Private Renting: Homeless and Vulnerable People
I beg to move,
That this House has considered private renting solutions for homeless and vulnerable people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I will talk about the housing problems around the country, but of course every area is different, and I concede that some of the ideas and statistics that I apply to my arguments may help the situation differently in different parts of the country.
The private rented sector is an increasingly important route out of homelessness. When renting works for homeless people, it can be life changing. It is often a huge step towards finding a job, reconnecting with family and rebuilding lives.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the single biggest reason for homelessness in the UK, particularly in London, is eviction from assured shorthold tenancies in the private rented sector?
I am well aware that the hon. Lady and her colleagues frequently deal with cases in which people were made homeless for precisely that reason, which is an increasing problem. I will come on to talk about some of those issues, and I hope that the Minister can add some flesh to the bones of the White Paper that was published yesterday and the work that he is doing on tenure with the private rented sector.
Finding a home in the private rented sector can be difficult, and we all know that despite the Government’s welcome move to ban letting agent fees, up-front costs often act as a barrier for people trying to access the private rented sector. Research by Crisis shows that 16% of landlords report increasing the deposit when renting to homeless people, 12% increase the rent required in advance and 15% increase the contractual rent.
By way of example, I want to pay tribute to a constituent of mine, Adrian Smith, who runs Swift Logistics in Newbury. He discovered that one of his temporary agency workers had collapsed due to epilepsy, because he was finding it difficult to manage his medication as he was homeless and living in a tent. Adrian stepped in, gave him a clean uniform, offered him a permanent position and talked to him about his situation—things that I am sure he would do for any of his employees who were going through a rough patch. Adrian then started to look for accommodation for that employee. There was very little affordable accommodation in Newbury that suited that individual, and anything that Adrian found was made impossible because once the landlord or his agent discovered that the prospective tenant had debt problems—he had a county court judgment against him—they demanded six months’ rent up front. We can see the vicious circle here. I see some of the ideas put forward by organisations such as Crisis, which I will come on to talk about, as possible solutions to such cases.
My hon. Friend will come on to talk about various organisations that help people with homelessness. Shrewsbury Homes for All in my constituency does a good job of trying to help homeless people. Does he agree that the Government ought to do more to help such organisations?
Unless we are extremely hard-hearted, we are all moved not only by the huddled figures in doorways and the cases that come to us of people who are either homeless or likely to be homeless but by organisations in our constituencies such as the one my hon. Friend mentions. It is when those organisations work with local authorities and a Government that all point in the same direction that we can get real solutions to this problem, and I am sure that that happens in his constituency.
The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research found that 55% of landlords said they were unwilling to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit, and even more—82%—were unwilling to rent to homeless people. The majority of local authorities agree that it has become more difficult for single homeless people to access private rented accommodation.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. Does he acknowledge that the number of private landlords who turn away housing benefit claimants is partly to do with cuts to housing benefit and the fact that it is more of a struggle for tenants to pay the difference to their landlords?
It is for a multitude of reasons, but the hon. Gentleman is right that that factor has contributed in certain areas. I applaud private landlords who take housing benefit tenants. Not all of them do, and they need to be supported in trying to do so. I recognise that that is part of the problem, and some of the solutions that I will talk about go precisely to that point.
The all-party parliamentary group on refugees has found that landlords increasingly are not taking another category of people: newly recognised refugees. They are unable to provide sufficient documentation to prove their status and struggle to get a deposit and first month’s rent in the 28-day move-on period to ensure that they get the tenancy that they deserve.
Many local authorities are doing noble work in trying to provide accommodation for the refugees—particularly the Syrian refugees—who we have taken in. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s local authority for doing its best. However, there will be several problems at the next stage, because we want those people to be assimilated into our society, get work and be able to function like any other person. We want to ensure that we have systems in place to allow them to transition from the support that they get at the moment. I have direct experience of that in several areas, and I am keen to talk to him about trying to find longer-term solutions to the issue.
The problem that we are talking about is coupled with the capping of local housing allowance and the shortage of available accommodation at the shared accommodation rate. Those burdens can result in people ending up on the street. However, I believe that there are ways of making the private rented sector work for vulnerable people, and innovative solutions are being delivered every day. Homeless and vulnerable people are being helped and guided into the rental market and, most importantly, given the tools and support that they need to sustain lengthy tenancies. Creative change in the market has the potential to improve not only access but standards in the private rented sector.
On standards, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is potentially an important role for private rented sector licensing schemes, such as the one in my borough of Newham, in helping to tackle the minority of landlords whose accommodation is below standard?
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman, whom I respect greatly for his understanding of this problem, says that it exists among a minority of private rented sector landlords. One could have got the impression from yesterday’s statement that nearly every private landlord was a rougue who managed substandard accommodation. As he says, that is far from the truth. I entirely accept that in many cases, local solutions are better suited, but the Government should be credited for really trying to move things on through a variety of measures, which are sometimes extremely burdensome to landlords but seek to raise the standard of accommodation and improve the way that landlords treat their tenants.
Evidence shows that when a vulnerable person is in secure and safe rented accommodation, they can leave their homelessness behind them and make a fresh start. That also makes good economic sense, which I hope will be a theme of the debate. If we get this right, there will be an entirely virtuous circle. Both the Residential Landlords Association and the National Landlords Association believe that, with the right support, financial risks can be reduced and letting to vulnerable people can be a viable business model. Even if hon. Members forget everything else that I say today, I hope that that will resonate with them. By changing perceptions, we can truly make the private rented sector work for all.
How does the hon. Gentleman feel that the private rented sector will become a viable alternative for vulnerable tenants when rental claims under universal credit are taking an estimated nine weeks—in reality, it is three months in my part of south London—to be assessed?
I recognise that that is a problem. If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will come on to talk about that. If I do not, I am sure she will intervene again. I very much want to talk about the variety of different factors that influence homelessness.
I want to tell the Minister about two potential solutions that may be of help. A lot of work on this has been done by the homelessness charity Crisis, which I cannot praise enough. It is totally focused on outcomes, working with us, whatever side of the House we sit on, to try to find solutions that work. There is nothing particularly new in the two schemes I am proposing, and they will be familiar to some. The first is a help to rent scheme and the second is a national rent deposit guarantee scheme.
WPI Economics developed a model to assess the cost-benefits of the services over a three-year period and identified that £31 million would be required per annum over that period. That would be made up of £6.7 million for the rent deposit guarantee scheme and £24.1 million for a help to rent project. In a time of cash-strapped Treasury forecasts, I want to show—if the Treasury is listening—that this makes economic sense, because it will reduce the cost of the burden of homelessness that sits on the taxpayer.
From 2010 to 2014, Crisis, with funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government, ran the private rented sector access development programme, which funded specific help to rent schemes across the country, which helped homeless and vulnerable people access affordable and secure accommodation in the private rented sector. I have seen that work in my constituency in a different scheme run by the Two Saints hostel in Newbury, which moves people from the wayfarer beds and being the huddled figures in the doorway I described earlier through to supported accommodation and then on to independent living. That works only because all the complex problems that we know exist in homelessness, particularly in rough sleeping—mental illness, relationship breakdown and alcohol and drug abuse—are dealt with throughout the process, which allows a sustainable solution to each individual’s problems.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I agree with many of the points he has made. However, those people with chronic and enduring mental ill health find it very difficult to access any suitable social housing accommodation, particularly in big cities. That group has been let down badly by the private sector and I am not sure whether the solutions he is proposing will change that, given that those people are often going in and out of mental health hospitals. What thoughts does he have on helping that particularly vulnerable group?
Mental health problems can cause homelessness and homelessness can cause mental health problems. In this place we think of things only in silos. We have a very good Minister here from one Department, but if we really are to deal with this problem we ought to have a whole range of Ministers from the Department of Health, the Ministry of Defence and people from all the organisations who care for people sitting down on the equivalent of the Treasury Bench here so that we can do so in in a much more cohesive way.
The schemes I have been talking about matched tenants with landlords and provided financial guarantees for deposits and rent, with ongoing support for both parties. They provided the landlord with a deposit and insurance throughout the tenancy were problems to arise. They also offered the tenant training in budgeting and help to gain and sustain employment. During the programme, more than 8,000 tenancies were created with a 90% sustainment rate, which is an incredible achievement.
Another person we should have here is an Education Minister. One statistic I find fascinating is from the Centre for Social Justice, which showed that while the national average of educational attainment is that 60% achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE, the figure is only 27% among those who have to move more than three times during their secondary school education. We can therefore see the knock-on problems caused by people having to move frequently, and that sustainability in one home is so important.
The schemes also saved the Government money. In just three months of operation, 92 schemes saved almost £14,000 in non-housing costs. The schemes created homes for those who need them most and helped some of the most vulnerable navigate a complex market. With the security of a home and the floating support from a help to rent scheme, a vulnerable person is less likely to need assistance from other services. That is a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) will appreciate. Schemes varying in geography and specialisms still exist, yet without the funding they need they are unable to deliver all the services they would like to the number of people who need them. By working with landlords, such schemes have the potential to unlock the supply of private rented sector properties, which could particularly benefit areas where housing demand is highest. Local authorities could also incentivise good practice through the schemes as well as eliminate bad practice through enforcement policies.
Crisis is also calling for the second project I want to touch on: a national rent deposit guarantee scheme. To reduce up-front costs, help to rent schemes often offer bonds or guarantees to landlords in place of deposits, which cover certain types of costs that the landlord may incur at the end of a tenancy including damages and, in some cases, rent arrears. That was the case in the example from my constituency that I outlined earlier, where private sector landlords were demanding six months’ rent in advance. That means that vital funds are tied up in admin costs and reserves in case those guarantees are called in rather than in going into funding the support that helps vulnerable tenants sustain their tenancies. If the Government established a national rent deposit guarantee scheme, that would provide help to rent projects with greater financial security, with landlords safe in the knowledge that their property is protected and that the help to rent projects are providing the right support to help tenants maintain rent.
Crisis has found claims on bonds by existing schemes to be relatively low, within the 15% to 20% margin. That is one of the reasons why the schemes are attractive to the private sector trade bodies. It seems only fair that, along with help to buy, there is a similar scheme to help those who are just about managing and for whom purchasing a home is just not realistic. Crucially, both the Residential Landlords Association and the National Landlords Association support those asks of the Government.
Currently, schemes attract landlords through the development of a suite of services to mitigate the risks associated with letting to a vulnerable or homeless person or family. We could, and should, actively encourage more landlords to view working with those schemes as an effective business model. The moral argument aside, there are fiscal incentives to working with such schemes. For example, a targeted intervention by a scheme and a national rent deposit guarantee reduces the financial risks for landlords. Also, clients using the access support who have a history of homelessness are much more likely to be deemed as vulnerable under universal credit and therefore they should be offered universal credit direct payments for a limited period, which landlords may welcome. I think that goes a little of the way to addressing the concerns of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).
Help to rent schemes give landlords a layer of security that they do not currently receive from letting agents or the local authority. Such interventions could significantly increase the landlord’s confidence to let to this vulnerable sector or to those in housing need, and that could be part of an agreed longer-term tenancy. Among landlords with experience of letting to homeless people, 59% said they would consider letting to homeless households only if that were backed by such interventions. I therefore believe that the rationale for Government is clear to see. These policies are cost-effective schemes that will provide stability in the private rented sector for the most vulnerable, helping to prevent and tackle homelessness. Investment in the private rented sector access support would build on the Government’s recent announcement for homelessness prevention trailblazers and the Prime Minister’s welcome commitment to put prevention at the heart of a new approach.
Government investment has the potential to reduce spending on temporary accommodation and the costs of rough sleeping. This would allow cash-strapped local authorities, such as mine in West Berkshire, to allocate more of their homelessness budget in a more targeted way—for example, West Berkshire Council continuing to support the mental health triage service, which is doing great work. Independent analysis commissioned by Crisis estimates that if access were available to all households approaching their local authority for homelessness assistance, some 32,000 people could receive support annually. The model assumed that if 60% of people leave temporary accommodation as a result of the scheme being available, savings amounting to between £175 million and £595 million could be realised from one year of the scheme.
Investing in the private rented sector access support fits with the Government’s wider agenda on universal credit and homelessness prevention. I was pleased to support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and will continue to do so. It will make a difference. My worry is that unless parallel schemes, such as those I have outlined, are introduced and accompany a review of the impact of the freeze on local housing allowances in certain areas, we could get into the mad situation where inadvertent actions by the Government create one problem on the one hand that my hon. Friend’s Bill has to solve on the other. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has made housing a priority in her wish to lead a Government that help those people left behind who have not benefited from recent economic growth. The White Paper is an important indication of that intent. I suggest to the Minister that here are two possible schemes that would work and put the private rental sector at the heart of achieving the Government’s ambitions.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 5.10 pm so there is not much time left and a number of Members have indicated that they want to be called. If you could look at the clock and try to be as sparing as possible in your own contributions, that would help the general debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate. I am here because I am full of rage. I am full of rage at the number of homeless families I see on a weekly basis who do nothing worse than working for their living and raising their children and who find themselves homeless because of a lack of security of tenure in the private sector. It is about time that MPs from all parties address the issue as it is, rather than as they might like it to be. Our constituents—the people out there—look incredulously at us as we seem to consider that, somehow, things are okay. They are not okay.
When I had a proper job, before I entered this House almost 20 years ago, I worked in the homelessness and housing association sector. Today, I see things in my suburban constituency that I never thought possible. The major reason for homelessness in my constituency—and, I am sure, in others in London—is mature families being evicted from assured shorthold tenancies in the private sector. These are not tenants who have been there a short while, abused the property or not paid their rent. In my experience—I am willing to share with any hon. Member the 147 cases that I have seen since 1 September that fall into this category—they are families with children at the top of primary school and the middle of secondary school. They are simply being evicted because the landlords can get more rent from somebody else and can realise the value of their assets. Neither of those things makes them bad individuals, but it makes for a very bad housing situation for someone to find themselves in.
There are consequences to this. I sit there and I go through the process. I say, “They’ll issue you with a section 21, then they’ll go off to the county court, then they’ll get a possession order and then you must wait for a bailiff’s warrant. You will get 10 days’ notice of the bailiff’s warrant, and when that comes, the council will put you in temporary accommodation in Luton.” We live in south-west London. Some of the people I have talked to did not know that a place called Luton existed, but they will soon find out. I am sure that Luton is a fine place, but if someone works in south-west London and their children go to school in south-west London, it is not the place where they want to live.
I have had similar experiences in my constituency surgery. Does the hon. Lady hope that the ambition, not least behind the Homelessness Reduction Bill, to deal with this matter might be realised? Sadly, responsibility is sometimes triggered only once the bailiff notices have been served. There is also the issue of the inappropriate placements in Luton. The ambition needs to be fulfilled by the housing White Paper—by ensuring that there is sufficient supply, but also that prevention duties are in place that actually mean something for the 147 families to whom she refers.
I have a controversial view on the prevention of homelessness Bill. I believe that it is a sticking plaster and does not resolve the problem. It simply puts more demand on local authorities, which cannot cope with what they have at the moment. At the heart of the matter is supply. At the heart of it is control, whether that is control over how much rent people have to pay, some control over landlords who are not prepared to maintain their properties or some control in terms of security of tenure. Unless those things are addressed, and addressed in numbers, the problem will not be resolved.
What are we doing to the children who find themselves in this position, who find themselves moving year on year, or six months on six months? These are kids who do well at school and want to be ambitious at school, but who never know or never experience the simple security of living in the same place for a reasonable length of time. That is life for people in my constituency, and the scary thing is that it is life for an ever growing proportion of people, not just people in poor, low-paid work—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not.
Increasingly, that is life for people in middle-class jobs who simply cannot get on the housing ladder and cannot rent something that is in any way affordable.
When the White Paper was presented to the House yesterday, the Minister talked of families for whom rent is 50% of their income. I regularly see working families whose rent is 200% of their family income. We have a crisis. I realise that everyone wants to speak and I do not want to prevent anyone from speaking. It is about time that we stopped pussyfooting around. We have to build homes that people can afford. Anything else does not address the issue.
I will try to limit my remarks, because I am acutely aware that the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) wants to speak.
I have been very interested in this issue since I was at school in the constituency of the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) in the 1970s. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I did a lot of work going in and talking to some people who were living in very damp accommodation. It was very important that we got them moved and got the house condemned as well. If we can actually sort out some of the homelessness issues, it is very important to ensure that people move into properties that are dry and acceptable, rather than, frankly, in an appallingly bad state.
When I was living in London full time, apart from making visits down to my constituency in Plymouth, I went to church at the Savoy chapel, which is in the heart of London, and the chaplain told an horrendous story about how, if someone is homeless, they feel dirty, no one talks to them and everything is all very difficult indeed. We have to take some action to try to deal with that.
My constituency of Plymouth, Sutton is an inner-city seat. It is south of the A38, running from the River Plym to the River Tamar, and has a significant level of deprivation, as evidenced by the 11 or 12-year life expectancy difference between the north-east of the constituency and the south-west, around Devonport. That is a very big issue, and we have to do something about it, and it is not helped by people being homeless. I am delighted that we have a hostel in my patch, where a lot of the homeless end up going, but I am appalled that the national health service has decided to close one of the GP surgeries in my constituency that deals with homeless people who live in that kind of hostel accommodation.
I was particularly distressed to read about that in my hon. Friend’s local paper because I think I opened that GP surgery for him. However, the point is that hostels are not the answer to the problem, particularly for vulnerable people with mental illness, because they need to be properly housed, and they are not being properly housed due to a lack of housing supply, particularly in the social sector. Hostels must not be—and are not—the answer.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. However, it is better for someone to be living in dry conditions than on the streets, and I think that is important.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I am acutely aware that the right hon. Member for East Ham also wants to speak and it would be wrong of me not to leave him enough time.
On Christmas day, I spent the morning visiting several places that were providing lunch for the homeless. They included Hamoaze House, the Shekinah Mission, Stoke Damerel church and Davie hall in north Plymouth, where a number of events were being held for the homeless and I was able to hear for myself what was going on. It is very important that we provide the homeless not only with accommodation, but with access to GP surgeries. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for all the work that he did in opening that GP surgery. I feel real frustration that NHS England has decided to try and close it.
Next week I will be doing a surgery at the food bank, because it is important that people should use my offices to try to make sure we can sort out their benefits too. Without further ado, I am going to shut up, because I want to make sure that the right hon. Member for East Ham can speak as well. Next time, however, we need longer to debate this issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) for his considerateness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) is right that the problem is growing. In 2001, 17% of the residents in my borough—Newham in east London—lived in the private rented sector, whereas today almost half do. That rapid growth is continuing and has led to problems. Regulation in this area is weak. The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), whom I congratulate him on securing the debate, was absolutely right to make the point that the great majority of landlords do a perfectly good job and provide decent accommodation, but a minority do not. The private rented sector has a number of virtues, as we have rightly been reminded. However, when there are problems, vulnerable people suffer disproportionately. They frequently do not know what their rights are and get a very bad deal, which was why my local authority—it was the first in the country to do so—introduced borough-wide private rented sector licensing in 2013.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing the debate. I will make a few quick points. There is hesitancy among private landlords to get away from the mindset of renting out property to homeless people. They want long-term tenants; however, the most important thing is the benefit system. If things are not in place when people have to reapply for housing benefit, they then have to be reassessed and can fall behind. Landlords in many places worry about that, as do tenants in particular.
The hon. Gentleman is right about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden made the point that universal credit is making the problem worse because of the long delays before any payment is made.
I want to make a point to the Minister about the Newham private rented sector licensing scheme, which will end in December. The London borough of Newham is asking Ministers to allow the scheme to be extended for another five years. I would ask him to look sympathetically at that proposal and allow the scheme to go forward.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Will he comment on two points relevant to that? Landlord licensing deals with antisocial behaviour and other conditions, but not stock condition. Stock condition in the north is poor, and conditions in landlord licensing should be allowed to deal with that. If the Government were on people’s side, they would allow licensing conditions to include elements to do with stock condition.
Furthermore, as my right hon. Friend said, the private rented sector has grown, but it has also grown into former social housing, which existed to help poor people to rent. I find, as I am sure do many other Members, that former council housing is being offered in the private rented sector at twice the rent of properties currently in the stock. That should be stopped.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In the Newham scheme, licence holders are bound by conditions, as he described, to prevent overcrowding and deal with antisocial behaviour, and to make sure that properties are well managed and safe. He is right to say that wider stock issues are outside the scope of the scheme.
Perhaps I can give an example from my constituency of what has happened. In Waterloo Road there is a typical terraced house with three rooms on the first floor and two on the ground floor. All five were being used for people to sleep in. In the main bedroom upstairs, which on ordinary standards is appropriate for a couple to sleep in, four single, unrelated people were sleeping. There were six others staying elsewhere in the house. That was 10 people in total, no doubt with a number of cars between them and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) pointed out, there were antisocial behaviour problems for the neighbours as well as grim conditions for those living in the house. Because the scheme was in place, the local authority was able to intervene. There was a fine of more than £8,000 and the position was brought under control.
Altogether, licences have been issued for 38,880 private sector properties in the borough and there have been 1,000 prosecutions since the scheme was introduced. Just 28 landlords have been banned for failing to meet the borough’s “fit and proper” test, in relation to 230 properties. The places where enforcement action is necessary are a small proportion of the total, but the fact that it is possible for the council to intervene in serious, problem cases is an important help to vulnerable people and others living in the borough. For that reason as well, I would particularly ask the Minister to respond sympathetically to the approach that I think he has already received—at least informally—requesting that the scheme should be extended for a further five years after it ends in December.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate with you in the Chair, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing the debate. I thought his speech was an honest assessment of the country’s current situation. It was refreshing and followed on from the honest title of the White Paper presented yesterday: I remind hon. Members that that is based on the situation in England.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made a passionate speech and touched on short-term tenancies and tenancy insecurity, and on the building of homes. What she said is right: it is the only way we shall get around the housing supply problems we face across these isles. I understand what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) was saying about hostels, but we must surely be capable of providing something more secure and dignified to homeless people in this day and age. The constituency example outlined by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) reminds me of looking at census data from Victorian times. It is shocking and highlights the desperate situation that people find themselves in, particularly in London. Action must be taken on that.
The private rented sector has a clear role to play in assisting those experiencing or facing the prospect of homelessness. However, the problems it creates are also well known: affordability, landlords’ reluctance to rent to housing benefit recipients, a lack of security of tenure, poor quality housing and a lack of support for vulnerable people. All these make what is a potential source of vital support for homeless and vulnerable people more difficult for them to obtain.
The focus on seeking private rented solutions for homeless and vulnerable people presents challenges. Although there has been a growth in the private rented sector, changes to housing benefit entitlement since 2010 mean that it is more difficult for housing benefit claimants to cover the full amount of rent due, as I said in an earlier intervention. That is especially so for young people, who are seeing their support cut away. In the light of all of the UK-wide issues caused by the Government’s social security policies, I believe that the effective approach being taken in Scotland should be commended and articulated.
All local authorities in Scotland have a duty towards all unintentionally homeless households, regardless of whether they are classed as being in priority need. That is one reason why, in April 2016, Crisis recorded that Scotland has been on a “marked downward path” for the past five years in relation to homelessness. That downward path can be seen in the Scottish Government’s statistics from 2016, which indicate that 81% of unintentionally homeless households in Scotland that had an outcome between April and September of that year secured settled accommodation—not only in social housing but in private rented tenancies as well.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about that progress, but I was in Edinburgh over the weekend and I was particularly shocked by the level of street homelessness. I am a London MP and have sadly seen an increase in that on our streets in London, but in Edinburgh it was extremely significant.
I would not for a minute even begin to suggest that we have all the answers in Scotland, nor that, just because the evidence from organisations such as Crisis suggests that things are going the right way, we cannot do more. Clearly, more can be done. I live near Edinburgh and know the situation there very well, which is a smaller version of what we see here in London. That is why some of the Scottish Government’s interventions, which I will touch on, are directed at that.
If private rented accommodation is to be a viable solution for homeless people, it is clearly imperative that protections are put in place to ensure that it is secure and affordable and provides an acceptable standard of living conditions. I will focus on some of the measures introduced in Scotland in the past decade that help to address some of those issues. In 2006, Scotland was the first part of the UK to introduce a mandatory landlord registration scheme, which we touched on earlier, in terms of licensing. The local authority must be satisfied that the owner of the property and the agent are fit and proper persons to let the residential property before registering them.
Commencement of the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 will remove the “no fault” grounds for repossession, and should mean that there is no risk of a retaliatory eviction in Scotland. When commenced, that Act will also introduce a new type of tenancy for the private rented sector in Scotland to replace short assured and assured tenancies for all future lets. The new tenancy will be known as a “private residential tenancy”, which will be open ended and will not have a “no fault” ground for possession equivalent to the current notice that can be given under section 33 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988.
Finally, the 2016 Act will allow local authorities to implement rent caps in designated areas—“rent pressure zones”; one such zone is in Edinburgh—where there are excessive rent increases. Applications must be made to Scottish Ministers, who will then lay regulations before the Scottish Parliament. Tenants unhappy with the proposed rent increase will also be able to refer a case to a rent officer for adjudication. Each of those rules and pieces of legislation help in different ways to ensure that the private rented sector is up to standard when used as an option for homeless and vulnerable people. There is clearly no point in placing homeless people in privately rented accommodation when it will only lead to an unaffordable rent, unacceptable standard of housing or an insecure tenure.
Mr Jones, you have literally one minute. I am allowing you to speak only because I did not see your indication that you wanted to do so.
Thank you, Sir Alan. I quickly say to the Minister that there should be a slight review of landlord licensing to include the stock condition of individual properties, because that is not in the legislation. One issue that we need to tackle is sofa sleeping—the hidden homeless. We talk about building new housing being the answer. It largely is, but not in my area; we have plenty of empty properties because of a lack of skills and a poor economy. We have to address skills in the economy if we want to get people into housing. The houses are there.
In my final minute, I want to raise housing benefit for under-21s. The cuts will start in April, but the Government have still not been clear what they will be or where they will apply. That affects supported housing. I know youngsters in Crossroads in Accrington, which is a fantastic resource. They are really vulnerable 16 to 19-year-olds from troubled families, who have tried to find a way for themselves. The situation they are in is not their fault. They rely on housing benefit. Even if housing benefit is not cut, Crossroads may close because Lancashire County Council may pull the funding. Local authority cuts may undermine supported housing even if housing benefit for under-21s is protected. I ask the Minister to clarify what he is going to do about housing benefit for under-21s to prevent further homelessness.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Alan. I thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for raising this important subject. I will say a little more at the end of my speech about his specific proposals, which are worth while and which I commend to the Government—we will see what the Minister says about them.
However, I hope the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I take my cue more from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who spoke with extraordinary passion and knowledge. I have known her long enough to know that she is one of the most assiduous constituency MPs in the House and that she speaks from absolute experience. I am sure that her experiences have been shared by all London Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and increasingly by other Members from around the country.
Let us start by making it clear where the problem started. It started, to a large extent, with the Localism Act 2011 and the permanent discharge of homelessness responsibilities into the private rented sector, alongside lack of security for social housing and an almost complete cut of capital expenditure. Suddenly, the private rented sector was on the frontline, faced with problems that it was neither ready nor able to deal with.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) mentioned housing benefit cuts. We could add the benefit cap or the freeze on the local housing allowance, which the hon. Member for Newbury himself acknowledged. Those are among the reasons why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, more than 40% of homelessness cases are principally caused by the eviction of people on assured shorthold tenancies, largely because of landlords simply wanting higher rents or not wanting to deal with people who are on benefits. Those are the real problems.
There is also the problem of shared accommodation. In 2012, the shared accommodation rate for under-25s was extended to under-35s. In its briefing for this debate, Barnardo’s asked that those who are leaving care be protected from that at least until the age of 25. The Minister may respond to that request, but it will still not resolve the principal problem.
The budget of the Supporting People programme for vulnerable people was cut by 45% between 2010 and 2015. These are huge sums. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Newbury is asking for relatively modest sums by comparison, but they will have relatively modest results.
Does the hon. Gentleman concede that there are some landlords in London—I speak with a little experience—who are in it for the long term? They want to build a relationship with their tenants and they have never evicted somebody at the end of their lease, because they want to continue that relationship. I want to work with Members on both sides of the House to create a longer-term offer to tenants so that they can have certainty, whether it is about the education of their children or about their own retirement. There are opportunities to work together to find solutions.
Nobody denies that the majority of landlords are good landlords, but I ask the hon. Gentleman: why has rough sleeping more than doubled—it has gone up by 133% since 2010—and why is statutory homelessness increasing hugely? He mentioned that the White Paper might give some detail. I do not know whether he has had time to look at what the White Paper says about the private rented sector, but he will not get much detail from it. There are five paragraphs with three proposals, two of which are ideas pinched from us but watered down, and one of which the Secretary of State has already pooh-poohed.
On letting fees, which are an important issue, the White Paper states:
“We will consult early this year, ahead of bringing forward legislation as soon as Parliamentary time allows”.
I thought that we were going to get something rather more quickly than that. The White Paper also states:
“The Government will implement measures introduced in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which will introduce banning orders to remove the worst landlords”.
Again, that is good, but I heard the Secretary of State say in the House yesterday that looking for greater restrictions to deny houses unfit for human habitation was “frivolous”. I think that was the word he used. That does not show particularly good intentions. What on earth does it mean that we are simply going to encourage landlords to have longer tenancies? We need to legislate. We need longer tenancies if we are to stop the terrible curse of insecure accommodation.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill has the support of the Opposition, but we are waiting and taking our cue from local authorities, who know what they are talking about in this respect, on whether the funding will be adequate to the task. All the indications are that that will not be the case, despite the funding that the Minister announced. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden said, we are just putting more burden on local authorities, which are already charged with the responsibility, without having the resources to deal with the problem.
This is a real housing crisis. I appreciate the intention of the debate and the specific measures. We are blessed with some extremely good, very sophisticated organisations now. I have a lot of facilities from what used to be Broadway and is now St Mungo’s Broadway in my constituency. It previously ran a scheme very much of this kind off its own bat. People went out and identified private sector accommodation, took vulnerable people and matched the landlord to the tenant. They gave that degree of support, as well as supporting people with deposits. That is an excellent thing to do and it is what the organisations do well, but it does need support and some funding.
I fear that we are not going to address the key issues. It is not just me who thinks that. Yesterday, at the launch of the White Paper, I did media with the former housing Minster, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). I never thought that I would agree with him on any matters in relation to housing, but his view did not differ much from mine, which is that the Government proposals are a sticking plaster and a missed opportunity. I do not say that with any pleasure, because this is the biggest social problem of our age. It is a problem that has accumulated over time. It is extraordinarily difficult for everybody, but it is particularly difficult for vulnerable people, young people and people who are made homeless through no fault of their own.
I hope that we are going to hear something from the Minister today. I welcome the engagement of all parties, including the landlord organisations. [Interruption.] I do not particularly want to be heckled; I am taking half of my time, which I am entitled to do. If the hon. Member for Newbury thinks that I am dealing with “frivolous” issues, as the Secretary of State does, he is welcome to say that, but let us have some home truths about what the real problems of the housing crisis in this country are.
Minister, I know time is going to be very tight, but if you could leave a minute for Mr Benyon to wind up, I am sure Members would be appreciative.
I will do my best, Sir Alan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this important debate. I know that tackling homelessness is a priority for him. It is certainly a priority for me and the Government. I say at the outset that nobody should find themselves without a roof over their head.
Yesterday, the Government’s housing White Paper was published, which makes it clear that we are determined to make the private rented sector more affordable and secure for people. We have taken action to increase the supply of affordable and secure rented properties through the promotion of Build to Rent homes. That and other measures proposed in the White Paper will ensure that local authorities put more emphasis on planning for those rental schemes. We will certainly encourage the take-up of longer-term tenancies.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury about securing private rented sector accommodation, as he set out in his speech, we have made a significant investment of £14 million from 2010 to 2016, working with Crisis, to develop a programme for single people to access private rented accommodation. More than 9,000 people were helped and 90% of those maintained a tenancy for more than six months.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the banning of letting agents’ fees for tenants. As he knows, we have brought forward proposals on that in the White Paper. We will consult on those proposals before we bring the policy forward. We have also set up a private rented sector affordability and security working group. On that working group, we have Shelter, Crisis, Generation Rent and landlord and letting agent representatives, and it is in the process of finalising its report. We have asked those organisations to work with us to see how we can reduce the costs and barriers people face in accessing private rented accommodation.
Homelessness, as has been discussed, is not just a housing issue. I am proud that we are giving our full support as a Government to the Homelessness Reduction Bill, the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). The Bill has benefited from the support of Members, many of whom are here today. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury spoke passionately about the Bill on Second Reading. We are also bringing forward £50 million of homelessness prevention funding. That money has been awarded to 84 projects that will work across 225 local authority areas in England. A number of those projects include working with the private rented sector. We hope, through that funding, to support more than 1,000 private rented tenants and help those who are at risk of losing their tenancies.
Turning to some of the specific questions that have been asked, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury mentioned the complexity of homelessness, particularly in terms of mental health. He rightly said that there should be a line of Ministers here to respond to the issues. In that spirit, I chair a ministerial working group that brings together various Departments and Ministers to see what more we can do to deal with the underlying issues that relate to homelessness. My hon. Friend will know that in the Homelessness Reduction Bill is a duty to refer. That is an important first step in putting an obligation on public sector bodies to refer people who may be at risk of becoming homeless to the relevant local authority.
My hon. Friend mentioned schemes and the proposals from Crisis. We continue to discuss a number of issues with Crisis on an ongoing basis. He also mentioned giving areas the ability to get people into private rented tenancies and out of temporary accommodation. That was a very good point. We are devolving the temporary accommodation management fee, which we believe will help local authorities to move people out of temporary accommodation and into settled accommodation more quickly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) mentioned the challenges with people who are not in the right place. They may be in a hostel and need to move on. He will be glad to know that the Government have committed £100 million to move-on accommodation. That will create places for up to 2,000 people to move on from hostel accommodation.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned tenancies. The average tenancy is four years, but there are challenges in areas where affordability is an issue. The bottom line is that we need to significantly increase supply, and we are doing that in London, as she will know, by giving £3.15 billion to the Mayor to bring forward a significant number affordable housing units.
To conclude, I will write to Members who have asked any other questions, in particular the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), who made a very good point about licensing schemes. I will leave it there, but we are absolutely committed to tackling this important issue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury for the debate, albeit a short one, although that was not his fault.
Mr Benyon, I understand that you have ceded your one minute to Mr Burrowes behind you.
No, Sir Alan, I was conceding the time to the Minister, but if I may have the 30 seconds I would appreciate it.
There is an all-party group in this House called the all-party group for ending homelessness. Some people roll their eyes when we talk about ending homelessness, but it is only with such ambition that we can address the kind of outrage we all feel when we see someone who is homeless. I am grateful to the Minister for what he said. I hope he will work with Crisis, the Centre for Social Justice and other organisations to try to bring some of the ideas forward. Together, we can achieve a lasting solution.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).