Public authority duty to refer

The duty of specified public authorities to refer a person who is homeless or threatened with homelessness to a local housing authority.

This content applies to England

Duty to refer overview

Certain public authorities must notify local authorities that a person who has engaged with them may be homeless or at risk of homelessness.[1] Referrals under the duty to refer are made to council housing departments.

The relevant legislation and guidance refer to clients as ‘service users’. 'Service user' is a generic term used to describe the people who come into contact with public services. Depending on the public authority this might include patients, jobseekers, prisoners and members of the armed forces. Councils are referred to as local housing authorities (LHA).

A public authority has a duty to refer if is exercising its function in relation to the service user and either:[2]

  • considers the service user to be homeless or threatened with homelessness

  • the service user discloses they are homeless or at risk of homelessness

A referral must be made if the service user:[3]

  • agrees to the referral

  • specifies the local authority they wish to be referred to

  • agrees for their contact details to be supplied to the local authority

Public authorities that have a duty to refer

The following public authorities have a duty to refer:[4]

  • prisons (public and contracted out)

  • youth offender institutions and youth offending teams

  • secure training centres (public and contracted out) and colleges

  • probation services (community rehabilitation companies and national probation service)

  • jobcentre plus

  • accident and emergency services provided in a hospital

  • urgent treatment centres, and hospitals in their capacity of providing in-patient treatment

  • social service authorities

The Ministry of Defence is also subject to the duty to refer in relation to members of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the regular army and the Royal Air Force.

Identifying homelessness and threatened homelessness

The duty to refer is triggered if a service user is:[5]

  • homeless

  • likely to become homeless within 56 days

  • a tenant and has been served a valid section 21 notice that expires within 56 days

Identifying homelessness

The government guidance states that in many cases staff can easily identify that a person whom they are assisting is homeless. This is the case if someone is sleeping rough, ‘sofa surfing’, frequently changes addresses or provides a ‘care of’ address.[6]

It is not necessary to be roofless in order to be homeless. The statutory definition of homelessness includes being housed in unsuitable accommodation, for example because of disrepair or a risk of violence and having nowhere suitable for the whole household.

Identifying threatened homelessness

A service user is threatened with homelessness if they are likely to have nowhere to stay in 56 days. Tenants who have been served with a valid section 21 notice expiring within 56 days also fall into this category. The government guidance for public authorities recognises that it may be more challenging to identify when a person is threatened with homelessness and recommends asking service users if they have:[7]

  • debt problems

  • problems with a landlord such as being threatened with eviction

  • experienced domestic abuse or other threats or violence

  • accommodation available if they are approaching discharge from hospital, armed forces or custody

A service user can also be threatened with homelessness if they have been in care, armed forces or prison and are finding it difficult to manage due to institutionalisation.

Prisoners who are threatened with homelessness

Prisons and probation should ensure that referrals are made as soon possible, so that a local housing authority has adequate time to act.[8]

The policy framework for prison and probation staff lists the following circumstances as indicative of threatened homelessness:[9]

  • due to be released within 56 days with nowhere to stay on release

  • living in transient and short-term accommodation with no identified move-on provision

Transient and short-term accommodation includes Bail Accommodation and Support Service (BASS) and Approved Premises. Residents of Approved Premises and BASS should be referred under the duty to refer, because these premises are classed as short-term public protection measures.[10]

Local connection considerations

Service users have the right to choose which English local housing authority they wish to be referred to.[11]

Local housing authorities can check whether homeless people have a local connection to their area as part of the homeless application process. If the homeless applicant has no local connection, they can be referred to an area where they do have a local connection.

Public authorities are advised to consult Chapter 10 of the Homelessness Code of Guidance for detailed information about what constitutes local connection and are reminded that service users should not be referred to an area where they would be at risk of violence.[12]

The Homelessness code of guidance and the government guidance to the duty to refer recommend that a service user is provided with information on how local connection is defined to inform their decision.[13]

The policy framework for prison and probation staff advises that if it is not clear whether there is a local connection, staff should highlight to the service user the potential risk of not being able to secure long-term accommodation in the area of their choice.[14]

Obtaining the service user’s consent

A referral cannot normally be made without the service user's consent. Consent may be waived in order to safeguard children or vulnerable adults, in line with local procedures.[15]

The Homelessness code of guidance advises local housing authorities to confirm with the referring public authority that the service user has given their consent to a referral.[16]

Public authorities are advised to:[17]

  • follow the process that has been set out in the internal guidance where applicable

  • obtain the service user's signature, even though consent can be giver orally

The policy framework for prison and probation staff contains a consent form template.[18]

Prison and probation staff are advised that special arrangements should be made for obtaining consent and explaining the process where the service user:[19]

  • does not speak English as their first language

  • has a visual or hearing impairment

  • has a cognitive impairment

The public authority must also ask the service user how they can be contacted by the local housing authority and obtain consent for their contact details to be used.[20]

How to make a referral

A referral must include:[21]

  • the service user’s name and contact details

  • the reason for the referral

The referring public authority can also include the following information about the service user:[22]

  • whether they are homeless and at risk of rough sleeping on the date the referral is made

  • when they are likely to become homeless

  • whether they are subject to a risk assessment

  • key medical information

Local authorities should provide:[23]

  • a standard email address

  • a single point of contact

A local authority might ask for referrals to be made on a specific form. The mechanism should be as simple as possible and based on the minimum information required.[24] Where an authority has not provided or publicised its referral mechanism, or where a referral is being made out-of-area, a public authority may use the Duty to refer: referral form.

Guidance for prison and probation staff

Prison and probation staff are advised against sharing any information in relation to:[25]

  • spent convictions

  • behaviour that led to a spent conviction

  • any other circumstances relating to a spent conviction, including information in risk assessments and discussions at MAPPA meetings

Referrals made on the standard referral form should not be rejected on the grounds of missing additional information. If the LHA refuses to accept the referral and indicates no further action will be taken, this must be escalated through the Homelessness Prevention Taskforces and Regional Accommodation Silver leads.[26]

Referrals following sentencing

The National Probation Service (NPS) Court Officers must make a direct referral to the local authority where:[27]

  • no immediate custodial sentence is imposed

  • a custodial sentence is imposed but it is deemed to have been already served because of the time spent in custody

In all other circumstances, the NPS Court Officers must notify the appropriate community Probation team that a referral under the duty to refer is required.[28]

Referrals while a person is in custody

A referral must be made if a person is being released within 7 days and there is a risk of them becoming homeless.[29] This includes when a person has been admitted to prison and will be released within 7 days.

A referral must be made if a person is about to be released and they are at risk of becoming homeless within 56 days. Paragraph 4.36 of the policy framework offers a step by step guide on how to make a referral in these circumstances.

A referral does not have to be made where:[30]

  • there is no risk of homelessness

  • the person will be in custody for 18 weeks or longer

Referrals of prisoners in the community and bail hostels

Housing needs are part of assessments in the community, including assessments of prisoners on licence.[31] Paragraphs 4.40-4.50 of the policy framework contain guidance on how to make a referral in these circumstances.

Referrals of prisoners from abroad

Prisoners from abroad who are classed as Foreign National Offenders (FNOs) are excluded from the duty to refer if they are:[32]

  • subject to deportation proceedings

  • ‘of interest’ to the Home Office Immigration Enforcement

What a local authority should do on receiving a referral

A local authority should always respond to a referral by contacting the service user using the contact details provided. The local housing authority (LHA) will contact the individual using the contact details provided by the referring public authority. If the service user is in custody, the LHA will be advised to should do this via the Prison Offender Manager or probation practitioner.[33]

If the service user does not respond, the LHA should provide information on how they can access advice and assistance by phone, email or letter.[34]

Duty to refer and making a homeless application

A referral made by a public authority under its duty to refer does not constitute a homeless application. If after contacting the service user the LHA has a reason to believe that they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, this will trigger a homelessness application.[35]

The Homelessness code of guidance suggests that public authorities should consider whether it may be more appropriate to assist a service user to make a homeless application to a local authority than to refer them.[36] A homeless application may be more appropriate for example where the service user has support needs.

Public authorities are not required to carry out housing needs assessments before making a referral under the duty to refer.[37]

Duty to refer resources

Homelessness code of guidance for local authorities offers detailed information about the homeless application process and the homelessness law: chapter 4 contains an overview of the duty to refer, chapter 10 outlines the local connection rules and chapter 23 contains information about how to provide homelessness services to people with a history of offending.

A guide to the duty to refer and the standard referral form are available on gov.uk.

In April 2021 the government published The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework that sets out duties and guidance for prison and probation staff. The policy replaced previous operational guidance.

The policy document includes:

  • a copy of the standard referral form

  • step by step guides and flowcharts

  • common questions with answers

  • technical guidance on how to use specific software and applications when making a referral (Jigsaw, NDELIUS, P-NOMIS)

  • overview of the local authorities’ duties towards people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness

  • information about the reciprocal arrangements in Wales through the National Offender Pathway

Last updated: 14 September 2021

Footnotes

  • [1]

    s.213B Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; chapter 4 Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities, MHCLG, February 2018.

  • [2]

    s.213B Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; para 4.4 Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities, MHCLG, February 2018.

  • [3]

    s.213B(3) Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; para 4.1 Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities, MHCLG, February 2018.

  • [4]

    s.213B(4) Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; Schedule to Homelessness (Review Procedure etc.) Regulations 2018 SI 2018/223; para 4.3 Homelessness code of guidance for local authorities, February 2018.

  • [5]

    s.213B(1) Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

  • [6]

    para 4, A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, September 2018.

  • [7]

    para 4, A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, September 2018.

  • [8]

    para 4.1 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [9]

    para 1.7 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [10]

    para 4.46 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [11]

    ss.213B(2) and 213B(3)(b) Housing Act 1996 ; paras 4.2 and 4.4 Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities, MHCLG, February 2018.

  • [12]

    para 5 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, September 2018.

  • [13]

    para 4.8 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018; para 5 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, Sept 2018.

  • [14]

    para 4.2 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [15]

    s.213B(3)(a) Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; para 4.1 Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities, MHCLG, February 2018; para 6 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, September 2018.

  • [16]

    para 4.16 Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities, MHCLG, February 2018.

  • [17]

    paras 3 and 6 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, Sept 2018.

  • [18]

    p. 59 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [19]

    para 4.1 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [20]

    s.213B(2)(b) Housing Act 1996 as inserted by s.10 Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; para 4.1 Homelessness Code of Guidance for local authorities, MHCLG, February 2018.

  • [21]

    para 4.13 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [22]

    para 4.15 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [23]

    The email address should be in the ‘dutytorefer@insertlocalauthorityname.gov.uk’ format; see para 6.1The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021; para 4.7 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [24]

    para 7 A guide to the duty to refer, MHCLG, Sept 2018.

  • [25]

    para 4.5 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [26]

    para 4.4 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [27]

    paras 4.16 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [28]

    para 4.17 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [29]

    paras 4.23-4.25 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [30]

    para 4.27 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [31]

    para 4.27 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [32]

    para 1.8 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [33]

    para 4.13 The Homelessness Reduction Act: Duty to refer policy framework, HMPPS, 9 April 2021.

  • [34]

    para 4.20 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [35]

    para 4.19 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [36]

    para 4.12 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.

  • [37]

    para 4.19 Homelessness Code of Guidance, MHCLG, Feb 2018.