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Homelessness (Crisis Report)

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2015

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, in this important debate. Homelessness remains a blight on our society. Its causes are complex, but it often happens due to a combination of family breakdown, mental ill health and substance abuse. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and society has a responsibility to care for the homeless, who are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society.

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to visit, work with and support two homelessness charities in my constituency: New Direction and Braintree Foyer. Both are run by the Salvation Army, which does an incredible job across the country to provide support for the homeless. I also thank Braintree district council for its swift response in providing housing for those individuals who suddenly found themselves homeless following the tragic fire at the shelter at Ben’s Café in Braintree last month.

There are many excellent homelessness charities up and down the country, including Shelter, Centrepoint, Homeless Link, St Mungo’s, The Passage, Barnado’s and others. There is also the incredible generosity of the public at large, who donate time and money to support homelessness charities. I spent this past Christmas at Crisis and was especially impressed by the support it gave to London’s homeless. I was equally impressed by the thousands of volunteers who gave up their time to help out. Outside of the London Olympics, Crisis has the largest army of volunteers. Once I leave Parliament, I intend to focus my time on better understanding the issues surrounding homelessness by working with Crisis and other homelessness charities with a view to doing whatever I can to provide support, not only by working directly with the homeless, but by working with the leading homelessness charities to see how we can work with the Government to reduce, if not resolve, the blight of homelessness in our society.

Having spent some time with Crisis, I think it is worth outlining to the Minister and Members the state of homelessness in England by reviewing the issues outlined in Crisis’s “The homelessness monitor”, which was released recently. Notwithstanding a number of important initiatives by the Government and the Mayor’s office in London to tackle homelessness, the figures unfortunately continue to rise. Official figures indicate that 111,960 people in England made a homelessness application last year. However, according to recent research by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the real figures are considerably larger—280,000 individuals approached their local authorities last year seeking homelessness assistance. Homelessness prevention activity alone constituted some 228,000 cases in 2013-14, which was 12% higher than in the previous year and 38% up on 2009-10.

The ending of an assured shorthold tenancy is now the leading cause of homelessness, accounting for 29% of cases. That is most pertinent in London, where it accounts for 38% of cases. The number of people rough sleeping has also risen. In London alone, 6,508 people slept rough at some point during 2013-14. That figure has doubled over the past six years. English street count figures for 2014-15 were 2,744, which is a 14% rise on the year before and a 55% increase over the past four years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important topic. It may surprise him to learn that Cornwall is second only to London in the number of people rough sleeping and in the number of people living without homes. Does he agree that we should praise the Government for how they changed the rough sleeper count? I have been involved with homelessness charities for a great deal of my life, and I saw that the old system under the previous Government precluded people from having an accurate measure of the number of people rough sleeping. At least we now have a much better handle on and understanding of the numbers. That will enable us to make appropriate resources available, so that local authorities and others can help those people into homes.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Later in my speech, I will come on to some of the good initiatives by the Government and the Mayor’s office to address homelessness, but first I will outline the numbers, and unfortunately the reality is that the numbers are rising.

“The homelessness monitor” noted that there has been a continued growth in returner rough sleepers in London, and that is a matter of concern. One possible factor in that is the cuts that many local authorities have made to their Supporting People budgets. Those cuts mean that people who leave the street do not get the support they need to sustain accommodation in the long term.

Turning to some of the key causes of homelessness, people become and stay homeless for a whole range of complex and overlapping reasons. Solving homelessness is about much more than putting a roof over people’s heads. Anyone can become homeless, but certain individual factors make it more likely, including relationship breakdown, leaving care, substance abuse and physical and mental health problems. A recent report for Crisis on the experience of single homeless people found that almost half of them had experienced mental ill health, drug dependency, or alcohol dependency, or had served a prison sentence.

Structural factors also play a major role. The continued shortage of housing and the ongoing effects of the economic recession are major drivers of homelessness. The welfare and housing systems have traditionally acted as a buffer between unemployment, poverty and homelessness. Government reforms, particularly cuts to housing benefit, are eroding that safety net. In particular, housing benefit has been cut by around £7 billion. Also, housing supply has not kept pace with demand for many decades. In total, almost 137,000 new houses were supplied in 2013-14—well below the estimated 232,000 required to keep up with demand. More and more people rely on housing benefit to pay their rent. Between 2008-09 and 2013-14, the proportion of renters in work and claiming housing benefit doubled from 7% to 14%.

Notwithstanding a very tough economic climate, the Government, much to their credit, have invested £20 million in the homelessness transition fund, which supports 175 voluntary sector projects for single homeless people. The fund also supported the national roll-out of the “No Second Night Out” initiative. Indeed, “No Second Night Out” has been successful in supporting many new rough sleepers in moving off the streets. Some 67% of the rough sleepers worked with were taken off the streets after the first night that they were found to be sleeping rough, and the majority of them did not return to the streets once helped.

Furthermore, the Department for Communities and Local Government introduced the gold standard programme, which is a set of best practice principles for local authorities to sign up to, designed to drive improvements in housing options services. DCLG also invested £13 million in the Crisis private rented access scheme. Since the creation of the scheme, 153 voluntary sector-led projects have helped 9,320 vulnerable people into accommodation, with more than 90% maintaining tenancies for at least six months. Much to their credit, the Government changed the methodology used for local authority rough sleeping counts to make them more accurate in tracking annual trends, which I believe is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) was making. The Greater London authority and the Government have invested £5 million in the world’s first homelessness social impact bond, which helped to deliver better outcomes for 831 of London’s most entrenched rough sleepers.

I praise the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and his team at City hall for their work on tackling rough sleeping in the capital. The Mayor’s rough sleeping group, which includes local authorities, DCLG, the Home Office, charities and the police, leads on and co-ordinates the wide-ranging work to tackle rough sleeping throughout our capital. The Mayor invests about £9 million in rough sleeping services every year. Launched in April 2011, the flagship “No Second Night Out” service has helped more than 6,000 new rough sleepers. Around three out of every four rough sleepers now spend only one night outside. The Chancellor and Mayor recently announced that £5 million will be made available to “No Second Night Out”, putting the initiative on a more permanent footing.

However, support for single homeless people remains a challenge. Single homeless people who are not considered to be in priority need for housing can be turned away when they approach their council, with little help and no solution to their housing needs. Single homeless people should be given advice and assistance, but Crisis’s experience and research shows that, too often, that does not happen.

Crisis recently conducted a mystery shopping exercise, in which eight formerly homeless people visited 16 local authorities to examine the quality of advice and assistance that they provide to single homeless people. In well over half the 87 visits, the help offered was inadequate. In 29 cases, they were simply turned away without any help or the opportunity to speak to a housing adviser, despite the mystery shoppers portraying individuals in very vulnerable situations, including someone who was forced to sleep rough after losing their job, a young person thrown out of the family home, a victim of domestic violence and a person with learning difficulties.

Crisis wants all political parties to make a manifesto commitment to reviewing the support given to single homeless people, so that no one is forced to sleep rough and all homeless people get the help that they need. I draw the Minster’s attention to the St Mungo’s Broadway manifesto for the 2015 general election, which identifies many of the key problems surrounding homelessness and the priorities for the next Government to address regarding homelessness.

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way a second time. Is he aware of the Children’s Society’s work in this area? The Children’s Society looks after vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds. It has told me that more than half the youngsters in that vulnerable age group who go along to local authorities are rejected. They are not properly assessed or given support, and some are labelled as intentionally homeless. In addition to the excellent work done by Crisis, the Children’s Society’s work draws us to conclude that there is a severe need for a proper review in the next Parliament of what local authorities are doing to implement their statutory responsibilities to conduct proper assessments.

Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Along with many homelessness charities, the Children’s Society has done a lot of work focused on young people. That 16-to-24 age bracket seems to feel the brunt of homelessness. They are the people who are not served enough. With a little more focus on and support for that age range, I hope that the next Government will commit the resources necessary to address the problem.

Beyond the issue of single-person homelessness, the Government must support individuals with complex and multiple needs. There needs to be an increase in the number and type of health services—including mental health and drug and alcohol services—available to homeless people at hostels and day centres. Tackling issues such as drug and alcohol use requires an holistic approach that considers the specific needs of homeless people. As well as treating addiction, recovery services should provide help with housing—stable accommodation is vital for treatment and recovery—skills and work.

On welfare reform, housing benefit acts as a vital safety net to keep people who fall on hard times in their homes. However, cuts to housing benefit have, unfortunately, been a contributory factor to recent increases in homelessness. As my hon. Friend said, there are particular problems for younger adults, who are limited to receiving the shared accommodation rate of housing benefit. The rate has always been calculated in such a way that it does not reflect the real cost of tenanting a shared property. Although the Government’s intention is that the lowest 30% of the private rented market should be available to people on housing benefit, research by Crisis showed that as little as 2% of shared accommodation was actually available and affordable to benefit recipients. The calculation of the shared accommodation rate should be reviewed to ensure that it meets the real cost of renting shared accommodation and does not leave young adults at risk of homelessness.

Furthermore, there are indications that the current sanctions regime is not working to support more vulnerable people into work. Instead, sanctions are increasing people’s risk of becoming homeless, leaving them struggling with debt and without enough money for food, rent or heating. Sanctions disproportionately affect homeless people, with many facing obstacles—including mental and physical health problems, a history of domestic violence and poor literacy and IT skills—that make it harder for them to meet their work-related conditions. From November 2012 to March 2014, 13% of sanction decisions were overturned, which suggests that a large number of people are being sanctioned incorrectly. That must be addressed, and work should be undertaken to ensure that the right decisions are made first time.

Finally, there must be a significant increase in the number of genuinely affordable homes being supplied each year. Crisis is a core member of the Homes for Britain coalition, which is calling on all political parties to commit to ending the housing crisis within a generation and publishing a plan laying out how they will do so, within a year of taking office.

I end by thanking Crisis again for all the work that it does towards ending the blight of homelessness in our society. The crisis of homelessness is not just for Christmas; it is a problem that must be addressed 24/7, 365 days a year. When I leave the House at the end of the week, I look forward to beginning a new chapter in my life, working with Crisis and other homelessness charities to try to tackle this blight on our society once and for all.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) for securing this debate on such an important issue. I want to recognise his work, as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), in support of local charities. Their contribution to the debate raises the profile of homelessness and ensures that it remains in the public’s consciousness. It is important to the Government, and tackling homelessness and rough sleeping remains a key priority for us. At the beginning of this Parliament, we made available some £500 million. As a direct consequence of that contribution to tackling homelessness, we managed to prevent some 700,000 people from becoming homeless.

There is no doubt that being homeless affects every aspect of a person’s life. No one should be in such a frightening situation, especially not some of society’s most vulnerable people. Quite often, individual life circumstances create the situation, so it is important that the Government put in place prevention measures and attempt to help such individuals and mitigate the situation.

A housing crisis could happen to anyone at any time. The lucky ones have the resilience to cope with it and, perhaps, the resources to get back on their feet. However, that is of course not always the case. Some vulnerable people struggle to find their way out and become trapped in the cycle of homelessness. As we have seen today, the consequences can be severe. I know that both my hon. Friends have dealt with cases as Members of Parliament and sought to help. I appreciate that. Every MP will have similar experience. Homelessness is not a partisan issue, and I would appreciate a cross-Government response to put in place the right resources to address these vulnerable people’s needs.

The Minister is right to talk about vulnerable people, young ones in particular, and to say that cross-governmental work is required. In the next Parliament further changes to housing benefit will be considered, especially on shared occupancy. Does he agree that just as we are exempting care leavers, because we understand their particular vulnerability, we should also consider exempting young 16, 17 or 18-year-olds who present to local authorities as homeless, so that they have the best chance of getting supported accommodation and the necessary support to get themselves back on their own two feet and participating fully in society?

There has been great debate about some of the challenges we face on the benefits bill, and a future Government will deal with that, whichever party comes to power. My hon. Friend and I, and others, will make a powerful case on the grounds that she has just mentioned.

For those vulnerable people, the services provided by local authorities and voluntary sector partners are a lifeline. I recognise the hard work and dedication of so many people, for whom this is not just a job; it is a vocation. I have been to see individuals who give an enormous amount of time to provide support and care to those vulnerable people.

Housing supply is an important factor, and I reassure colleagues that that is another key priority. We should be proud of what we have done to deliver some 217,000 affordable homes in England since April 2010. That includes £19.5 billion of public and private investment through our affordable homes programme, which will deliver 170,000 new homes by the end of March this year, in a few days’ time. Over the next five years another £38 billion of public and private investment will provide a further 275,000 new affordable homes between 2015 and 2020. Over the next Parliament, we will therefore build more new affordable homes than during any equivalent period in the past 20 years. We should be proud that we have sought to ensure such provision. A lot remains to be done, but bearing in mind the economic circumstances, it is important that we have made that commitment.

I will say a few words about statutory and youth homelessness before coming on to Crisis, which my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree discussed. Despite the difficult economic circumstances, statutory homelessness is significantly lower than it was during its peak period under the previous Government. I do not want to paint an over-rosy picture—we should be realistic about where we are—but the Government have maintained the strong safety net, protected in law, to ensure that families and vulnerable people have a roof over their head. The Government have therefore increased investment in homelessness services over the lifetime of the Parliament, including the £500 million I mentioned.

We have done much to support homeless people. Recently I addressed and listened to members of the Youth Homeless Parliament, who met here in Westminster. Many spoke with passion about their circumstances. Such a dialogue between users of our services, charities and Members of Parliament can shape the services. As a direct consequence of engagement that I have had, a new £15 million fair chance fund will affect the lives of some 1,600 homeless and NEET—those not in education, employment or training—18 to 25-year-olds. It is about targeting money at specific groups.

Another vulnerable group that we wanted to help were those suffering from domestic violence. A £10 million package was initiated for them by the Prime Minister, who wanted to intervene to ensure that we had sufficient capacity to stop refuges closing, and adequate local authority provision to protect vulnerable victims of domestic abuse and their families. Some 148 areas across England will benefit from that resource, which will be rolled out over the next two years.

With violence and abuse, one of the issues for many young people, unfortunately, is that they are forced to return to the area where they are from in order to get housing, even though that is the very environment in which they suffered the abuse. It would be good if the Government had a little more flexibility, in particular when dealing with young people subjected to a violent upbringing. The authorities should not have to say to them, “The only place you can get your housing is back where you suffered abuse.”

Our local authorities have an obligation to ensure that such children, very young people in particular, are safe. My hon. Friend is right: they should not be placed back where they might be vulnerable. He makes a good point, and I am sure that over the coming weeks and months he will continue to make the case, and that he will shape policy.

As the Minister with responsibility for homelessness, I believe that one area that was neglected for many years was single homelessness and rough sleeping. We should be proud of what we have done about rough sleepers through, for example, “No Second Night Out”, and to ensure that the public are involved. The public want to participate, and we have given them some of the mechanisms necessary to do so. They should be proud of their contribution and the amount of it.

I appreciate that time is running out, and all the responses that the Minister is giving. For a young male between 16 and 24, it is particularly difficult to get any form of housing. That is a challenge, and although I understand why it is challenging, we need to address that. If we do not find support and housing for that group, it might unfortunately lead to greater problems further along in their lives.

I only have a few minutes left, so I will pick up on a couple of issues, the first of which is about breaking the cycle that single homeless people find themselves in. How do we get them into employment, if that is possible? How do we give them a stable home to build their lives on?

One of our interventions has been to work with Crisis, which my hon. Friend has mentioned several times. We provided some £14 million of funding to Crisis to enable it to run a project providing access to the private rented sector, which has been a real success. The idea is to help some 10,000 single homeless people to access and sustain privately rented accommodation by 2016. We know that 90% sustain such accommodation for at least six months. It is about giving continuity to those individuals. It is important that we get provision right, and that we give those people who have been trapped in a cycle the opportunity to get themselves away from abuse, drugs and alcohol, putting them in a safe environment so that they can build their lives again with support.

Only a minute or so is left, so I want to put on record my thanks to individuals in the Department for Communities and Local Government. We should not ignore the fact that in the DCLG we have a huge wealth of knowledge—and it is not isolated knowledge that simply sits inside the Department; it is about outreach and understanding the complex issues associated with rough sleeping and homelessness. The Department can be extremely proud.

We should also recognise what local authorities, including the Greater London authority, do. Westminster’s Councillor Robathan has been leading on homelessness and, bearing in mind the complex issues in the borough, she should be applauded, as should Richard Blakeway at the GLA, who has been leading on the issue for some time. We should also say, however, that some authorities are not getting it right. I look to the GLA and other strong local authorities to offer leadership and direction to the weaker authorities that have not always picked up their responsibilities.

I am sure that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government will participate on the issue in future. I hope that Members will ensure that homelessness and rough sleeping stay in the public consciousness, and that the next Government provide an equally responsible response.