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Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they provide guidance and help for people of all ages in stressful situations who might become homeless and destitute.

My Lords, under the Homelessness Act 2002, all local housing authorities in England and Wales are required to have a strategy for preventing, as well as tackling, all forms of homelessness. This approach involves promoting a range of practical measures to help people who might become homeless, particularly early intervention and the provision of housing advice.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am particularly worried. What arrangements are there for those from other countries who come to the United Kingdom to alert them to difficulties regarding accommodation, jobs and other benefits? Secondly, when they have arrived here, perhaps near destitution and rooflessness, what co-ordinated arrangements are there to help them in their difficulties?

My Lords, I shall answer the question in terms of people coming from A8 and A2 countries, who I think are at the back of the noble Lord’s mind. The Government have invested in an extensive information campaign in those countries to ensure that prospective migrants are aware of their rights and their obligations, particularly their rights to seek work and to access social benefits. We are trying to ensure that at the very beginning people know what the prospects are when they come and their rights. The message is essentially, “Think before you leave”.

It is important to point out that, of the people who come here, 97 per cent of the A8 nationals are in full-time employment. They contribute to the economy. We know that in areas such as Westminster, which is traditionally the part of the city that has the highest levels of rough sleeping, there are people who find themselves destitute. I visited the Passage recently, which is a place to which many A8 migrants go and where they are helped. It is under pressure, like many other places. We have recently made available over £600,000 to central London local authorities to support intervention to work with those nationals who are rough sleepers. There is quite a lot of assistance and charitable help as well.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the well respected charity, Shelter, has repeatedly drawn attention to the overcrowded condition in which numbers of children are now having to live, owing to the shortage of housing accommodation? It is concerned that children’s welfare and future development is being damaged by these sorts of conditions. Are the Government doing anything about this?

Yes, my Lords. We know that it is a particular issue in London. We recently provided £19 million for local authorities to look at ways of increasing accommodation for children living in overcrowding. We have five co-ordinators working on overcrowding in London, and we have another £700,000 for the five London boroughs worst affected to develop better policies.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it makes good sense to support vulnerable families so that their children do not run away or go on to the streets and become homeless? Does she see an important role, in terms of stopping youth homelessness, for the parenting academy that the Government have introduced and the new support for social work that they have been developing?

Absolutely, my Lords. One of the main causes of homelessness is parents or relatives who are unwilling to provide accommodation for young people. We have to work hard at mediation services, and there is much more investment going into those services. For example, we have a supported lodging scheme for young people that is making a difference, and we have a commitment that by 2010 no 16 or 17 year-old will be in the same position. It is absolutely right that parenting schemes have a large role to play in that.

My Lords, while I have every sympathy with the families and young people whom we have heard about so far, is the Minister aware that there are a great many single women who have been renting rooms, particularly in London, who now find that the people who were letting rooms to them do better by selling the properties so are giving them notice? If they have only a weekly tenancy, they have nothing to go to and no claim to remain where they are. As far as I know, there are no council facilities for homeless women. Is the Minister able to tell us about that?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point. Since 2003, all local authorities have had to develop a homelessness strategy. They should certainly be looking at people like that, identifying people who are vulnerable and providing the sort of housing advice services which can set out the housing options, pointing people in the direction of, for example, supported or key-worker housing. I will think about what the noble Baroness has said, in particular relation to that group.

My Lords, young girls who run away from home and are sleeping rough are at great risk of rape and assault. Sometimes they have run away to get away from assault. Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, yes, one of the primary feeders of homelessness is domestic violence. Much of the work we are doing with local authorities in setting up sanctuary schemes and so on is about ensuring that people are safe and that, if they leave home, they are picked up on the streets by outreach teams working with the police and given appropriate accommodation as safely as possible.

My Lords, the Minister has spoken a lot about young people. Young offenders frequently have difficulty finding suitable housing. If they are not looked after they are at risk of reoffending. What signposting is given to direct them to where they can find the housing?

My Lords, that is a terribly important question. The housing advice provision now being made in prisons to give early advice on accommodation is absolutely vital. We are working in partnership with the Home Office on reducing reoffending by creating pathway programmes into housing. We have some extremely interesting pilots, working in Holloway with women offenders, for example, which I would be pleased to write to the noble Lord about.