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Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 3 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are proposing any measures to ensure that homelessness does not increase.

My Lords, we are currently investing £470 million over four years to prevent and tackle homelessness. In the recent spending round for 2015-16, it was announced that the Department of Health will bring forward a new £40 million hostels investment programme. We are also encouraging housing supply through expanding the private rented sector, with £10 billion in loan guarantees, the £1 billion Build to Rent fund and a new three-year affordable homes programme of £3.3 billion from 2015-16, including £400 million for new-product, affordable rent-to-buy.

My Lords, homelessness has risen sharply over the past two years, and recent government measures do not help. For example, on the BBC’s “Look North” last night, it was reported that rent arrears had shot up in Sunderland, Newcastle and north Tyneside as a result of the bedroom tax, raising fears of further evictions and homelessness. Will the Government recognise that misleading national figures about overcrowding and underoccupancy fail to appreciate the huge mismatch between these two things across the country, and that the Government should now, on an area-by-area basis, work urgently with local authorities and housing associations to stop the acute crisis in housing and homelessness getting even worse?

My Lords, the Government are already working across the country with individual authorities, providing access to funding and policies that enable local authorities to make the decisions they need to make and which we have encouraged. We have changed the law to ensure that local authorities can use the private rented sector for people who are homeless or in danger of homelessness. Local authorities need to make decisions on the amount of housing and money they need to support homelessness and on their policies for dealing with homelessness. The Government are fully aware that there are discrepancies across the country and we are working with local authorities to try to help with that.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that many of these homeless people are dealt with by charities, rather than by local authorities? They are very difficult for anyone to manage. When I was a chairman of social services, we had homeless shelters where people used to smoke so often that you had a permanent fire hazard in the building. People who elect to sleep on the street often do not wish to be under any authority that would regulate them. What is the Government’s estimate of the proportion of homeless people dealt with by charities, as opposed to local authorities?

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Baroness the exact proportion but, yes, a number of charities such as Centrepoint and St Mungo’s in London provide an extraordinarily important service. The Passage at Westminster Cathedral and similar organisations across the country play an enormous part in supporting and helping homeless people. The No Second Night Out initiative now takes place not only in London but across the country. It ensures that what my noble friend suggests happens does not happen. People are not on the streets for longer than one night. They are taken off and given advice, help and support to enable them to move back into proper accommodation.

My Lords, official figures say that rough sleeping has increased by 31% in the past two years but experts working in the field say that the increase is double that. Do the Government have a projection for how homelessness, and rough sleeping in particular, is set to go in the future? Do the Government agree that it is essential that all rough sleepers should have access to emergency accommodation and that that needs to be planned for if we are to see this increase continuing in the future?

My Lords, rough sleeping had gone down but I acknowledge that it is beginning to creep up again and, as I have said, that is completely undesirable. The No Second Night Out initiative ensures that people are not left on the streets for long spells of time and that they are given access and help. The £40 million I have just mentioned will come from the Department of Health. It is to build hostels and provide hostel accommodation for people who are sleeping rough and to get them off the streets. It will be very effective, particularly for the mentally ill, of whom there are more in that situation than we would wish.

My Lords, alongside homelessness often goes hunger. The Minister told us yesterday that there was no government policy to encourage soup kitchens. Is starvation part of the Government’s policy, because that seems to be the only way out?

My Lords, I will leave that to my noble friend the Minister who made the statement. Of course, starvation is not part of anyone’s policy or wish. One of the reasons for getting people off the street as quickly as possible is to ensure that they have access to food, medical help and help with accommodation.

Has my noble friend seen the excellent report from St Mungo’s charity, which she mentioned earlier, entitled No More: Homelessness Through the Eyes of Recent Rough Sleepers? According to the report, St Mungo’s found that most of the rough sleepers it surveyed had been in touch with the police before they slept rough, rather than with any other service. What can the Government do to encourage and assist the police to do more work with other agencies to address the problems before they escalate into homelessness?

My Lords, there is already good co-operation between all the agencies that are involved with people who are becoming homeless. The police are often involved in the initial stages, when people have perhaps committed minor crimes, and so they come across them that way. However, there is common accord across the health service, local authorities and the police to ensure that as much help as possible is given.

My Lords, the Minister has a long and distinguished career in local government. Will she join me in expressing concern that local authorities are repeatedly being told that they are given money for this and money for that, but that global budgets are being cut? The result is that individual groups and needs often start asking for the money to be ring-fenced, when in fact local authorities are being constrained far too much by central government. I remember occasions in her distinguished career when the Minister objected to central government doing that.

My Lords, we could now have a debate for half an hour on the financial situation and why we are in a position where we have to reduce funding across both government and local authorities. As I said before and will reiterate, local authorities need to manage the budgets that they have, and need to make the necessary adjustments to how they administer themselves and allocate their funding. The noble Baroness is right that budgets are not ring-fenced, but local authorities are given specific allocations to help with particular areas, including homelessness. However, we are where we are and in the financial situation that we are, which did not start with this Government. Therefore, we all have to play our part in trying to ensure that that is improved.