CHAPTER 4 - HANDLING OF APPLICATIONS
4.1 Summary - this chapter discusses how initial approaches should be handled, including the recording of the results of inquiries. The inquiries which local authorities must undertake into applications under the homelessness legislation are discussed in Chapters 5 to 8.
4.2 It is important that homeless applications are considered in the overall context of providing a service to those in housing need. Staff should adopt a person-centred approach in order to deliver a response tailored to the needs of the individual applicant. Staff should be aware that where a person has applied for accommodation, or for assistance in obtaining accommodation, and there is reason to believe that they are in fact homeless or threatened with homelessness then inquiries must be carried out to ascertain the duty owed to the household under the homelessness legislation.
4.3 Initial identification of homelessness or threatened homelessness may be via the housing department or other routes such as social work or youth services. Local authorities have a corporate responsibility towards the applicant to ensure they are helped appropriately and effectively, and all relevant departments must play a part in discharging this responsibility. Chapter 3 gives guidance on how different parts of local authorities should work together.
4.4 Local authorities have a duty to provide good quality objective housing advice on a range of housing options of which accessing local authority or housing association accommodation via a homeless application is one. Staff responsible for dealing with a homeless application should be trained to ensure provision of such advice. At all times, staff must be aware that should an individual wish to make a homeless application, they are within their legal rights to do so, and housing staff must accept that application. Staff should ensure that applicants are aware of their legal rights or where they may receive information on these. Staff should also be able to advise applicants on how to contact independent advocates or advisors.
Avoidance of first screening of applicants
4.5 The principal aim for staff in local authority housing offices should be to identify a housing solution for a homeless individual that reflects their needs. Staff should work to find the best way to achieve that solution. To do this, staff should ensure that all relevant information is provided to the individual, including their legal right to make an application, so that the individual can make an informed choice.
4.6 There are a number of key points that staff should follow:
- No homeless person should ever be refused the right to make a homeless application.
- Particular care should be taken to ensure receptionists or general inquiry staff do not carry out any informal "first screening" of applicants, either deliberately or unwittingly, for example, by advising them in advance that they are likely to be re-housed in a difficult to let area or in a location many miles from where they wish to stay.
- Staff should not assume that every individual who enters a local authority office is aware of their legal right to make a homelessness application. Prominently displayed notices should make it clear that applicants are entitled to an interview with a homelessness officer.
- At all times, staff should give factual information to members of the public on the application process, as well as giving information to people on their legal right to apply.
4.7 Staff should receive training, if required, in the handling of such applications, including where to refer applications.
4.8 It is essential that applications are handled in a non-discriminatory way, at minimum taking account of local authorities' duties under relevant equal opportunities legislation, for example:
- The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 covers discrimination on account of gender.
- The Race Relations Act 1976 (which was amended by the Race Relations (Amendments) Act 2000) places a general duty on local authorities to make appropriate arrangements with a view to securing that their functions are carried out with due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination; and to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups.
- The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 prevents discrimination against disabled people in the sale or letting of houses.
4.9 As a matter of good practice local authorities should consider all equalities issues, not just those enshrined in legislation, when handling applications.
4.10 It should also be noted that section 106 of the 2001 Act requires the encouragement of equal opportunities and the observance of equal opportunity requirements in the provision of housing and related services by Registered Social Landlords and in the exercise of the functions given under the 2001 Act by local authorities. The definition of "Equal opportunities" is taken from the Scotland Act (1998) and means the prevention, elimination or regulation of discrimination between persons on grounds of sex or marital status, on racial grounds, or on grounds of disability, age, sexual orientation, language or social origin, or of other personal attributes, including beliefs or opinions, such as religious beliefs or political opinions and "equal opportunities requirements" means the requirements of the law for the time being relating to equal opportunities. The 2001 Act also requires homelessness strategies to state how the local authority is complying with its duty under section 106 so far as relating to matters in the strategy.
4.11 It is important that homelessness officers are trained in the requirements of the homelessness legislation, the Code of Guidance, anti-discrimination legislation, and the local authority's own housing and homelessness policies. Training in awareness raising and practice issues as well as clear staff support arrangements will also be helpful in ensuring staff are able to assist applicants proactively.
4.12 Staff should be able to provide at least Type 1 (as defined in Homepoint's National Standards for Housing Information and Advice 26 ) advice on homelessness and other associated areas of housing law. They should also know how to access Types 2 and 3 advice if necessary. They should also be aware of the requirements of legislation and policies which may be relevant to particular cases, for example community care legislation or the Children (Scotland) Act 1995; and of local authority departments and independent agencies to which applicants should be referred for specialist advice and assistance where necessary. Where possible training should be carried out in partnership with other local agencies who will have a role in the assessment process.
4.13 Staff should have good interviewing skills and be equipped to deal with people who are distressed, embarrassed or confused. Where the first point of contact is a receptionist or member of staff dealing with other inquiries, the aim should be to refer the applicant to a homelessness officer as soon as possible (including those trained to deal with homelessness applications as part of their general duties).
4.14 Reception staff should always be alert to the possible wider needs of applicants in order to be able to provide a sensitive and appropriate initial response. Adoption of HomePoint's National Standards for Housing Information and Advice provides a useful and relevant framework for assessing training needs against a set of agency and staff competencies. Supervision and support of staff will enable the development of best practice in handling applications.
4.15 See paragraph 3.6 in Chapter 3 for guidance on ensuring a joint partnership approach to training.
Explanation of procedures
4.16 At the initial interview, each applicant should receive a clear and simple explanation of the local authority's procedures for handling homelessness applications, including the various steps involved and likely timetables for each; and of the decisions a local authority can take on the application. Applicants should be advised of what they should expect at each stage of the process including information on any rights they may have.
4.17 Staff should be mindful that they do not overwhelm applicants with too much information and it may be more appropriate to give explanations at different key stages in the interview. For some applicants who are particularly upset or distressed it may be appropriate to deal with the initial "crisis" commencing the application, taking basic details and arranging temporary accommodation but continue inquiries another day. However the applicant should be made aware of their options and rights before arranging temporary accommodation.
4.17 Explanations should be presented in a manner which is accessible to the applicant. There should be a written as well as a verbal explanation of the procedures and leaflets may be useful. These should be available in the main community languages.
Sequence of inquiries
4.18 The following sets out the sequence of inquiries at present. As the 2003 Act is commenced, local authorities' duties will change, in particular as progress is made towards the 2012 target of removal of priority need. Further guidance will be issued in the future.
4.19 When a person applies to a local authority under the homelessness legislation, it has to make inquiries into the application in sequence. It has to have reason to believe that the applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness and it shall make necessary inquiries to satisfy itself that this is the case. If so, there shall be inquiries as to whether the applicant has a priority need and whether he or she became homeless or threatened with homelessness intentionally. The local authority may decide to inquire whether the applicant has a local connection with another local authority in Scotland, England, or Wales. The local authority will also need to check whether the applicant is a person subject to immigration control, and if so whether he or she is eligible for assistance under the homelessness legislation (see chapter 13 for more details).
4.20 Local authorities should adopt targets for completion of each stage of the process and should monitor these. They should aim to:
- interview and carry out an initial assessment of an application on the day of application or on the first working day thereafter in the case of applications made out of office hours or in circumstances where the applicant is particularly distressed;
- complete their inquiries within 28 days, unless there are legitimate reasons for taking longer; and
- issue decisions within one working day of the completion of inquiries.
Progress of applications
4.21 Applicants should be given some indication of the likely length of time the application process will take, and should be kept well informed of the progress of their application, and what inquiries the local authority will make at each stage of the process. Staff should contact the applicant in person if possible throughout the process, or by other means agreed with the applicant, for example by letter, telephone or text message. Inquiries into applications should be careful, but not over elaborate. A long period of uncertainty is bad for the applicant, and may cost the local authority money as it has a duty to secure that accommodation is made available while completing its inquiries. Staff should indicate to the applicant when a final decision may be made in order to reduce uncertainty and to give the applicant time to make any arrangements that they may need to make.
4.22 Where an application is made this should be recorded through the electronic case-based HL1 returns to the Scottish Executive Housing Statistics branch. It should be noted that the final section of the HL1 (dealing with the rehousing outcome) should not be completed until the case has been closed - the local authority has discharged its duty in its entirety.
4.23 This recording system also enables local authorities to identify repeat applications - these may suggest a need to review current policies. Local authorities should also consider bespoke standard monitoring systems which allow them to ensure that appropriate policies and procedures are implemented, including, where appropriate, referrals to other bodies.
4.24 Authorities may also wish to record information relating to enquiries which do not result in a formal homelessness application. Over-elaborate recording systems are to be avoided, but it is important that recording systems are capable of demonstrating clearly the enquiries that have taken place, the decisions reached and the reasons for these decisions.
4.25 The name of the officer who interviewed the applicant should be included in any record for ease of reference at a later date, as should the applicant's contact details and the best way of contacting him or her, by telephone or in writing. Recording systems should also allow for the recording of case notes and follow up notes so that applicants can have enquiries dealt with effectively even when their case officer is not available.
4.26 All housing advice that is provided to applicants should be noted as a matter of record. This is particularly important for non-priority applicants and priority applicants who are assessed as being intentionally homeless, where the type of advice and assistance they are entitled to is prescribed by ministerial regulation.
Sharing of information
4.27 Assessment interviews may involve asking applicants personal, and possibly distressing questions, and should therefore be conducted in private. Interviews must never be conducted where the interview might be overheard, and should be held in a private interview room or in an office not otherwise open to the public.
4.28 When collecting information as part of an assessment local authorities should ensure that applicants know why the information is being collected and what it will be used for. Local authorities should obtain an applicant's written consent to information being shared with other agencies, and any implications likely to arise from this, and should ensure that they comply with the terms of data protection legislation. An applicant may have good reason for not wanting to share certain information with other parties, for example in cases of abuse, and their right to confidentiality should be respected.
4.29 In order to facilitate effective case management local authorities should establish protocols and procedures for the sharing of information about homeless applicants between Housing Departments, Social Work, housing support providers and other relevant agencies. Such protocols should contain agreements as to the type of information to be shared and the stage at which this is to be done.
4.30 In all cases information should only be shared where it is of direct relevance to the receiving agency - for instance it is good practice to share information about a new tenant with their landlord if this is relevant to sustaining the tenancy, or for housing management purposes, but not otherwise.
Support for applicants
4.31 All applicants should be advised that they can be accompanied during any interview relating to their application by a friend or advocate, who can speak for them if required. Applicants should always have the opportunity to explain their circumstances fully. Applicants should be informed that they can ask to see a homelessness officer of either sex, and this wish will be met wherever possible.
4.32 Consideration should also be given to interviewing applicants with young children and staff should do all they can to ensure that the interview is as comfortable as possible for parents and children. A play area or toys to keep children entertained while the applicant is being interviewed can help make the experience less stressful.
4.33 If an applicant becomes distressed during an interview, consideration should be given to continuing at a later time although this should not delay settlement of the applicant in temporary accommodation.
4.34 Arrangements must be in place to ensure support is available to those with literacy difficulties, whose first language is not English, or have other difficulties in expressing themselves. For example written documentation should be reinforced with a verbal explanation and the officer dealing with the case should check the applicant understands any advice being offered or any options proposed.
4.35 Local authorities should ensure that those applicants for whom English is not their first language have access to an interpreter - either one nominated by the local authority or by the applicant, or services like Language Line. Where applicants bring in a friend or relative to interpret they should always be given the option of using a trained interpreter. Even if an applicant prefers to use a friend to interpret the case officer should consider using a trained interpreter if there are concerns that the applicant does not fully understand the advice they are being given.
4.36 People with hearing or speech difficulties, mental health problems or learning disabilities, may also need an intermediary or advocate. Appropriate provision for deaf applicants, provision of sign language interpreters, should be considered if necessary. Homelessness staff should also be alert to the need that some more vulnerable applicants may also require an assessment of their housing support or health needs while others may need to be referred for community care assessments.
4.37 It is important assessments are carried out quickly to avoid the client forming a dependency on their temporary accommodation which may make subsequent moves more difficult to manage. (see also chapter 9, paragraphs 9.5-9.36 on temporary and interim accommodation).
Cases involving abuse
4.38 Individuals who have experienced abuse may contact the local authority. In considering a homelessness application, staff should interpret abuse widely to include any form or violence, harassment, threatening conduct and any other behaviour giving rise or likely to give rise to physical or mental injury, fear, alarm or distress and not just domestic, racial or sexual abuse. Staff should be aware of the different types of abuse and responses they may require.
4.39 If the applicant reports abuse, the local authority should take reasonable steps to obtain information to support the applicant's case and consider all available evidence and information relating to the circumstances of each case. However, a local authority should never seek proof from an alleged perpetrator and if it proves impossible or inappropriate to obtain confirming evidence the applicant's expressed fears should be considered as sufficient evidence. For example, if the only way to obtain confirming evidence is by asking the alleged perpetrator then this should be deemed to be inappropriate.
4.40 In cases involving violence or threats of violence, or sexual or other abuse the applicant may be in considerable distress. All local authorities should ensure an appropriately trained officer is available to applicants and wherever possible in such cases, a person of the same sex as the applicant should conduct the interview, if this is line with the applicant's wishes. There should be arrangements for assistance to be available, if required, from statutory or voluntary services.
4.41 Applicants should be advised of their rights to take action against the perpetrators of abuse, but it is for them to decide whether to use these rights in the light of their individual circumstances, bearing in mind that they may fear this will provoke further abuse. In cases of sexual abuse, particularly of children or young people, the person suffering abuse may be reluctant to mention this initially. Homelessness officers should therefore be alert to the possibility that there may be reasons, for leaving a family home abruptly, which the applicant is not divulging.
4.42 Homelessness officers are not equipped to inquire into allegations of assault or abuse. Joint protocols with Social Work should be considered as should joint training in child protection procedures. Staff should recognise that different forms of abuse may require very different responses - for example childhood sexual abuse requires different handling to external neighbour violence. See paragraph 3.6 in Chapter 3 for guidance on ensuring a joint partnership approach to training.
4.43 If the applicant alleges assault or sexual abuse of a child, the homelessness officer should advise him or her of the homelessness officer's responsibility to discuss this with the social work department, so that any necessary help and protection for the child and applicant can be arranged. Homelessness officers should ensure that they have telephone contact numbers and addresses of local services to which those who have experienced violence or sexual abuse can be referred, for example women's refuges, and other services specialising in violence or sexual abuse.
Links with community care assessments
4.44 All local authorities should have a mechanism for assessing housing support needs under Supporting People arrangements. Homelessness officers should be trained to look for triggers that would indicate that an applicant may benefit from some degree of housing support in the short or longer term. Assessing and recording housing support needs and making arrangements for housing support services should be carried out by the homelessness officer, where possible, and be built into the housing advice/homeless application process.
4.45 Where applicants have more profound or complex needs that may benefit from community care services, from social work, health or other agencies, local authorities should ensure that a seamless referral process, that builds on information already gathered through previous assessments, is in place. Such needs may be particularly likely to come to light when assessing whether a person is vulnerable and hence in priority need, or an assessment may be required before an applicant is assigned specialist housing, for example housing designed for ambulant disabled people. An assessment of community care needs can also prevent homelessness, particularly when a vulnerable individual is threatened with eviction.
4.46 Even if the local authority has no further duties under the homelessness legislation because the person is neither homeless nor threatened with homelessness, a referral for advice or assistance under other legislation, for example the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, Children (Scotland) Act 1995 or the NHS and Community Care Act 1990, may be appropriate. Housing staff are an important point of contact for people with other community care health or support services.
4.47 From April 2004, all people with community care needs seeking help from social work, health or housing services, and who may require the services of more than one professional discipline or agency, have been entitled to a Single Shared Assessment. According to the individual's needs, this may be a simple or comprehensive assessment with any specialist assessments that are required, and including assessment of the person's financial circumstances. The assessment is undertaken by the most appropriate person in social work, health or housing, the "lead assessor", who will be responsible for co-ordinating assessment contributions and care planning and applying the arrangements for accessing services. Single Shared Assessment should give access to a range of community care services without the need for agencies to duplicate assessments or for people to repeat their details to each service with which they have contact.
4.48 Homelessness officers, and other housing staff, will need to be familiar with the local arrangements for Single Shared Assessment and for referring to other services, and their expected role in this. Appropriately trained or experienced staff may be involved in undertaking simple assessments or contributing their specialist knowledge to comprehensive assessments, allocating resources, planning and facilitating housing support. 27
4.49 Social work departments should be aware that homeless people are often in urgent need of accommodation and may require a fast track assessment and they should build this into the arrangements for Single Shared Assessment. This is particularly true of roofless people seeking entry to emergency accommodation with support. Housing and social work departments may delegate authority to decide on immediate admissions to voluntary and other bodies running emergency accommodation where the need is urgent.
False or misleading statements
4.50 The applicant is obliged by section 40(2) of the Act to notify the local authority as soon as possible of any change in the facts material to his or her application which occurs before he or she receives notification of the local authority's decision on his or her application (but not changes arising after the decision is notified).The local authority has a duty to explain to the applicant, in ordinary language, that he or she must report such changes in their circumstances, and that if this is not done the applicant would be guilty of an offence. The applicant will not be guilty if he or she can show that they had a reasonable excuse for not notifying a change, or that the necessary explanation was not given by the local authority (section 40(3)).
4.51 The explanation given by the local authority under section 40 should also cover information about the penalties for giving false or misleading statements. Such explanations should be handled sensitively so as not to intimidate applicants or imply dishonesty; and homelessness officers should ensure an applicant is clear what kind of changes should be reported to the local authority. An applicant cannot be expected to know every circumstance which would be relevant to his or her application.
4.52 Under section 40(1) of the Act, a person is guilty of an offence if he knowingly or recklessly makes a statement which is false, or knowingly withholds information which the local authority has reasonably required him to give it, with the intention of inducing the local authority to believe that he or another person is:
- homeless or threatened with homelessness or;
- has a priority need or;
- not homeless, nor threatened with homelessness, intentionally.
A person guilty of such an offence is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding Level 5 on the standard scale (currently £5,000) (section 40(4)).