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Can a UK definition of homelessness be achieved?

What exactly is harmonisation?

Does it have anything to do with music?

Who are the Harmonisation team and what work have they been undertaking to support cross-GSS work on homelessness? Internal Communications at Office for National Statistics recently spoke to Daisie Hutchinson, a social researcher within the Harmonisation Team in the Best Practice and Impact division, to find all we need to know about harmonising definitions of homelessness.

What is harmonisation? Anything to do with music?

It has nothing to do with music! But we do love a bit of karaoke!

Harmonisation is about making statistics more comparable, consistent and coherent. Ultimately, our team is here to help the Government Statistical Service to achieve this. To read more about our team and how we can help, please see Sean’s blog.

What have you been working on recently?

One strand of work I have been involved in is to improve users’ understanding of the how the various homelessness statistics produced across the UK compare with each other.

Homelessness is a devolved matter in the UK so homelessness statistics are produced by each UK country separately.  There are two main concepts of homelessness which are collected in each UK country and published as official statistics these are ‘statutory homelessness’ and ‘rough sleeping’. However, due to devolution, legislation and administrative data collection, systems are different in each country and information about how this affects the comparability of the statistics is generally limited.

To help users get a better understanding of the comparability of homelessness statistics, we have produced a report which describes the different definitions of homelessness in use across the UK and assesses what can be done to improve the clarity, comparability and transparency of homelessness statistics.

Can a UK harmonised definition of homelessness be created?

Our research has shown that although a general definition for homelessness could be created, it would be very challenging to develop a harmonised definition that all government departments and devolved administrations could incorporate into their statistics. All four countries collect information on rough sleepers, homeless households and temporary accommodation, but differences in data collection methods and in devolved legislation means there are significant barriers to creating a single definition for homelessness.

What can be done to improve users understanding of the comparability of homelessness statistics?

Although developing a harmonised definition for homelessness is not possible right now, we have recommended some initial improvements to help users in understanding the comparability of statistics on homelessness across the UK:

  1. Develop guidance on the processes and definitions of homelessness used in each country’s statistical publications, which is consistent across publications.
  2. Develop a conceptual framework for homelessness which will visually display the UK picture of homelessness and how each country and administrative system interacts.
  3. We encourage statistics producers to analyse the challenges of harmonisation further and work towards providing a UK picture of homelessness.

So far, we have received some great feedback from stakeholders and are grateful to the many users and producers of homelessness statistics who contributed to the report; this work would not have been possible without their valuable input. The Centre for Homelessness Impact blogged about the report, reflecting on the importance of harmonisation and welcoming the commitment to improving users’ understanding of the comparability of homelessness statistics.

Our work in this area continues, and a recent blog details what will be next for ourselves and other teams working on housing and homelessness statistics.

How can other business areas work with you?

Homelessness is just one of many topics we are currently working on. Our team focuses on ensuring that where possible, statistics are comparable across the whole of the GSS; it is therefore important for other business areas to be aware of our harmonised principles.  Please do get in touch to find out more as some of the principles are being reviewed and under development. We offer a consultancy service to help implement our harmonised principles and offer guidance and support.

Our division also offers a range of training courses and workshops covering the production, dissemination and use of official statistics that you may be interested in. A full list of these are available on the GSS website.

To get in touch with the harmonisation team or the wider Best Practice and Impact division, please email

Daisie Hutchinson
Social researcher within the GSS Harmonisation Team in the Best Practice and Impact division at ONS.