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Volume 801: debated on Thursday 23 January 2020


Asked by

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My Lords, the Government are committed to reducing homelessness and rough sleeping. No one should ever have to sleep rough. That is why this Government aim to end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament and will continue to fully implement the Homelessness Reduction Act. The Government recently announced a further £422 million in funding to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in 2020-21, an increase of £54 million on 2019-20.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that Answer. Could he set out for the House why homelessness has increased so dramatically in the last 10 years, particularly—shockingly—with 726 people losing their lives in 2018?

I am very aware of the deaths related to rough sleeping in particular, rather than homelessness. It is a highly complex area, but the Government’s ambitions are set out in our manifesto. Ministers and officials from across the Government are working closely together to scale up our successful programmes, such as the rough sleepers initiative, and devise new interventions to meet the manifesto commitments. The 83 areas supported by our rough sleepers initiative showed an overall decrease of 19%. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that evictions from the private rented sector and the freeze in the local housing allowance in 2016 caused real damage? The end of that freeze is welcome, but the harsh reality is that a 1.7% increase falls woefully short of the 15% increase in rents in the past seven years. An extra £10 a month will not make up the current shortfall of £113. Does he agree that failure to address this specific point will lead to more homelessness?

The noble Baroness focuses on one point, but she will know that there are many sad reasons why people end up homeless. We have delivered our commitment to end the benefit freeze, and the majority of people in receipt of housing support will see their support increase as a result. We are also bringing forward the renters’ reform Bill, which will look at abolishing no-fault evictions. There is action on the way.

My Lords, the Government have a large number of initiatives with money behind them to deal with the problem of rough sleepers, including the rough sleepers initiative, the rough sleepers strategy and the reconnection scheme. As I understand it, all these schemes are designed to help outreach workers communicate with rough sleepers so that they can access the help they require. However, is there any real evidence on the streets in London that these initiatives, although there is a lot of money in them, are having an effect on the ground?

My noble friend makes a good point that these are highly complex issues which can take time to work through. That is why we have all these initiatives. The rough sleepers strategy is set around three core pillars: preventing rough sleeping before it happens, intervening at crisis points, and helping people to recover with flexible support that meets their needs. We are working ever more closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on these important issues, because a lot of them are health- related, including drug misuse.

My Lords, the noble Viscount has come nowhere near to answering the question posed by my noble friend Lord Kennedy. Could he tell us why the position on people sleeping rough in this country has got so palpably worse in the last decade? What measures did the Government take or fail to take during that period which now need to be reversed if any progress is to be made?

I hope I have set out to the House the actions that we are taking. There are a variety of reasons why people sleep rough. We know what they are and we need to address them one by one; there is no one simple solution to this. For example, some people become homeless as a result of friends or family no longer being willing or able to accommodate them. There are domestic rows and the termination of assured short-term tenancies. There are lots of reasons, but the main point is that action is being taken to address all these complex problems.

My Lords, can my noble friend comment on the number of ex-service personnel who now find themselves homeless, whose numbers are thought to be particularly troubling?

I do not have the figures for ex-service personnel but I know that there are some. I will write to my noble friend with the figures, if we have them.

My Lords, further to my noble friend Lord Lamont’s question, will the Government review the Vagrancy Act 1824? It has the unfortunate consequence of criminalising rough sleepers, by bringing them before the courts. This isolates them from the support that the Government are funding through housing and employment. As it approaches its bicentenary, should this Act not be repealed?

My noble friend is right that the Act is antiquated—perhaps a bit of an understatement. I understand that it was originally brought in to make it easier to clear the streets of destitute soldiers after the Napoleonic wars. On the point that he raises, however, the Government believe that a review of the Act rather than immediate wholesale repeal is the right course of action, to ensure that the consequences of a repeal are fully understood.

My Lords, a number of homeless people are very young, under the age of 21. I could find no figures that exist for their exact numbers, but what is being done to monitor this, because local authorities have powers to help young people who sleep rough on the street? I have seen significant evidence of this, but who is monitoring it and ensuring that local authorities take their responsibilities to help these young people off the streets seriously?

The noble Baroness makes a good point because one of our initiatives is to have so-called rough sleeping navigators. They are on the street and get to know who is there—including their age, as some of them can be very young—to do something about it. As I said earlier, often the link needs to be made to other departments such as the Department for Education or, particularly, the Department of Health and Social Care.