Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who are going to speak in this short debate. At the start, I declare my interests as an elected councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association, and I generally refer Members to my declaration of interests. I also thank the staff of the House Library for their useful briefing and I thank the many organisations that have provided briefing material to help this debate, including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Local Government Association, the Children’s Society, Alcohol Concern, St Mungo’s and the Big Issue.
We live in one of the richest countries on the planet. We are in a palace debating homelessness in one of the richest cities in the world, yet homelessness is right on our doorstep. If you come into the Palace through the entrance in Westminster Tube station you are most likely to be greeted by people sleeping on cardboard near the entrance door. If you arrive by train at any of the mainline stations within a few minutes’ walk, such as Charing Cross, Victoria or Waterloo, you are likely to be greeted on your route to the Palace by homeless people sitting on the floor and sleeping in doorways. It is truly shameful that people in this city do not have a roof over their head where they can be warm and safe. I put this Question for Short Debate down because we have to keep raising this issue and pressing the Government to take effective action to end this scandal. I am sure that noble Lords from all sides of the House will, in future, raise this most pressing cause again and again.
In 2015, the Government estimated that 3,569 people were sleeping rough on any one night in England, a rise of 30% on the previous year and double the number who were on our streets in 2010. In 2011, the Government launched the No Second Night Out service, but despite that, why have homelessness numbers continued to rise? Why do people become homeless? There are a variety of reasons, which can include relationship breakdowns, people fleeing domestic violence, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, mental health problems, loss of employment and the unaffordability of housing. However, not all these people will end up sleeping on the street: some will end up sleeping on the sofas of friends and family members, and then become part of a hidden class of homelessness.
We need an array of strategies to deal with this problem. There is no quick, easy answer, but with national and local government working together along with civil society, this problem can be dealt with. Look at alcohol abuse: it is well established as a cause and a consequence of homelessness. It is almost impossible for someone to address their alcohol addiction problems while they do not have a roof over their head. It is likely that excessive alcohol consumption is a coping mechanism in some cases, with the result of making everything worse.
I do not need all the answers tonight, and I am very happy for him to write to me afterwards, but I have a series of questions for the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. First, how do the Government see the development of strategies for dealing with alcohol abuse among people who are sleeping on the streets, and consuming super-strength lager and super-strength cider among other things, so that dealing with the addiction is central to sorting out their lack of stable housing? Young people, especially those in care, can be particularly vulnerable. Targeted support is needed so that they can develop the confidence to be able to live safely and securely. One possibility is of course to look at what support young people receive and where that support can be improved.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, will be aware that the Children’s Society has been campaigning for young people coming out of care to be able to claim the single bedroom rate housing allowance until the age of 25—an increase of three years from the present cut-off point at 22. At present, these young people transfer to the shared accommodation allowance, which has particular risks for vulnerable young people. The proposals from the Children’s Society seem a very good idea. Have the Government given any consideration to these proposals and, if not, why not?
The correlation between mental health and rough sleeping is well established, with four out of 10 people sleeping rough on the streets having a mental health problem. They are likely to spend longer on the street, and getting these people properly assessed and receiving treatment is an important part of getting people back into accommodation that is safe and warm. Can the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, tell the House what work is being done with the NHS to ensure proper treatment is available as part of a plan to get people off the streets? What assessment has he made of the Welsh Assembly’s Housing (Wales) Act 2014, as this appears to have had a positive effect, with more focus on prevention and a drop in the number of statutory homeless decisions?
The lack of genuinely affordable housing is a real problem. Affordable rent, which often appears to be seen by the Government as the solution to all housing problems, is in many parts of the country completely unaffordable. Where I live, in Lewisham, rents of £2,000-plus a month are fairly common and do nothing to deal with the need for housing at social rents or to enable people to have a reasonable quality of life. The obsession with this affordable rent policy and the failure to build social housing are things that urgently need to be addressed. Local government has a key role to play but it must be said that it is unable to deliver on a wider range of demands, of which tackling homelessness is a key concern along with other increasing pressures, while having to deal with ever-reducing budgets. It just does not add up; you cannot square the circle.
Can the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, tell me what plans the Government have to review the question of housing incomes and rising rent levels, and the contribution that these worsening figures make to the homelessness crisis? It would also be useful if he could tell the House what mechanisms are used to review the impact of government policy on homelessness and about the prevailing trends. The Mayor of London has made tackling homelessness one of his housing priorities for the capital. In addition to the longer-term plans to boost the supply of genuinely affordable housing, he is setting up a No Nights Sleeping Rough task force. Can the noble Lord tell us how his department is working with the Mayor of London to deal with homelessness in the capital?
The Homelessness Reduction Bill is a Private Member’s Bill put forward by the Conservative MP Mr Bob Blackman, which seeks to modernise homelessness legislation. There are some very positive aspects to the Bill and it has cross-party support in the other place and elsewhere, but with new duties, new responsibilities and new requirements come new costs and new funding requirements. The duty in the Bill to provide emergency interim accommodation for people with nowhere safe to stay would have a positive effect in helping homelessness to be addressed at the earliest opportunity, and avoid the danger of people sleeping rough while a longer-term solution is found. The Bill does not have its Second Reading until the end of next month, but I hope the Government will look at it carefully.
I close by saying that I am delighted at the range of speakers we have for this short debate, including: my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, who served as a government Minister over many years; the Mayor of Watford, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill; the chief executive of the Centre for Social Justice, the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud; and of course the noble Lord, Lord Bird, who has done so much work with the Big Issue. I thank them all for taking part in this debate tonight and I look forward to their contributions.
My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my register of interests again. I am the leader of South Holland District Council and the chairman of the Local Government Association. I am a partner in a very small business that rents out houses privately, and I am the chairman of a community interest housing company that we set up specifically to deal with homelessness.
I will expand a bit on the words of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in terms of not just dealing with this as a rough sleeping issue. We have 70,000 people in council accommodation for the homeless, nearly 1 million people sitting on council waiting lists and only about 1.6 million council houses that are still in council use. This is not just a problem for this Government. It is a historical problem that this Government inherited from their predecessor—of whom they were part—which they in turn inherited from their predecessor, whom they clearly were not part of. Homelessness seems to be a problem despite the best efforts of the best political brains in the country for the last 40 years to tackle it—we seem to have failed. It is probably time now for the Government to take a completely different tack and work closely with the local government family and the third sector to make sure that we give attention to detail that is not driven by people from the Treasury.
Now is probably the time for DCLG to be set free from the Treasury so that it is able to come up with the solution that we all know is the one we need to follow, which is for money to be put towards the supply problem. It is not about the supply of properties; as we know, councils have planning permission for more than 500,000 properties. The private sector, however, for varying reasons, not all of them simple, has failed to deliver those units. Councils have proposed a solution to the Government that would allow 500,000 new units to be delivered in the life of a Parliament, and I again extend the offer from the Local Government Association to work very closely with DCLG on making sure that we try, once and for all, to manage people’s expectations that they should be able to live in a decent, safe, secure, warm home.
My Lords, I again refer Members to my interests. I am chair of an organisation called Changing Lives, which is based in the north-east but operates in other parts of the country, too. I was Minister for homelessness—among other things, including local government—from 1997 to 2001, which was when we introduced the real drive around rough sleeping and reduced it by more than two-thirds within two years. We had a very clear strategy during that time, where we worked very closely with local authorities and were very successful in reducing rough sleeping. I used to ring up nearly every day and ask not only how many beds were available but how many detox beds, because unless you offered those, you were not going to crack the problem. That is one of the problems today.
In this very short speech in a debate that I congratulate my noble friend on securing, I want to concentrate on the plight of women. Women have been the hidden group in homelessness, and indeed among people with complex needs. In 2007-08, my last job in government was to return to issues such as this as Minister for Social Exclusion. I set up what we called the ACE pilots, looking in a new way at adults with chronic exclusion—I think that is what “ACE” stood for. The question was how to do that in a more holistic way. However, we did not address it in a gender-based way, and that was a mistake. Now, the charity I chair does much more gender-based work, and it is absolutely critical. We run a programme in Gateshead in Newcastle called Fulfilling Lives, a programme funded by the Big Lottery Fund to look at people with complex needs, and we have a significant number of women with whom we are working in this regard. Every one of them has had significant abuse either as a child or as an adult—in most cases, both. That means they do not talk about it in certain settings, so some of our workers who had worked with them for years but had never worked with them in a gender-based way got a real shock when they began to talk much more about the experiences that had brought them to where they were.
That has convinced me that we must take a whole new look at how we do things and how we address these issues. You cannot leave those women in mixed hostels. Indeed, work came out over the summer from a very good organisation called Agenda, which has been brought together from about 60 charities that work with women in this area, looking at and highlighting the number of women who have to sell themselves as sex objects to get accommodation, food and the drugs and the alcohol on which they may well be dependent. This is simply not acceptable and we have to do something about it.
The DCLG Select Committee report last month acknowledged the real issue of women and that we have not been looking at it effectively. I simply say to the Government that this is about issues of mental health, addiction and abuse. Unless we begin to look at this matter much more carefully, especially at how we collect the figures—we do not really know the extent because we do not collect the figures effectively—family life in the next generation will continue to be blighted. With regard to the lives of these women, I say to Ministers: come and have a look at some of the work we are doing. It is remarkable but, my goodness, it is difficult.
The Government have to look at the housing benefit issue and give us the report quickly, because people need assurance that the refuges and hostels that are funded from housing benefit will be exempt in future. We need that assurance quickly. We need more mental health workers to work with these people, and we need gender-based services and approaches. There is much more that I would like to say, but my time is up. I hope we will keep coming back to this, and I hope Ministers will engage with folk like me because we really want to address the issues.
My Lords, I declare my interests as the directly elected mayor of Watford and deputy chair of the LGA.
I was heartened to learn that the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee published its homelessness report last month. It stated quite boldly that,
“the scale of homelessness in this country is such that a renewed, cross-Departmental Government strategy is needed”.
Hurrah—that is good news. However, will this be a strategy that leads to swift action and real change?
As we all know, homelessness legislation provides the real safety net to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society. We know this, but we also know that the holes in the net are getting bigger. It has been evident to those of us in local government that this crisis has been coming for some time and has been exacerbated in recent years by the culmination of the rise in the number of people struggling to pay private rents, which are rising far faster than their incomes. There are fewer homes being built than are needed: a conservative estimate is that over 230,000 homes a year are needed, versus the 130,000 actually built last year. The number of social houses available has halved since 1994. Combine all that with the cumulative impact, which I am sure we are all getting through our constituency doors, of the recent welfare changes. Do the Government believe that the eventual strategy will reverse these trends?
In my own authority, homelessness has quadrupled in five years and we are having to find significant sums of money to house people in temporary accommodation. We have now accepted that the level of homelessness will never go back to the steady levels that we had five or six years ago, which we could accommodate, albeit with a squeeze, and I prided myself that we never needed to use bed and breakfast. Now we could not cope without local hotel provision on a permanent basis. We have recognised that we must build more temporary accommodation, at an estimated cost of millions of pounds. Our residents are now in temporary accommodation for up to three years, on average for 15 to 18 months—a Watford statistic that I am not proud of.
Why is that? The point I want to make tonight is that, quite simply, there are not enough affordable and social homes available, and pushing families back into the private sector, which we can legally do, is increasingly not an option. This is because they will usually be low-waged households, and the gap between housing benefit levels and private sector rents is growing exponentially. That is why getting your hands on a social housing tenancy in Watford is like winning the lottery. This is all happening at a time when local authority budgets are being cut year on year. How will the Government ensure that the new burdens are fully funded? Local government wants to work to solve this crisis. It believes it can be an active partner—that is the key word—in working towards sustainable solutions. However, simply extending the duties on to councils without the financial resources and powers to do the job may allow the Government to feel that they have done something, but in reality it will be a sticking plaster on an arterial wound.
The current system really is unfair to the single homeless. The plans to take away the current distinction between priority need, which usually means families, and non-priority need, usually single persons, are to be welcomed, but not if we do not have the means to house them. That will only make rationing the incredibly small cake of available housing more difficult.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is right when he says that the system does not take into account the hidden homeless—those who are indeed homeless but not included in the official statistics. The current system makes the local authority act as a gatekeeper of a scarce resource, which is a miserable role for council officers—finding reasons to turn people away when in their hearts they want to help.
Any changes to alleviate these issues will be welcomed from this side, but be assured that we will be analysing these measures with a massive dose of realism, based on hard evidence from the Local Government Association and partners. At the heart of the problem is the need for more social, affordable and specialist supported homes. The current method of providing these homes by the planning system is simply not working. Any legislation or strategy that fails to address this fundamental issue will simply mend holes in the net, when in fact I reckon we need a new net.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on securing this important, albeit short, debate, and on his comprehensive opening remarks, which captured the broad nature of the challenge before us. Homelessness is undoubtedly one of the most important and pressing social issues of our time, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to discuss it in the Chamber. While I do not have a string of interests to declare, I am personally passionate about this issue.
Homelessness is, by its nature, a complex issue, as we have already heard. The causes can vary from person to person and, unsurprisingly, there is no panacea—but this complexity must never lead us to view homelessness as something that cannot be addressed: an unavoidable feature of modern society. It is not; it is something that we can tackle. Homelessness is avoidable and doing something is firmly within our control. Indeed, there are many tools at the disposal of the Government for both tackling and, importantly, preventing homelessness, and I believe that they have an obligation to use these tools as effectively as possible. Given the short time available, I will focus particularly on one of these tools, which has been touched on.
Last year, the Chancellor announced a four-year freeze on rates of local housing allowance—that is, housing benefit paid to those living in the private rented sector. Almost 400,000 working families in England receive local housing allowance, and they contain almost 750,000 children. Local housing allowance is a lifeline for those families. It provides support to bridge the gap between wages and the essentials of living. For many, it is the difference between keeping the roof over their head and homelessness.
Analysis from the housing and homelessness charity Shelter shows that if the freeze continues, by 2020, families in four-fifths of the country could face a gap between the support they need to pay their rent and the maximum support they are entitled to. This could affect 330,000 working families. Furthermore, this gap is likely to be significant. We are not talking about a few pounds here. In almost a third of the country, working families will face a gap of more than £100 a month between the support available and the rent due.
What does this mean? Private tenants could be at risk of homelessness if they cannot find the money to meet the shortfall. Families will be put at increased risk of homelessness if they are evicted because of arrears or they cannot find an affordable property when their tenancy ends. Let us think about that. That means that rents are detached from the support available. Landlords will potentially view households on housing benefit as a far riskier prospect because of this, further reducing the pool of properties available to lower-income households. We therefore find ourselves in the bizarre situation where a government policy designed to help people meet their housing costs not only fails to do so but may even increase their risk of homelessness in the process.
Local housing allowance rates should reflect the real cost of renting in each area to ensure the availability of affordable properties and prevent shortfalls and therefore homelessness, just as they were intended to. I therefore urge the Minister through his good offices to think very carefully about the freeze on local housing allowance. If we are looking at a cross-departmental strategy, that should be part of it.
I am of course not alone in calling for this. The problem has been highlighted on numerous occasions, most recently in the CLG Select Committee report, which urged the Government to review local housing allowance levels so that they would more closely reflect market rents.
I hope that with the new Government, this issue will be thought about. I certainly admire the Prime Minister’s commitment to make Britain a place that works for everyone, including these families.
My Lords, I start by adding my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for calling this debate on such a crucial issue. I declare my interest as CEO of the Centre for Social Justice, where we are currently undertaking a piece of work looking at eradicating homelessness, focused particularly on the area of rough sleeping. This work is chaired by Brooks Newmark, the former MP for Braintree.
For the past decade, we have sought to tackle the root causes of poverty in Britain, focusing on family breakdown, failed education, addiction, debt and worklessness. Through my work on the front line, running a night shelter and hostel for many years, I saw at first hand the devastating impact that those dynamics have on an individual’s life when they converge and how all these factors interact to entrench disadvantage, potentially even resulting in the loss of a home. The London CHAIN rough sleeper database found that 43% of rough sleepers had an alcohol support need and just over three in 10 had a drugs support need.
As we all know, a secure, stable home is fundamental to the life chances of all of us, but particularly to the life chances of the poorest. Without it, adults can struggle to maintain employment or provide the sort of home that is crucial for the nurture and flourishing of children. I therefore strongly welcome the Government’s commitment to a robust social justice agenda which focuses on early intervention to prevent issues spiralling out of control. This approach has two main advantages: first, it generates significant longer-term financial savings, but it also saves people from years of personal pain.
It is because of the focus on early intervention and prevention that I strongly welcome the Government’s commitment, made just before Christmas, to consider better ways to prevent homelessness, including how legislation could be improved. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned, over the past five years, Wales and Scotland have introduced new legislation to tackle these problems. The Housing (Wales) Act 2014 brought in stronger prevention and relief duties for eligible homeless households, regardless of priority need status. Although it is early days, statistics from the Welsh Government show that the new model is working, with the number of households who lose their home falling by up to two-thirds. Any programme achieving this sort of impact needs to be closely examined for lessons that we could learn here.
I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister to consider supporting Conservative MP Bob Blackman’s Private Member’s Bill, which, reflecting the principles of the Welsh legislation, would: place a stronger duty on local authorities to prevent homelessness; extend the definition of “threatened with homelessness” from 28 to 56 days; require local authorities to take reasonable steps to help to secure accommodation for all eligible homeless households; and entitle single people to access emergency accommodation if they have nowhere safe to stay that night.
Drawing on lessons from Wales, it has been estimated that such a law could have up-front costs of about £44 million, but almost immediate savings of £47 million. Thanks to the Government’s protection of homelessness spending in the most recent Budget, resources are available to help with those potential up-front costs. Could we consider this?
As well as taking an early-intervention approach, we need to ensure that robust support is provided for people who are already homeless. This is particularly the case for people who have complex needs, as we have already heard in the Chamber tonight. Homeless Link found that 76% of homelessness accommodation projects have had to refuse access to people whose needs were too high—a situation that needs urgent attention. Therefore, I strongly welcome the Government’s commitment in the Budget to doubling the funding for the rough sleeping social impact bond from £5 million to £10 million, to drive innovative ways of tackling entrenched rough sleeping, including Housing First approaches.
Housing First provides someone with immediate permanent accommodation and wraparound support to help them maintain their tenancy. It covers areas of alcohol, drugs, mental health and historic abuse. The service is highly personalised and an individual will work with a key worker who will co-ordinate the support that they need, rather than having to work with a range of different agencies. There is strong evidence to show that the Housing First approach is very successful in moving people with complex needs away from street homelessness. This has to be our objective.
I commend the Government for their focus on this important issue and ask that they consider the twin approach of early preventive action to prevent homelessness and Housing First for those who have fallen through the net.
My Lords, I, too, have a declaration, which is not in my register of interests: that is, I could be homeless. Any single one of us could be homeless, because homelessness often affects people in circumstances beyond their control. That is why I welcome this debate tonight and congratulate my noble friend Lord Kennedy on a debate on what has become a crisis issue, which is worsening at the very time that the construction industry has started to go into decline.
I was fortunate to be born and brought up in a council flat in London’s East End at the height of the post-war housebuilding boom. That would now be considered a luxury. Homelessness is all around us; it is not only among those whom we see sleeping rough in ever-increasing numbers. There are people who are homeless who work, and whose families and friends have no idea that they are homeless. They are the people who we see travelling to work with us on trains, who serve us in the service industries and who often work alongside others; they have no permanent fixed abode. They sofa surf, find cheap hotels and last-minute deals; they are in squats, or staying with friends until their friends tire of them. Others are in temporary accommodation or living in shelters. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, that this happens in the fifth-largest economy in the world is as shocking as it is shameful.
And it is getting worse, with rising rents and room rates now out of the reach of most people on an average wage, and as we see housing as a commodity rather than a basic necessity. Therefore, we need a huge increase in real affordable accommodation. I have been fortunate indeed to see the work of some of our homeless charities, such as Crisis, especially at Christmas. They are dealing with women and men whose lives could be turned around if they had a home—a permanence in their lives. Often these are people who, because of their experiences, deal with mental health problems and general health issues because of and compounded by homelessness. People are at risk, too, not only in their health but from sexual and other physical abuse. The fact that among the homeless are those who have left the armed services is inexcusable and indefensible. Women and minorities and young people are particularly vulnerable.
From the Local Government Association briefing, it is clear that councils are doing their best, but they are facing significant financial challenges. Therefore, any extension of legal duties on councils must be accompanied by sufficient powers and funding from the Government—and in this respect I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Let me deal now with another particularly vulnerable group—young LGBT people. A 2014 LGBT youth homelessness report by the Albert Kennedy Trust found that 4,800 young LGBT people in the UK were currently homeless or living in hostile environments. That is 24% of the youth homeless population in this country. Some 69% of LGBT homeless youth are highly likely to have experienced familial rejection, abuse and violence, and 77% believe that their sexuality or gender identity was the overriding factor in their rejection from home. Homeless LGBT young people are less likely to seek out help than non-LGBT homeless people. When they do, a limited understanding of the experience of LGBT homeless youth and an assumption of heterosexuality by some service providers poses further risks of discrimination. The findings from that report have led the Albert Kennedy Trust to conclude that homeless LGBT young people are one of the most disenfranchised and marginalised groups within the UK.
Finally, only this week as I left my home, I was approached by a young woman who wanted cleaning work. She was desperate; she needed to clean so that she could raise £19.50 to enter a homeless shelter that night. That should not be happening—but it is happening, and in ever-increasing numbers. No work, no home, no future: that is the barren reality.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for raising the issue of homelessness and ask the Government to put their mind to the problem. It is something that every Government in the last 25 years since I started the Big Issue have dealt with; every Government have had their favourites and particular twists on the situation of homelessness. I declare an interest in that I am a person who makes a living out of homelessness; if it was not for the homeless, I might well be homeless. Twenty-five years ago, I started something to help the thousands of homeless people who were sleeping in the West End of London. We are not back there. If you listened to politicians in opposition today you would think that we had arrived there already, but you must be aware of the fact that we could arrive there—so it is a very good idea for us to enter the fray again and say, “Let’s not return to 1991”.
One of the reasons why there were so many homeless people in 1991 was that at the end of the Thatcher Administration the social security laws had been changed and children of parents on social security from the ages 16 to 17 were refused social security. So social security was withdrawn, and the noble Lord, Lord—sorry, I have forgotten your name, forgive me.
When the noble Lord, Lord Young, was Sir George Young, as he will remember, there were thousands of young people filling our streets, because of the change in government policy. When I look at what has happened with homelessness over the years, I am probably in a minority, in that I do not believe that Governments are capable of making major changes by one policy followed by another and another. In a way, that is avoiding the major issue, which in Britain today is the fact that we fail 30% of our children in school—and those 30% of our children become 70% to 80% of our prison population and become 60%, 70% or 80% of the people on social security. You get a situation where families are broken, where our children are not given places of safety, where social security is not used as a place of security, and so what happens is you produce another generation of people who become homeless.
The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, says that we could all be homeless—we could be—but the chances are that, if you were failed at school, if your parents are on social security, if you live in a council flat on social security, you are more likely not to go to university and you will in fact have to rely on the university of the streets or the university of the social security office. Most of the people I have worked with over the past 25 years, 95% of them—with some notable exceptions, such as the man who went to school with Prince Charles—come from the same social background as those people who were failed in school.
After 25 years of the Big Issue, I have come into the House of Lords to help to dismantle poverty, not to make the poor comfortable, not to parry with the Government over this, that and the other; I have come into the House of Lords to find methods of changing the way in which we produce another generation of people. I am sorry, but all my knowledge leads to the fact that we spend £19 billion a year on education when we should actually be spending £50 billion a year on education. We should be breaking open the issue of those 30% of children who will go on to fill our prisons, our hostels, our streets and our social security queues.
My Lords, I am very pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate; it has been a debate of considerable import and great passion. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for securing a discussion on such an important issue and I thank the noble Lords, Lord Bird and Lord Cashman, the noble Baronesses, Lady Morgan, Lady Thornhill and Lady Armstrong, and my noble friends Lord Porter and Lady Stroud for their contributions.
Before I address specific issues that have been raised—any I do not cover in the time available I will write on—I will make a number of points. People who find themselves homeless are some of the most vulnerable in our society, which is a point that has already been made, and this Government remain committed to ensuring that they always have a roof over their heads. Homelessness affects all parts of our community: youths, women, members of the LGBT community, families, single people—they all deserve attention in this regard, not just some of them.
Since 2010, we have invested more than £500 million in enabling local authorities—who are key partners, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, rightly acknowledged —to help prevent or relieve more than a million cases of homelessness. Homelessness acceptances are now less than half of the 2003-04 peak, but just one person without a home is one too many. A diverse range of needs displayed by different groups of people means that, despite the efforts of successive Governments—and, as my noble friend Lord Porter said, it has been successive Governments—homelessness remains a significant problem in this country. There are multifarious reasons behind this, as have been set out by many noble Lords during this debate, but ably set out by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in opening.
That is why the fight against homelessness must continue. My noble friend Lady Stroud was right to stress the importance of prevention and prevention funding; the Government have protected homelessness prevention funding that goes to local authorities—a total of £315 million by 2020—and have increased funding for homelessness programmes to £139 million over the course of the Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, rightly said that funding is vital, which I readily acknowledge; I also thank her for her kind comments about the Prime Minister’s commitment to this issue and to the vulnerable.
In the most recent Budget we set aside £115 million to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness. This includes £100 million for 2,000 accommodation places for rough sleepers and domestic abuse victims. An extra £10 million has been used to support innovative projects. That includes the social impact bond in London, which is one measure where we are working with the Mayor of London. The funding was doubled to £10 million, as my noble friend Lady Stroud set out, which helps London. We are also conscious that many of the London boroughs—Westminster, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and others—are doing great things.
I will quickly set out the Government’s approach in three different areas: preventing homelessness; helping people move on from homelessness; and the action we are taking across Whitehall. Prevention is often the key, as my noble friend Lady Stroud said. Homelessness is not just a housing issue. There are underlying issues, many of which have been touched on, such as drink and drugs, raised by my noble friend Lady Stroud, the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy; a lack of education, set out by the noble Lord, Lord Bird; and sexuality, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. Many factors come into this; it is not a simple issue. Tackling homelessness therefore requires a collective response at national and local levels and an unrelenting focus on prevention. Effective prevention requires a strong legislative framework, quality housing advice services, effective partnership working and funding.
The Government have taken action to meet those requirements. We have funded the National Homelessness Advice Service, delivered by Shelter and Citizens Advice —I acknowledge the important role of third sector organisations, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, in the context of Crisis—which ensures that frontline housing advisers have access to the best-quality professional advice to help vulnerable people.
We have provided £2 million for the Gold Standard scheme, delivered by the National Practitioner Support Service, to help local authorities deliver more effective and cost-efficient homelessness prevention. We know how important it is that, when people are faced with a homelessness situation, they have somewhere to go and experts to talk to—so front-line staff need to be equipped to provide this service. Getting the right training is part of that. The National Practitioner Support Service—which is I think currently provided through the London Borough of Hounslow—has enabled areas such as Greenwich and Wigan to improve their services and achieve Gold Standard status to help other local authorities.
Our efforts to prevent homelessness are supported by legislation, which provides a strong safety net for families with children and vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. I pick up on two specific issues that were mentioned. The first is the Wales position; as somebody who has spent a lot of my life learning lessons from Wales, I am open to learning more. In this role I am very keen to learn from the devolved Administrations and I have already spoken to my counterpart in Wales to ensure that we share lessons, data, best practice and so on. We are looking at what Wales is doing; it is early days yet but there are certainly some encouraging signs there.
This brings me on to the Homelessness Reduction Bill, sponsored by the Conservative MP for Harrow East, Bob Blackman, which has been mentioned by many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, my noble friend Lady Stroud and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, by implication. We are certainly looking closely at that—we support its aims but obviously the detail needs to be looked at, but I reassure the House that we are very keen on its aims and we are looking closely at it, as we should.
While we prioritise preventing homelessness, we are also helping people to move on from a life on the streets. We are supporting innovative new approaches to address the most difficult cases, such as expanding on the success of the world’s first homelessness social impact bond, which we funded in London. So far, more than half of those who have taken part in that have achieved positive outcomes. I am aware of one rough sleeper who had been sleeping rough for five years. He was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and violence and became self-abusing with drugs and alcohol. Previous support had focused on his substance misuse issues, but the social impact team convinced him to undertake a psychological assessment. He is now housed in a one-bedroom flat and, through engaging with a GP, he can access healthcare and medication to help deal with his anxiety and mood problems—a very positive situation. We have also invested more than £1 million in StreetLink, a national telephone line, website and app that enables the public to alert services when they suspect that someone is sleeping rough.
I move on to supporting people to move on from homelessness. To help single homeless people to move from homelessness to independent living—the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised this issue, I think, in the context of mental health—we are working with the Department of Health and with local authorities and health authorities. This is clearly an important issue.
We are also providing accommodation, education, training and jobs for around 1,600 of our most vulnerable young homeless people through the £15 million DCLG Fair Chance Fund scheme. I am aware of a case where a young person became homeless due to a relationship breakdown with his mother. He was referred to the fund, where he was supported into accommodation and secured his own tenancy. He became settled and gained confidence, attended college, achieved a qualification in plumbing, found a job and has been reconciled with his mother, so there are success stories out there.
We have helped homeless people into jobs by improving their basic English, maths and IT skills. We have also helped more than 10,000 vulnerable people access privately rented accommodation through the £14 million access to the private rented sector programme run by Crisis. Again, I pay tribute to the work it does, as was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. I am aware of the difference this scheme made for someone whose marriage had broken down and who lost his home. He was helped through this by Crisis. He was at first sceptical of the help that he was offered but it has turned out well and he is now in work and is properly housed.
Mental health is an issue, as I mentioned, and this has been touched on by many noble Lords. I am very keen that we address it, as we are doing with local health authorities, through the Department of Health and, of course, with local authorities.
I very much applaud the work of social enterprises that support those experiencing homelessness. I do not think anybody could have done more in this context than the noble Lord, Lord Bird. On behalf of all of us, I place on record our admiration for the success that he has had. Through this debate I urge everybody, wherever they have an opportunity, to speak to the people who are selling the Big Issue, buy a copy and perhaps give a little extra to them because that is something concrete that everybody can and should do.
On the cross-government response across Whitehall, the Ministerial Working Group on Homelessness, chaired by my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government, Marcus Jones, is ensuring that every area of government plays its part too. This year it will focus on addressing the underlying issues of homelessness, supporting better responses from mental health services and improving accommodation for ex-offenders. Very importantly, we are also focusing on housebuilding and trying to ensure that we have affordable housing in the social sector.
I shall deal with a couple of specific issues that have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, referred to the importance of doing something for women. We recognise that the needs of female rough sleepers can be different from those of male rough sleepers. She was right to mention the sexual exploitation of female rough sleepers. I pay tribute to Westminster City Council, which has provided a female-only shelter, the Marylebone Project. That is certainly worth looking at, as is the Women at the Well project based in King’s Cross. However, we are looking at this area and are certainly open to looking further at it. If the noble Baroness wishes to speak to us further on this issue, we can perhaps take it further.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornhill and Lady Morgan, both raised the issue of the local housing allowance caps and the 1% social rent reduction. The Government have been clear that the most vulnerable will be protected and supported through welfare reforms. I think the Prime Minister touched on this in a specific area in relation to refuges in Prime Minister’s Questions today, and I would like to underline that. The Government expect to make an announcement on the way forward for supporting housing in the autumn.
The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, rightly expressed concern about this issue affecting the LGBT community in many ways, and referred to the work done by the Albert Kennedy Trust. We are very keen to look further at the work of the Albert Kennedy Trust. We welcome the work it has done and, indeed, the work that Stonewall Housing has done. This issue affects all parts of the community and we must ensure that all parts of the community are taken on board in relation to it.
In closing, I thank noble Lords immensely for their contributions. The Government are aware of the importance of this issue. I am sure there are points that I have not covered and I will ensure that they are picked up in correspondence and copied to everybody who has contributed to the debate. I will also place a copy in the Library. I am sure that we will come back to this issue. As noble Lords appreciate, it is a very complex issue with many different strands. However, we take it seriously and I am very grateful for noble Lords’ contributions to the debate.