Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Claire Perry.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am grateful for the opportunity to hold a debate on a matter that is a growing concern in my constituency and that now accounts for an increasing proportion of my constituency case load. As Members look ahead to the Christmas break, this debate is a stark reminder that for a growing number of people in our country Christmas and the new year will not be a time to enjoy celebrations with their family and friends in the comfort and security of their own home.
I was going to set the debate in context by looking at some figures, which are obviously worrying and stark, but behind every homeless statistic is a story, so I thought that I would instead start with the story of one of my constituents, whom I met at my advice surgery only a couple of weeks ago. She did not want me to give her name or anything that might give her away, which I will respect, but she came to my surgery with her two daughters, one of whom is 15 years old and the other is five or six years old. Some months ago, she had left an abusive relationship with a partner who was prone to fits of rage and had been occasionally violent. She eventually found enough courage to decide to leave that relationship, but her journey into homelessness then began. She and her daughters unfortunately found themselves in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which was not fit for purpose, for much longer than the six-week limit. The media often talk of councils spending money on Premier Inns and hotels, but the bed and breakfast that this woman and her two daughters were in was frankly disgusting. It was mice-infested. There was grime everywhere. I was struck by the fact that her two daughters’ only request was for somewhere clean to live.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this debate. More and more people are now using food banks and does she agree that people are being driven to use them because of the bedroom tax and the rise in the cost of living? Previously, food banks were set up essentially for asylum seekers waiting for benefits, but ordinary members of the public, particularly in Coventry, are now becoming refugees from this Government and their policies.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I will come on to the issue that he raises later in my speech.
My constituent and her two daughters were eventually moved from the awful bed-and-breakfast accommodation temporarily into a small, one-bedroom flat, which again unfortunately happens to be in a state of disrepair. The heating is not working properly and there was an issue with the water supply in the first few days. Again, it is not a particularly clean environment, and she of course does not have the means to do it up and make it a comfortable, warm, secure place for her daughters. She is still waiting to be placed in what she hopes will be permanent accommodation and a decent home for herself and her daughters.
As she was talking to me, she expressed how utterly terrified she was when looking ahead to Christmas and how the lack of security she felt from the lack of a permanent roof over her and her daughters’ heads was a ball of tension sitting in the pit of her stomach that affected her from morning until night. Every minute of every hour of every day, that is all she could think about. She feels that she has let her daughters down and that she might have been better off had she not left her former partner, because the temporary terror of the occasional rage was better in her view than the permanent terror that she now lives in.
I was moved by her story. The last thing that she said to me was that she and her daughters were alive, but they were not really living. That was a really powerful example of how just having a roof over one’s head can be the difference between being alive and actually living. It would mean her having a decent quality of life and a decent future that she could look forward to with her daughters. Despite my best efforts to help her, the lack of housing in the city and the waiting list are real problems, meaning that there is a limit on what I can do to assist her and her daughters.
Although that case was tragic, moving and upsetting for me to hear, it is not unique. In 2012-13, nearly 6,500 households approached Birmingham city council due to homelessness, which is an increase of 30% over three years. Some 4,000 were accepted as statutorily homeless, which is an increase of 17% over three years.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that this is a problem not only for our big cities? In North Shields in my constituency, Nite Bite, a once-a-week food provision for homeless people, has been running for several years. That just shows the extent of the problem.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the problem is national. I am an MP for the country’s second city—despite what my Mancunian colleagues might think—which has the largest local authority in Europe, so the pressures in Birmingham are stark, but homelessness presents itself across the country in different ways.
My hon. Friend is already making a powerful case. Does she share my concern that local authorities, in particular those facing the highest levels of need—I am sure that Birmingham is similar to Nottingham in that regard—are actually facing disproportionate Government cuts? Homelessness prevention services and other discretionary services are increasingly being cut to meet those demands. Is she as worried as me that that will actually lead to an increase in those seeking help with homelessness?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to some of the issues she raises later in my speech and I will use the example of SIFA Fireside, a charity in my constituency, to illustrate the pressures that homelessness services are under. Where are people supposed to go when services are being cut? I hope that the Minister may be able to provide some guidance on what I can say to my constituents when they ask me, because I simply do not have any answers for them.
In 2012-13, 922 households in Birmingham were in temporary accommodation, which is up 32% on the previous year, and 115 of them were in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Just like my constituent, households have often found themselves in bed-and-breakfast accommodation that is not fit for purpose. When I was first elected in 2010, the majority of homelessness-related cases that came to me involved people who could be described as vulnerable, such as women escaping domestic violence, people with mental health problems and people with drug or drink issues. I had several cases of people who had left the care system without adequate support and had found themselves homeless. There were also people who had come out of prison and who may have been in and out of prison over many years. A chunk of my casework involved people with unregularised status in this country, such as the people living in a twilight world while waiting for a decision on their asylum case from the UK Border Agency, as was, or the Home Office. Such people had no recourse to public funds and were homeless as a result.
Now, however, although those groups remain well represented in my homelessness case load, I am seeing an increase in the number of people—families, in particular—who have been made homeless as a result of their private sector tenancy coming to an end and their being unable to find or afford anywhere else to live. Some months ago, for example, I met a couple who had a business a few years ago, but it had run into trouble as a result of the recession. They had lost it and could not keep up the payments on their home, so they lost their home as well. They managed to get other jobs, earning much less than before, but a job is a job. They are working hard and were renting in the private rented sector, but the rent went up and they could not afford the increase, so they found themselves homeless. They were struggling to find anywhere else to live that they could afford on their budget.
I am seeing many more cases of that nature. The end of a private sector tenancy now accounts for 22% of all homelessness acceptances nationally, a rate that I fear is likely to increase further and, in my constituency, the biggest rate of increase that I am seeing in my own case load. The two main, connected reasons are that the cost of renting is going up—since 2010, it has increased by more than twice as much as wages—and house building is at its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s. The failure to deal with housing supply is not only causing a huge strain now, but storing deep problems for us as a society for the future.
To go back to the case of my constituent, let us think about the effect on her two daughters. Even when I met them in my surgery, they were quite down and displaying a nervous disposition; their mum told me how their performance at school had dipped; and they were upset. As I mentioned earlier, I was struck by how their only ask was somewhere clean to live. The pressure on families and young people, children in particular, from always being desperate to move and never being able to put down roots causes those young people lasting harm, which will present itself in different ways in the future, whether in educational outcomes or in their level of confidence. Those are deep problems.
Homelessness is an isolating and deskilling experience for the people affected. It affects their health and well-being in a significant and often lasting and damaging way. It affects the educational outcomes of the children who find themselves homeless alongside their families. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, the organisations that are there to help when people find themselves homeless are also under acute pressure.
If we look at Birmingham city council first and foremost, it is facing some of the largest cuts in local government history. Over the next few months, the council will have to make difficult choices that will permanently change the social fabric of the wonderful city of Birmingham. There are a number of pressures, but housing supply is key, and the waiting list for people who want to transfer to other council housing is large.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that sufficient social housing is not being built, which puts pressure on private landlords to put up rents, because of the laws of supply and demand? Is it not time that the Government got some sort of social housing programme under way?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and I absolutely agree. The lack of housing supply is the key problem, including in Birmingham. We are simply not building enough homes of all descriptions, and social and affordable housing has certainly not kept pace with demand.
That major issue has been compounded by the introduction and imposition of the bedroom tax. In Birmingham, a little more than 5,000 city council tenants are affected. As of yesterday, a little more than 2,000 or so of them were in arrears as a result of the bedroom tax, while the city had only five bedsits and 54 one-bedroom flats available for some of them to move into—that is not only from the city register, but includes the properties available from the registered providers as well.
Those numbers speak for themselves. The question that I have, which I cannot answer—perhaps the Minister can—is about where those people affected are supposed to downsize to once the five bedsits, the 54 one-bed flats and the tiny number of other suitable properties have gone. How will Birmingham as a city cope if the 2,000 or so in rent arrears as a result of the bedroom tax find themselves homeless? The city simply does not have the resources to meet that level of need or the surge in demand that will come as a result of those people being homeless.
I want to make one point—one genuinely non-partisan point. Given the problem that the hon. Lady is talking about—the lack of housing in her constituency—is it not the case that there is some logic to the end of the spare room subsidy, so as to enable families that are homeless or in hopelessly overcrowded conditions to be able to move into accommodation that meets their needs? Obviously, it is an issue for those who have spare bedrooms—whether one, two, three or in some cases four—but can she see that there is logic in enabling those people who are homeless, with many children and nowhere to go, to move into those flats, or does she not accept that at all?
The hon. Lady’s starting point would be logical were there somewhere for those people to move into. The reason why I cited the Birmingham figures of five bedsits and 54 one-bed flats is that, as of yesterday, that is what is available in my city—the second largest city in this country and the largest local authority in Europe—for waiting lists that number in the many tens of thousands. The problem is stark. Were there many hundreds or thousands of properties for people to downsize into, allowing homeless larger families to move into the larger properties, her position would be logical. I am afraid, however, that that is simply not the case in the area that I represent or in many instances up and down the country.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again. When she says that 54 one-bed flats are available, does she meant that 54 are empty? With how many is a home swap possible, so that those who are homeless with multiple children could swap into homes with the space that they need? People in homes that are too big for them could swap with people who are hopelessly overcrowded. If people buy or sell in the private sector, they do not only move into empty homes, but buy from others who want to downsize or upsize.
The ability of people to swap depends on appropriate accommodation for the people who want to downsize or upsize to go into, and my point is that housing supply throughout my city is simply not enough for all kinds of homes. I spoke about the lack of affordable and social housing, but there is also a lack of housing for people to buy privately—not enough is being built anywhere in the city. The numbers simply have not kept up with demand. Swapping and other such solutions therefore will not deal with the large numbers presenting themselves in Birmingham. I am afraid that unless we could build thousands of homes overnight, my city will not be able to cope with the issues that it is facing, some but not all of which result in homelessness.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that the Government’s own impact assessment assumes that 90% of the people hit by the bedroom tax will simply not move? As to the cost projections, the fact is that people will not have the smaller homes to move into, as she is suggesting.
My hon. Friend the shadow Minister is absolutely right to cite the Government’s own impact assessment. If people who are moving are forced into the private rented sector and their rents go up, that puts extra pressure on the housing benefit budget as well. I have not focused on welfare and benefits in my speech, but that is an additional pressure and an additional cost for the state, as it meets the increased demand and as rent in the private rented sector goes up.
Organisations under pressure include not only Birmingham city council, but many that provide support to the homeless. I have mentioned SIFA Fireside, a charity based in my constituency that works with the homeless. Its representatives visited me and my hon. Friend the shadow Minister in Parliament a couple of weeks ago. They brought a group of homeless people from across Birmingham and the west Midlands, so that they could speak to parliamentarians about the problems they face. It provides practical support to homeless people, including daily drop-in sessions, a resettlement service, a specialist alcohol support service and an employment and training programme.
In 2012-13, SIFA Fireside provided just over 35,000 meals, 500 food parcels and 3,700 showers. We are talking about real basics: food, somewhere to have a wash and somebody to help people make some phone calls to try to get their lives back on track—the charity made just over 4,000 phone calls on behalf of people who are homeless to help them sort out somewhere else to move on to and ultimately, they hope, somewhere permanent to live. But rising prices are causing a cost of living crisis for families up and down the country, and neither businesses nor charities are exempt from that problem. Rising costs have forced SIFA Fireside to cut by half the number of meals it will provide in the coming year, because it can now afford to put on only one meal a day for homeless people.
SIFA Fireside provides a vital lifeline for Birmingham’s homeless people, especially over the winter months, but is facing real challenges just to stay open. Although I am sure that all Members are grateful for the safety net that charities such as SIFA Fireside are providing in constituencies across the country, we cannot take that for granted: charities are under significant pressure and the availability of their services will be significantly curtailed—certainly, that is what I am seeing in my constituency.
Several systemic problems cause homelessness. The primary one is the issue we face with house building, and the fact that housing supply has simply not kept up with demand. Also, the private rented sector is not fit for families, as it does not give people the security they need or predictable rent rises that would allow people to plan their household budgets. Finally, the bedroom tax is causing acute concern. We need to look at those issues in order to deal with the problem of homelessness. Doing so will not fix the problem entirely, as people find themselves homeless for many reasons, but I believe that for the 80,000 or so children whom we expect to be homeless—that is according to the official figures, and I think the real figure is probably higher—dealing with the problems with both house building and the private rented sector and scrapping the bedroom tax would be pretty good places to start.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on securing this important debate.
As the nights draw in and the winter chill becomes more apparent, the thoughts of many Londoners—I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that this is the first city of the United Kingdom—turn to the homeless people who, each night, lay down their blankets and boxes in dark corners of this great city of ours. Their presence makes all of us ask questions about where we as a society are falling short. I am afraid that to many of us who live in and represent central London, it seems that the number of homeless people and rough sleepers is increasing very quickly.
I live, with my wife and two children, a stone’s throw from Westminster cathedral, and from The Passage, a charity sponsored predominantly by the Roman Catholic Church that has provided succour for the less fortunate for a century and a half. One need only look around the streets literally a few hundred yards from this Chamber and witness the many people, young men in particular, sleeping rough in Westminster station to understand that the situation has become markedly worse in recent months. Constituents from all over my constituency worry about the people they find each morning in their doorways.
All of us know that local authorities have a statutory obligation to undertake regular counts of people sleeping on their streets. Figures from Westminster city council indicate that the number of rough sleepers has increased sharply: a total of some 2,440 people were recorded bedding down as rough sleepers in 2012-13. Although that was a slight reduction on the figure for the previous year, the number in 2009-10 was only 1,693, so there has been an increase of over 40% in the past three years. Meanwhile, in the other part of my constituency, the City of London, the most recent figures available, for the period from 1 September to 31 October, indicate a marked increase of 39% in the number of rough sleepers when compared with the same period last year.
To understand how to respond, we must first grasp why people sleep rough. To be honest, for as long as big cities—particularly ones such as London—have existed, people have slept on the streets. There are myriad reasons why, but over the past few years, and certainly in the time that I have represented my central London seat, we have tended to see two quite distinct categories of rough sleepers, with very different stories to tell.
The number of so-called traditional rough sleepers in Westminster has remained relatively static. They tend to be people with an addiction problem—some 52% of the homeless take drugs, and 20% drink alcohol at harmful levels—people who have been affected by family breakdown, or, of course, people with mental health difficulties: nearly half of the people on our streets have long-term mental health needs. Colleagues will recall the “Street Stories” exhibition that I sponsored in this House only a few years ago, for the homeless charity St Mungo’s, which aimed to educate parliamentarians about why that very diverse group turned to the streets.
That group of rough sleepers is well known to outreach groups. Local authorities and established charities patiently conduct long-term and meaningful work to rehabilitate such people into mainstream society. Homelessness services provide support to over 40,000 homeless people a year, delivering cost savings to public service budgets, and better outcomes for the most vulnerable. It has been estimated that a single rough sleeper on the streets of London costs some £35,000 a year in crime, emergency health and social services alone.
Obviously, the Churches and charities that the hon. Gentleman referred to are major contributors to helping homeless people, but the Salvation Army and the Simon Community also do tremendous work with homeless people. I want to underline the importance of that work.
A huge amount of charitable work is done by voluntary groups, many of which have grown out of nothing in recent years. We should welcome that.
As the Minister knows, the Mayor of London has a programme that aims to ensure that no person spends more than one night sleeping rough on the streets of London. That is now the case for eight out of 10 rough sleepers, but of course, logically, that means that for one in five rough sleepers, the promise of only one night on the streets is not being kept. I support the broad thrust of the changes that have been made to housing benefit entitlement, and have done so repeatedly, both in TV studios and in this House, but both the Mayor and I continue to make the case to the Government that those changes will continue to have a disproportionate impact on central London, where rents, to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, has referred, are at their highest. I have expressed those concerns to the ministerial team in Parliament. It is also deeply concerning that although rough sleeping continues to rise, there is a reduction in the amount of available support. Hostel bed spaces are being reduced at a concerning rate, and are at their lowest number since 2008.
There is a second group of homeless people, namely foreign nationals, many of whom have no recourse to public funds and therefore require an alternative policy response. In the midst of the changes that will go through Parliament over the next 24 hours and that will impact on Romanians and Bulgarians—all of us agree with those changes—we should remember that those who do come here could be an even bigger strain on public services in the first few months of 2014.
People from central European countries now make up 32% of all rough sleepers in Westminster. That is no surprise: following the enlargements of the European Union in 2004 and 2008, Westminster experienced a sudden influx of new arrivals from eastern Europe, often via Victoria coach station. In advance of the enlargements, both Westminster city council and I warned repeatedly of the increased dangers of jobless and unqualified nationals from the new EU accession countries ending up sleeping rough, but the previous Government failed to put into place proper plans to deal with the sudden influx. I am afraid that the situation has not improved in the three and a half years since the coalition came into office.
Those nationals were particularly at risk of homelessness, as the law prevented them from accessing benefits provided by local authorities to residents, as well as state benefits such as income support, shelter and drug treatment services. Many new arrivals had a firm idea of where they would live and work, and I emphasise that many are making a fantastic contribution to our economy, but for others, the likelihood of them descending rapidly into street life was exacerbated because they had no other means of support. Westminster city council has done a lot of work to help those individuals, sometimes by trying to reconnect them with their families back home, assisting with repatriation, providing language services, and so on.
The issue of rough sleepers from central and eastern Europe has taken on a new dimension in recent months. I have repeatedly warned that my constituency may prove to be the canary in the mine on many of these issues. Many of us have seen at first hand the Roma Gypsy encampments that sprung up around Marble Arch during last year’s Olympics. Some of the people living in those encampments were part of an organised begging operation deliberately targeting the lucrative west end tourist market.
I receive weekly reports from exasperated constituents who find spontaneous bedrooms in their doorways and litter and excrement in garden squares, and who are harassed daily by aggressive beggars. One St James’s resident reports rubbish bags being ripped open almost nightly, covering the pavement with litter. The problem is real and must be dealt with. It must be put into the public domain as thoughtfully as possible, not least at this time of year, and it must be recognised that the significant number of people who come to this country make a positive contribution, but the minority is getting ever bigger and may end up causing major social issues.
I have so much more to say, but I respect the fact that other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. I would like to make one more point before finishing. I appreciate that the Government are doing a lot of work behind the scenes. They have launched a £1.7 million gold standard support and training scheme to help local authorities to tackle homelessness. The concern of all of us is not that the will is lacking, but the lack of resources. We have no idea of the numbers, and the extent to which the problem is likely to be exacerbated in the months ahead. I am interested to hear what the Minister says today, but more importantly, he should keep a watching brief on the issue in the early weeks and months of 2014, because urgent remedial action may be required, not just here in central London, but in many parts of the country.
It is a pleasure, Mr Chope, to serve under your chairmanship. For clarity, I will refer to homelessness, but I mean homelessness and rough sleeping.
Since my election, I have had the privilege of shadowing one of St Mungo’s homelessness teams in Westminster, and have spent time with some Rotherham charities and social enterprises that support rough sleepers. I would like to discuss the link between homelessness and health care, because I have seen that it is at the root of many people’s homelessness. Poor health is not only a consequence of homelessness; it is often its cause.
A report by the Department of Health suggests that as many as two thirds of homeless people have a serious chronic health problem before they become homeless. Many of the people St Mungo’s works with have complex physical and mental health needs. Their latest client need survey showed that 64% have physical health conditions, 70% have mental health conditions and 64% have issues with drugs and alcohol.
I completely agree with the points that the hon. Lady raises, and will speak about them, a little, later.
We know that homeless people use four times as many acute health services and eight times as many in-patient health services as the general population, at a cost of around £85.6 million a year. However, despite that, homeless people often find it difficult to access health services that can provide suitable treatment, because their complex needs may make them ineligible for traditional health and social care support. Some report facing discrimination when they do seek support.
Common health conditions for homeless people include mental health issues, foot conditions, dental problems, infections, sexual health issues and tuberculosis. One in 10 people diagnosed with TB has a history of homelessness. Lack of suitable washing facilities can aggravate those problems and increase the spread of infection. Not surprisingly, people sleeping rough often find that the cold and damp exacerbate their health problems and cause the onset of respiratory illness. Some rough sleepers even wake up covered in frost.
The links between homelessness and health are cyclical. Although many homeless people are struggling to access health care, more must be done at an early stage to encourage people at risk of homelessness to access public services. Mental health issues particularly are one of the key triggers that lead to homelessness. Up to 70% of homeless people suffer mental health issues and 14% suffer a personality disorder. In London, almost one fifth of rough sleepers have mental health needs combined with substance abuse. Perhaps the most depressing news of all is that rough sleepers are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
I am extremely fearful that in Rotherham, the problem will be dramatically compounded, because our excellent NHS mental health foundation trust—Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust, or RDaSH—is facing a £7 million budget cut next year. Unfortunately, I believe it is inevitable that this funding crisis will lead to people not receiving the support they need, and consequently to increasing rough sleeping on our streets. Is it not time for the Government to tackle these problems head on? Is it not time to acknowledge that we must make it easier for homeless people to access health care, not harder?
Under this Government, the sad fact is that in London alone, almost 6,500 people were seen sleeping rough between 2012 and 2013, and the number is increasing, year on year. Under this Government’s watch, rough sleeping has increased nationally by 31% in the last two years. Shockingly, the average age at which a homeless person dies is now 47.
Money directed at homelessness prevention is sent to local authorities, but is not always ring-fenced. Often, it is not used effectively to stop people becoming homeless, or to encourage preventive health interventions. Homeless people experience significant regional health inequalities, which should be recognised, measured and addressed in local needs assessments. If health and wellbeing boards are to meet their duty to reduce health inequalities effectively, they must recognise, measure and address the health needs of vulnerable and excluded members of society, and that must include homeless people.
Some local authorities are including homeless people in joint strategic needs assessments and joint health and well-being strategies, but this group of vulnerable people is often not accounted for. The needs of the local homeless population should be reflected in joint health and well-being strategies, and in the commissioning of appropriate services. The emphasis on setting a small number of priorities across the wider community may mean that the specific needs of small, marginalised groups are overlooked.
The mobility of homeless people, who may move from borough to borough, should also be considered, and a pan-borough approach should be taken to commissioning specialist services when appropriate. Local strategies should reflect the needs of the most excluded, as well as setting goals for wider public health improvement.
Commissioners and providers should be monitored to ensure that they are reducing health inequalities, including between the homeless and the general populations. When it comes to signing up with a GP, homeless people are turned away because they do not have an address. There is a shortage of specialist drug and alcohol services, particularly dual diagnosis services for people with substance addiction and mental health problems. Many homeless people with learning disabilities find it hard to live in the community and to access specialist support.
People in Rotherham tell me about the problems that homeless people have in finding accommodation when discharged from hospital. That is not just a problem in Rotherham; it is a national problem. Too many people are discharged from hospital with nowhere to go. We need integrated health and social care provision that includes homeless people. That approach could help to address health inequalities and ensure that some of the most excluded members of society have a better experience of the health and social care system. They deserve that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on securing this timely debate. We have heard about the growing extent of homelessness and the staggering number of people it affects. The problem reflects some serious structural problems in the housing sector and welfare system. We have also heard about the long-term problems that homelessness can cause. Many are profound, but are not easily quantifiable. However, they are cumulative because homelessness prevents people from finding or staying in work and has a cumulative impact on their health, sometimes provoking them to engage in criminal activity and so on.
Homelessness is part of a wider problem of social exclusion and it is obvious that the solution, especially for harder-to-reach cases, must be comprehensive. It is not just about finding a new home for someone to stay in and leaving them to get on with it. It takes an average of seven years for someone to get to the point of sleeping rough on the streets and it is unrealistic to expect that they can be turned round and brought back to independent life within a matter of months. Helping people in that situation is a long-term commitment.
A huge range of hostels and temporary accommodation schemes have been the bulwark of the response to homelessness, quite often for those who do not fit the priority needs assessments of local authorities, as well as those who do. Many are run by local charities and although they often have generous benefactors, they are reliant on public funding to stay solvent. The Government’s strategy from 2012 was accompanied by promises that funding for such organisations would be protected as much as possible, with more than £400 million being devolved to local authorities and voluntary groups. Unfortunately, that does not lead to steady investment on the ground. More than half of all homelessness services are seeing cuts in their funding, and that will become far worse when local authorities start to make cuts for 2014 onwards.
In my constituency, for example, the elected mayor is consulting on cutting £150,000 from the Leonard Stocks centre. If that goes through, it would make the whole project financially unviable and leave many dozens of vulnerable people every year with nowhere else to go. We urgently need a solution to stop local authorities cutting these services indefinitely. If the Government were to look at a ring fence or upgrading the statutory protections for homeless people, we could see a great improvement and not the impending social disaster that might occur in my constituency and in other places.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also a problem with the SWEP—the severe weather emergency protocol? At a minimum, it only requires local authorities to provide shelter when the temperature reaches zero for three nights in a row. There is a great temptation for local authorities to go to the minimum, which can of course be fatal for many rough sleepers, rather than raising the temperature requirement to a more humane level.
That is a very good point. I represent the English riviera, where the temperature does not always drop that far, and there are still problems, even at 3° C.
The history of Torbay’s provision for the roofless is somewhat unique. During Christmas in 1990, representatives of local churches came together to open south Devon’s first direct access hostel for homeless people, in an old warehouse in a backstreet in the centre of Torquay. With the support of Torbay council, which owned the property, it was converted to create a single male dormitory with 12 beds. Initially, there were just two paid members of staff.
The story of the project goes back to 1989 when three local church leaders—Reverend Peter Larkin of St Matthias church, Captain Jim McKnight, the Torquay Salvation Army commander, and the Reverend Mike Blunsum, chaplain at Brunel Manor—began praying about how the local Christian community could respond to a growing number of people sleeping on the streets. In the autumn of 1990, the Reverend Mike Blunsum persuaded the Woodlands House of Prayer Trust to back a homeless project in Torquay with money and resources. Separately, Leonard Stocks, a member of St John’s church in Torquay, was deeply moved one day when he saw a woman begging and holding a sign that read:
“I am homeless please help me.”
He raised the issue at the next meeting of the deanery synod. Leonard was put in contact with the Reverend Blunsum and his committee, which led to a meeting in October 1990 attended by representatives of 40 south Devon churches, together with 20 local agencies, looking for a community response to the homelessness crisis. Those agencies included the citizens advice bureau, Youth With A Mission, social services, the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, Shelter and officers from Torbay council, notable among them the then head of estates, Peter Lucas, himself a committed Christian.
Funding from the Woodlands House of Prayer Trust and a considerable personal contribution from Leonard Stocks saw the hostel open—appropriately—on Christmas eve 1990. The original lease was for just three months, but such was the need that it has never been able to close. The Torbay Churches Homeless Trust decided to merge with the Langley House Trust in 2003 when it became clear that the project could benefit from the robust management systems and training provision that Langley provided. The bedrock of its support, however, remains the Christian community across south Devon.
It may be a long way from the inner cities, but Torbay’s social problems are as acute as anywhere. The Leonard Stocks centre does brilliant work. The hostel was rebuilt only three years ago at a cost of £2.5 million, and staff and volunteers work wonderfully together to get people back into stable accommodation and on the road back to independence. The story is unique, but the facility will be recognised by all hon. Members here, because it is typical of centres around the country. I hope that the Minister will address the suggestions I have made to ring-fence funding or strengthen statutory protections for the homeless, or is there some other remedy to ensure that adequate provision exists for those who find themselves roofless, not only at this time of the year, but at all times of the year?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on securing the debate and on making a very powerful case. As she and others have said, in recent years, we have seen homelessness up overall. We have seen rough sleeping up by 60% in London in just two years alone, and we have seen homelessness in London rise by more than a third in just three years. All that was entirely predictable and it was predicted, because it has arisen not entirely by accident, but by a foreseeable combination of circumstances. There is the continuing squeeze on house building and particularly affordable house building—last year we saw the lowest level of housing completions since the 1920s—and the failure, which many of us have been flagging up for several years, of the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions to have even the most basic conversation about how their policies interact.
What is most striking in London and the south-east is the extent to which the Government’s policies on social security, especially the housing support safety net cuts, have led directly to the rise in homelessness, particularly in London. A staggering figure was flagged up by the estimable Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in their 2013 homelessness report: there has been a 316% rise in homelessness due to the end of assured shorthold tenancies in London—that is private sector tenancies. Overwhelmingly, the end of those assured shorthold tenancies is either because the tenant can no longer afford the rent—they were relying on the assistance of housing benefit—or because landlords, in an increasingly competitive market, are withdrawing those properties from the sector, which is a point that I will briefly return to in a minute.
London is not the only area affected, although with that 316% rise it is at the sharp end. We saw a 128% increase in homelessness due to the end of assured shorthold tenancies in the south, and even in the north of England, which does not have the same housing pressures, there was a 73% rise. The Government’s welfare policy is without doubt driving homelessness, especially for families.
The problem is by no means over. The Money Advice Service told us just this week that rent arrears are the fastest growing debt problem. We have seen an average of 60%—nearly two thirds—of household income in the private rented sector being taken up by rent. That is clearly unsustainable. People are struggling to keep the roof over their heads. They are relying on a safety net that is increasingly being stripped away from them, and it is driving homelessness.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Does she share my concern that things are only going to get worse, with council tax support being further withdrawn, and particularly with the loss of transitional relief, which provided a little bit of leeway this year? Next year, it will be far more difficult for low-income families to get by.
Of course. That is absolutely true. As my hon. Friend says, many families are facing a multiple attack on their living standards. The same families who are affected by cuts in housing support are also being affected by cuts in council tax support, and it is adding to their crisis.
At first, homelessness led to a surge in the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, as hon. Members have said, which is ridiculously expensive and wholly unsuitable. The Labour Government were absolutely right, more than a decade ago, to make it illegal for local authorities to keep families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks. The growing pressure of homelessness meant that local authorities, including Westminster, were breaching that six-week standard, which cost an absolute fortune—millions and millions of pounds. Local authorities had to place people in the Premier Inn hotel and the Jurys Inn hotel in Chelsea, because they could not find accommodation. Of course, they were breaking the law and were roundly told off by Ministers for doing so.
I am delighted that Westminster, in particular, is no longer using bed-and-breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks. That has been a significant change in the past few months. But what has happened? It is like squeezing a balloon: unless the circumstances change, the pressure simply builds somewhere else. What has happened is that local authorities are beginning to use something called annexe accommodation which, in some cases, is merely bed-and-breakfast accommodation with a gas ring. It is not always; sometimes it is different kinds of accommodation. It is basically self-contained, but it is booked nightly and has no time limit on its use. Local authorities—in particular, inner London authorities under pressure—are now using that nightly booked accommodation, which means that families, including many of those I am dealing with, literally do not know from one day to the next where they will be going for their accommodation. Many of the annexes are out of borough, so families have to commute their children in from the outskirts of London to maintain their school places. They cannot move their child’s school to the local authority area in which they are now placed—it may be Hounslow; it may be Enfield; it is many miles away—because they do not know whether they will still be in the same local authority area tomorrow.
Families tell me that they are getting up at half-past five in the morning to get their children, who are sometimes five or six years old, ready for school, because it takes them two hours to get there. They have to go by bus because they cannot afford the train. Those families are commuting their children two hours to school and two hours home at night. Understandably, the schools then come to me and say that children are falling asleep at their desks because they are being put under that pressure. Even children with special needs were being placed in this accommodation, despite the local authority telling me that that was not the case. We hope that is now being addressed, but unfortunately we are now seeing more and more such loopholes being used.
We were told by Ministers that other than in very exceptional circumstances local authorities should not place homeless families from their areas well away from their communities, in out-of-borough placements. In fact, out-of-borough placements have risen in every quarter bar one since 2011 to more than 4,000. Out-of-borough bookings rose to 14,535. This is according to London Councils’ monitoring of the issue last year. Local authorities made 11,262 out-of-borough nightly bookings, which is a total scandal. I do not believe, and I hope that the Minister will tell us that he does not believe, that people should be treated in that way. These are families and children. They are often very vulnerable families. They are often families facing multiple pressures and difficulties.
The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), told us that local authorities had been using “unacceptable and avoidable” measures and that they should offer accommodation locally as far as possible. Indeed, speaking in response to a press story in December 2012, a Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said:
“Councils can meet housing need through social housing or high-quality private rented housing in their area. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, there is no excuse for moving homeless families to other areas, and they must absolutely not apply a blanket policy of relocating families out of the capital.”
What we are seeing in London and in the south-east more generally is a surge in placements out of borough, completely in breach of that assurance that we were given. We are seeing more and more pressure building up; it is a pressure-cooker situation. Many local authorities are competing for increasingly scarce accommodation for these placements and the situation is unsustainable.
I hope that the Minister will today tell us that he will ensure that local authorities do not place families well away from their children’s schools, their communities, their support networks and the elderly relatives for whom they provide care; ensure that local authorities can access temporary and emergency accommodation for families; deal with the scandal of long-term nightly booked accommodation; and provide the framework for a sustainable policy to help those vulnerable families who are facing this terrible crisis of homelessness.
It is a thorough and utter disgrace that anyone should be homeless in the 21st century in our country. It makes me wonder whether the welfare state safety net has any meaning whatever when people are out there, dying on our streets—and I do mean dying on our streets, because on Christmas day in 2006, Josie Razzell died in the stairwell of Easton Street car park in High Wycombe. She died of exposure. As a result, the churches in High Wycombe came together in a story similar to that told by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders). They were determined to ensure that never again would anyone die of exposure on our streets.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) mentioned the severe weather emergency protocol. The fact is that that protocol is a last resort and it simply is not good enough. Were it not for Wycombe Homeless Connection, my goodness—the number of people who would suffer in Wycombe. Were it not for the YMCA, what a state we would be in.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), who opened the debate, mentioned one particular cause and one particular story and made the case very movingly, but if only that man had not treated his partner violently, that problem perhaps would not have arisen. I think that every hon. Member present knows that the causes of homelessness are complex and wide ranging. They include addictions, debt, worklessness and educational failure and, of course, are compounded in a dreadful cycle of health problems, both physical and mental. Those of us who have worked in night shelters for a number of years will have seen, I suspect, altogether too much suffering in that regard.
It is not enough to talk only about the suffering that has happened recently. It is the case that the numbers have increased, but we heard earlier that some of the efforts at non-state provision go back as far as 1989—I think that that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay said—and of course the problem extends far before that. Opposition Members talked about the housing market and the shortage of supply. The housing market is characterised by state land-use planning and state intervention in the credit markets. If there is too little housing, it can only be the case that the state has made a mess of it.
When I look at all these stories, I see a number of things: the failure of individuals to live in the right relationship with one another, the failure of a man to look after his partner and the failures of people to get a good education, get a job and build up their lives. What I want to see is the shortest possible route to minimising this human suffering, but what I see at the moment is a constant recourse to state action at a time when the quality and quantity of welfare, health and education produced by the state simply is not good enough and we also, very clearly, cannot afford it, because we have resorted to quantitative easing to suppress interest rates just to keep up the borrowing necessary to sustain this level of failure.
Therefore, what I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister is twofold. First, what is he doing to end the complex cycles of state failure that are ruining people’s lives? Secondly, will he please take every possible—every conceivable—step that he can to remove the obstacles that the state places in people’s way, preventing them from just getting out there and helping people across the wide range of complex causes of chronic and abject poverty.
My hon. Friend will realise that I very much agree with what he has to say on the macro-economic side about the very insidious—dangerous—long-term effects on the British economy of quantitative easing. Will he accept that part of the difficulty with housing law, which goes back almost 100 years—the first rent Acts came in at the end of the first world war—is that, every time, we try to add another elastoplast to the system when there needs to be a much more imaginative approach by politicians, academics and the like to looking at the way in which our housing market operates? All too often, we have seen short-term problems, which we have tried to solve with new legislation, rather than recognising, as my hon. Friend rightly said, that it has been state action and legislation in the past that has helped to produce all the absurdities and anomalies currently seen in our private rented sector.
I agree, but it is not enough for us just to look at increasing supply. We should be looking at those factors that increase demand, such as the tragedy of family breakdown, which perhaps I will go into in more detail in the debate in the main Chamber later on hunger.
I want to finish with this thought. We are coming up to Christmas—the anniversary of the death of Josie Razzell in High Wycombe. But Christmas is a time of celebration, because it is a time when we realise that the process of God offering to mankind salvation from all these difficulties began with an event that we celebrate at Christmas. We are not here to preach the gospel, but I have to say that these problems and cycles will continue for ever unless people start to learn that they must love their neighbour and, first and foremost, love their God.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) for introducing this timely debate. It is timely because we always, rightly, think more about homelessness and homeless people as we approach Christmas. I should point out that before I entered Parliament, I worked as a social researcher and spent some 10 years researching homelessness issues. I interviewed hundreds of homeless people during that time to learn what circumstances led to them getting into that situation and what the solutions were.
I am in absolutely no doubt that homelessness is getting worse. When I have been around Rochdale, and when I went into Manchester the other day, it has been clear that more people are living out on our streets and sleeping rough. It is as though we are returning to the 1980s and early 1990s. We do not need anecdotal evidence to see that homelessness is getting worse. The Government are keen to devise policies on the back of anecdotal evidence, but there are statistics to prove that homelessness is getting worse. The figures that I have been given show that in England, there has been an 11% increase over the past two years in people approaching local authorities saying that they are homeless. The number of people housed in temporary accommodation during 2012 rose by 10% and the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation rose even faster, by 14%. In 2012, there were an estimated 2,309 people sleeping rough on any one night across England, which is a rise of 31% over two years.
The Minister will be aware, because he was present at the hearing, that the Minister for Housing, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), gave evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee on 9 December. When I questioned him about rough sleeping at the Committee, the Housing Minister said that it had reduced by 8%. I now understand that there is no truth in that whatsoever, and there is no evidence to suggest that rough sleeping has fallen. I hope that the Minister takes the opportunity to correct the record today. The latest figures show that last year in Rochdale, 717 households approached the council as homeless, which was an increase of 180% over two years, and 280 households were accepted as being statutorily homeless. That is an increase of 324% over the past two years.
The Government are cooking up a homelessness crisis, and I do not say that lightly. All the ingredients are being added to create such a crisis: in go economic and social instability problems, dramatic benefit changes, major cuts to support services and a lack of suitable accommodation for people who find themselves in difficulty. Whether they accept it or not, the Government are steadily mixing the dish to create a severe homelessness problem similar to that of the 1980s. The irony is that we have learned how to deal with homelessness. Levels of homelessness and rough sleeping and the numbers of people going into bed and breakfast accommodation were dramatically reduced in the mid to late 1990s and into the 2000s, but we are having to re-learn the solutions, which is exceptionally unfortunate.
As the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) has pointed out, more than half of all homelessness services have seen their funding cut. The Petrus homelessness project in Rochdale has achieved an incredible amount on an exceptionally tight budget, even though it has faced severe budget cuts. If it were not for Petrus, dozens of people in Rochdale would have died prematurely as a result of homelessness. If politicians are serious about addressing homelessness, they should watch a video called “RoofLess” that Petrus produced with Community Arts North West which shows homeless people telling everyone about their fragile, damaged lives and how they ended up becoming homeless. I went to the launch of that video a week ago, and it is well worth watching.
I conclude with a final thought. In October I celebrated my 47th birthday. If I had been homeless, I would probably be dead by Christmas this year, because 47 is the average age of death for a homeless person.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Chope. I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on securing this important debate, and on the passion with which she spoke.
As we approach Christmas, I am conscious that too many families are without a permanent home or are worried about what the new year will bring, when many of us are looking forward to spending time with our families. At this time of year, I am reminded of the incredible generosity of local people, particularly on Wearside. It is lonely and isolating to be facing Christmas in temporary accommodation, or to be worried about whether your children will be able to receive any Christmas presents. That is why it was always so comforting for the women and families that I used to support in a women’s refuge to know that others were thinking of them at Christmas and that the local community were always willing to help and support them in their time of need.
The rise of homelessness is deeply troubling. Across England, as we have heard, the number of people found to be statutorily homeless has risen. Regional figures may vary, but that is also the case in my local authority. Since 2007, Sunderland city council has focused on preventing homelessness, on the understanding that it is always best to work with people to try to find alternatives and manage their difficulties, and to support landlords to try to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. However, Sunderland city council reports that the number of people that it has been able to prevent from becoming homeless has fallen, which is of great concern. In the 12 months up to September 2013, there were 577 preventions, which fell from more than 700 during the previous year. The disproportionate cuts that councils such as Sunderland face are having a serious impact on their ability to prioritise work to prevent homelessness. Over the same period to 2013, the number of people found to be homeless increased by 54%. Councils tell me that they fear that 2014 will be worse still, once the impact of welfare changes such as the bedroom tax starts to be reflected in the figures.
I turn to the problem of women who find themselves homeless as a result of domestic violence. As my hon. Friend indicated earlier when she spoke of the difficulties faced by her constituent, that is a problem across the country and no doubt we all see it in our constituency surgeries. Figures vary, but we know that domestic violence accounts for a significant proportion of homelessness acceptances. Many women who are forced out of their homes by domestic violence do not approach councils and are not counted in those figures, so the real numbers will be higher still.
There is some way to go in shifting perceptions about what women’s refuges are like and the services that they offer to women and children. Understandably, many families this Christmas would rather be settled in a permanent place that they can call home, rather than in a women’s refuge. Equally, in my contact with women’s refuges, what I saw at Christmas was women and children who were able for the very first time to enjoy a peaceful Christmas without fear. Children did not have to worry about whether their mother would be beaten before their eyes. They did not have to worry about whether their father would shout at them or smash their presents, or whether they, as young children, would be subject to abuse. I saw the incredible generosity of local people who provided presents, enabled children to have Christmas parties and supported them so that they could try to enjoy a normal, peaceful Christmas after the difficult and traumatic ordeal that they had been through.
For those reasons, I am concerned about reports that the number of spaces available in women’s refuges is contracting. Providers across the country report that they are having to turn more and more women away. As part of an inquiry into access for justice for women, the all-party parliamentary group on domestic and sexual violence recently took evidence from providers, which explained the real pressures on their services. Providers told us that they face big cuts to their budgets, which are affecting their ability to offer families a safe place to turn. So much progress was made in that area under the previous Labour Government, and it would be tragic to see that progress undone.
The Government must act to stem the rising tide of homelessness. Ministers must accept that disproportionate cuts to local councils are not without consequence. I fear that the situation will not improve in 2014; indeed, my growing concern is that things will simply get worse.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on securing such an important and, unfortunately, timely debate. Christmas is coming and we are looking forward to spending time with our families, but we know, as she said, that many families across the country will not be celebrating this Christmas; they will be in temporary accommodation, and many people will be sleeping on the streets.
I pay tribute to the work of the charities hon. Members have mentioned, and the volunteers who work all year to provide invaluable support to those who are homeless and those sleeping on the streets. The UK is the seventh richest country in the world, yet homelessness and rough sleeping are increasing year on year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) explained, the figures are getting worse; since the Government came to power, rough sleeping and homelessness are up by one third. It is heartbreaking that 80,000 children will be without a permanent home this Christmas. The number of families with children living in bed and breakfasts is at a 10-year high. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) spoke movingly about that issue in her constituency.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, set out, the reality of living in a bed and breakfast is absolutely shocking. She spoke movingly about the case of her constituent and her daughters. In more than half the cases investigated by Shelter this year, children in such accommodation were sharing beds with their parents or siblings, and two thirds of families said that their children had no table to eat meals on, and often had to eat on the floor or bed. As my hon. Friend points out, homeless children living in temporary accommodation are more likely to fall behind at school, and lose vital opportunities at that formative age to develop and grow in a healthy living environment.
Rough sleeping is increasing, and has gone up by a third. Hon. Members referred to the wide-ranging and complex reasons why people end up living on the streets. I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) did, even before she became an MP, in providing support for victims of domestic abuse. Many women and men end up living on the streets as a result of such abuse. Some have come out of institutions, such as care settings or prison. The effects of sleeping rough are enormously damaging to people’s physical and mental health, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) set out in her excellent speech. As the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) movingly described, many people who live on the streets are at risk of dying prematurely. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale pointed out that the average age of death for rough sleepers is 47, which is a tragic statistic.
The previous Labour Government were determined to tackle the problem, which is why we introduced the Supporting People programme, bringing together seven income streams from across Government to give the necessary support to those at risk of homelessness, or those who were already homeless. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale mentioned, we had great determination to bear down on and tackle homelessness. As a result, it decreased by 70% during our period in government. Although it is clear that the reasons for homelessness are complex and wide-ranging, under the current Government, figures show that homelessness and rough sleeping have grown significantly worse.
The Government have failed to tackle the chronic housing shortage so central to the cost of living crisis. The cruel and iniquitous bedroom tax is putting many social tenants at risk of eviction, because they are falling into arrears for the first time. The 60% cut to the affordable homes budget when the Government came to power has had an impact on the number and affordability of homes available. The Government have also cut away support at a time when there are more and more homeless people, who are in need of help. As my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South pointed out, cuts to local government budgets are hitting homelessness services disproportionately. We have seen a fall in the number of beds that homeless shelters can offer.
I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). Last year, he brought together a group of 100 people in the first ever young homeless people’s parliament. The Minister met that group in December last year. Although it is good that the Government have continued the initiative, I am sad to report that they did not do so on a cross-party basis, and we were not invited to the meeting earlier this week with young homeless people who came to Parliament to discuss their concerns. I hope that the Minister will implore his colleagues to organise the next meeting on a cross-party basis.
As the young people who came to Parliament last year demonstrated, vital services need to be brought together to help those at risk of homelessness, but other factors also contribute to homelessness. Hon. Members talked about the lack of homes in our country. The sad truth is that the Government are presiding over the lowest peacetime level of house building since the 1920s. We are not building even half the number of homes needed to keep up with demand. While home ownership is falling for the first time in more then a century, private rents are soaring, particularly in our big cities. In London, 59% of an average income is consumed by rent; outside London, the figure is 41%.
As many hon. Friends have pointed out, the loss of an assured shorthold tenancy is now one of the key drivers of homelessness; more than one in four households are accepted as homeless for that reason, and that number has tripled in the past three years. The Government said that they would introduce a tenants’ charter, but I worry that it will be a meaningless and toothless initiative if it does not deliver what we desperately need: longer-term, more stable tenancies, with predictable rents. The truth is that the 9 million people who live in the private rented sector are being let down by poor standards in the sector. It is the worst type of housing to be in, because, according to the English housing survey, one third of homes in the private rented sector do not meet even basic standards. Tenants will seldom complain to their landlord because it puts them at risk of eviction. We must redress the balance of power between the landlord, letting agents, and tenants. Tenants simply do not have the protections in law that they need; those protections that they do have are seldom enforced. The Government need to look at those issues seriously.
A Labour Government would tackle the cost of living crisis and the chronic shortage of housing. We have pledged to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020. We would scrap the cruel and unfair bedroom tax. We would freeze energy bills for millions of hard-pressed families. Crucially, we aim to reform and regulate the private rented sector to bring about more secure, longer-term tenancies, especially for families with children. We will introduce a national register of landlords; in fact, we had the measures in place to introduce such a register at the end of our time in office, but the current Government got rid of the plans within weeks of coming to power. We will empower local authorities to bring in licensing schemes across the private rented sector. At the moment, they have to jump through a lot of hoops to prove that a licensing scheme is needed and can introduce one only in a particular geographical area, or for a particular type of accommodation.
It is regrettable that the number of families in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation is rising. As the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) pointed out, the number of people sleeping on our streets is also on the increase. We know that the Minister is one of those Ministers who are willing to speak truth to power—there are not many. We heard him do so in recent weeks in a dramatic fashion, so I implore him to make demands of his Government to get a grip on the issue sooner rather than later. It is a tragedy that so many families with children are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation over Christmas, and that so many people find themselves with no option other than to sleep on our streets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I hope you will forgive me if I am a little croaky in my speech; I am grateful for the amplification. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) on securing this extremely important and sobering debate. We heard some truly harrowing stories from her most of all, but also from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker).
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, for taking a bit of time to talk about her constituent and her two daughters. I can only hope that Birmingham city council and the other organisations that she talked about will find a way to enable her constituent to find a secure home, so that her constituent does not have to think that she made a mistake in leaving a man who was violent towards her.
We also heard from a number of hon. Members about the vital role of charities, Churches and other voluntary groups. I might get some of the names wrong, because I was interpreting them at some speed, but we heard about SIFA Fireside in Birmingham, the Leonard Stocks centre in Torbay, the Wycombe Homeless Connection and Petrus in Rochdale. It is clear that all those organisations do vital work, which would be necessary however much money Government had to spend on programmes. Those organisations bring a personal touch, a commitment, whether from faith or general good will, and an innovative approach to helping often some of the most troubled people in our society.
In the relatively short time I have, I could run through the myriad initiatives and schemes that the Government have created to try to help sort out the problem of homelessness. I could talk about the gold standard scheme, the rough sleeping social impact bond, Homeless Link, the Homelessness Transition Fund, the Crisis private rented sector access development programme, the homelessness prevention grant, discretionary housing payments, the sanctuary scheme, the “Places of Change” programme, the “No Second Night Out” scheme and StreetLink. We all know that those schemes—all of which are valuable, important and well intentioned—are not the fundamental solution to the problem.
One of the most startling facts about homelessness over the past 10 or 20 years is that it was at its height when the economy was booming, and when Government spending was growing as fast as it has ever grown. Homelessness peaked in 2003-04; sadly, it only reached the level it is at now in 2008, just when the financial crash hit. Throughout a period when the economy was booming and public expenditure was growing, homelessness did not fall. It was only brought down to its current level in 2008. The devastating financial crash in 2008 has had economic and social ripples that will continue for years and decades to come, and one of those ripples has affected some people’s ability to afford to maintain their tenancies. We heard a lot about the rising importance of the ending of private sector tenancies in explaining the rise in homelessness.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and anticipates a point I want to make. We all accept that the fundamental solution to the underlying problem that produces homelessness and rough sleeping is simple to explain and very difficult to achieve. The solution is, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) mentioned, the consistent delivery of more housing of all kinds, all tenures, all numbers of bedrooms and in all parts of the country; the consistent delivery of more jobs that pay more than the minimum wage and are stable and secure; and a consistent need to do a better job than we have been doing in controlling immigration, particularly by those who do not have the means to support themselves in this country.
In winding up the debate—I am happy to take any particular questions that Members raised to my colleagues in the Department, if there is an answer or a meeting that they would like to have to follow up—I want to reflect on those fundamental solutions and why I believe, for all the difficult decisions that we are making on welfare reform and benefits, that the Government’s strategy is the only strategy that can successfully produce an economy that supports a society that does not allow homelessness to continue at its current rate.
Members have mentioned not only homeless hostels under threat, but women’s refuges. I often wonder why there is not a refuge or a hostel in every local authority area. Often, those refuges or hostels serve people from other local authority areas. Is there some mechanism that Government could use to ensure that the appropriate funding goes to refuges and hostels that serve wider areas, so that the burden does not fall just on that local authority?
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will come back to him in writing on that question, which is important. He also made the important point on the possibility of ring-fencing the homelessness prevention grant. I will allow the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), to respond to that in an intelligent way, rather than make it up on the hoof.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm what his predecessors said, which is that local authorities should, other than in exceptional circumstances, care for their own homeless locally in recognised local connections? Alternatively, does he think that local authorities should give their homeless to other councils to have to worry about?
It is clearly right that local authorities should do everything in their power to house people within their own boundaries, whether temporarily, if that is unfortunately the only possibility, or ultimately permanently. It is deeply regrettable that some authorities have found that they are not able to do that. We are constantly writing to them, speaking to them and putting pressure on them to ensure that they fulfil that duty, because it is clear and important.
Briefly, on the bigger argument, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East pointed out that we have been building far too few homes, not just recently, but over the past 20 years. We can all make political points about whether house building rate are lower than they were five years ago, but the fact is that we have had the most devastating financial crash and the deepest recession in 100 years. It is not surprising, at a time when several of our major banks had to be nationalised and others bailed out by the taxpayer, that the possibility of lending money to builders to build and to people to buy houses has become severely constrained, and that has led to a dramatic fall in house building.
The Government are utterly determined—I am utterly determined—to do everything we can to reform the planning system, the funding streams for mortgages and the lending for builders, to enable the rate of house building to increase. It is also clear that we need more housing of a tenure type and cost that makes it available to many of the people likely to be affected by homelessness. I simply point out that nobody’s record is perfect on this matter. The previous Government presided over a dramatic fall in the number of affordable houses available to people, and under this Government, the number has gone up. We have managed to build just less than 100,000 affordable houses in the three years that we have been in office, but that is not enough and we accept that. We hope that we will build 170,000 over the life of this Parliament. Are 170,000 houses enough to deal with the problems that we have, and the 20-year backlog in house building? No, they are not.
At the same time, however, we have created 1.5 million jobs, and I am sure that all hon. Members will accept that the long-term solution, to prevent more people falling into homelessness, and to help the people whom Members have all admirably mentioned, is to enable those people to get stable jobs that pay them more than the minimum wage, and ideally more than the living wage. That will enable them to hold down a tenancy, whether in social housing or private rented housing. That is the solution to the homelessness problem of our country.