Skip to main content

Covid-19 Lockdown: Homelessness and Rough Sleepers

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 11 November.

“As we look ahead to the winter months, it is vital that we work together to prevent increases in homelessness and rough sleeping. The Government have set out unprecedented support on this issue, dedicating over £700 million to tackling homelessness and rough sleeping this year alone. Our work on rough sleeping has been shown not only to be world leading but to have saved hundreds of lives. We are dedicated to continuing to protect vulnerable people in this period of restrictions and through the winter months.

We used the summer to work with local authorities on individual local plans for the coming months. Last week, the Prime Minister announced the Protect programme—the next step in our ongoing, targeted support for rough sleepers. That will provide a further £15 million, ensuring that support is in place for areas that need it most and addressing the housing and health challenges for rough sleepers during this period of national restrictions. That is on top of the £10 million cold weather fund, available to all councils to provide rough sleepers with safe accommodation over the coming months. That means that all local areas will be eligible for support this winter. It builds on the success of the ongoing Everyone In campaign in September. We have successfully supported over 29,000 people, with over 10,000 people in emergency accommodation. Nearly 19,000 people have been provided with settled accommodation or move-on support. We continue to help to move people on from emergency accommodation with the Next Steps accommodation programme.

On 17 September, we announced NSAP allocations to local authorities, to pay for immediate support and to ensure that people do not return to the streets, and £91.5 million was allocated to 274 councils across England. On 29 October, we announced allocations to local partners to deliver long-term move-on accommodation. More than 3,300 new long-term homes for rough sleepers across the country have been approved, subject to due diligence, backed by more than £150 million. We are committed to tackling homelessness and firmly believe that no one should be without a roof over their head.

Throughout the pandemic, we have established an unprecedented package of support to protect renters, which remains in place. That includes legislating through the Coronavirus Act 2020 on delays as to when landlords can evict tenants and a six-month stay on possession proceedings in court. We have quickly and effectively introduced more than £9 billion of measures in 2020-21 that benefit those facing financial disruption during the current situation. The measures include increasing universal and working tax credit by £1,040 a year for 12 months and significant investment in local housing allowance of nearly £1 billion. As further support for renters this winter, we have asked bailiffs not to carry out evictions during national restrictions in England, except in the most serious of circumstances. As the pandemic evolves, we will continue working closely with local authorities, the sector and across government to support the most vulnerable from this pandemic. These measures further demonstrate our commitment to assist the most vulnerable in society.”

My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant registered interests. We are in a second pandemic, the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer and colder, but we have a squabbling No. 10 and a shambolic Government, with no homelessness tsar in post. Can the noble Lord tell the House why there is such a poverty of ambition to prevent homelessness and keep people off the streets this winter? Where is the noble Lord’s zeal? Where is the fire in his belly to get homelessness finally sorted out?

My Lords, families do tend to squabble a bit, but that has nothing to do with the massive ambition we have for ending rough sleeping. Some £700 million has been committed to end rough sleeping with a world-class policy, a programme in three stages, and the recent announcement of a further stage of the Protect programme. Our swift action has been praised by leading stakeholders, including Shelter, Crisis, St Mungo’s and Thames Reach. The policy speaks for itself: lives are being changed for the better and I see that my colleague, Minister Tolhurst, continues to lead in this regard, under the benign direction of the Secretary of State.

My Lords, in the spring the Everyone In scheme was a success, but post Dame Louise Casey—now the noble Baroness, Lady Casey—who is leading and taking up that role now, not at ministerial level but in Whitehall? If emergency shelters were deemed unsafe then, will the Minister confirm that they will not be used now? With so many families who rent threatened with homelessness, does the Minister agree that universal credit should cover the median rent in every part of the country, and will the Government do what they promised at the election and get on with scrapping Section 21 evictions? Finally, why are the Government only “asking” bailiffs not to carry out evictions? They have compelled so many on so much. What is so special about the bailiffs?

My Lords, that was a succession of questions. There is no doubt that the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, is a phenomenal force of nature. I watched how she took the troubled families programme and developed a fantastic resolve at all levels of government, and in the social and charitable sectors, to ensure that everyone worked together to tackle the malaise of the families who require a huge amount of support from the state—and then with the integration programme. We have really benefited from her work. However, we do see leadership from Ministers, including the Secretary of State, and a resolve to do something at all levels of government. We will build on that. As for the removal of Section 21, that is a manifesto commitment, and we will introduce legislation to deliver a better deal for renters, including repealing Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, as a priority, once the urgency of responding to this dreadful pandemic has passed. I will write to the noble Baroness on the other matters.

I do not know whether the Minister has read the Lancet report showing that the work done in the first lockdown led to a saving of 266 lives, that more than 1,000 people were prevented from ending up in hospital, and about 350 from ending up in intensive care. This is prevention. I have been working for the last 30 years to try to get successive Governments working on prevention—on stopping homelessness happening—because when people slip into homelessness, they die. I thank the Government for their efforts in the previous period, but I am also asking loads of questions. Where are the answers for this next period? More than anything, I want to know what we are going to do about stopping circa 200,000 people slipping into the treacle of homelessness because of their inability to pay their rent or mortgage.

The noble Lord makes an important point about focusing on prevention. In all areas of public policy, we want to prevent things happening in the first place. In healthcare, for example, rather than just letting the disease get worse and then responding, we want to prevent it happening in the first place. That is why the money going towards ending rough sleeping—the £700 million that has been committed and continues to be spent—is a part of the wider package for tackling homelessness. There is an absolute resolve to deal with the issues that the noble Lord raises. We will continue to focus on prevention and also on the response to those who are on the streets.

I guess it is easy to sit on the sidelines and criticise but on the critical issue of homelessness this Government, and specifically the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, together with my noble friend the Minister, ought to be congratulated. As has been said, early in the pandemic they launched the Everyone In project, backed up with £700 million. In addition, the recent announcement of the Protect programme, with a further £15 million, will ensure that councils can offer everyone sleeping rough somewhere safe to go. However, does my noble friend agree that it would be reprehensible if any council used that funding for people who are not sleeping rough?

My Lords, it is important to focus the money designed for rough sleeping on rough sleeping—that is its intended purpose—but it is also important to deal with the wider issue of homelessness. I would point out that the Government have given £6.4 billion to local councils to support their communities through the pandemic.

The Salvation Army has an innovative project for short-term housing solutions by using “meanwhile use” land to provide high-quality modular homes rooted in church communities and supported by wider community groups. This gives the residents the provision of a flat and the relational support of the community. What consideration have Her Majesty’s Government given to the Salvation Army’s innovative approach to homelessness and similar projects?

My Lords, we want to build on what works. I will take away this idea, make sure we give it due consideration and find out how we can support the Salvation Army in its policy ideas—and potentially scale them up, if they are working well.

My Lords, we have almost a repeat scenario of the situation we discussed earlier this month relating to free school meals. A very good government initiative earlier in the year—Everyone In—was widely praised, but now it is no longer in that form the responsibility is being passed, through the funding agreements that have been mentioned, to local authorities. That is the answer we got about free school meals. But, as we see in this morning’s press, local councils are facing widespread financial failures and are terrifically strapped for cash. A previous question supposed that the money had to be hypothecated for people suffering from homelessness and rough sleeping—but local councils have so many priorities that will match that. This will be another postcode lottery, if we are not careful. Why can the Government not have another Marcus Rashford moment, and do a U-turn? This month of lockdown is already under way, and the Question is about this month.

My Lords, I was, unfortunately, a local council leader during a previous Administration under the leadership of Gordon Brown, when there was no Government more focused on ring-fencing every fund. My point was that if a fund is specifically for rough sleepers, it is right and proper that it be targeted on those who are sleeping rough. Most of the money that we are providing—the £6.4 billion—is non-ring-fenced money for local councils to put where their local communities need it most.

My Lords, there is a story in Sikhism about the young Guru Nanak spending money given to him for investment on food and blankets for the homeless who were shivering in the winter sun. This led to free dining areas in all the gurdwaras. Does the Minister agree that such facilities, underused in the current pandemic and common to all our different places of worship, can be a valuable resource to help the homeless on today’s streets?

As Faith Minister, I completely agree. Places of worship, whether they are gurdwaras, temples, churches or synagogues, play a huge part in dealing with the social issues of our time, including homelessness.

Does my noble friend agree that rough sleepers, and those working with them, are particularly vulnerable to Covid? Will he recommend to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that they should be a priority?

My Lords, I am happy to make representations to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation about making this decision.

My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed. Rather than adjourn the House, if we can just take a minute to move round, I shall move straight into introducing the Fisheries Bill business.