Creating an Environment for Change: Interpretation Matters
Justlife has been learning a lot over the past few months of scoping out the possibility for systems change across the country for those living in unsupported temporary accommodation. This blog-written by Christa Maciver-summarises a few of the insights coming from the Unsupported Temporary Accommodation Unit as a result of our learning.
My earliest memory involving learning about interpretation of regulations – as exciting as THAT seems – was in my US History class during the 10th grade (American school). We were learning about the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court and the differences between conservative and liberal interpretations of the constitution. I did not quite understand why we (I am American) could have one constitution but yet so many disagreements on how its rules should be applied. I remember being fascinated (I am also an absolute nerd) that conservatives TENDED to interpret the constitution very literally, while liberals TENDED to see the constitution as a foundation upon which to build and develop. Now, I am not a US Constitutional expert and these are my 15-year-old, sweepingly generalized memories – HOWEVER I learned a valuable lesson about how rules and regulations could be interpreted. This lesson was that regulations—no matter what they are for—are either seen as an outlined plan for action from which you do not deviate or a defined minimum upon which to develop.
Fast-forward 13 years. I am now working as the Strategic Lead of the Unsupported Temporary Accommodation Unit – the innovation and systems change arm of Justlife. Our role sits somewhere between homelessness and housing as we work with the hidden homeless close to the streets living in private, short-stay and insecure accommodation. This is a dark and hidden part of the private sector rental market in which residents feel dumped, ignored, out of control and with no hope for the future. In addition – landlords feel demonised, forgotten and taken advantage of. We’ve been working in this area, supporting residents, since 2008, however, in recent years we have started to think about how we can raise awareness of this hidden problem and create systemic change that makes a difference for residents, landlords and all other stakeholders affected. This shift in approach has led us into new conversations across the country about unsupported temporary accommodation that have challenged our understanding of the system and the stakeholders involved. For example, we have learned that the majority of properties used as unsupported temporary accommodation are licensed as houses of multiple occupation and therefore require licenses from local authority Environmental Health Offices. We discovered some receive contracts from the local authority and therefore are required to follow additional rules to legal minimum standards. We have discovered that fire safety rules may include the need for fire doors but not specifically fire extinguishers. We have discovered that variety across the country in terms of how this accommodation is defined and what is considered ‘suitable’ makes understanding rules & regulations around unsupported temporary accommodation difficult to grasp and quantify. This is further complicated by the variety of definitions in each local area depending on which stakeholder you are speaking too. In Manchester, ‘Bed & Breakfast’ means something slightly different to Environmental Health than it does to Housing Benefit and than it does to planning departments. With all this complexity – no wonder the realities of unsupported temporary accommodation remain hidden and that opinions about what we can do to make a difference are diverse.
Over the past few months, I’ve started to notice a common theme across this complexity and diversity that has reminded me of my US History lesson 13 years ago. The way in which rules and regulations are interpreted have a huge influence on what kind of change you might be able to make in regards to unsupported temporary accommodation. I first started realising this after I had the opportunity to meet the leader of a local authority to speak about the work of Justlife. I was still a frontline worker at the time and had been supporting a client through an appeal of his employment and support allowance (ESA). I was struck by the fact that one of the barriers to this was that he always saw a different doctor to get his sick note, meaning no one quite knew him well enough or his health issues well enough to write a convincing support letter for the appeal. It dawned on me, that a simple 30 second message from a doctor or receptionist when individuals are leaving appointments or making a new one to say ‘It might be useful to think about regularly seeing the same doctor because it could help you in the future’ had the potential to make a big difference for those regularly attending surgeries for sick notes. I mentioned this to the leader in our meeting, and he resolutely said this is not possible because it is not in either a doctor’s or receptionist’s job description. A job description is not a rule or regulation – but the same theory about interpretation applies. The job description is the action plan outline from which to NOT deviate, rather than the minimum expectation that an individual can continuously build on.
We continued to encounter this issue of interpretation when speaking to various Environmental Health Offices across the country. Some saw licensing as a useful tool that they could creatively use to ensure unsupported temporary accommodation was run well and to a sufficient standard. Others felt that licensing didn’t go far enough, they needed more enforcement powers. When delving deeper into the conversation with these offices – it was this issue of interpretation that was driving the difference in understanding about licensing. Some felt it was a tool that could be built on creatively—and were actively using it as such—while others felt that as they followed the basic rules set out, that there was not enough enforcement power within licensing to regulate unsupported temporary accommodation properly. Being creative was simply not possible, because the legislation did not say ‘be creative.’ Just like we cannot ask doctors or receptionists to mention to patients it may be useful to see the same doctor, because it’s not written in their job description.
The issue of interpretation of existing rules or simply interpretation of ‘the way things are,’ can sometimes be the barrier to making change. The system may already be set up to work, but we are choosing to interpret the system in a way that makes it seem broken. I’m not saying that more enforcement power for local authorities in regards to substandard accommodation is not needed – simply that maybe we need to think more creatively about what we can do differently now with what we already have. The other common theme we’ve learned throughout our conversations is that the areas where we are seeing change are the areas that are choosing interpret beyond the minimum and choosing to do things differently. The areas where environmental health are being creative are seeing vast improvements in individuals experience of unsupported temporary accommodation. However, it’s not just within environmental health and licensing that interpretation of roles, rules or regulations can make a difference. One landlord recently told me the only thing they were doing differently was being kind and compassionate, but that it had made a huge difference on a variety of levels. Heaven forbid we ever have to regulate kindness and compassion. Surely we can simply add that to our creative toolkit as we look at changes we can make now with what already exists in the system. If you ask me, interpretation matters.