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Vagrancy and Homelessness: Cleethorpes

Volume 634: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered vagrancy and homelessness in Cleethorpes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I welcome the new Minister to her place, as this is the first debate to which she has responded. We expect great things from her.

There is a growing problem of vagrancy in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. In my constituency, the main hotspot is Cleethorpes town centre, particularly around St Peter’s Avenue, the High Street and in the marketplace. Its shops and vibrant night time economy make it a natural attraction for people who, unfortunately, have to go begging. That continues through the day and into the evening. Although I seek to address both sides of this complex matter, on this occasion my focus is on vagrancy and begging, as it is clear from what residents and traders have expressed to me and to the local media that they are extremely concerned.

Whatever reason people have for resorting to begging, in almost every case it is extremely complex. Their circumstances are often driven by drug and alcohol addiction. As a compassionate society, we want to do all we can, but we also owe it to business people to address the issue—on many occasions, traders in Cleethorpes have put their life savings and many years’ work into establishing and maintaining their businesses. Last Saturday morning, I spent some time speaking to several traders on St Peter’s Avenue where the worst of the problem manifests itself. They made it clear that they consider the presence of beggars on the street bad for business.

Begging is a complex issue that is not unique to north-east Lincolnshire—it is a national issue. Caring and unsuspecting members of the public can often be lured into unwittingly giving money with the best of intentions, but without knowledge of the consequences.

At a recent community meeting in Cleethorpes, chaired by the ward councillor, residents and traders complained about vagrancy and expressed a range of concerns to representatives from the local council, Humberside police and Harbour Place, which is a local outreach charity. Dave Carlisle from Harbour Place began the meeting by highlighting that 50 people are sleeping on the streets of north-east Lincolnshire. Sadly, that is roughly double the number of only a year ago. It is clearly something that needs attention and we must do all we can to tackle the underlying problems.

Though linked, the issue of homelessness is separate to that of vagrancy. I have been reassured by the steps that the Government have taken to eliminate homelessness. Last year, the Government supported the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), which will provide vital support and is backed up by additional funding for local authorities to cover the costs of their new responsibilities.

The Government have committed to halve rough sleeping over the course of this Parliament and to eliminate it by 2027. The new homelessness reduction taskforce will do vital work to realise that ambition. In the autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced £28 million for three Housing First pilots in Manchester, Liverpool and the west midlands to support rough sleepers and turn their lives around. I hope that that can be rolled out across the country soon. Although the problem is at its worst in our major cities, I appeal to the Government to recognise that the local economies of smaller towns could be badly affected if the issue is not addressed.

In the areas I have mentioned, there is a serious problem of what the local council refers to as “active beggars”—people who are not homeless but who use begging as a way of making money. One of the main concerns expressed at the recent community meeting in Cleethorpes was that residents simply do not know who is homeless and who is not. A report by North East Lincolnshire Council to its communities scrutiny panel in December stated:

“There are approximately 16 active beggars currently known to agencies in North East Lincolnshire. The local beggars who frequent our public spaces do have complex needs which are predominantly around drug addiction. The vast majority have access to accommodation and are not deemed to be homeless. They have refused to engage with the services and it is evident that they continue to beg in order to obtain money which in most cases will be used to fund their drug addiction.”

According to Thames Reach, in 80% of cases, money given pays for a drug or alcohol addiction and the person begging is not actually homeless. Humberside police advised my constituents,

“to not give them anything directly, and if you want to donate to those less fortunate please do so through reputable sources like Harbour Place and other charities… We understand that the issue needs to be addressed, and our officers have been out and about everyday, with plans to further increase patrols.”

The beggars identified would not engage with the support agencies, so enforcement has been difficult. In the first instance, support is offered to individuals. If enforcement is necessary, it takes the form of community protection warnings and community protection notices, which are issued for unreasonable behaviour and the detrimental effect it has on the area. So far 15 warnings have been used by the council, of which seven have progressed to notices.

The “Think Before You Give” campaign has been launched. Careful joint communications have been developed due to the sensitive nature of the subject and the perception of the general public and the media that the beggars are homeless, vulnerable and in need of financial help. As the authorities continue to curb begging on our streets, the council will keep pushing the campaign and urges local businesses to get behind it.

Both residents and businesses feel intimidated, on some occasions, by the presence of beggars. Local traders feel that their businesses are being affected, particularly when beggars camp outside their premises and ask for money from potential customers. Local traders want the police to move them on more quickly.

Recently, a court heard about elderly people who took pity on Lisa Bentley after she started begging on St Peter’s Avenue. Her efforts to make money did not go down well with the Cooplands bakery because of fears that trade would suffer. The police were alerted because the assistant manager felt that Bentley would have a detrimental effect on trade by sitting there. A lot of elderly customers were willing to put money in the cup and, therefore, to act in a way that was not necessarily in Lisa’s best interests. She has breached her bail condition not to go on to St Peter’s Avenue and is repeatedly to be seen in the area. There is almost always a beggar sitting next to the cash machine outside the Sainsbury’s Local in the avenue, which many constituents find intimidating.

Action is being taken. A fact-finding exercise was carried out early last year, followed by a multi-agency meeting that aimed to identify the genuinely homeless and those who require support, and to distinguish them from so-called active beggars who are not homeless. The initiative was supported by a range of agencies, including the Department for Work and Pensions, the council’s strategic housing home options team and antisocial behaviour team, the police and Harbour Place. That enabled work to focus on a specified number of known individuals, with the emphasis on initial support and engagement, followed by a scaled approach to enforcement that utilised the community protection warning or notice approach.

There is concern, however, that a recent crackdown in the neighbouring town of Grimsby has pushed the problem on to Cleethorpes. This problem has been particularly prominent since the police’s Operation Hercules, which was aimed at ending the blight of antisocial behaviour and crime. The operation was important work that involved 18 police officers and 12 police community support officers, as well as traffic officers and licensing officials, but it was rather Grimsby-focused. Although Grimsby and Cleethorpes are in effect the same town, such an approach tends to move the problem rather than getting to grips with it. Throughout December, the most prominent locations where vagrants gather in Cleethorpes were patrolled daily by police, with a permanent presence during normal working hours. That presence was welcome, but the strain on resources meant that it could not go on indefinitely.

There is a range of organisations that people in need can reach out to for access to help, including the council’s home options team, which will investigate cases of homelessness. The council has a statutory duty to provide temporary accommodation to anyone who presents as homeless, eligible for services and in priority need. Wider support can also be offered, such as debt advice via specialist money advisers. Harbour Place, the charity I mentioned, has been commissioned by the council to provide an outreach service to offer assistance and provide shower facilities, additional clothing and hot meals. St Peter’s church on St Peter’s Avenue is also actively involved.

The people whom unfortunately we see on the streets obviously have complex needs, but it is important to note that the council, police and local charities are working closely to find solutions. They should be reassured by the support that the Government have offered by implementing measures to provide local authorities with greater powers and resources to eliminate homelessness and vagrancy. My aim in securing this debate was to urge the Government to consider whether further legislation is required for local authorities, police and all the agencies—whether statutory or charitable—to provide a fully co-ordinated approach to the issue.

I acknowledge that, following the 2015 spending review, the Government are spending more than £550 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in England by 2020. The largest proportion of that spending comes in the form of the £315 million homelessness prevention fund, which goes directly to local authorities. Those who have information about someone begging should draw that person’s attention to the proper authorities, which will be able to point them towards the help they need. Ultimately, handing over money is not helpful to the individual in question; it is far better to donate to homelessness charities such as Harbour Place, which are well placed to provide specific assistance.

I recognise that section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 is written in rather Dickensian language, but it enables the police to arrest and charge anyone who is begging. The Highways Act 1980 states:

“If a person…wilfully obstructs the free passage along a highway he is guilty of an offence”.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 also has provisions that can be useful. I have mentioned community protection warnings and notices, which are more about unreasonable behaviour and its detrimental local effect than about gathering evidence to prove an offence beyond reasonable doubt, resulting in a fine imposed by a court.

This could be an early success for the Minister. Whatever the solution is, I urge her to instruct her officials to speak to North East Lincolnshire Council, Humberside police and others to see whether they are content with the legislative regime, whether it could be made more pro-active and whether further powers may be needed. Quite reasonably, the residents and business community in Cleethorpes are concerned about the matter. People in business have devoted their life’s work to setting up small shops and the like, and we urgently need to do something to help them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing this important debate. This is my first opportunity to reply as a Minister; I am delighted that it is to such an old friend of mine.

Let me start with the issue of begging and associated antisocial behaviours. As all hon. Members will be aware, begging is an offence under the Vagrancy Act 1824, and enforcement decisions are a matter for chief constables and for police and crime commissioners. Local authorities and police are equipped with a wide range of enforcement powers to combat issues arising from begging. Particularly flexible are the powers contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which has given local authorities a range of tools, from criminal behaviour orders to public space protection orders. To support local authorities and police in making such orders under the Act, the Government have recently published updated guidance on their use and particularly on their application to vulnerable groups. It is very important that those powers are applied at a local level to meet local circumstances, in order to ensure that authorities can provide a targeted approach to tackle the issues they face in their areas, such as those that my hon. Friend outlined.

As hon. Members will appreciate, there are many reasons why people beg. To tackle the issue effectively, it is important that local authorities apply appropriate interventions that seek to address the underlying causes. To achieve that, as my hon. Friend said, it is very important that agencies across the communities come together, including police, local authorities and support services. I am absolutely delighted to hear of the work of Harbour Place, which sounds like a very interesting charity. I understand that there are a number of positive examples of well established multi-agency teams working with other local public and voluntary sector services to ensure that appropriate support and intervention is put in place to prevent anti-social behaviour in the long term.

Where people are sleeping rough, it is vital that they receive the support they need so that they are able to move away from damaging street lifestyles and into accommodation. As my hon. Friend set out, the Government are taking a number of important actions to meet our objectives of halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027. To achieve those objectives, we have embarked on an ambitious programme to reform our response that places prevention right at its heart.

I am delighted that, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and colleagues across Government, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—the most ambitious legislative reform in decades—will be implemented in April. It will fundamentally transform the culture of homelessness service delivery and ensure that local authorities, public bodies and the third sector work together to actively prevent homelessness for all those at risk, irrespective of priority need, intentional homelessness or local connection. It will also require local authorities to work with those in need to develop personalised housing plans tailored to focus on the needs and circumstances of the individual. Those can include actions for other support services that are best suited to assist the individual.

Local authorities are clearly best placed to make decisions about how to meet the unique needs and requirements of their residents. Homelessness is a complex issue and each area is different, so it is right that local authorities have the tools and flexibilities to develop a tailored and holistic solution that works for their communities.

By placing duties on local authorities to intervene at earlier stages to prevent homelessness in their areas, the 2017 Act will ensure that more people will get the help they need before they face a homelessness crisis. To ensure that local authorities have the requisite resource in place to deliver the new duties under the Act successfully, we will provide them with an additional £72.7 million in “new burdens” funding, and I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend makes sure that North East Lincolnshire Council applies for an appropriate amount from that fund.

To support local authorities even further, we have established a homelessness advice and support team, drawn from those with expertise on this issue within local authorities and the homelessness sector. These advisers have been providing targeted challenge and support to help local authorities to prepare for the 2017 Act, and to improve their practice and performance, where appropriate, across all areas of homelessness work. So far, representatives from over 250 of England’s 326 local housing authorities have attended homelessness advice and support team events, and met the team.

We have allocated more than £1 billion to prevent and reduce homelessness and rough sleeping through to 2020. That funding will assist people to get the help they need and prevent homelessness and rough sleeping from happening in the first place. As part of this package, we have protected £315 million of core funding to local authorities to prevent homelessness. We have also provided local authorities with £402 million in flexible homelessness support grant funding, which local authorities can use to prevent and tackle homelessness in their area strategically.

That funding sits alongside our wider funding on homelessness prevention of £197 million, and specifically our homelessness prevention programme, which includes a £20 million rough sleeping fund. That fund is supporting 48 projects to prevent or reduce rough sleeping in innovative ways, by strengthening and building partnerships with agencies that play a crucial role in helping those who are at risk of sleeping rough, or already sleeping rough, to exit homelessness. With more up-front funding, local authorities will be able to tackle homelessness more proactively, pushing the balance of investment in the future away from crisis intervention and towards prevention.

In the autumn Budget, we made important announcements that will take us even further in achieving our objectives. We announced £28 million of funding to pilot a Housing First approach in three major regions in England. Those pilots will support some of the most entrenched rough sleepers to get off our streets and help them to end their homelessness. Individuals will be provided with stable, affordable accommodation and intensive, wrap-around support. That will help them to recover from complex health issues and to sustain their tenancies. Following completion of the pilots, the impact of the approach will be measured by a rigorous evaluation, which will inform our wider roll-out. Again, if the situation in St Peter’s Avenue in Cleethorpes should continue, I sincerely hope that North East Lincolnshire Council can be encouraged to join in this work after the pilots have finished.

We also know that a challenge for those who are homeless is to access tenancies in the private sector. That is why we announced funding of £20 million for schemes that will enable better access to new private rented sector tenancies or provide support in sustaining tenancies for those who are already homeless or sleeping rough, or at risk of becoming homeless or sleeping rough.

Hon. Members will be aware that tackling homelessness and rough sleeping is a complex challenge. My hon. Friend really gave us the nuts and bolts about that challenge. He has obviously gone into it incredibly deeply in his constituency and his constituents should be very grateful for the amount of time and effort that he has put into this issue, and I am sure that the traders on St Peter’s Avenue will be very grateful to him, too.

Homelessness is a complex challenge and we must adopt a truly holistic approach if we are to achieve our objectives of reducing homelessness and rough sleeping. It is for this reason we have established a rough sleeping and homelessness reduction taskforce, which will oversee the implementation of a cross-Government strategy and drive wider action to reduce homelessness and rough sleeping. The taskforce will bring together Ministers from key Departments with a role in preventing and reducing rough sleeping and homelessness, to establish a fully cross-Government approach to these issues in England.

The remit of the taskforce will be, first, to develop a cross-Government strategy to help rough sleepers, many of whom are entrenched and have complex needs. However, the taskforce will also focus on the wider issues of homelessness prevention and affordable housing. In order to help the taskforce to deliver its objectives, we have put in place a rough sleeping advisory panel, which I will chair and which will comprise key figures from local government, central Government and homelessness charities.

I know that everyone here today will share my firm commitment to reduce homelessness and eliminate rough sleeping. Local authorities and the police are equipped with a range of powers to deal with the issues of begging and the antisocial behaviours that can be associated with it that they experience in their areas, and I encourage multi-agency working to tackle this problem, in particular in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Cleethorpes. If the police in Cleethorpes want to come and talk to us about any more legislation that they think is appropriate, I sincerely hope that, once the pilots that I mentioned are finished, they will consider that these matters are in hand. Nevertheless, our door is always open.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and Ms Ryan for chairing it. It has given me the opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to tackling these important issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.