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Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2018


Asked by

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, I draw the House’s attention to my relevant interests—namely, as a councillor and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My Lords, according to work undertaken by Shelter, approximately 120,000 children woke up on Christmas Day in B&Bs, hostels or other forms of temporary accommodation in England. Does the noble Lord agree that this figure shames our nation, and can he tell the House what work he and his department will do in the next 12 months to bring this figure down dramatically?

My Lords, the noble Lord’s figure is correct. This is from a high of 130,000 in 2006, when the homelessness level was at its highest. It is too high—there is no doubt about that—as has been clearly stated from all sides of the House. What are we doing? We are certainly committing £1 billion to tackle homelessness up to 2020, and that includes rough sleeping. As the noble Lord will have seen, we have made this a top priority. Although cosmetic in a sense, the change in the name of the department, which now features housing as clearly the most important thing that we are seeking to tackle as a Government, is important because it indicates the priority that we give to homelessness, and the £1 billion will help to bring those figures down.

My Lords, this House gave its very full support to the Homelessness Reduction Act, as it became. I pay tribute to Marcus Jones MP; he was reshuffled this morning but did a fantastic job getting that legislation through the House of Commons. The one matter on which we were all very anxious was whether there would be the resources to go with this important preventive legislation. Can the Minister reassure us that the money has been found so that when this starts in spring this year, local authorities will be able to do what we hope they will do—prevent homelessness as much as possible?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right about the Homelessness Reduction Act being at the centre of our action—in this regard, a preventive measure. I echo what he said about Marcus Jones’s role in that; it was considerable, as indeed was that of the noble Lord in seeking to ensure the Bill went through this House with government support, and I pay tribute to him as well. I can confirm that the money that was committed under the new burdens doctrine—from memory, some £71 million—is being made available to help with the implementation of the Act. It is, as I said, very much at the centre of the action in this area.

My Lords, did the Minister see the Liberal Democrat report last week on empty properties, which revealed that there are well over 200,000 empty properties, of which one-quarter have been empty for five years or much longer? Given the negligible use of empty dwelling management orders, will the Minister undertake an urgent review of resource and powers for local councils so that they can bring those long-term empty properties back into use and help homeless families?

My Lords, I have not had the privilege of seeing that literature as yet, but I anticipate having the opportunity to look at it at some stage. The noble Baroness will know that there were powers in the Budget to ensure that the ability to charge a higher rate of council tax on empty properties is increased. That is being done. She will be aware also that the numbers have come down considerably over the past decade, although admittedly there is work still to be done.

My Lords, research by the charity Shelter suggests that if current government policy continues as it is, 83% of areas in England will be unaffordable to those on local housing allowances by 2019-20. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the effect of the freeze on levels of homelessness? When will that freeze come to an end?

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for that mention of Shelter, which is clearly very much a partner in this, working with us on the advisory committee on homelessness. We look forward to working with Polly Neate and Shelter, and with Crisis and other organisations, in seeking to get those figures down. As I have indicated, there are challenges throughout the country, but with the resources we are committing to this, both in financial and human resources terms, and the importance we are giving it across government, we are confident that we will hit the targets on new houses and bring down the homelessness figure at the same time.

Will my noble friend tell me what action the Government are taking to ensure that more people who are homeless are able to access the private rented sector?

My Lords, it has been central to the Government’s thinking that we make more use of the private rented sector in seeking to ensure that people who are homeless have somewhere to go. This was extended from the social sector so that appropriate private rented sector property can be used for homeless people in temporary accommodation. That is very much at the heart of what we are doing. However, at the same time, it is important that we increase the supply side. Therefore, we are building more houses to take in more people from the temporary accommodation list, so that we can ensure that everybody has a home. That is central to our thinking.

Does the Minister recall that in about 2002 the then Labour Government persuaded Louise Casey to come from Shelter into the Government and that, with the programmes she set up, we virtually eliminated rough sleeping by 2010? What is the main reason it has come back again?

Secondly, there is only one country in the EU that does not face mounting numbers of rough sleepers and homelessness, and that is Finland. We have been careful to ensure that we have Finnish assistance on the advisory committee we are using. We are looking at this issue in a broad sense. It has not suddenly happened but it has increased over a period of time. Yes, it is a serious problem, as I have said on many occasions. We are committing resources to it and the noble Lord will be aware of our target of halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it by 2027.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to address the family and relationship breakdowns which drive so much youth homelessness, in addition to the relationship support they are giving to workless families, as this is relevant to only a tiny proportion of the affected population?

My Lords, my noble friend is right about the contribution to the homelessness figure of family and relationship breakdown. In relation to youth homelessness, which is obviously part of that, we have committed resources to the homelessness prevention programme. Over two-thirds of local authorities have taken up the assistance available there—prevention is the key—and, at the same time, we are also putting resources into the fair chance fund.

The Minister said that £1 billion is available for homeless families but does he accept that that is not sufficient to feed all the people who needed support and help during the Christmas period? Does he accept that charities such as Crisis, Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid were critical components in feeding massive numbers of families and individuals? Will he commend their efforts to assist the Government where the Government have been sadly lacking?

My Lords, I am very happy to commend the work of many charities, both local and national, faith charities and other charities, over the Christmas period and at other times of the year. The noble Baroness mentioned some charities. St Mungo’s is another one: it helped massively at Euston station, for example, which I am sure we all saw. I am happy to commend the charities. We have been talking here, in the main, about the provision of housing rather than the provision of food and so on. The noble Baroness mentioned food as an issue—undoubtedly it is—but these resources are going specifically on housing.