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Is Risk of Violence to Housing Officers on the Increase due to Welfare Reforms?

Housing Associations across the UK are reviewing their Lone Working policies after an Officer and Bailiff were shot when attempting to evict a tenant in Brixton.

A 50 year old man has been charged with three counts of attempted murder following the shooting which hospitalised a 59 year-old man and 59 year-old woman.

The Income Officer, who works for Metropolitan Housing Partnership is now ‘recovering well’ and hopes to return to work in the near future. The incident, which took place on July 3rd, is one of the more harrowing stories of violence and aggression that Housing Officers face on a daily basis.

A report conducted by Inside Housing into assaults on housing workers found that within a period of 14 months (January 2012 – March 2013), 4,876 incidents had taken place. That’s an average of 11 per day – a shocking statistic which highlights the very real and dangerous threats faced by lone working staff.

Since the Brixton shooting, Metropolitan Housing has organised additional personal safety training sessions to refresh frontline staff in how to react and respond in critical or life-threatening scenarios. Other high-profile Housing Associations are also reviewing their lone working policies, including the addition of conflict resolution training, more robust risk assessments and the widespread issuing of personal safety alarms. A spokesperson for one 49,000-home strong association said the incident underlined the importance of ‘robust processes that can help mitigate the risk to officers’.

Morale

So, what is the effect on frontline staff who continually suffer from verbal and physical attacks? Well, the Inside Housing report found that 83% of those surveyed strongly believe that the Government’s welfare reforms could increase the risk of assault. 40% now feel more at risk than they did a year ago. Figures such as this show an obvious strain on staff confidence and morale.

Stories of Housing worker attacks appear on a weekly basis. Take for instance the seemingly innocuous visit to a tenant to discuss their overgrown boundary hedge after a neighbour’s complaint to the Association. The Housing Officer arranged a visit to explain that the hedges were the occupier’s responsibility. It was at this point that the tenant became verbally abusive and began punching the Officer in the face.

On an attempt to escape, the tenant physically restrained the Officer and relentlessly continued his appalling assault. The Officer finally freed himself and fled the scene. Whilst the tenant was charged and convicted of assault, the physical and mental trauma faced by the Officer, who was just doing his duty, will be felt for years.

Other incidents have been potentially fatal. A Housing Officer working in the east of England explains how they were ‘shot at with an airgun’, and had a bowling ball thrown at them ‘off a high-rise block of flats’.

This isn’t an isolated case. Within the first three months of this year alone, there have been a total of 1,064 reported assaults, 920 of which were verbal and 123 physical assaults.

Welfare Reforms

Many Housing Officers put the increase in violence and aggression down to housing reforms. In the past year, bedroom tax has come into force, council tax benefit has been abolished and the total benefits cap was introduced in four local authority areas.

As the government’s welfare reforms begin to kick in, housing professionals are reporting that their relationships with some tenants are growing increasingly hostile, as tenants, already at crisis point are being put under even more financial stress with the reforms meaning real cuts in benefits.

Residents are unhappy with the changes [introduced through welfare reform], as we have to discuss rent arrears with them, they take their frustrations out on us,’ explains one housing officer. ‘They do not understand they are imposed by the government and not the local authority.’

Front line workers are already able to give accounts of incidents that have occurred as a direct result of their employers having to collect rent from tenants due to the under-occupation penalty, which came into force on 1 April.

One housing officer from Wales recalls how they have been verbally assaulted ‘numerous times’ by tenants ‘wanting to vent their frustration over the unfairness of the bedroom tax’.

‘As a lone worker, I have to go out on my patch to recover unpaid bedroom tax. As I am the person in front of them, the frustration and anger over the tax is directed at me,’ says a housing officer based in Yorkshire and Humber.

So, what can be done?

As already stated above, some Housing Associations are reacting to recent events by tightening up their lone worker policies. It’s imperative that robust measures are put in place to protect their Officers as part of the employers’ Duty of Care. Skyguard has seen a dramatic increase in Housing Associations issuing personal safety devices, such as the MySOS, to their home visiting staff. By offering them a ‘lifeline’ of support when facing a difficult situation on their own, it’s proven to increase morale and confidence, knowing someone will be on call to help at the single press of a button.

All of Skyguard’s devices have the ability to record all calls and actions. They’re digitally recorded on secure servers within our IMC, should they be needed as legal evidence. Skyguard’s audio recordings have led to numerous successful prosecutions.

Skyguard now provides their 24/7 personal safety service to over 50 separate Housing Associations in the UK and thousands of Officers. If you’d like to know more about the MySOS, click here.