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Homelessness: Edmonton

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 14 April 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Margot James.)

I would like to open this debate with a case study of a constituent who came into my office this week, four months after being made homeless. He was evicted at the beginning of the year at short notice. He is in his mid-50s, he has never been in rent arrears, and he had previously received references saying he was a good tenant. He has complex health needs. On eviction, he went to his GP for a copy of his medical report, which showed, among other things, a history of chronic depression, osteoarthritis, spina bifida, a cataract—the list goes on. He approached the council for help, but the council had no record of him. He approached his family, but they had no room. The only help he has managed to receive has been from charity organisations that work with rough sleepers, and those organisations are in huge demand.

My constituent is now, again, sleeping in his car, and he is chronically depressed. He has had his health problems callously acknowledged as

“normal for those made homeless”.

To deal with this situation, St Mungo’s has recently launched the “Stop the Scandal” campaign. His case study epitomises the Government’s failure to meet the duty of care that they owe to every individual. He is just one of many who have approached my office after being evicted, most frequently from a private rental property.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

In this debate, I will discuss homelessness: the rise of rough sleeping, and the rise of hidden homelessness. By hidden homelessness I mean the situation of all those who do not have stable accommodation: those who are placed in temporary accommodation, resort to living with friends or family, or live in hostels because they do not have a home of their own. Its rise, like that of rough sleeping, demonstrates the failure to ensure a sustainable and working housing policy in this country.

This debate is particularly timely, because we are now in the spring. It is a season of buying and selling in the market, and it is consequently the season of evictions. In the last month, my office has dealt with more casework pertaining to housing than to any other single issue. Of the 28 housing cases opened in the past month, 15 are cases of constituents who have been evicted, and five others involve constituents fearing eviction in the future. While some were evicted for being in rent arrears, some have simply lost their home because the landlord wanted to sell the property. They come from across the ages and professions, and many are long-term tenants. One has lived in their rented home for over 23 years. One woman, a former lawyer, was homeless for over six months. She and her disabled adult daughter resorted to squatting, and to sleeping in churches or on night buses. A mother of a young child, who worked as a teaching assistant, was evicted from temporary accommodation and deemed intentionally homeless for complaining about unsanitary conditions, including mice, damp and mould. Tighter regulations must be put in place to ensure that the accommodation rented out to people is suitable for living in.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising very important issues with regard to homelessness and accommodation for families and individuals. As she says, councils must do more to ensure that accommodation is not overcrowded.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I will come on to. As I say, tighter regulations must be put in place. We are facing what has rightly been called a housing crisis, and homelessness is the sharp end of this crisis. It has dramatically worsened in the past five years, while rough sleeping has risen dramatically since 2010. Figures collected for the Department for Communities and Local Government indicate that there has been an increase from 415 to 940 in the number of people sleeping rough across London on any one night. The combined homelessness and information network database, which gathers annual data from outreach services, shows a similarly dramatic escalation in rough sleeping across London—from 3,975 rough sleepers in 2010-11 to 7,581 in 2014-15.

The rise recorded in Enfield has been particularly dramatic: the number of rough sleepers has risen from 18 to 174 per year. The borough also has a high level of hidden homelessness. Enfield has the fifth highest level of homeless households residing in temporary accommodation in the country, and the number increased by 29% between 2011-12 and 2014-15. Figures for the first half of 2015-16 show that Enfield, with more than 500, has the third highest number of homeless acceptances in the capital. At present, the number of households living in temporary accommodation in my constituency of Edmonton is 924, as identified in postcodes N9 to N18. That figure represents 34% of households in the area, which is an enormous percentage of people without stable homes.

Although the housing crisis is by no means confined to London, it has touched the capital acutely. With over 1 million private rented dwellings, London has the largest concentration of private renters in the country. Enfield saw a huge increase in its private rented sector between 2001 and 2011. According to a recent report,

“The average London renter spends almost 60% of their income (after benefits, but not after tax) on their rent.”

That is double the amount that is typically considered to be affordable. Also according to Shelter’s report, “Making renting more affordable for more Londoners”, one in three Londoners in private rented accommodation has

“gone into debt in the last year to pay the rent”.

The housing crisis has created a dangerously precarious situation for renters. Private renters live in inherently unstable accommodation, with little protection from eviction or rent increases. Our laws on private renting are some of the worst in Europe. In most countries, tenancies are longer than a year, and rent increases tend to be tied to external indices, such as inflation, rather than landlords being able legally to increase them willy-nilly.

The loss of a private rented home is now the most common way people become homeless in London. It accounts for almost half the capital’s homelessness cases. Although the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors predicts that rents will rise by 20% between now and 2020, the Government’s welfare measures have seen housing benefits fall. Local housing allowance has been frozen; the lower shared accommodation rate has changed, and now applies to those under 35, and not those under 25; and the benefit cap is causing more stress for people, who are already coming to my surgery about it on a daily basis. All that means that the gap between housing benefit and rent will worsen, pushing more people into rent arrears and, potentially, homelessness.

I, alongside Enfield Council, call on the Government urgently to review the local housing allowance so that it accurately reflects the inequality in the housing market, and to give more assistance to the local authorities that face the greatest challenges in housing the homeless. I also urge the Government to reverse the intended lowering of the benefit cap. The local housing allowance rate and the benefit cap are contributing to the high number of homeless families being placed in the most affordable part of the north London housing allowance region, namely east Enfield. They include homeless families from other London boroughs who are placed in temporary accommodation in the area. That has displaced local households who are renting privately, further restricted the number of properties available for Enfield residents, and increased the pressure on front-line services.

Enfield’s relative affordability has made it a buy-to-let hotspot, and landlords who let to homeless families are seeking to offer their properties on a nightly rate. That drives up the cost of housing provision enormously. Gross expenditure on temporary accommodation in Enfield has doubled between 2011-12 and 2014-15 from £20 million to £40 million. Greater controls must be introduced on how buy-to-let landlords operate so that we move away from this exploitative system.

In an age in which more and more powers are being devolved to local authorities, councils are being stretched beyond their means. Underfunded councils are hugely overworked. The homelessness monitor for 2016 shows that nine out of 10 councils often or sometimes find it difficult to help single homeless people aged between 25 and 34, and that 87% find it difficult to help those aged between 18 and 24. The majority back a change in the law to expand homelessness prevention. I add my voice to theirs.

I echo the demand of homelessness charity St Mungo’s Broadway in calling for the Government to improve homelessness legislation to prevent more rough sleeping with a new universal prevention and relief duty so that anyone threatened with homelessness will get help. At the moment, councils do not have a duty of care until a person finds themselves homeless, meaning families literally have to wait until they have been evicted from their property to get assistance. Implementing a broader duty of care would, I believe, help councils to assist families before they reach a crisis point. That would infinitely improve the situation for families; being served an eviction notice and having to wait for assistance can severely affect people’s mental health.

It is one thing to legislate, however, and another to implement. Without proper investment from central Government, councils are faced with the impossible task of accommodating an ever-increasing number of families in need, without the resources to do so. An increasing number of families are being left in unsuitable temporary accommodation for prolonged periods of time, as alternatives are not available. Councils must be properly funded in their efforts to assist people who find themselves homeless. As a starting point, I call on the Government to review the allocation of the homelessness grant to bring equity to the system.

Most importantly, a sustainable housing policy must be put forward, and genuinely affordable homes must be built. City Hall’s assessment is that London needs to build between 50,000 and 60,000 homes a year to keep up with the increasing need, yet only 20,000 homes were built last year. That is simply not good enough.

The homelessness crisis in Edmonton illustrates how this Government are failing ordinary people. Housing is a human right, and should be treated as such. The Government have a duty of care and must do more to protect tenants. Without regulation, tenants—in particular, those on low incomes—are left in an extremely vulnerable position. At worst, lack of regulation is creating the preconditions for a repeat of the Peter Rachman era. I would welcome a meeting with the Minister to discuss the details, if he wishes to have one. I will continue to monitor the issue and, in six months’ time, will be reviewing what progress has been made.

I thank the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for securing this debate on such a critical issue. I know that she shows a great deal of interest in the subject on behalf of her constituents.

The causes of homelessness are diverse and complex. People become homeless for different reasons and have different needs. We should be proud of the homelessness safety net in this country, but one person without a home is one too many. This Government are absolutely committed to doing all we can to prevent and reduce homelessness. We must be able to respond to new and difficult challenges, to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place and to support people with long-term, complicated problems—the type of issues that the hon. Lady cited with which some of her constituents had come to her. We must also enable people to recover from a homelessness crisis and start living independently again.

Since 2010 we have invested over £500 million, enabling local authorities to prevent or relieve over 1 million cases of homelessness. Our initiatives have helped to break the cycle of homelessness and rough sleeping for over 100,000 vulnerable people—for example, through the £8 million of funding for local authorities to work with local partners to prevent single homelessness, or the pioneering StreetLink app and telephone line, which make it easier for members of the public, and Members of this House, to help someone they see rough sleeping by reporting the situation so that the rough sleeper can access the support they need. We have also changed the law so that councils can place families in decent and affordable private rented homes, to reduce the time they spend in temporary accommodation. We have made significant progress, but I want to see earlier and more effective action at a local level to make sure that we continue to deliver the best for this vulnerable group of people.

Protecting the most vulnerable in society is just as much of a priority as reducing the deficit, and there need be no contradiction between those two aims. Despite the need to take tough decisions on Government spending, we have prioritised investment in this area and increased funding for homelessness programmes to £139 million over this Parliament. We went one step further in the Budget by announcing an additional £100 million of funding for 2,000 new move-on accommodation places for those leaving hostels and refuges.

The hon. Lady’s constituency is in the London Borough of Enfield, which will receive more than £2 million in homelessness prevention funding between 2016-17 and 2019-20 through the local government finance settlement. I reassure her that our allocation of homelessness prevention funding is based on the need in a particular area. Enfield has recently successfully bid for the funding that we announced in December for those local authorities facing the most significant homelessness pressures, particularly in temporary accommodation, which the hon. Lady spoke passionately about. That funding will help to ensure that people are moved from temporary accommodation into suitable homes.

Local authorities are at the heart of efforts to reduce homelessness. That is why we protected their homelessness prevention funding, which will amount to £315 million by 2020. That will help councils to provide quality advice and assistance to everyone who approaches them for help. We have also provided support to make local authorities more effective. For example, we have funded the National Homelessness Advice Service to provide expert training and assistance to front-line staff dealing with homelessness issues. My Department is also exploring options to improve the evidence base regarding what works in tackling homelessness, and to help local areas target their interventions more smartly.

We have a strong homelessness safety net in England, but we want to strengthen it and prevent even more people from experiencing a homelessness crisis in the first place. Supporting local authorities is not just about funding. We also want to work closely with them, homelessness organisations, and other partners to shape a new approach. That means greater innovation, integration of local services, and earlier intervention—all things that the hon. Lady mentioned.

We will put prevention at the heart of everything we do, but ensure those who fall through the safety net quickly get the help they need. We will invest in programmes to break the cycle of homelessness for those with the highest needs, and make sure that people have the support they need to make a secure, long-term recovery from homelessness. To ensure that every Department plays its part in breaking the cycle of homelessness, I have reconvened the ministerial working group to take action to address the underlying causes of homelessness, and I chaired the latest meeting of that group yesterday.

Prevention must be at the heart of everything we do. That means working together to keep pace with new challenges, learning from other jurisdictions that are tackling homelessness innovatively, and considering all options for the future, including legislation—the hon. Lady raised that and a number of other issues, and I will be more than happy to arrange a meeting with her to discuss in more depth the issues that her constituents experience.

Of course, not every case of homelessness and rough sleeping will be prevented, and where it happens we must act quickly. The longer someone spends sleeping rough, the more likely it is that the problems that may have led them to becoming homeless in the first place will get worse. For those who fall through the net and end up sleeping rough, immediate intervention is vital to help them off the streets. We invested £20 million in rolling out the No Second Night Out approach across England to prevent rough sleepers from spending a second night on the streets. We are building on this success with a new £10 million programme to support even more innovative approaches to prevent and reduce rough sleeping.

Many people’s experiences of homelessness and rough sleeping have been years in the making and will take time to solve. Many will have had mental health, alcohol or substance misuse problems. As homelessness Minister I have seen at first hand the fantastic work that frontline homelessness organisations do day-in—and sometimes night-out—to support these vulnerable people. To help to break the cycle of homelessness for those with the most complicated needs, we are investing £10 million in an innovative new national social impact bond. This will help rough sleepers with the most complicated problems to move off the streets and into accommodation and employment. It will build on the learning from the world’s first homelessness social impact bond, which we funded in London. So far, over half of the participants have achieved positive outcomes.

The homelessness safety net gives people protection when they experience a homelessness crisis, but continued support is needed to help them to find settled accommodation. We have already funded Crisis to run a programme to create over 10,000 private tenancies for vulnerable people, 90% of which have been sustained. We are aware, however, that some people still struggle to move on to sustained accommodation. We must reinforce the routes that help people out of homelessness. At the Budget, we announced an additional £100 million investment to help vulnerable people to move on from hostels and refuges, and into independent living. That is on top of our £40 million investment to refurbish hostels and provide low-cost shared accommodation for young people at risk of homelessness. As well as investing in homelessness prevention, the Government are increasing the overall supply of housing and affordable housing with the biggest house building programme for 40 years.

Before I conclude, I would like to address one or two more of the points the hon. Lady mentioned. She mentioned people who are evicted from temporary accommodation and the suitability of temporary accommodation and some rental accommodation. I reassure her that all accommodation must, by law, be suitable to meet the needs of a household. No family with children should be on the streets. They are automatically in priority need if homeless and the local authority must accommodate that family for such a time as allows them to secure their own accommodation.

On suitability of accommodation, the Housing and Planning Bill is currently going through the other place. The Bill will give local authorities powers to crack down on rogue landlords, for example through the ability to levy a £30,000 civil penalty against a rogue landlord for not providing suitable and right accommodation for their tenants. We will also enable local authorities to retain civil penalties, which will give them additional funding to improve and maintain enforcement activity. That will be extremely valuable in helping authorities, such as Enfield, to do more to make sure that we all, together, drive rogue landlords out of business and stop them renting unsuitable accommodation—often to the most vulnerable people.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate to the House. This is a critical issue on which the Government are absolutely focused. We are a one nation Government. We want everyone to have the opportunity to live happy and fulfilling lives whoever they are, wherever they live and whatever challenges they face in life. Our goal is to keep moving from a low wage, high tax and high welfare economy, to a higher wage, lower tax and lower welfare country. However, we will always support the vulnerable and make sure they have a safe home to live in. I know that that is an aim that can be shared across the House. I look forward to meeting the hon. Lady to take this debate further.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.