Ashley Horsey guest blogging for No Offence!

Ashley Horsey - Commonweal HousingNo Offence! has published a guest blog by Ashley Horsey, CEO of Commonweal Housing on 9th November 2012.

No Offence! is an award winning Community Interest Company, supported by a Management Team, Advisory Board, Ambassadors, Patron and Volunteers. Together with a growing number of members, they bring together the largest group of criminal justice expertise all in one place to ‘make a difference’.

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Commonweal Housing tackles the nonsensical policies that part mothers from their children, young people from their beds and leave those who have been wrongly imprisoned abandoned because of their innocence.

Nonsense. From time to time, we are all confronted by it. Sometimes it makes us smile. Sometimes it’s frustrating. But when one encounters nonsense in areas of social need or social injustice, it’s a serious matter, and the absurdity of the situation is quickly followed by an overwhelming drive to bring about change.

Like the nonsense of homeless mothers coming out of prison. Mothers who are told that, because they don’t have adequate family housing available to them, they cannot have care and custody of their children. But because they don’t have care and custody of their children, they are faced with housing benefit and housing allocation systems that tell them they are not eligible for family housing. All this at a time when evidence suggests that having family responsibility is a key driver for women to avoid re-offending. Our Re-Unite project has developed a replicable model for cutting through this Gordian Knot.

Or how about the absurdity that prevents women exiting prostitution from accessing transitional housing as they move on from supported hostel accommodation. The cliff edge uncertainty faced by many women who are then unable to sustain the fantastic personal progress they may have made. Our Chrysalis project developed with St. Mungo’s identifies a successful pathway out of this problem. The two-year evaluation is out later this year.

Or what about young people and former rough sleepers for whom a social housing flat of their own is a long distant memory (if indeed it ever was a reality). Government policy is forcing people into shared housing in the private rented sector – whilst the supported housing system too often fails to provide the experience and skills for making such shared living succeed. Our latest Peer Landlord initiative being developed jointly with Thames Reach and Catch 22 seeks to address this.

And then there’s a problem that has really got under our skin – miscarriages of justice. Social injustice doesn’t get much bigger than a State locking you up and taking away your freedom when they should not have done. But the absurdity doesn’t stop there. For Commonweal, the focus is not the failings of the criminal justice system – shocking as these may be. There are many far better placed organisations that can and do campaign about that. Rather for us, the glaring social injustice is that which is heaped on those victims of a miscarriage of justice after the state has acknowledged its error and ejected people out of the criminal justice system.

We all know, and the State accepts, that anyone who has been in prison for a protracted period needs resettlement help, accommodation advice and support. They can be institutionalised and may well be different people from those that first went inside. So probation and resettlement services exist to help deal with these issues.

But here’s the absurdity: if you have suffered a miscarriage of justice and are released at short notice upon the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice, then none of this transitional support is there for you… Of course not, you are innocent! Probation and the prison service are there for those who are guilty – so you do not qualify!

It was at this point that Commonweal’s interest was pricked and our sense of injustice was fired. Taking away someone’s freedom and liberty is not good but then denying someone the planned and programmed support to help them rebuild their lives is a social injustice of a different magnitude; and one that can, in our opinion be more readily addressed.

Commonweal is developing a new project working with the Citizens Advise Bureau Miscarriages of Justice Support Service based at the Royal Courts of Justice, the only state-funded support service aimed specifically at helping this client group. We hope to show the benefits of stable housing and a planned support pathway for this group can ease the journey to ‘recovery’; can reduce the downward spiral often experienced which can lead to traumatic outcomes for individuals, their families and society; and can reduce the level or extent and therefore the cost of mainstream health services (mental and physical) that are required.

The trauma of imprisonment; the institutionalisation; the isolation – these are all known outcomes from time in jail. Compound this with a sense of both outrage and helplessness when you know imprisonment to be wrong; add in to this unfortunate litany the lack of support or mainstream training opportunities for those in the prison system who refuse to comply and ‘acknowledge guilt’.

When talking with a group of people who have all experienced miscarriages of justice – some high profile others less so – the common themes expressed to me were, “You don’t even get an apology”; “We’re seen as an embarrassment”; “They want to sweep us under the carpet”.

It is hard not to agree that the State has got something wrong here and rather than making amends and seeking to reduce any further injustice or trauma appears to turn its back on the wider and ongoing difficulties it has created in the first place.

That of course is not completely true, and in an attempt at balance, it is acknowledged that compensation may be available for some. However, this can take five or six years to come through; the criteria and sums have been restricted over the years; and, if it does come through, the state will deduct board and lodging costs for your time spent at Her Majesty’s pleasure!

If the State recognises hardship as claimants try and navigate the latest compensation claim procedures then transitional payments may be made …for which the State charges 8% interest! 8% interest!

For Commonweal these additional slaps in the face for those who have experienced a miscarriage of justice are symptomatic of the nature of the social injustice faced by these individuals. However it is not our place to lobby or campaign for these aspects to be changed – we will focus on what we can do directly. What we can do to test new housing and support pathways; to build up an evidence base of what works to reduce ‘recovery’ time; to ease the transition and entry to mainstream health and support services that is disrupted when housing is unstable or uncertain. And that is exactly what we hope to do, working with the specialist CAB Miscarriage of justice Support Service and other experts; commissioning independent external evaluation and testing what works and what doesn’t. That is at the heart of what Commonweal does; to try and find solutions (or at least work out what doesn’t work) to some of the nonsense and absurdities we all come across from time to time.

However if having raised the issue of board and lodging deductions from compensation, the 5 year average wait and 8% interest rates charged by Government others think this is wrong and lobby accordingly …… well we won’t be too upset.

Ashley Horsey is Chief Executive of Commonweal Housing a specialist action research charity seeking housing solutions to social injustice. 

Registered Charity Number: 1113331. © Commonweal Housing Limited.