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Rough Sleeping

Volume 802: debated on Thursday 27 February 2020


My Lords, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place on rough sleeping:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the latest rough sleeping annual statistics for 2019, published today, and the new approach of the Government.

I think we can all agree that it is a moral shame that we see so many people sleeping rough on our streets. We are determined to end the blight of rough sleeping and we have placed defeating this great social ill at the heart of the moral mission of this Government. Today’s figures are encouraging. They show that for a second year in a row the number of people sleeping rough has fallen.

Across England, the numbers have fallen by 9%, building on last year’s reduction which was the first fall in eight years. Areas funded by the Government’s rough sleeping initiative saw a 12% decrease. Manchester is down by 26%; Camden by 54%; Birmingham by 43%; and Enfield by 69%. Cornwall is down 55%; Hastings down 56%; the City of London is down 39%; Swale down 69%; Bedford down 41% and Tameside down by 86%. London saw a decrease of 11%, the first decrease in numbers of rough sleepers in London for six years and the largest decrease since 2010. That, as colleagues who represent London constituencies will know, comes despite the very considerable and specific challenges faced in the capital, including, as the figures show, that 42% of those sleeping rough in the city are non-UK nationals, and quite possibly more than that.

This confirms what I have seen since I became Housing Secretary in the summer: dedicated, targeted support, backed by significant levels of government support, is getting vulnerable people off the streets and into safe accommodation where they can begin to turn their lives around. The Government’s strategy is working, and I pay tribute to the hard work of charities, service providers, local authorities and the many volunteers backed by government funding across the country who are working tirelessly to give rough sleepers the support they need to help them off the streets and begin the long and complex process of turning their lives around. But this does not mean our work ends here. We are perhaps coming up out of the valley, but we are far from the mountain top.

This Conservative Government have made it an overriding priority to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. There is a great deal more to do; we must be honest with ourselves about the scale of the challenge and tackle it head-on with renewed vigour. That is why I am pleased that the Prime Minister and I are today announcing that Dame Louise Casey will lead a review into rough sleeping. This work will consider the links between 24-hour street activity and rough sleeping, particularly for physical and mental health issues. It will provide advice to me and the Prime Minister on how we can best use the levers of central and local government to support this group and continue to reduce rough sleeping across the country. I know Dame Louise’s vast experience, rigour and candour. The fact that she has worked across parties for many years means she is the right person to look at what is needed and help get the job done. I will support Dame Louise to move at a pace commensurate with the seriousness and urgency of the action we must take right now.

Meanwhile, we will continue to build on our successful rough sleeping strategy, guided by the best evidence, intervening rapidly where people are sleeping on the streets and supporting people’s recovery to ensure they never have to sleep rough again. Putting this ambition into action, the Government have today announced £236 million of new money for move-on accommodation, safely supporting up to an additional 6,000 rough sleepers, and those at immediate risk of rough sleeping, off the streets into the safe and secure accommodation they deserve with the support wrapped around them. This is on top of the £437 million the Government have provided to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in the next financial year, including more than £112 million to fund services through the rough sleepers initiative. This funding will be used for councils to provide up to 6,000 beds and 2,500 support staff over the next year, so the number of beds will be increasing very rapidly.

We recognise that there are particular challenges around responding to the increase in European Economic Area national rough sleepers. Honourable Members may recall that, as part of the cold weather fund, the Government took the unprecedented decision to extend limited powers to the most affected local authorities to support certain EEA nationals sleeping rough for a limited period of time. This approach has been successful, with over 400 EEA nationals accommodated in November and December last year and many of them supported into work or to return home. The Government have today taken the decision to continue some of these services until 31 December 2020, when the transition period ends and the new immigration system will be in place. I will be working with the Home Secretary on how we address these challenges at the end of the transition period.

While prevention, outreach and emergency support are of course vital, we need secure, sustainable accommodation to end rough sleeping for good. Increasing the provision of affordable housing is fundamental to making that happen. The Government have delivered nearly half a million new affordable homes, and many are doing it. We have also abolished the council borrowing cap so that local authorities can build up to 10,000 more social homes a year. We cannot and will not let that momentum slip.

That is why we have committed to 250,000 new affordable homes by March 2022 through the affordable homes programme, backed by £9 billion. We are increasing the supply of social housing and will ensure that rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping are provided with homes which are available in the long term and appropriate to their needs. We simply must build more homes as a country, and I will be doing all I can to ensure that.

However, boosting housing supply is just one of many long-term measures we must take to properly and permanently address homelessness and rough sleeping. We must redouble our efforts to tackle the underlying problems that have led many people to fall into a life on the streets. Last year, four in 10 of the rough sleeping population in London were suffering from a severe drug dependency and the same proportion were suffering from alcohol dependency. Half of all rough sleepers were assessed as having a mental health support need and, shockingly, data from 2017 indicates that eight in 10 rough sleepers who have died in London suffered from severe mental health conditions. We cannot allow this injustice to continue. We are stepping up our work to provide specialist help and support for those suffering from mental ill health, which is backed by the £30 million of additional funding from NHS England.

On top of this, we are working to implement test models of community-based provision access across six projects that are designed to enable access to health and support services for people who are sleeping rough with both mental ill health and substance dependency needs. Rough sleeping is as much a health challenge as a housing one, and our work going forward will reflect that. We also need a concerted effort to bring the different support services together, from outreach to housing, health, policing and immigration, so that we can effectively tackle the multiple issues that lead individuals to find themselves homeless.

We are acutely aware of the scale of the challenge before us. Ending rough sleeping within this Parliament is one of the most ambitious targets set by any Government since the publication of the Beveridge report and the creation of the welfare state. We accept the challenge as a moral mission and an obligation we cannot pass up. Many of the underlying causes of rough sleeping I have spoken about today are deep-rooted, built up over successive generations and Governments. I hope Members across this House will support us in this collective endeavour and help us as a country achieve the simple but profoundly important objective to bring rough sleeping to an end once and for all.”

My Lords, even if the Government’s figures truly reflected the scale of street homelessness, the situation would be horrifying. But the situation is even worse. Yesterday, an FoI obtained by the BBC showed that 28,000 people slept rough in the UK over the last 12 months, of whom nearly 25,000 were in England. This is five times the number recorded by the Government’s statistics, which blatantly hide the scale of the problem.

The Government have no basis to parade their own figures as anything resembling an accurate picture. In 2019, the Office for Statistics Regulation said that it expected the Government to plan for better statistics on rough sleeping. The recent defence that these statistics are only a good estimate brings into question why they were ever published. Can the Minister confirm that these government statistics have official statistics status approved by the UK Statistics Authority? If they do not, that is because they fail to meet official standards on trustworthiness, quality and public value. If they fail this test, they should never see the light of day. These figures are misleading and I would welcome an investigation into their accuracy. If the Minister is unable to confirm the status of these statistics today, could he write to me and place a copy of the letter in the Library?

In 2018, 726 people died homeless across England and Wales—the highest year-to-year increase since the ONS time series began. This is an emergency and requires emergency measures. The announcement of the £236 million and an urgent review to tackle rough sleeping is insufficient and shows that the Government are in denial of the problem. They have failed to properly address the issue over the past 10 years and must finally make it a priority, beginning with properly funding homelessness services. Such funding, in combination with supportive housing, has been cut by £1 billion a year, leading to 9,000 fewer hostel beds. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government will do to replace the beds that have been lost and provide new ones?

In recognition of the role local authorities can play, the Government must introduce a duty for councils, and proper funding with that, to deliver shelter and support, building on the emergency cold weather support that many already provide. The Government must, however, also look at why individuals and families become homeless in the first place. Many have found themselves on the streets after losing their privately rented accommodation—perhaps through extortionate rent increases or unliveable conditions, or through substance abuse. The Government must make renting affordable and give tenants the right to hold their landlords to account. There must also be recognition of the root factors that can trigger homelessness, be they substance abuse, domestic abuse, violence or mental health problems, so that support can again be offered to tackle these wider causes.

We can look back to the record of the Labour Government on homelessness and find that, by 2010, this had been virtually eliminated. Here we are back again, 10 years later, and it is back with a vengeance. Homelessness is not inevitable in a country as well-off and decent as ours, but the levels of rough sleeping under this Government have shamed us all. It is action, not words, that will put an end to this crisis; simply saying that rough sleeping is a priority for the Government is not good enough.

Just outside this noble House, in Westminster Station, there are people sleeping rough there now. In London Bridge—I walk through it most evenings—there are people sleeping rough in the station. I walked down Victoria Street to Victoria station: there are people sleeping in the doorways. Opposite Charing Cross station, people wait every night to get soup and bread from those who come to support them. We are one of the richest countries in the world; the homelessness we see on the street is an utter disgrace. As I said earlier, this was virtually eliminated by 2010 and the situation in which we find ourselves today is shameful and entirely of the Government’s own making. They get no credit for claiming to be solving the problem that had already been solved many years ago.

My Lords, I echo much of what my fellow local government vice-president has said. This is a huge public concern, and on these Benches—particularly from within the local government family—we have always had a “credit where credit is due” policy. On this occasion, however, we have to say that so far, it is not good enough. Context is all, and as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has said, we need to be careful with the interpretation of the figures. Any decrease is welcome, so let us not be churlish about that, but in reality, according to the Government’s own figures—and they are surely not challenging their own figures—rough sleeping is still 141% higher than it was in 2010.

We all knew—those of us who have been out on the local authority counts night, searching under every flyover and in every station and shelter to make sure that we had an accurate count for the night—that we were underestimating the number of people because we knew all the homeless people in Watford by name. So where was Fred that night? That night he was probably sofa-surfing with somebody he had managed to get into a house with. I hope we can all agree, at least, that the current figures are inevitably an under- estimate.

Likewise, we hear that local authorities have suffered considerable funding loss in their budgets, but that is particularly so in relation to homelessness funding: £1 billion less was spent on these services last year than a decade ago. If that level of funding had been sustained—not increased, but just sustained—there would have been £6.2 billion more in services. On a very practical level from the homeless charity that I am involved with, all the funding is short-term: it is one-year funding. This gives charities and councils great difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff, as well as in sustaining long-term delivery. It is essential for these groups of people that we know that we can provide the services for the longer term. My question to the Minister is: is all the funding ring-fenced? Is there any chance, now that the Government are more stable, that they will look at three- or even five-year funding?

I particularly welcome Dame Louise Casey’s role. I think that she is a Dame who is prepared—as we northerners would say—to call a spade a shovel and that she will lift up stones. Can the Minister reassure us that her role will be to look holistically, compassionately and, particularly, cross-departmentally about the issues that affect homelessness? Let us take universal credit. Sanctions are automatic—we know this—but they do not take into account an individual’s circumstances or their vulnerability. Sanctions being implemented can make their situation more perilous. Delays in the housing element of universal credit being paid directly to the landlord lead to further issues. Issues around zero-hours contracts—if they eventually get work, it is very often in that area—can lead to a fluctuation that puts their situation in peril. As a direct consequence of all these things, private landlords are extremely reluctant to take these people on as tenants. That puts all the pressure back on local authorities to house people. The logjam is very much in move-on accommodation, which this money is for, which is why, on these Benches, we welcome it.

However, we see the issue as being the lack of social housing. It is noticeable even in the Statement that the terms “social” and “affordable” are being used inter- changeably all the time. Affordable is 75% of market rate and social is 50%. Can the Minister explain the Government’s policy? Is it to provide more affordable homes and have they given up completely on social homes to rent? Are they relying on councils to build social homes to rent? The unfreezing of the local housing allowance part of housing benefit is welcome, but in high-rent areas such as Watford and most of the south-east, it is still considerably less than the average rent. The shortfall is too great. It is certainly too great for this group of vulnerable people to make up the shortfall, so the private sector is largely out of the question.

Will Dame Louise also be looking at policies such as the Government’s Housing First initiative? When I saw this, it was about developers giving priority to veterans as one group, but when I looked at it further, I realised that it actually meant that there would be even fewer social homes available to vulnerable people. It sounded really noble and people agreed with it, but the actual reality of it will mean fewer social homes. A colleague on the Benches opposite—the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham—actually mentioned last week in Oral Questions what we have come to know as the viability loophole. We have been letting developers off the hook from providing social housing for years. As a result, social housing in this country has been decimated. Social housing is what this group of vulnerable people and others need. Surely, if the Government’s own side is saying that it is time to close the viability loophole, it must be time. Finally, is it not time to stop making homelessness a crime and to repeal the Vagrancy Act?

My Lords, I should make it clear to the House, because I forgot to earlier, that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their contributions and the questions that they put to me. I was particularly pleased that the noble Baroness acknowledged the good news that there has been a fall and I hope that this is something that we can build on and keep reducing this abhorrence on our streets so that we can reduce homelessness throughout the country.

The noble Lord mentioned statistics and the Government’s method of a snapshot view of homelessness throughout the country. As noble Lords will be aware, local authorities across England take an annual autumn snapshot of rough sleeping using either a count basis of visible rough sleeping and an evidence-based estimate meeting with local partners, or an evidence-based estimate meeting, including spotlight counts in specific areas. The snapshot can take place on a single date, chosen by the local authority, between 1 October and 30 November. We found that it is better to do this in the autumn than in the summer, when numbers are likely to be higher due to warmer temperatures, or in winter, when numbers may be lower as there are more temporary night shelters set up to ensure that people do not sleep on the street in very cold weather. The snapshot is collected by outreach workers, local charities and community groups and is independently verified by Homeless Link. The noble Lord questioned more details of the statistics and I will write to him on that.

The noble Lord also drew attention to the figures produced by the BBC. Those figures refer to cumulative data that provide a picture of the overall number of people sleeping rough across the year; therefore, that figure is higher than the single-night street count or estimate figure. Those figures have not been standardised, published or quality assured, whereas, as I said earlier, the snapshot figures are verified by Homeless Link, which is a collection of groups interested in homelessness.

The noble Lord also talked about the shameful deaths of homeless people on our streets. Basically, every premature death of someone homeless is one too many, and we take this matter extremely seriously. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is working closely with the Health Secretary to ensure that rough sleepers also get the health and care support they need. That is why, as part of the rough sleeping strategy— this was also mentioned by the noble Baroness—the Government have committed to £30 million of funding from NHS England for specialist mental health provision to help rough sleepers. We are also working to implement test models of access to community-based provision across six projects. These projects are designed to enable access to health and support services for people who are sleeping rough, with both mental ill-health and substance dependency needs, and are being managed by Public Health England.

The noble Baroness also inquired whether this money is ring-fenced. It is not, but there is a memorandum of understanding on that matter.

On rents and housing, I remind the noble Lord that the renters’ rights Bill was introduced in the Queen’s Speech, and in due course we will debate that legislation, which I have no doubt the noble Lord will take a keen interest in.

The noble Baroness also drew attention to the fact that these figures could well be underestimated. As she pointed out, it is extremely difficult to count and estimate the amount of homelessness that there is. But using local people and local charities to do this means that they know the areas where people sleep rough and, as the noble Baroness said herself, they know some of the individuals as well. That is a great help in establishing the correct figure. If I have missed any other issues, I will write to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on appointing Dame Louise Casey to do a review. As her first Minister in 1998, I appointed her to her first job in the Rough Sleepers Unit, and within two and a half years together we managed to more than halve rough sleeping and then to bring it down to less than two-thirds of what it had been when we started in 1998. However, can the Government guarantee that she will have the freedom and the support from government to report on what she wants to report on? I know that she will want to do the comprehensive stuff and all the rest of it, because I know that she, almost more than any other person I ever worked with in government, will speak truth to power. She is part of a team which last week managed to get the United Nations to recognise a commitment and to agree a resolution to tackle homelessness world- wide, and in the last few years she has worked on the international programme on tackling rough sleeping.

We should not be in this position. The Government can have no complacency about this—it is shameful. We know what we could do—we did it—and the Government will now have to work hard, listen to Dame Louise and make sure that we do not all go home ashamed of this every night when we go through Westminster station.

The noble Baroness makes some good points, and I can agree with almost everything she said. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, also drew attention to Dame Louise’s role and asked how the report will be handled in government. I will answer both questions now, because that will help the House understand the scope of the review, which I think the noble Baroness was asking about. The review will consider the evidence around the causes of rough sleeping and look at what the Government need to do to meet their manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping. It will also consider the links between 24-hour street activity and rough sleeping and how best we can support this group.

In addition, we recognise the ambition of our commitment on rough sleeping, which is why we have appointed Dame Louise, with her extensive experience with both government and the sector, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, to drive forward this work. Dame Louise will report to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. She will work with a team of officials from across government, so many government departments will be involved in this. She will also provide recommendations to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Dame Louise will provide government with advice on what is needed to end rough sleeping, building on existing programmes and making recommendations ahead of the comprehensive spending review.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Statement and look forward to the review by Dame Louise Casey. Does the Minister agree that many elements of civil society, particularly churches, faith communities and charities, while waiting for this, are out on the streets almost every night? I refer to what we call floating shelters in many parts of the country through the winter months—which can be five months—which skew the figures a bit, because they take people off the streets. There are some excellent examples in my neck of the woods, where the churches host rough sleepers overnight and the mosques provide the curry.

Excellent, my Lords. The right reverend Prelate is quite correct that I should draw attention to the amazing work done by these various groups. Most local authorities consult with the voluntary sector, the police, outreach workers, substance misuse agencies, faith groups, mental health agencies, drug and alcohol treatment teams, and local residents and businesses. It is important that this is done on a local basis because, as I said before, local people know their area and know the individuals involved.

My Lords, I often get the impression that we talk just about Britain. Can the Minister draw Dame Louise’s attention to the fact that last week in Brussels a report on homelessness in Europe was published, showing that it has increased by a minimum of 70% in the last 10 years and that the dimensions have changed significantly because of the enlargement of the European Union. Some 50% of those who are homeless in Britain were not UK nationals. Even in Spain, 44% were not Spanish nationals. In Belgium, 43% were not Belgian nationals. There is a tremendous imbalance between the new and old member states. When we look at it, I think we will find that the situation is quite complex. In the Minister’s Statement, he said a new immigration system will be in place by 31 December 2020 when the transition period ends. What does that imply? Does it imply deportation? What is the meaning of that statement?

Finally, I have a parochial question. In the Minister’s long list he did not mention Cambridge, which got some money out of the rough sleepers initiative. I would be interested to know whether it spent it as wisely as others and the numbers went down, because that is not the evidence I see when I walk into Cambridge city centre.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the points he raised. I will ensure that the department is aware of the report on homelessness throughout Europe, and I am sure it will draw Dame Louise’s attention to it. He mentioned a number of matters relating to the amount of homelessness throughout Europe. We also have to ensure that there is support for non-UK nationals sleeping rough in this country. We want to ensure that local areas have the tools they need to support non-UK nationals off the street. That is why the rough sleeping strategy commissioned training for front-line staff on how best to support this group, and provided £5 million of funding to help local areas take action to get non-UK nationals sleeping rough off the streets. My noble friend asked about Cambridge, but I do not have any information relating to that at the moment.

My Lords, I live in Oxford, where there is certainly a problem with homelessness. I pay tribute to the efforts of the council and the Oxford Homeless Movement, an umbrella organisation that does a brilliant job working with homeless people, trying to provide help for people with complex needs—shelter overnight and move-on accommodation. I particularly welcome the amount of money going into move-on accommodation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, mentioned universal credit, but the Minister did not answer her question. I wonder what statistics there are demonstrating that universal credit—or the lack of universal credit when people are sanctioned—has an impact on homelessness. It is absolutely clear in Oxford that there is a link between people who have had problems with universal credit non-payments and homelessness.

I thank the noble Baroness for reminding me of a question I did not answer. I do not have that detail but I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, and ensure that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, is copied in.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, also referred to the move-on fund and the great work it has done. It is a larger fund and reflects our greater ambition to eliminate rough sleeping. The 2016 Budget announced £100 million of grant for the new move-on fund, which will provide homes. The fund is split equally between the Greater London Authority and Homes England, which is administrating the fund outside London, particularly in areas such as Oxford. Homes England—leading on the rest of England, outside London —has to date awarded £27.4 million to deliver up to 725 homes.

My Lords, surely the problem is our planning system, which restricts housing development, inflates the cost of housing and adversely affects the most vulnerable members of our society while the rich get richer.

My Lords, I will not move on to planning at this time. The Statement and comments by noble Lords have underlined the importance of affordable housing and having housing available. As I referred to just a moment ago, the move-on fund is very important to provide housing for homeless people.

My Lords, given the connection between homelessness and local government finance, am I right that the Minister said there would be more local authority housing directly arising from this review? If so, will he confirm how that would work in practice in the prioritisation for local government housing? At the moment it is not clear whether the Government are committed to this being part of the review he has announced.

I am sure Dame Louise will cover all issues when she begins her review. As I said earlier, she will work across government. As the noble Lord said, obviously homelessness is paramount, and to not be homeless means you have to be accommodated. We have to start with getting people off the streets. This is where this new, additional funding will help.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register as chair of the Charity Commission. I was recently in Manchester and visited a homelessness charity that supports rough sleepers. One of the things I learned during that visit was that there is a significant increase in providers of support for rough sleeping in places such as Manchester, but that not all of those providing the support are as well intentioned as they might be. In worst-case scenarios, some are potentially exploiting the most vulnerable. Others might be well intentioned, but the way in which they go about trying to provide their support potentially makes a serious problem much worse, instead of solving it.

Does the Minister agree with me that it is important that those registered charities doing very important work make clear their registered status—as something that distinguishes them from others operating in this field, whether well intentioned but not doing the right thing or worse than that—and in doing so provide some assurance to those in need of that support? It is important to remind the charities carrying that important status to distinguish them from others—charities that so many people rely on—of the expectations of standards that they must meet in doing their work.

Manchester is one of the areas that was funded by the government rough sleepers initiative, which overall saw a 12% decrease across the country. Manchester itself was down by 26%. My noble friend went on to mention the charity status of some of the organisations involved in this area. As noble Lords will be aware, if an organisation carries charity status there is immediate confidence among the people it aims to help that it will do the right thing. I am glad that she drew to my attention the fact of operators that do not have charitable status. I will discuss it with my colleagues in the department.