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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/homelessness-duty-to-refer/a-guide-to-the-duty-to-refer
This guide is primarily designed for professionals in public authorities subject to the duty to refer, although it will also be of interest to homelessness officials in local authorities.
The guide outlines what the purpose of the duty to refer is, some advice for identifying when someone is threatened with homelessness, and what the procedures are for referring someone to a local authority. It also answers some frequently asked questions.
Throughout this guidance we have used the generic term ‘service user’ to describe the people who come into contact with public services.
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 significantly reformed England’s homelessness legislation by placing duties on local housing authorities to intervene at earlier stages to prevent homelessness in their areas, and to provide homelessness services to all those who are eligible.
Additionally, the Act introduced a duty on specified public authorities to refer service users who they think may be homeless or threatened with homelessness to local authority homelessness/housing options teams (see paragraph 7 of the Homelessness code of guidance). This duty is effective from 1 October 2018 and will apply to the list of public authorities set out below.
The duty to refer will help to ensure that services are working together effectively to prevent homelessness by ensuring that peoples’ housing needs are considered when they come into contact with public authorities. It is also anticipated that it will encourage local housing authorities and other public authorities to build strong partnerships which enable them to work together to intervene earlier to prevent homelessness through, increasingly integrated services.
This guidance is designed for those working in a specified public authority, which is subject to the duty to refer. Someone working for a public authority which is not subject to the duty can still make a referral.
This guidance will help public authorities identify service users who may be homeless or are threatened with homelessness, and explains how to refer the service user to a local housing authority. Local housing authorities are encouraged to consult chapter 4 of the Homelessness code of guidance for further information on their role in maximising the benefits from the duty to refer.
2. Public authorities with a duty to refer
The specified public authorities (see the Homelessness (Review Procedure etc.) Regulations 2018) subject to the duty to refer are (in England only):
- young offender institutions
- secure training centres
- secure colleges
- youth offending teams
- probation services (including community rehabilitation companies)
- Jobcentre’s in England
- social service authorities (both adult and children’s)
- emergency departments
- urgent treatment centres
- hospitals in their function of providing inpatient care
- Secretary of State for defence in relation to members of the regular armed forces
The duty to refer only applies to the specified public authorities in England and individuals can only be referred to a local housing authority in England (see paragraph 4.2 of the Homelessness code of guidance).
3. Requirements of the duty to refer
The new duty requires the specified public authorities to identify and refer a service user who is homeless or may be threatened with homelessness, to a local housing authority of the service user’s choice.
The service user must consent to the referral being made. The consent can be made in writing or given orally (see the section below), although the person referring should follow the agreed processes set out in their agency’s internal guidance, if applicable.
A person is considered homeless if:
they do not have any accommodation which is available for them which they have a legal right to occupy; or,
it is not reasonable for the person to occupy their current accommodation, for example, because they would be at risk of domestic abuse (see paragraphs 6.3-6.4 of the Homelessness code of guidance).
Someone is defined as being threatened with homelessness where they are likely to become homeless within 56 days, or have been served with a valid notice under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 by their landlord, which expires within 56 days.
4. Identifying when a referral might be required
Staff in public authorities will usually know if a service user is sleeping rough and therefore actually homeless. They may also become aware of service users who are homeless but not roofless (sometimes described as ‘sofa surfers’) if they provide ‘care of’ addresses or frequently change their address.
Identifying that a family, couple or individual is threatened with homelessness is less straight forward. The following are factors that would indicate that a service user may be threatened with homelessness and should be asked about their housing circumstances:
- problems with debt, particularly rent or mortgage arrears
- problems with a landlord, being threatened with eviction or served notice to leave
- being a victim of domestic abuse, or other forms of violence, threats or intimidation
- approaching discharge from hospital, armed forces or release from custody, with no accommodation available to them
- having previously been in care, the armed forces or in prison
5. Choosing which local authority to refer to
The duty allows service users to choose which local housing authority they are referred to. However, when discussing the referral and offering guidance to the service user, it is important to be aware that local housing authorities owe more duties towards homeless applicants who have a local connection with their area.
If a person asks to be referred to an area they do not have a local connection to, the local housing authority might subsequently refer them on to another local housing authority to which they do have a local connection (see chapter 10 of the Homelessness code of guidance.
In general, a service user is likely to have a local connection to an area if they live or have lived there, work there or have a close family connection. However, a service user should not be referred to an area where they would be at risk of violence.
In addition to the usual rules about local connection, care leavers have special provision. This provides that where the service user is a care leaver aged 18-21, in addition to any local connection they may have elsewhere, they will have a local connection with the local authority that looked after them. In addition to any area where they have been placed in accommodation for at least 2 years, including a period before their 16th birthday.
In areas where there is a county council and district councils (often referred to as two-tier areas), care leavers will have a local connection with every local housing authority (district council) that falls within the area of the local authority (county) that cared for them.
6. Obtaining consent
A referral cannot be made without the service user’s consent. Those working with a service user they consider ought to be referred should ensure that the service user understands the purpose of the referral, and consents to information and contact details being passed on to the local housing authority (see paragraph 4.1 of the Homelessness code of guidance).
It is advisable to obtain the service user’s signature to confirm that they have consented to a referral being made, however oral consent is acceptable. Consent should be informed, taking into account circumstances where the service user would not benefit from a referral being made, for example, because the service user already has an open application for assistance from the local housing authority. Public authorities are advised to record on the service user’s records if a referral has been made, and if consent to a referral is refused.
Public authorities providing services to children within a family that is threatened with homelessness or is actually homeless, will usually need to obtain consent from a parent or adult carer before referring the family to a local housing authority. However, referrals without consent may be made in order to safeguard children or vulnerable adults, in accordance with local procedures.
7. Process for referrals
Local housing authorities should work with public authorities in their area to design effective referral mechanisms which meet their local circumstances. Local housing authorities should place information on their websites explaining what their referral mechanisms are, and may also have online referral forms for referring public authorities to use.
Local housing authorities should make referral mechanisms as simple as possible, based on the minimum information required by law for a public authority to make a legitimate referral – this is the, contact details and agreed reason for referral.
However, a specified public authority may make a referral to a local housing authority in any manner they wish providing they include the minimum information required by law. Where a local housing authority has not established referral mechanisms or not provided information about their mechanisms, or if the referral is coming from another part of the country, a simple form is available which can be used by public authorities to make a referral.
Local housing authorities have been asked to provide a standard email address that duty to refer referrals can be sent to (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Further information on contact details for local housing authorities can be found at: www.gov.uk/homelessness-help-from-council
8. Frequently asked questions
8.1 How much information do I need to provide when I am referring someone?
Referrals to local housing authorities must include the service user’s name, contact details and the agreed reason for the service user being referred to the local housing authority (i.e. the public authority considers that the service user is either homeless or threatened with homelessness) (see section 213B of the Housing Act 1996). Local housing authorities may create their own referral forms which ask for more information, however, only the details mentioned here are legally required to make a legitimate referral.
8.2 What will happen when I refer someone to the local housing authority?
When the local housing authority receives your referral, they should make contact with the service user being referred using the contact details provided (see paragraph 4.19 of the Homelessness code of guidance). When you have sent your referral, a local housing authority should provide you with a receipt of referral, which may be in the form of an automatic email reply. You are advised to contact the local housing authority if you do not receive this.
It is good practice for local housing authorities to go beyond referral procedures and work with other public authorities to prepare a comprehensive assessment of need for the service user. Local housing authorities and public authorities are encouraged to put arrangements in place to support these joint efforts, and to be open to working together to achieve the best possible solutions for their service users.
8.3 What duties does the local housing authority have to assist people who they accept as homeless or threatened with homelessness?
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 places duties on local housing authorities to take reasonable steps to prevent and relieve an eligible applicant’s homelessness. Once the local housing authority has agreed that the applicant is eligible for assistance (based on their immigration status) and that they are homeless or threatened with homelessness, they will work with the applicant to develop a personalised housing plan.
The plan will identify the reasonable steps that the service user and the local housing authority will take to ensure the applicant has and is able to retain or obtain suitable accommodation. In the case of those service users who have been referred, either by the prison service or probation providers, then the local housing authority should ensure that they engage with the named contact (either Prison Offender Manager or Probation Officer), to ensure that the personalised housing plan supports the service users plan to support their resettlement and rehabilitation.
If the applicant is homeless during the 56-day relief stage and may have priority need (because, for example, they are pregnant or have children in their care), the local housing authority must provide them with temporary accommodation. Some single people may also have a priority need, for example, if they are vulnerable as a result of old age or disability (see paragraphs 8.3-8.31 of the Homelessness code of guidance).
8.4 I am aware that a member of staff in another public authority has previously referred someone to the housing authority. Do I need to refer them as well?
Some service users, who are threatened with homelessness or are homeless, such as prisoners, may come into contact with a range of different public authorities. While it is clearly desirable to minimise duplication, the priority should be to ensure that service users are being referred so they can receive the right support at an early stage from local housing authorities.
Additionally, it should be noted that a client’s housing circumstances might have changed from the last time they were referred, which may require different support from a local housing authority. Therefore, the public authority must – with the individual’s consent - make a referral to the local housing authority.
The Homelessness code of guidance advises local housing authorities to agree arrangements with public authorities to consider the issues around multiple and repeat referrals. This may include providing information on systems to enable public authorities to check whether someone has been referred or is receiving support from the local housing authority (see paragraph 4.17 of the Homelessness code of guidance).
8.5 I would like to do a joint referral with a colleague. Is this possible, or do we need to complete separate referrals?
It is possible to complete a joint referral; you can refer with a colleague from another public authority as long as you both have the consent of the service user.
8.6 I work in a public authority which the duty to refer doesn’t apply to. However, I fear that someone is threatened with homelessness or is currently homeless. What should I do?
If the public authority you work for is not subject to the duty to refer, you may still refer the service user to the local housing authority, and, once they have made an application, the service user will be entitled to the same assistance as they would be if your public authority were subject to the duty to refer. It is still important to have the service user’s consent before referring them to the local housing authority and share the minimum details required to make a worthwhile referral.
8.7 I am concerned that my service user will not respond to contact from the local housing authority following referral, and may be best advised to attend the housing options service themselves for help. Can I offer this advice?
Any service user who needs advice or help about homelessness can contact their local housing authority and expect to receive some assistance. The duty to refer is an additional route intended to encourage earlier identification of need, and to enable public authorities to work better together to meet those needs.
If a service user needs more support to help them access services, public authorities should work together to provide this. Where there is concern that a referral might fail without additional support then this could be identified through the referral information, and/or through further contact with the local housing authority to arrange an appointment for assessment.
A public authority may also, if the service user wishes, actively assist them to make a homeless application themselves. However, a public authority with the duty to refer should not simply advise a service user to make a direct application for assistance themselves, as an alternative to making a referral.
If the service user is not eligible for assistance under the Homelessness Reduction Act, they will still be able to receive free information and advice from the local housing authority.
8.8 My public authority also has responsibilities to help accommodate service users. Do I still need to make a referral to a local housing authority?
Public authorities that have arrangements in place to secure accommodation for service users would not need to make a referral if they are satisfied that the person is not threatened with homelessness.
In the case of 16-17 year olds, duties may be owed by children’s services and/or by housing authorities depending on the circumstances. Specific guidance on how the duty to refer applies to 16-17 year olds who are homeless or threatened with homelessness is included within joint DfE/MHCLG guidance: Prevention of homelessness and provisions of accommodation for 16 and 17 year old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation.
8.9 Will I hear what happened to my referral?
The Homelessness code of guidance has recommended that local housing authorities set up local procedures which should be tailored to each public authority. The Code also recommends that housing authorities should include information about how they will respond where the referral indicates that an individual is at risk of sleeping rough, or is already sleeping rough in their procedures for responding to referrals.
In the case of those service users who have been referred, either by the prison service or probation providers, then the Prison Offender Manager or Probation Officer, should ensure that there is regular engagement and contact with the local housing authority, especially for those service users who release from prison is imminent i.e. within 12 weeks.
8.10 What should I do if I think my referral has not been acted upon?
When you have sent your referral, a local housing authority should provide you with a receipt of referral, which may be in the form of an automatic email reply. You are advised to contact the local housing authority if you do not receive this. If you do not think your referral has been acted upon you are advised to get in touch with the local housing authority.
8.11 Do I have to use the local housing authorities’ referral form?
A specified public authority may make a referral to a local housing authority in any manner they wish as long as they include the minimum information required by law. However, where a local housing authority has established arrangements for referral it is advisable to make use of these wherever possible.
Where a local housing authority has not established referral mechanisms, or has not provided information that is readily available about these a simple form can be used by public authorities to make a referral.
8.12 The local housing authority referral form requires information I don’t have. Can I still make a referral?
As long as you have the service user’s name, contact details and the agreed reason for referral (e.g. the individual is homeless or at risk of homelessness) then you can still make a referral. You will always need the service user’s consent.
8.13 My service user will not consent to a referral but I’m really concerned about their welfare, what should I do?
Referrals without consent may be made in order to safeguard children or vulnerable adults, in accordance with local safeguarding procedures.