Skip to main content

Homelessness: Death Rates

Volume 653: debated on Monday 28 January 2019

Every death of someone who is homeless is one too many. That is why we are determined to end rough sleeping altogether. We have committed £100 million to the rough sleeping strategy, and we are spending over £1.2 billion to prevent and reduce homelessness.

Official figures released by Office for National Statistics just before Christmas shockingly revealed that 597 people died homeless in England and Wales in 2017—an increase of 24% over the last five years. With further cold weather expected, will the Secretary of State back Labour’s £100 million-a-year plan to make cold weather emergency accommodation available for every rough sleeper in every area?

As I said before Christmas, these figures are hugely shocking. As I have already indicated, one death is one too many. That is why we are committed to taking action across the board; I pointed to the £100 million rough sleeping strategy. At times like this when we have colder weather, we have also allocated an extra £5 million over and above some of our additional work with short-term capacity to support councils to ensure that we are actually giving the help that is needed to some of the most vulnerable in our society.

This week I spoke to the Hepatitis C Trust and my local homeless charity, Porchlight, who highlighted rough sleepers as a significantly vulnerable group in terms of alcohol and drug dependency. What steps are the Secretary of State and his Department taking to help homeless people to access mental health and addiction services?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the issues of mental health and addiction, with a much higher proportion of people who are rough sleeping having those particular needs. That is why in the NHS long-term plan there was the commitment for an extra £30 million designed specifically for health support for rough sleepers, because sometimes access can be really difficult. We are determined to ensure that that type of support is able to be provided to rough sleepers.

We know that homelessness is getting worse. According to Shelter, 36 new people become homeless every day. One way to address this is to make more social housing available. To do that, England should be suspending the right to buy as we have already done in Wales. Does the Secretary of State agree?

I do agree that we require more social housing. That is why we have our affordable housing programme. We have also already taken off the restrictions on councils in England to enable them to borrow to build a new generation of council homes. [Interruption.] I would just point out to Opposition Members, with regard to some of their comments, that this Government have built more council houses in their time than in 13 years of the last Labour Government. But we know there is more to do and we are committed to doing it.

Homelessness is rising, and that is why we need action to stop it reaching the peak levels that we saw under the last Labour Government. What progress is being made to ensure that all councils—not some, but all councils —are taking the preventive approach envisaged in the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the Homeless Reduction Act—a really ground-breaking piece of legislation very much emphasising a preventive agenda to prevent people from becoming homeless at all. Local authorities have received an additional £72.7 million to implement the Act, and the homelessness advice and support team has been providing support. But we need to ensure that more is done and we will certainly be reviewing the implementation of the Act by March next year.

It is often alleged, perhaps anecdotally, that a disproportionate number of rough sleepers are people with a military background, perhaps suffering from drug or drink abuse or from post-traumatic stress disorder. Does the Department have any statistical method for checking whether that allegation is correct? If so, there would be things that could be done with the armed services as well as through the Department.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working with the Ministry of Defence on support that can be provided to veterans who need our help and backing because they have ended up, for whatever reason, on the street. He is right to say that we need better data, and that is what we seek to achieve.

Of the 600 homeless people who died last year, 85% were men, one third died of drug overdoses and 10% died from alcohol poisoning. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those groups and factors are specifically prioritised in order to tackle this issue?

I am pleased to say that our rough sleeping strategy is intended to give that prioritisation, through work not only by my Department but across Whitehall. My hon. Friend is right about that need, and that is what we are determined to provide through the strategy.

Centrepoint estimates that local funding for Bath and North East Somerset Council would need to double to deliver on new duties for homeless young people under the Homelessness Reduction Act. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether he will bring forward proposals to ensure that post 2020 Homelessness Reduction Act funding is based on the level of local demand for homelessness support?

As I have indicated, we will conduct a review of the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act and look at evidence about local authorities’ pressures and needs. I want to ensure that the Act is implemented well and that we are preventing people from becoming homeless.

To deal with homelessness, we need to deal with the housing shortage. Will my right hon. Friend join me in applauding the work of North West Leicestershire District Council, which has overseen the construction of more than 1,000 new homes in the last 12 months, including the first council houses to be built for more than 30 years? Does he think it is a coincidence that we again recorded no rough sleepers in the district over the last 12 months?

I commend my hon. Friend and his council for the work they are doing to build the homes that our country needs. Of course it is about the supply of affordable and social housing, which is why we are taking steps across the board to get people building.

Last year, nearly 600 people died homeless in this country. The Secretary of State was right to admit, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), that this is truly shocking. In a country as decent and well off as ours, this shames us all. We cannot stop homeless people dying if we do not grasp the reasons why it is getting worse, so why does the Secretary of State think that the number has risen in the last five years?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s understandable and rightful concern about the number who were shown to have died and the increase in rough sleeping. I have certainly not hidden from that or from the challenges and responsibilities that we have as a Government to look at the complex issues that lie behind this. We also need to look at what we can do in terms of other issues, such as social policy, where changes have been made, and to look at the evidence, to ensure that we are making a difference and eradicating rough sleeping, preventing people from becoming homeless and ensuring that the most vulnerable are well supported.

The Secretary of State is a decent man, but that was an answer of sheer irrelevance. People are dying on the streets, and the Government are ducking the hard truth that their decisions on hostel funding, on housing benefit, on social housing investment and on protections for private renters are the root causes of the homelessness crisis. With the first widespread winter snow forecast this week, there are still areas of this country where no extra emergency accommodation will be available. Will the Secretary of State think again? Will he save lives this winter and make Labour’s plan the country’s national plan, with £100 million for extra emergency accommodation for every rough sleeper in every area as the temperatures are set to hit zero?

I take the issue of rough sleeping, ensuring that lives are saved and that steps can be taken to provide further accommodation and support, extremely seriously. It is one of my priorities. It is why the rough sleeping strategy looks not only at accommodation, which of course is important, and we have taken steps through our rough sleeping initiative, with additional accommodation and additional support workers out there as a consequence, but at issues of health, addiction and mental health. That is why I am determined to make that difference; and our rough sleeping strategy will make that difference and will make rough sleeping a thing of the past.