When does sleeping rough not count as sleeping rough?

Daniel McCulloch, The Open University

Rough Sleeping Statistics are produced annually by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

When does someone who is ‘sleeping rough’ not count as ‘sleeping rough’? This might seem a ridiculous question to ask – surely, it’s obvious, people who are sleeping rough (or street homeless, as it’s also called) count. However, this isn’t always the case, and who counts can have big implications for our understanding of the extent of ‘rough sleeping’, as well as the political claims and policy decisions that are made about ‘rough sleeping’.

Official definitions of rough sleeping in England define this as: “People sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or “bashes” which are makeshift shelters, often comprised of cardboard boxes).”

To provide an estimate of the extent of rough sleeping in England, each local authority is asked to provide a count or estimate of the number of people sleeping rough in their area on a single night, providing a ‘snapshot’ figure. To aid this process, guidance is offered by the organisation Homeless Link on how local authorities should undertake counts or estimates. However, although this guidance exists, there is no guarantee that local authorities will adhere to this, and there is considerable discretion afforded to local authorities in how they arrive at their figures.

So local authorities can, to some extent, in their methods of counting and estimating, effectively decide who counts as sleeping rough and who does not. To give an idea of the impact of this level of discretion, one local authority, Northampton, provided an official count of 26 people sleeping rough for 2018. However, this figure excludes many people that the local authority know to be sleeping rough.

This was highlighted in a local BBC radio programme, in which a reporter stated that in a briefing before the very same count, the local authority’s ‘intelligence’ indicated there to be at least 46 people sleeping rough, but also claimed that 25 people were in camps which couldn’t be included in the figures due to safety issues. Yet, with such safety issues unspecified, it’s impossible to know whether another local authority might have included these people in their count. Indeed, the Homeless Link guidance itself suggests that “If you know that sleep sites are occupied but inaccessible or unsafe, consider using the estimate process (which can include a count) to achieve greater accuracy.” So it’s likely that another local authority might have done things differently. As such, it’s easy to see how discrepancies in the approach to who counts as sleeping rough can emerge.

Furthermore, because the official definition states that someone must be bedded down or about to bed down to be counted as sleeping rough, if they aren’t seen to be in either of these situations, then for the purposes of this these snapshot figures, they are unlikely to count as sleeping rough – even if there is ample evidence that they are doing so.

It should be said that issues with the methods of counting and estimating these figures are nothing new, and have been written about previously. But why does this matter now? In my view, there’s an enduring importance about recognising that behind each of these numbers is the life of another human being. However, these issues also take on a particular importance when rough sleeping statistics are produced and used as political tools.

The Westminster government recently released official statistics on the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough in England for 2018, based on these snapshot figures. This showed a 2% reduction in the number of people sleeping rough in 2018 compared with 2017, equating to 74 fewer people sleeping rough. It was the first time since 2010 that the official figure showed a reduction in the number of people sleeping rough. In media reports, this new figure was referred to as “a step in the right direction” by communities secretary, James Brokenshire.

But a reduction of 74 people is relatively a marginal change, and a few scenarios can help to give an idea of just how marginal a change this is. For example, if half of the local authorities in England estimated there to be just one more person sleeping rough, this would represent an increase in the number of people sleeping rough compared with the previous year, rather than a decrease. Or going back to the example of Northampton – if just four other local authorities had a similar discrepancy between the number of people they knew to be sleeping rough, and the number they reported, this would produce an overall rise across England too.

And such margins can make a big difference to the claims that can be made about policy. If this year’s figures had shown an eighth consecutive annual rise, rather than a fall, this almost certainly would put pressure on the Westminster government to do more (for example, by providing greater levels of funding for homelessness services and local authorities than have been offered thus far), rather than to suggest this was “a step in the right direction”.

So the question of when sleeping rough is not counted as sleeping rough is an important one, and is one that has significant implications for the political claims and policy decisions that are made about rough sleeping.


Government policy is characterised by being petty and vindictive

Dave Middelton, The Open University


What sustains a Government in power? Having the number of MPs to win votes seems pretty important you might think (although the Tories threw away a working majority and now have a very narrow lead and need the support of the DUP). As does having support in the country (see recent YouGov poll here.) However, neither of these can quite explain the success of the current Tory Government who should be in far more electoral trouble than they are. Of course, some people will point to a divided opposition and this remains true.

But that is to assume that the Tories themselves are united which is clearly not the case. What is sustaining the Government currently is a politics that can best be described as petty and vindictive. Unfortunately this pettiness and vindictiveness has plenty of support throughout the country and can be seen in many policies introduced over the past 20 years or so.

The most recent example is the so-called Windrush scandal in which the Home Secretary has been made to resign over an overtly racist policy introduced by her predecessor with the explicit aim of “encouraging” people to leave the UK. (Here is the BBC doing their best to emphasise the personal tragedy for Amber Rudd).


The hostile environment policy introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary was a policy that was racist both in its intent and application. What is so disappointing is that this policy received no real critical examination in the media (and very little in Parliament) until it emerged that black citizens, who clearly had the right to be in the UK, were affected. This came to light following an investigation by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman.


The policy and its political fallout is largely treated as if it was an accident, an oversight, and even a personal tragedy for Amber Rudd. But, it was not an accident it was a deliberate and sustained attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation toward black citizens in a somewhat vain attempt to meet targets which despite the lies to the contrary clearly existed.

It is not clear how many ‘illegal’ immigrants there are in the UK (the Office For National Statistics warns that methods of calculating the number are seriously flawed), but what is clear is that this policy and its accompanying ‘leave now’ vans were designed to intimidate a particular community. Why is tackling so-called ‘illegal immigration’ seen as so important to a Government that surely has more important things to worry about?

Theresa May in defending the policy constantly ignores the human suffering she has caused preferring to remind us that there are people in the UK illegally. It is an obfuscation that plays well with the Tory grassroots and the mass media and it completely misses the point. Although the right wing press play along. (Heres the Daily Mail’s reporting of May’s defence of the policy.)

There is no need to consistently victimise people who do not have the means to fight back. This is a policy based on a vindictive and empathy lacking political elite whose own lives are rarely, if ever, touched in a negative way by the programmes they introduce.

The “hostile environment” policy is no aberration. The disabled, single parents, unemployed, refugees, those who rely on benefits have all been treated, in one way or another, to versions of the hostile environment.

The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake showed brilliantly how difficult it has become in the UK to claim benefits.


Rather than social security, as we used to call it, being a safety net for those in need it has become a bureaucratic means of humiliating individuals whose only crime is to have fallen on hard times.

We now know that as a result of the stress caused by the ‘hostile environment’ policy more than one person was driven to suicide.   The website Calum’s List lists 63 known cases of deaths attributable to cuts in benefit. The figures for the number of suicides attributed to austerity programmes and particularly those involving the targets to reduce benefits are difficult to ascertain as coroners rarely report “Government policy” as a cause of death, but a recent report suggested that at least 81,000 people have taken their own lives shortly after receiving suspensions to their benefits (https://archive.is/zhvCc#selection-597.0-605.36).

Perhaps this will be more shocking if we name some of these people. On November 17th 2017 the Manchester Evening News reported that 38-year old Elaine Morrall died in her freezing home after her benefits were stopped. (Manchester Evening News)


On 10thDecember 2017 The Independent reported that 32 year old singer-songwriter Daniella Obeng died in Qatar where she had gone to find work after her disability benefits were stopped. (Independent)


On June 22nd 2017 the Disability News Service reported on the case of Lawrence Bond a disabled former electrical engineer who died of a heart attack after being told that he was fit for work. (Disability News Service)


But, it is not just the suicides, though if I were a Government Minister I would not want them on my conscience (assuming, of course that Government ministers actually have consciences). The strain that ordinary people are placed under as a result of being denied benefits or being investigated by the Home Office is cruel and usually unnecessary (this blog shows the effect on some of the people who get caught in this bureaucratic trap). For the victims of these deliberately created hostile environments life becomes like living in a Kafka novel.

Socialists are often accused of pursuing a politics of envy and yet the real politics of envy is not those who seek a more equal society but those who seek to maintain a society which is structurally unequal. The vindictiveness of those who enact laws and regulations aimed at the most desperate and vulnerable members of our communities is a national scandal that the occasional ministerial resignation does nothing to change.

Whilst the papers and broadcast media were full of pity for Amber Rudd and enthusiasm for her successor, they fail to notice the number of people who are the real victims of the policies Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Theresa May are responsible for enacting. And, whilst it is tempting to think that a change in government would end the hostile environment for ethnic minorities, the disabled, the poor and the vulnerable in our society ultimately we need a change in our culture which will probably only occur in a completely different type of society from the one we are living in now.


This post was originally published on Dave Middleton’s blog Thinking and Doing, at: http://davemiddletons.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/government-policy-is-characterised-by.html

Government austerity demands that we die within our means

Victoria Cooper, The Open University

David Whyte, University of Liverpool



Image source: Lee Davy/FlickrCC BY 2.0


As we move towards the general election, we are paralyzed by what is probably the biggest single issue affecting ordinary people in the country: austerity. We are unable to fully understand both the economic madness of austerity and the true scale of the human cost and death toll that ‘fiscal discipline’ has unleashed.

Since coming into power as Prime Minister, Theresa May has made a strategic decision not to use the word ‘austerity’. Instead she has adopted a more palatable language in a vain attempt to distance herself from the Cameron governments before her: “you call it austerity; I call it living within our means.”

The experience of countless thousands of people is precisely the opposite: people are actively prevented from living within their means and are cut off from their most basic entitlement to: housing, food, health care, social care and general protection from hardship. And people are dying as a result of these austerity effects. In February, Jeremy Corbyn made precisely this point when he observed the conclusions of one report that 30,000 people were dying unnecessarily every year because of the cuts to NHS and to local authority social care budgets.

But this is really only the tip of the iceberg. The scale of disruption felt by people at the sharp end of these benefit reforms is enormous.  Countless thousands of others have died prematurely following work capability assessments: approximately 10,000 according the government’s own figures. People are dying as a result of benefit sanction which has fatal impacts on existing health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Austerity is about dismantling social protection. The crisis we face in social care is precipitated by cuts to local authority funding.  In the first 5 years of austerity, local authority budgets were cut by 40%, amounting to an estimated £18bn in care provision.

A decade of cuts, when added up, also means that some key agencies that protect us, such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency will have been decimated by up to 60% of funding cuts. Scaling back on an already paltry funding in these critical areas of regulation will lead to a rise in pollution related illness and disease and will fail to ensure people are safe at work.

The economic folly is that austerity will cost society more in the long term.  Local authorities are, for example, housing people in very expensive temporary accommodation because the government has disinvested in social housing.  The crisis in homelessness has paradoxically led to a £400 million rise in benefit payments.   The future costs of disinvesting in young people will be seismic.

Ending austerity would mean restoring our system of social protection and restoring the spending power of local authorities.  It would mean, as all the political parties except the Conservatives recognise, taxing the rich, not punishing the poor in order to pay for a problem that has its roots in a global financial system that enriched the elite. It would also mean recognizing that the best way to prevent the worsening violence of austerity and to rebuild the economy is to re-invest in public sector jobs.

In our book published this week, we bring together 31 leading authors to challenge this violent agenda. The book provides a comprehensive guide to the social violence that has been unleashed by austerity and shows, unequivocally, that austerity is not about ‘living within our means’ like some kind of fantasy household budget in Hampstead.  Austerity is designed to punish already disenfranchised populations, in targeted and violent ways.

Both the economic madness and the vicious cruelty of austerity have been almost written out of this election.   Come June, the next elected government has to produce a viable alternative strategy to austerity if it wants to reduce the death toll and properly protect its people.  No matter how the politics of Brexit or the politics of devolution and independence play out in the future, austerity is the key political issues that will shape the lives and deaths of the British people.

The Violence of Austerity, edited by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, is published by Pluto Press.


This post was originally published by Open Democracy.


Over the next four weeks we will  publish a series of blogs by HERC authors included the new book ‘The Violence of Austerity.’  Vicky Canning, Dan McCulloch, Steve Tombs and Joanna Mack will each describe in detail how austerity is having profoundly violent impacts.  The book is available to buy from Pluto Press