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Volume 726: debated on Monday 28 March 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the number of people sleeping rough in London; and what proposals they have to reduce the number.

The latest statistics show 415 rough sleepers in London on any one night: 23 per cent of the national total. The Government are committed to tackling rough sleeping and preventing homelessness. We have maintained the level of the homelessness grant, with £400 million for local authorities and the voluntary sector over the next four years. A cross-departmental ministerial working group has been set up to address the complex causes of homelessness and to improve support for homeless people.

I thank the noble Baroness for that reply because there is some improvement there, which I look forward to seeing. Sleeping rough can be a dangerous experience. One estimate is that rough sleepers have an average life expectancy of 42 years, and that people who sleep rough are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. It is difficult to get an accurate figure, because to protect themselves men and particularly women sleep in places where they might not easily be found. Is the noble Baroness aware that one estimate is that 3,600 people sleep rough in London at some point and that the London mayor was actually committed to ending rough sleeping by next year? What proposals are there for that claim to be put into practice?

My Lords, I am aware of the seriousness of homelessness and of rough sleeping. That is why we are trying very hard to end the situation. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, a ministerial group is looking across the spectrum of Whitehall to see what needs to be done about homelessness to stop it completely. It hopes to report quite soon. I am sure the noble Lord knows that the mayor is also taking forward an initiative to try to ensure that people are not sleeping on the street for more than one night. The whole issue of criminal activity and attacks on people rough sleeping will come into the care that they will be given when they are being looked after.

My Lords, did the Minister see the report last week from Homeless Link, which suggested that one in six places in hostels for homeless people will have to go because of the cuts to the Supporting People grants? Will she join the Housing Minister Grant Shapps and campaigners in this field in urging local authorities, even in these difficult times, not to cut the Supporting People grants, which both cure and prevent homelessness?

My Lords, local authorities have no excuse for cutting the Supporting People grants, which have by and large been preserved in cash terms—the reduction is less than 1 per cent. Although that is part of the unring-fenced grant, we still expect to see that amount of money put towards supporting people. Reductions in the number of bed spaces available cannot be attributed to that because the money is there to ensure that there is sufficient accommodation for people who are rough sleeping and are being taken into hostels.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the London Assembly. Is the money also going to provide any specialist help to the estimated one in three rough sleepers who are suffering from mental health problems?

My Lords, the question of why people rough sleep certainly includes mental health problems. The mayor’s initiative to take people in immediately—along with the other hostels—ensures that they get access to both healthcare and support for moving on into housing.

Is there strong MoD representation on the interdepartmental committee? It is a known fact that ex-service personnel in particular have issues of homelessness and represent quite a considerable number of those sleeping rough.

The answer to that is yes. The Ministry of Defence is represented on the cross-ministerial group. It is well understood that a number of the people who are on the streets are prisoners who have been let out without care. I know that attention is also being given to ensure that better care is given to prisoners before they leave prison, because it is clearly one aspect that is giving difficulty.

My Lords, can local authorities really stop organisations distributing food to those in need on the streets? Will the Government ensure that charitable work that has been conducted by organisations such as St George’s Crypt in Leeds for generations is not destroyed or damaged by anti-humanitarian by-laws?

My Lords, I think that the question refers rather opaquely to the proposal by Westminster to provide a by-law. That is a very specific initiative that Westminster is looking at, and it will involve a very small area. The Government have no intention of stopping soup runs elsewhere in the country. They are a very valuable assistance to people who are rough sleeping, although one has to be careful that they do not provide a magnet for those who are not rough sleeping but are just coming for cheap soup.

My Lords, could the Minister tell the House just how many young people and children are involved in sleeping out at this time? What special arrangements will be made to deal with them, not least in the light of all the trafficking that has been going on recently?

My Lords, I do not know the specific number of children who are sleeping rough, but I hope that the answer is nil because it would be a very serious matter if there were more than a few. If I can find out the answer, I will of course let the noble Baroness know. I am very well aware of her interest and that of the House as a whole in the problem of the trafficking of children and women. I know that it will be very high on the police radar to ensure that any child found in the street is immediately taken in.

My Lords, would any of the excellent remarks that the Minister has made apply to those sleeping rough in Parliament Square?