by 19 per cent in areas receiving funding as part of the initiative between 2017 and 2018.

In January, official figures showed the overall number of people sleeping on the street on a “snapshot night in autumn” had dropped to 4,677 from 4,751 the year before.

But charities warned at the time that the count was an “unreliable” source that “significantly underestimated” the number of people experiencing the devastation of sleeping rough. This claim was supported when a number of shelters contacted by The Independent all reported record levels of demand as temperatures in parts of the country dropped as low as -14C.

Now, in a significant intervention, Sir David said the latest rough sleeping statistics “could not yet support” public claims about the success of the RSI.

He identified that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) “could have done more” to acknowledge and explore a “significant change” in the way many local authorities record the number of people sleeping rough in their areas.

“We currently await greater clarity from MHCLG about what is driving this change in approach, its relationship to RSI funding, and the extent to which it may have affected the comparability of the series,” he said in the letter.

“Until MHCLG provide greater clarity, we believe MHCLG’s latest rough sleeping statistics 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 RSI.”

It comes after councils were accused of adopting a “form of social cleansing” after it emerged there had been an 89 per cent rise in Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), which criminalise acts such as rough sleeping and begging, in the last three years.

An 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 per cent as compared to the national decrease of two per cent. 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.”