This is a case study for Principle V3: Clarity and Insight.

Homelessness is a devolved matter in the UK, with different legislative and policy requirements, so homelessness statistics are produced by each UK country separately and are drawn from administrative data systems.  As such, there are significant differences between the official or government statistics in each country and information about comparability is generally limited. Nevertheless, users are interested in comparing these statistics, specifically comparing regions and cities across the UK or understanding the UK picture of homelessness.

The following quote from the Scottish Government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Plan, published November 2018, helps to highlight why enhanced clarity and insight is needed from the statistics produced on this topic:

“Everyone needs a safe, warm place they can call home. Home is more than a physical place to live. It’s where we feel secure, have roots and a sense of belonging. Home supports our physical and emotional health and wellbeing and to be without one seems unthinkable. Yet for too many people this is their reality as they face the blight of homelessness.”

Harmonisation, the process of increasing comparability and coherence of statistics, is an important enabler of cross UK comparisons, and can help avoid unnecessary confusion and erroneous comparisons. As stated in the Office for Statistics Regulation systemic review on Housing and Planning Statistics, published in November 2017, ‘transparent information about statistical definitions and methods, together with judgements about strengths and limitations, is essential in supporting users’ confidence in statistics’. Homelessness can be highly politicised and attract wide user attention. Therefore, it is important that users understand what is being measured, the extent to which it is comparable with related statistics, and the limitations of the statistics.

The GSS Strategy Delivery Team and GSS Harmonisation Team undertook a collaborative piece of work to address these issues. A cross-GSS Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Statistics Group was created to strengthen links across departments and the devolved administrations, and encourage collaboration.

In February 2019, after extensive stakeholder engagement with government departments, the devolved administrations, academics and third sector organisations, the GSS Harmonisation Team produced a report investigating the feasibility of harmonising UK definitions of homelessness. This report identified the different definitions of homelessness in use across the UK and assessed what can be done to improve the clarity, comparability and transparency of homelessness statistics.

This research concluded that although a general definition for homelessness could be created, developing a harmonised definition that government departments and the devolved administrations could incorporate into their statistics is challenging. The feasibility report was the first step in helping to provide transparency about the comparability of official homelessness statistics across the UK.

In September 2019, following the recommendations of the feasibility report produced earlier in the year, the GSS Harmonisation Team published an interactive tool for UK homelessness statistics to explain the comparability of homelessness statistics in a user-friendly format. This involved collaboration with statistics producers in the four UK countries and a wide array of stakeholders. In addition to this, as part of the wider work on coherence of Housing and Planning statistics, the GSS Strategy Delivery Team published an article bringing together existing homelessness data sources from across the UK to assess comparability, coherence and data limitations and to begin to identify patterns and trends for the UK as a whole. The  article utilised the interactive tool as a framework for making homelessness comparisons and identifying UK trends. The GSS Harmonisation Team are also developing guidance on comparability for the statistical publications, which will help users to better understand the processes and legislation behind the different statistics, and where comparisons can and can’t be made.

This example shows how cross-ONS collaboration between the GSS Harmonisation Team and GSS Strategy Delivery Team is enhancing the clarity and insight provided by UK homelessness statistics. By engaging with the various producers to understand and document the extent of comparability and consistency of the different sources, and developing a UK wide perspective, their work is supporting users in the appropriate interpretation and use of the various homelessness statistics produced across the UK and helping to provide clarity in an area of significant public and policy concern.