To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the Rough Sleeping Statistics Autumn 2017, England, published on 25 January, which demonstrate the largest number of people sleeping on the streets of England since those statistics were first compiled in 2010.
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so I refer the House to my relevant registered interests as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
My Lords, the Government are providing over £1 billion of funding to combat homelessness and rough sleeping, implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act and piloting a housing-first approach for rough sleepers with complex needs. We are committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027. To achieve this, we have established a task force to drive forward a cross-government strategy. It will be supported by a panel of experts, who met for the first time this morning.
My Lords, these are shocking figures, and come less than a month on from when I asked the noble Lord in this House about the number of families who were homeless over the Christmas period. Rather than our usual debates on these matters, could the noble Lord tell the House what discussions have taken place with ministerial colleagues in the department and whether other departments have been spoken to, as homelessness can be solved only with cross-departmental working and seeking to address the root causes and avoid the problems of working in silos? The tragedy of homelessness needs to be addressed, but actions in the noble Lord’s department have been undermined—for example, by housing benefit cuts delivered by the DWP.
My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right about the need to avoid silo thinking, which is why the homelessness task force, which will meet shortly, is a cross-government approach. He will appreciate that we announced that recently. As I say, the advisory committee is meeting for the first time this morning and includes representatives of Crisis and Shelter, such as Polly Neate, and mayors such as Andy Burnham and Andy Street. That, too, will be vitally important. This is a complex problem. The figures in the noble Lord’s own Borough of Lewisham, for example, have gone up 30% over the last period, according to the most recent statistics we have, but other boroughs are doing a good job, such as Cambridge, which is Labour-controlled, and Staffordshire, which is Conservative-controlled. So the housing-first approach that they are adopting is a very good one.
My Lords, will the Minister consider a small, simple and immediate step, which is to reverse the cut in housing benefit for 18 to 21 year-olds? The cut was snuck in on a Friday afternoon by secondary legislation, and the savings are negligible. If just 140 young people are homeless out of the 10,000 affected in one year, it will start to cost the state more, not less. It is a simple measure that could be immediately changed. Why not get on with it and do it?
My Lords, this is precisely why we have the task force and the advisory committee, which, as I say, met this morning. To give an instance of how multifaceted it is, statistics produced yesterday by the GLA and St Mungo’s show that over 40% of people who are rough sleeping have alcohol problems, over 40% have drug problems and 49% have mental health problems. So it is not just about finance, although that is important. That is why we are looking at it across the piece, and why it is important that we take this forward with a cross-government approach.
How many empty dwellings are there in this country, and how many unused hostel beds?
My Lords, it will not be a surprise to noble Lords to hear that I do not have that figure at my fingertips. However, it is not just a question of how many empty properties there are; it is also a matter of matching them with the homeless, and they are not always in the right place. That is part of the issue and it is why local authorities now have the power to charge a premium on council tax for empty buildings. That will be part of the solution but, as I said, it is a multifaceted issue.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is quite right to raise this issue because it is a sensitive indicator of far deeper problems. Does the Minister agree that a dramatic increase in the building of social housing is absolutely necessary if endless waiting lists are to be abolished?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is right to raise this—it is a serious issue—but the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is I think addressing homelessness rather than rough sleeping. They are somewhat different. However, I am certainly on record as saying, and say again, that we need more social housing for rent. That is part of the issue regarding homelessness but, as I said, that is different from rough sleeping, which is much more complex.
My Lords, the Minister told us proudly that the Government have set themselves the target of halving the number of rough sleepers by 2022. That would bring it back down to the number they inherited from the Labour Government in 2010. Whose fault is the doubling in the number of rough sleepers? Is it a consequence of government policy on housing benefit and of other cuts in social care and mental health provision?
I am not really interested in a knockabout. The statistics were previously produced on a very different basis, so that is one factor to be taken into account. I am also on record as saying that it is a very complex issue. It is a problem across Europe, with the exception of Finland, and we have a Finnish adviser on the advisory committee. The Secretary of State has been to Finland to study what is happening there so that we can get to grips with what is a very serious problem across the country. It is also a problem in Wales and Scotland, which, the last time I looked, were not controlled by the Conservative Party.