APG on Homelessness meeting March 2024

by | Mar 11, 2024 | News

APG focuses on homelessness and Criminal Justice

The All Party Group on Homelessness met at the Assembly on Monday 11 March. The focus of the session was on homelessness and the Criminal Justice system. The group were briefed by Maria Watson, Interim Deputy Director of Rehabilitation at the Prison Service; Liz Arthur, the Probation Service’s Assistant Director for Public Protection; and Brenda Parker, Interim Head of Services and Support for Housing Rights. Here are some of the key takeaways from the Session.

Many prisoners on release do not have suitable accommodation arranged

In her presentation, Ms Watson outlined that access to stable accommodation is one of the key factors in terms of preventing reoffending. Due to the significant pressure there is in terms of housing supply across NI, too many individuals leaving criminal justice settings have no alternative other than to live in unsuitable accommodation or to return to areas with peers who may prove to be a negative influence.

While staff in the prison system seek to proactively engage with prisoners who are approaching release with accommodation needs through their prisoner development model, unfortunately a substantial proportion do not have suitable accommodation in place for their release.

Brenda Parker, in her remarks to the group, noted that the impact of the lack of supply is ‘immense’ on prisoners being released. She noted that many prisoners on release feel forced to go into unsuitable accommodation, with access to social housing increasingly challenging and the private rented sector becoming unaffordable in many parts of NI. The current situation can be ‘setting up people to fail’ and potentially re-enter the criminal justice system with all of the consequences this can have for them, their families and wider society.

Liz Arthur noted the particular challenges which face prisoners who are released under Public Protection Arrangements (PPANI) in NI. These prisoners will have been convicted of certain violent or sexual offences. She noted that there are 91 places in probation approved premises across seven sites around Northern Ireland. Ms Arthur outlined that the assessment of the probation service is that the number of places available is proportionate to the number of people convicted of these offences in NI. However, she stressed that a major challenge for the probation service comes from the fact that finding move-on accommodation for these individuals can prove challenging in practice. This can lead to very difficult decisions having to be made around accommodation provision for this group of people.

Unstable housing situations are common amongst individuals prior to committal to prison

Ms Watson highlighted the fact that individuals committed to prison who are living in social housing or in the private rented sector may, depending on their circumstances, lose their lease once they go to prison. A substantial number of those committed in 2023 were living in informal arrangements (commonly referred to as sofa surfing) or were either living in temporary accommodation or were chronically homeless.

Support services are available to people in prison with housing needs

Brenda Parker in her presentation outlined the services that Housing Rights provide for individuals who are in prison in Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank. This included their specialist advocacy service; support for prisoner peer advice; and the provision of post release support and advocacy. She stressed that it was crucial that Housing Rights are independent of statutory bodies yet at the same time are able to work constructively with them in partnership to seek the best outcomes for the people they are looking to support. She mentioned the recent review of a prison protocol first developed in 2009 involving the prison service, Department of Justice, the Probation Service and the Housing Executive as a positive step forward.

During the session it was noted that there have been positive steps taken in recent months which will improve the advice and support available for prisoners coming up for release. This includes the introduction of Housing Executive housing advisors in prison settings; the development of a short sentence support programme with Extern; and the ongoing work of the Complex Lives programme in Belfast particularly in supporting women experiencing chronic homelessness.

Interagency co-operation will be vital if things are to improve

Ms Watson noted that the Department of Justice cannot solve the problems they are facing alone. She stressed that the only way that things will improve is if Executive departments, statutory bodies and the voluntary and community sector work closely together. Ms Parker called for the introduction of a legal duty to co-operate to respond to homelessness to be placed on Executive departments and statutory partners to seek to achieve this end. Ms Arthur referred to the challenges the probation service face with unplanned releases or releases which take place on a Friday afternoon when support services often cannot be accessed. In England and Wales, legislative action has been taken to prevent prisoner releases taking place on a Friday afternoon.


A good summary of the session was provided by Ms Watson in her closing remarks. She outlined that access to stable accommodation is “foundational” to everything else for prisoners on release. This includes the ability to get a job, reducing reoffending, accessing benefits and accessing healthcare. This once again starkly illustrates the importance of increasing the supply of social and affordable housing in this society and ensuring that housing support services for people who need it are properly funded. The group is grateful to Ms Watson, Ms Parker and Ms Arthur for taking the time to come along.

The next meeting of the APG on Homelessness is scheduled for May.



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