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Statistics watchdog warns government over homelessness figures

UK Statistics Authority tells Department for Communities and Local Government to stop using potentially misleading data

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The government’s official statistics body has told the Department for Communities and Local Government to stop using potentially misleading figures for homelessness, and said it would monitor its future statements on the issue.

The intervention by the UK Statistics Authority came after the DCLG claimed in a series of press briefings late last year that homelessness was at less than half its 2003 peak.

The briefings did not make clear that this only referred to the statutory definition of homelessness – a relatively narrow meaning which only includes people local authorities are obliged to assist – and does not take into account those given assistance under homelessness prevention and relief schemes.

Homelessness charities point out that since 2003, councils have received additional funding and powers to intervene and assist in prevention and relief activity.

This means that while the numbers meeting the statutory definition went down sharply between 2003 and 2009, there was little evidence that homelessness under the broader meaning had become less of a problem.

Since 2009-10, homelessness under both definitions has risen significantly, charities note.

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The discrepancy with the DCLG statements was referred to the UK Statistics Authority by the Lib Dem peer Baroness Grender.

In a letter of reply, Ed Humpherson, the authority’s director general for regulation, said the DCLG’s actions were disappointing, particularly as the department had been warned previously over its use of homelessness figures.

Humpherson wrote that the authority would have expected a DCLG press briefing from 13 December last year, which said “homelessness is less than half the 2003 peak”, to have noted that this referred only to statutory homelessness.

“This exclusion implies that homelessness has more than halved since 2003 on a much broader basis than is shown by the statutory series,” the letter said, adding that the DCLG had done the same thing in two other publications from October 2016.

“This is disappointing, given the emphasis the UK Statistics Authority has placed on DCLG providing a comprehensive picture of homelessness,” he said.

Humpherson said the omission seemed to have happened because press officers in the department did not clear the releases with the DCLG’s lead statistician. He had been assured the department would now “be vigilant to this”.

Humpherson said his regulatory team would monitor the issue. The authority had warned the DCLG in late 2015 that using the statutory homelessness statistics without the broader context of more local authority intervention was “potentially misleading”.

The department “clearly has more work to do to effectively communicate the limitations of the current and widely used statutory series, and to ensure that an understanding of these complexities is reflected in broader public debates”, he said.

In a statement, Grender said the government “has been caught out playing a numbers game, rather than accepting there is a problem, and getting on with the more important work of finding solutions”.

She added: “It is time to stop spinning the statistics, and start solving the problem.”

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