Thursday 7 February 2019
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2016–17, Homelessness, HC 40; Fifth Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2016–17, The draft Homelessness Reduction Bill, HC 635, and the Government response, Cm 9443.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rough sleeping.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
I have just arrived in the Chamber from my first ever blood donation. I am a little giddy, so bear with me—I have the sugary biscuits just in case. If anyone has not given blood, please do so. A donor drive is on in London, #giveblood, because we need more regular donors.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time to have the debate. I thank the Minister for being present. It is good to see her here, and I know that she attaches a lot of importance to the subject. I also thank the shadow Minister—it is always a pleasure to serve alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn)—and everyone else who is present for making time for this debate.
I extend a bigger thank you to everyone who has contacted me about the issue in advance of the debate and since I was first elected in 2015. News UK is in my constituency, so it is rare for me to plug other papers—I do not usually do so anyway—but I will quickly plug the Daily Mirror for a fantastic campaign on tackling rough sleeping and homelessness. It deserves credit for humanising a debate that can be a bit statistical when, actually, it is about the lives of real people in devastating circumstances.
I am sure that I cannot be the only Member who has been surprised—or perhaps not—at the number of constituents who have never experienced homelessness writing to me about this problem. They feel, as I do, that it is a shocking indictment that a society such as ours has so much visible street homelessness. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I agree 100%—there is nothing higher than 100%. There is a contrast here, because the public will and interest in solving rough sleeping and homelessness more widely have not, sadly, been matched by Government action to date.
Virtually every evening, as we walk out of this place into the tube station, we pass a number of homeless people. The Government must take time to reflect on which of their policies makes the situation worse. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that this is not only a problem in London? It now infests towns and villages throughout our nation.
Absolutely. No part of the country is not affected by homelessness in all its forms, but in particular rough sleeping. Of course, the numbers are disproportionately large in metropolitan areas such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, where people are attracted by additional opportunities to get money and food. The bigger cities also have more organisations, so people are naturally drawn to them. It is shameful that we walk in and out of this building past those people.
Not everyone—even among those who want to take action—is comfortable trying to support someone who is rough sleeping, but StreetLink and its partners across the country are amazing. Anyone can refer someone to it—it has an app, it is online and people can phone to ask it to intervene in support of someone they have seen rough sleeping. They can say where the person is, give a rough description and say what time of day the person was seen.
I am grateful for the interventions, but I had not even finished my thank yous. I want to thank all the organisations such as St Mungo’s, which is represented in the Public Gallery, that have provided briefings.
I cannot be present for the whole debate, but I too wanted to thank St Mungo’s, as well as Access Community Trust in Suffolk. Such organisations do great work. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to meet this challenge and solve it, three things need to be done: an assessment of any correlation with the roll-out of universal credit, a move towards long-term funding for homelessness services, and a dramatic increase in the amount of affordable housing we provide in this country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I should probably finish my speech, because he has just said everything—[Interruption.] Steady on, I am not giving up that easily. He made three salient points, and I hope the Minister heard them being made from her Back Benches.
This issue is not, and should never be, a party political one. I am proud to co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness with the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince). Through him, we have met the Minister—if I had requested a meeting, I do not think she would have been as free with her time as she might be with the hon. Gentleman—and together we have had some successes. I look forward to that continuing. Work on this subject is happening across the parties and the solutions are there if we are prepared to invest in them.
Had I finished my thank yous? No. I was going to mention Crisis, Shelter and other organisations. Crisis provides facilitation for the all-party group.
The background to the debate is the statistics on rough sleeping, which were published a week ago. The wider background, which has been touched on by others, is the rise in overall homelessness every year for the past eight years. On that wider issue, I hope that the Minister will indicate in her response whether she thinks the overall homelessness figure, which I think is to be published at the end of March, will rise or fall. What is her expectation?
I also pay tribute—as all MPs do—to the work of local organisations in my constituency. That includes St Mungo’s, which does some brilliant work.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. If it were not for local organisations, such as the Slough homelessness forum in my constituency, which helps the council to operate two night shelters, we would be in a much worse situation. Does he not agree that it is a shocking indictment of our society that rough sleeping has more than doubled, increasing by more than 165% since 2010?
I have not been able to disagree with a single intervention yet—someone will have to challenge me. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
There is a positive and a negative: the positive is that the public care about this issue. Volunteers help out, and even St Mungo’s in my constituency relies on them to do the outreach. I went on a walkabout with them, to support homeless people and to try to get them into shelters during the very cold spell last year. The public appetite is there. People are willing to give their time and donations to address the issue. That, however, is in the face of eight years of annual increases in homelessness and of Government policies that directly contributed to that rise. That is the negative.
Organisations such as Depaul and the YMCA have projects that help thousands of young people who sleep rough, nationally and in North Tyneside. Does my hon. Friend agree that those organisations should have the Government’s ear on policy issues? Depaul, for example, would like to see the shared accommodation rate put back to the 30th percentile of local rents, so young people can have somewhere affordable to stay at night.
Again, I agree. I was going to mention Depaul specifically because it has a base in Bermondsey. Its policy is for equal benefit levels for young people—their rent is not cheaper just because they are 20. That is a complete falsehood that leads to arbitrary levels of benefit that do not match people’s needs. Depaul does some fantastic work in Bermondsey and beyond.
The church-run Robes Project, which is specific to Southwark and Lambeth, opens for five or six months in winter. Every year, it has had to provide more accommodation as a result of the outcome—whether intentional or not—of Government policies. That strikes at the same point. If the organisations working on homelessness, as well as those with experience of it, were listened to, some of that could have been avoided.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) mentioned universal credit; I have had constituents, including one with a significant mental health condition and another self-employed and in work, who were made homeless as a result of universal credit. That was avoidable. That direct link is unacceptable, but there is no brilliant data set for identifying those kinds of people.
I know homeless people who have not applied for universal credit because it is so complex. Does my hon. Friend agree that is another failing of the system?
It certainly is. The universal credit training centre is at the London Bridge jobcentre in my constituency. The jobcentre staff do what they can with limited resources and time, but people come to see me because they have been failed by that jobcentre. A few weeks ago, a man in his fifties who could not even spell his own address came to see me. He had not been told about advance payments; he was told he would have nothing for six weeks.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic opening speech. He talks about some of the inherent problems with universal credit. Does he agree that the fact that it is digital by default ultimately prevents a number of people making applications, because they do not have access to online resources to make the initial application?
We are keeping up the trend, because I completely agree. People who have very little and who use certain mobile networks cannot call freephone numbers from their mobile phone, let alone use their phone to go online and fill in a form that they have to add extra information to multiple times, just to get it right.
Returning to Harry, who came to see me about his universal credit, he had no heating, electricity or food. He was told just to turn up at the council office. The council has not had a walk-in appointments system for years, yet the universal credit training centre in my constituency sent someone there, who they knew would not get help elsewhere.
There are massive failings. In my surgery sessions I have seen many people, and the number rises every year. Already this year, two homeless people—not just at risk of homelessness—have come to see me at my surgery. One lady, who is cleaner, was carrying all her belongings with her. She was still working and was sleeping on night buses. We are fortunate to have those—it is not the same in other parts of the country, where there is no opportunity to have somewhere warm and as safe as possible to sleep.
I want to make the point about homeless women who may not have access to sanitary products, and how undignified it must be not to have access to those products and to a bathroom. I support the food banks and other agencies that provide menstrual products for those women.
My hon. Friend has done a huge amount of campaigning on that issue, including on the tampon tax. People may be unaware of the Red Box Project. In my office, we provide sanitary products—this is the situation that MPs are faced with, which was not there in 2010. In my office, I have a food bank box, a toiletries box and a red box for tampons. Not everyone knows where to go for those items, but I encourage those who are not already to get involved with Red Box. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on food banks. Food bank is a misnomer—it is not just about food, although of course that is part of it, but about toiletries. What is shocking to many people who are unfamiliar with food banks is the number of families who come in for their babies. Food banks have to give out nappies, because those families would not otherwise be able to look after their children.
And baby milk.
Yes, baby milk too. If anyone watching this debate wants to donate, do not just take food—it is not just about pasta and beans—but take all the other daily essentials.
A young woman who came to me was sleeping with someone different every night rather than go back to an abusive domestic environment or sleep on the streets. That is an appalling situation for people to be in. The two truisms from all the individuals I see is that no personal circumstances have been anything other than tragic, but all of them are avoidable—without exception—if we get the policies right.
The latest statistics are shameful: in the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet in the 21st century, an estimated 4,700 people are forced to sleep rough. That is completely unacceptable, whatever the politics. Genuine efforts to tackle rough sleeping are welcome. It is the most extreme form of homelessness, but in November last year, Shelter estimated that there were 320,000 homeless people in Britain. That fuller extent of homelessness needs adequate attention. It is not just about rough sleeping, because moving people from the streets into temporary accommodation still leaves them homeless.
Those statistics show that for every homeless person we see sleeping rough, there are about 63 other homeless people who are less visible: they are in temporary accommodation, sofa surfing or on night buses like my constituent. Some say that rough sleeping is the tip of the homeless iceberg, but if an iceberg is one-eighth out of the water, the analogy is not strong enough. Rough sleeping would not even be a quarter of what is visible above the water, if my maths is right—I make no claim to be a mathematician.
The latest statistics on rough sleeping show that the total number of people counted or estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night was 4,677, which is down 2% from the 2017 total of 4,751. That is a reduction of 74 people. It is important to flag that that data set is not strong enough. No one thinks that it is the most reliable way to assess the genuine number of people sleeping rough.
To build on those statistics, research in 2014 found that 61% of women and 16% of men who were homeless had experienced violence or abuse from a partner. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a serious link between homelessness and domestic abuse that the Government need to investigate further and deal with?
I completely agree, and I will come back to domestic violence later.
The data are based on numbers on the street, but areas such as Brent Council did an estimate rather than go out and count, so that is not a reliable figure. Keith, the Big Issue seller at London Bridge, sleeps in a bin cupboard on the Purbrook Estate near Tower Bridge Road. Nobody went into that bin cupboard to count him. That estimate is not an adequate assessment of the problem. I hope that the Minister will tell us how she intends to ensure that data collection is more robust. That decrease of 74, based on a faulty test, is on the back of an increase of 2,909 since 2010, using the Government’s own measure. Under the last Labour Government, the number of rough sleepers was at an all-time low. The latest figures suggest that rough sleeping may have reached a two-year low.
The figures that my hon. Friend mentions are compelling, but even if we did not have them, we can see the problem anywhere—I know about it in my constituency, and that applies to most of us. In the centre of Leytonstone, by my office and by the library where I do my surgeries, the number of rough sleepers is massively greater than eight years ago when I was elected. On top of that, universal credit has just gone live. In the next few months, many of us—particularly me—are very apprehensive about the effects of UC when it really hits our area.
Sadly, my hon. Friend is right to be nervous. Of course, I gave way to the chair of the parliamentary Labour Party in the hope that he might call me in a debate at some point. Southwark was one of the earliest test areas for universal credit. My experience is that my hon. Friend will have more cases of rough sleeping as a result of the universal credit roll-out.
The 2% drop nationally comes with very significant variances. There was a massive 60% jump in rough sleeping in Birmingham. In Manchester, I believe it was about 31%, and 13% in London. There were not such high numbers overall, but there were statistically significant jumps in areas such as Doncaster, where rough sleeping is three and a half times what it was just a year ago. In Rugby, there is five times as much, and in Corby there is seven times as much, albeit from low bases. Those anomalies need addressing. The towns and cities with large rises need more significant attention. I hope that the Minister will address that.
I want to highlight areas that are doing better than others. Brighton has reduced rough sleeping by two thirds; Luton has almost cut it in half and Bedford has cut it by about a third. Some areas are doing better, and I hope that their perhaps better practice is extended. My own council has bucked the London rise of 13%. There were just three additional rough sleepers in Southwark last year, and it is leading work to train staff in other local authorities to implement the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have been out with the police in Lancashire and Kent and have seen their joint agency approach to tackling homelessness. Does he agree that a whole-system approach is necessary, and does he share my concern that some police forces still use the Vagrancy Act 1824 to criminalise rough sleepers without giving them the support they clearly need?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know she does a huge amount on policing. The police should not be picking up the pieces of failing systems elsewhere. That is an avoidable drain on their resources.
My hon. Friend touches on something vital: we must deal not just with the phenomenon of homelessness and rough sleeping but with its causes. We need to make more effort on employment, the benefits system, young people coming out of care, people leaving the armed services without the necessary support and, yes, drug and alcohol problems. All those issues—including mental health problems, by the way—need to be addressed if we are really going to get on top of this problem.
My right hon. Friend is spot on. It is a sad truth that we know who these people are. We know which people are more likely to become homeless or sleep rough. They are an identifiable group. They are care leavers, women fleeing domestic violence, ex-forces people and people with mental health problems. We know who they are. We also know from experience—the scrapping of the Supporting People programme had direct consequences in this policy area—that there is no silver bullet. I do not think anyone suggests that there is, but we know who is more likely to become homeless, and we know how we can support them to avoid that.
My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous with interventions. We know what the causes are. We also have experience of the solutions. We had lots of rough sleeping in London in the mid-’90s. The Labour Government addressed the issue by identifying all the people who were vulnerable and putting in joined-up services. By 2010, there was virtually no rough sleeping in central London. Does he share my anger at Ministers who say that this is a complex problem and they do not know where to start?
My hon. Friend is right to be angry, and she is right to remember that this problem was being resolved. I remember cardboard city around Waterloo and Westminster in particular. The extent of the problem was reduced, and there was a good track record on it, but it is coming back.
The Government’s target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022. If the statistics are accurate and there was a 74 person reduction last year, there are another 2,376 people to go. At the current rate, it would take 32 years—three decades—to meet the Government’s target of halving the overall number. If anyone is struggling with the maths, that means it would take until 2051 to meet the Government’s 2022 target. That is not good enough, and I hope the Minister can tell us what she intends to do to boost action to prevent the problem.
If only as much effort went into tackling the problem as went into creating it, we would be in a better place. It did not come out of nowhere. Warnings were given by organisations such as St Mungo’s, but sadly they were not heeded. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) pointed out, lots of issues contribute to the problem, but the warnings were there.
Destabilising the NHS with a wasteful top-down disorganisation that divided primary care trusts from social services, splurging millions in the process, prevented joined-up work to support people to manage conditions that are more prevalent among rough sleepers and the broader homeless population. When mental health services lose their staff and ability to intervene up front, more service users and survivors are forced towards the streets. When drug and alcohol cessation services are decimated, no solutions to addiction are provided. The “fend for yourself” attitude, which was proven previously not to work, has failed again since 2010. When funding for affordable house building is undermined, and when councils have their resources attacked and their ability to manage local case loads undermined, the outcome can only be more gatekeeping to services and a reduced ability to support people with genuine needs.
The benefits system has already been touched on. Attacking people who rely on our threadbare social security system, calling people scroungers and making it harder to claim—we heard about digital access and processes that force people out of the system before they get any support—creates problems. This Government have extended sanctions to even those with significant mental health conditions and other impairments. That is unacceptable. Deliberate delays are built into benefits such as universal credit. People now face a minimum five-week wait to get universal credit—according to Department for Work and Pensions figures, that target will not be met for 300,000 people this year—but when it first began in Southwark, the average wait was 12 weeks. That is three months without a penny coming in. Sanctions are also imposed for longer and to a greater degree than ever before. I am a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions; I recommend our report on that subject, which calls for a dramatic change to the sanctioning system.
When the DWP, under the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), scrapped disability living allowance and brought in personal independence payments, its own impact assessment stated that 500,000 disabled people would not qualify for support. Making it that much harder for disabled people to obtain basic funding—the average DLA payment was £3,500 a year—of course pushes more people towards the street. I should plug the Trussell Trust’s campaign to scrap the waiting time for universal credit. I encourage Members to sign up and support it.
Most organisations that work in this area have a long-term focus, and the Government should too. There has been only a 2% drop in rough sleeping so far, but will the Minister say how even that low level will be sustained if the pilots are temporary? I hope she will also tell us whether the funding for the schemes that exist—there are not enough—will be extended. We need an answer, because local authorities and organisations such as Shelter, which works with Southwark Council on this issue, need to know that they have longer-term funding. Their own sustainability is at stake. Without longer-term planning, I am uncertain whether we will halve rough sleeping even by 2051. I hope the Minister tells us how the Government intend to build on success in some of the pilot areas.
Lots of local authorities got in touch with me in advance of the debate. Last year, the number of households accepted as homeless was almost 60,000 in England, 34,000 in Scotland and 9,000 in Wales. Southwark is doing a lot of work on this issue, and it deserves credit for that. Southwark spends all its discretionary housing payment. It receives £1.3 million, and it all goes out—there is not a penny left—to try to support people to stay in their homes. It needs more. Southwark has trained all 326 councils on the Homelessness Reduction Act, and 271 councils have visited to shadow its service and learn how to operate in the HRA environment. Southwark has established both a London training academy, which has trained 1,000 council officers, and a rough sleeping training academy, which has trained the 81 councils across England that have the highest levels of rough sleeping. I acknowledge that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government funded that.
The Local Government Association got in touch to say that homelessness
“is a tragedy for all those it affects,”
and that rough sleeping
“is one of the most visible signs of the nation’s housing crisis.”
It estimates that councils provide temporary housing for more than 82,000 households, including 123,000 children. “Temporary accommodation” does not begin to describe the circumstances of some of those households. Children will have woken up on Christmas day with a shared kitchen or even a shared bathroom. How can families celebrate Christmas day when they cannot even cook their own food? That is an appalling set of circumstances. The number of people living in temporary accommodation has increased by 65% since 2010. In Southwark alone, 2,400 families are supported in temporary accommodation.
The Local Government Association estimates that the funding gap will be £110 million this year, and £421 million in 2024-25.
I will touch on dehumanisation. Last year a man died at Westminster tube station, right on the doorstep of this building. It got a lot of attention because of where it happened, but sadly it is estimated that 600 homeless people—600 people—died on the streets last year. We should be more shocked by this, not just because somebody died at Westminster and that case got more attention than usual, but because of the level of the problem and the age at which homeless men and women die, which is around 40 years old.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although we welcome the severe weather emergency provision money, which people in my area who run the shelter—largely the churches—get, the problem is that it is based on predictive weather planning? It is never easy for a volunteer to try to work out whether they are going to be needed on a particular night. Some of that money could be used more creatively for preventative work, to get people into accommodation before they need to go to the shelter.
Absolutely. The costs of getting this wrong are far greater than the costs of the up-front preventative measures.
The sector is unanimous, and it is a recommendation of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, that adult safeguarding reviews should become the norm for any adult rough sleeper who dies on the streets. We have them for children’s services, but there is not an automatic assumption that they will be done for adults, and there should be. A review should be done in a no-blame culture, so we can identify what interventions might have helped to prevent that death on the streets. I hope the Minister will commit to that today.
I have an example of a really difficult case. A woman whose sister had died in Ghana came to my surgery. The day she left to go to her sister’s funeral, she wrote to the police, the council, the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, the GP and others begging for help for her grandson. She had looked after her grandson as he grew up—his mum had died and his dad was never on the scene—for as long as she possibly could. However, his mental health had broken down and his behaviour became too much, so he was supported elsewhere, in sheltered accommodation.
What happened next was tragic. The grandson was not getting the mental health support that he needed. His behaviour became erratic in the shelter and problematic for other residents, and he was evicted. He was beaten to death in Walworth. He had stolen someone’s bike and pawned it, and the people he had stolen it from found him and beat him up, and he died. The morning his grandmother got back from Ghana, the police knocked on her door to tell her he was dead, despite the fact she had begged everyone to provide an extra, small intervention that could have prevented such an awful occurrence. Personally, I think the mental health services should have done more in that case, but we need to learn from incidents like that, to make sure that all avoidable deaths are actually made avoidable.
There is a question mark: are homeless people worth less, somehow? They have been made to feel that way. Being homeless is a dehumanising experience and the lack of human contact—even eye contact—is something that comes out in homeless group sessions, when we talk to homeless people directly.
There have been some bizarre policies. At Poole Borough Council the solution to rough sleeping was to introduce public space protection orders, which imposed fines on homeless people. Unsurprisingly, those fines were not paid when the council attempted to impose them, because homeless people do not have much money. It was a bizarre attempt at policy, but perhaps not as bad as the Cardiff Conservative councillor, Kathryn Kelloway, who was so outraged at the indecency and indignity of homelessness that she called for homeless people’s tents to be torn down—not because they had new homes, but just to take away their tents. That was shameful. She was suspended by the Welsh Conservatives, but less well publicised is the fact that she has already been readmitted, which speaks volumes.
Perhaps I have talked for too long, but I want to touch on some other issues. The private rental sector is the fastest growth area for people becoming homeless. Lots of organisations, some represented here today, are calling for no-fault evictions to be scrapped and section 21 reformed. There are lots of reasons why I want more rent controls and longer tenancy agreements to try to prevent some of this, as well as an increase in expenditure on help to rent, to try and get more people into the sector where possible.
Hon. Members have already referred to domestic violence, which I will touch on. The Government statistics, which I have taken from the House of Commons Library briefing, are astonishing. From April to June 2018, 4,500 households were owed a statutory homeless duty where the reason for losing their last settled home was
“violent relationship breakdown with partner or associated persons.”
That is 8% of all households owed homeless duty. The Women’s Aid annual survey 2017 found that housing was the most frequent co-presenting issue for women experiencing domestic abuse, above health, justice, finance and children.
The crisis in refuge funding has been driven by the demise of the Supporting People programme. If there is one specific programme that should be rebuilt, it is that one. In 2015-16, one in 10 homeless acceptances were due to domestic violence. Half of St Mungo’s female clients have experienced domestic violence and one third said domestic violence had contributed to their homelessness.
There is an issue around the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Fleeing from domestic violence does not automatically make women a priority need. They still have to meet the vulnerability threshold in the legislation to meet the criteria for assistance. That needs addressing, because councils are getting this wrong. The Women’s Aid project No Woman Turned Away looked at the reasons given to women for not getting homelessness assistance—we should think about the circumstances in which councils are doing this—which included the woman needing proof of abuse. Some women were deemed to be intentionally homeless as a result of being beaten up by a partner. That is not an acceptable excuse to try and deny someone the support they need. Some were even told to return to the violent partner, rather than get help from their council. Those circumstances must change.
The “no recourse to public funds” policy is completely unacceptable on every level. Either we believe in human rights or we do not. NRPF denies people equality of opportunity and rights to family life. I will give some examples, but for those who do not know, let me first explain that it used to apply only to illegal immigrants to the UK—to those who had no lawful reason to be in this country. The coalition Government, to their shame, then extended it to families, including those with British-born children; there are now 50,000 British-born children, born to parents legally in this country, who are not entitled to any public support. The circumstances into which those families are driven are horrific, and in some cases they are the result of Home Office error.
On Monday, Mr Musari sent me a message. I am godfather to his son; when we first met in 2015, he was about to become homeless. He had been working, paying tax and paying private rent, but the Home Office told him to stop—apparently we did not want him working, contributing or paying tax—and he was made homeless while his wife was pregnant with their third child. They were put through the wringer so much that he nearly killed himself; he said that he thought his children would get more help if he were dead. Only on Monday, almost three years later, was the decision finally overturned, granting him access to public funds—it has taken that long to correct a Home Office error.
Let me give one more example from my constituency. A woman was told seven years ago, in court, that she had a criminal record and did not meet the “person of good character” criterion, so she would be denied access to public funds. She has just got her new biometric card, but it has taken until now to overturn the decision, because it was a case of mistaken identity. She has never committed a crime, in this country or anywhere else—not so much as nicking a pint of milk of from a supermarket, which I am sure we have all done. She too has been through the wringer: she and her son, now 10, were made homeless and were reliant on friends and family. That boy was three years old when this situation began as a result of a Home Office mistake.
The all-party parliamentary group has made recommendations, including reinstating access to legal aid so that people in those circumstances do not have to wait three and a half years, or seven years, to overturn awful erroneous decisions by the Home Office. It is unacceptable. The Zambrano restrictions, which deny people access, should be lifted for anyone with a dependant. No child should be put through this process as a result of where their parent may have come from.
It is completely unacceptable that Surrey Square Primary School in my constituency has 40 children in those circumstances. If my daughter Esme were old enough, those children could have been born in the bed next to hers in St Thomas’s hospital, but they are denied access to the same support that Esme might qualify for. The children get this. They understand how unfair it is to victimise their classmates and friends. The Government are missing what this divisive and horrific policy is creating in our schools, especially in areas such as my constituency.
I will touch on the criminal justice system, which a couple of hon. Members have already mentioned, and the cost of getting this policy wrong, with specific reference to criminal justice. I hope the Minister sees her role as a cross-Government one, because there is not just one solution to this; it touches on many other areas. The cost to the taxpayer of getting this wrong is extortionate, through councils, the NHS and mental health services, which we have already talked about. Rough sleepers experience higher levels of certain health conditions that result in hospitalisation, and that is not free.
The response to a question I put to the Ministry of Justice revealed some figures that I think are shocking. The total number of people going into prison has fallen slightly since 2016, but the proportion of homeless people going to prison has risen from 23% to 27%.
I am finding the hon. Gentleman’s speech of great interest, and he has obviously researched this subject very deeply, but I will tentatively point out that it has been going on for 42 minutes, and while I am enjoying it, it would perhaps be more appropriate, given that there are other people here, if he came to his peroration.
Finally, an intervention that I can say “Get lost!” to. Bad luck; perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not want me to take interventions. He will be pleased to hear that I am nearly finished, but his intervention was in poor taste, I think. Perhaps I will take a bit longer—I do not know.
As I was saying, the total number of people going into prison has fallen slightly, but the percentage of those people who are homeless has risen to 27%. Last year, that will have amounted to 27,000 people entering prison who are of no fixed abode—homeless, in other words. The average cost of keeping someone in a prison in England is £35,000; it is higher in Scotland and much higher in Northern Ireland, where it is more than £50,000. If we just use the England figure, 27,000 people at £35,000 a year means that the Government’s failure fully to address homelessness is contributing to a prison population costing roughly £945 million a year.
What a waste—what an awful waste. That is nearly a billion quid. I know the Government did not get their money’s worth out of the Democratic Unionist party, but this £1 billion would be much better invested up front in preventative services to stop the scandal of people being made homeless and forced into crime. We know who is among the prison population: people with mental health conditions, care leavers and people who are ex-forces, as has already been touched on. The Government should invest in those groups to support them and prevent them from becoming homeless.
I would like to think that this is linked to the rising and extortionate cost of getting this wrong, but, as touched on previously, the public will is there to tackle this problem. The public do not want people to be sleeping rough or to be made homeless. As an indication of that demonstrable public will, the intervention and support of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has done some brilliant work on this, meant that last year StreetLink had more referrals and more donations from the public than ever before.
Batley Homeless Project, Dewsbury Cares and Churches Together in Dewsbury do amazing voluntary work, but Sarah Watkinson of Winter Warmers of Mirfield is now taking the space-type blankets that people get at the end of a marathon to the railway station in the morning and asking people to give them out to homeless people they see on their commute. Does my hon. Friend agree it is a shame that people have to do that and that, while we are grateful for the work they do, if the Government got their act together, perhaps they would not have to do it?
We are, of course, grateful to the army of people out there who are propping up this failing system. They want to see action from the Government and they are not getting it. I will plug StreetLink again: people can phone to make a referral, and StreetLink will do the intervention. Anyone who wants to help directly should to that.
I will end, hon. Members will be pleased to know, with a quick point. The Minister made the commitment last year that if rough sleeping continued to rise, she would resign. Obviously there has been a 2% drop, so we are glad to see her still in post—I mean that genuinely; a drop is welcome—but will she commit to continuing that pledge for next year?
Before I call the next speaker, I want to say that this is an important subject and the hon. Gentleman was doing his job, so I could not intervene in that. I am sure that everybody will show patience and take that on board when they contribute later; Members have seen the number of people standing to speak, and they can decide for themselves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and to follow my friend the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), alongside whom I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this very important debate.
It is difficult to conduct a debate about rough sleeping without viewing it in the wider context of homelessness. The hon. Gentleman gave a compelling and comprehensive speech; it will not surprise him that I do not agree with all of it, but much of it I do agree with. He referenced a lot of the all-party parliamentary group’s work, and I will try not to repeat too many of the points that he made so eloquently. I also thank the Minister. I know it has not been a very easy 12 months for her, but she has worked very diligently on this issue and I thank her and the Secretary of State for the roles they have played.
Over the past 12 months we have seen a small decrease in rough sleeping, but it is important to point out that that is in the context of increases in London, Birmingham and Manchester in particular, and of figures still showing an increase of 165% since 2010. I welcome the Government’s ambition to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it entirely by 2027, but that is too long. I put it to the Minister that we must be far more ambitious.
I know that the figures are disputed and that the CHAIN—combined homelessness and information network—statistics show differences year to year, but with a decrease of 2% a year it will take until 2052 to deal with rough sleeping in Britain, and that is frankly not good enough.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; I picked up on that point, which the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, my co-chair on the all-party parliamentary group, also made. I think it is a little misleading, if I dare say so, on the basis that the past year is the first year in which a number of interventions kicked in, the largest of which is the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, so it is not necessarily correct to say that we will see a 2% decrease; we should see a much sharper decrease this year, next year and the year after. Of course, the key is ensuring that we stay on top of those figures and, through further debates such as this one and through the all-party parliamentary group, we continue to hold the Minister and Secretary of State’s feet to the fire to ensure that those ambitions are met.
However, I think we need to go much further. To tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, it is important that we truly understand it. The hon. Lady mentioned the statistics; the reality is that we do not entirely know, because in nearly all cases they are estimates. We have some reasonably good estimates for London, but for the rest of the country they are often based on a headcount on a single night, at one point of the year. As the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark rightly pointed out, numerous people will come into a town centre of an evening or during the day, because they can beg, and people will be kind and generous. However, because of the danger of violence in the evening, they will actually head out of town to parks and recreational spaces to sleep in tents, so may not be picked up in rough sleeping headcounts.
We know that the reasons for homelessness and rough sleeping are numerous, varied and complex. I wish it were as simple as saying that the answer is just more money, but money is only part of the answer. To some extent—I err on the side of caution when using this phrase—homelessness is a little like an illness. Successive Governments have thrown huge amounts of money at the problem, which, a bit like a painkiller, has worked in masking the pain but has not actually treated the underlying condition or, even better, actually cured it.
An old adage that works just as well for homelessness and rough sleeping as for anything else is that prevention is always better than cure. We need a two-pronged approach that covers both. In order to prevent homelessness and to help those presently homeless, we have to truly understand them, looking at those numerous, varied and complex reasons and then putting in place timely interventions to address each and every one of them, otherwise we risk regression.
The all-party parliamentary group goes to all parts of the country, and I have seen too many cases, particularly in London and my constituency of Colchester, of rough sleepers who have been through the council system. They have had support and been through temporary accommodation, and in many cases have been given social housing, but for so many reasons that has failed. That is one of the biggest problems, and if we do not address those underlying issues that cause homelessness at the outset, the likelihood of regression is sadly very high.
We need much better data—as I said, we have reasonable data for London but not for the rest of the country—in order to understand those root causes of homelessness and then address them. We know some of the causes. They include poverty, debt, eviction and section 21 notices to end assured shorthold tenancies, which are now the no. 1 cause of homelessness. They also include relationship or marital breakdown, domestic violence, landlords not letting to those in receipt of benefits, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental health issues, leaving prison or care, being LGBTQ—a particularly vulnerable cohort—hospital discharges and leaving our armed forces, which the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned.
We also have to consider the wider context. In 2017-18, we built 6,463 social homes, yet nearly 1.2 million people are on council housing waiting lists. Successive Governments have not built anywhere near enough social homes.
I do not disagree with the point the hon. Gentleman is making. Would he like to comment on the opinion of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government that the Mayor of London should build fewer affordable homes and more luxury homes, as he said yesterday?
I had not seen that, so it would be ill-judged to comment on it. I can point the hon. Gentleman to a very fine article from only last week in, I believe, the Colchester Gazette, authored by the local MP, on why we need the most ambitious Government investment in social housing since the second world war. I will touch on that in a little bit.
Sadly, we have an estimated 4,677 people sleeping rough on our streets, and 277,000 homeless households. That is due in part to a lack of security in the private rented sector, which, as I mentioned, is now the biggest single cause of homelessness. We have areas where demand massively outstrips supply, including some of our major cities and large towns, with Colchester being a prime example, so landlords will not let to those in receipt of benefits.
The Government have done some great work, which is starting to make a difference and gives some reason for optimism, including the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. I was pleased to speak at all stages of its passage and to sit on its Bill Committee. There is also the £28 million Housing First pilot, the rough sleeping initiative and the Somewhere Safe to Stay pilot. There is funding for non-UK nationals sleeping rough. There are rough sleeping support teams and mental health support outreach workers. Improvements have been made to StreetLink and there are homelessness experts in jobcentres. Those are all part of that £100 million package to support the rough sleeping strategy announced last year.
My concern is that, worthy, important and valuable as those programmes are, they treat the symptoms, not the cause. What do we need to do? The first thing I should say to the Minister is that I do not have all the answers. However, I have some suggestions on ways in which we can start to prevent homelessness and address the issue. First, we need a full nationwide roll-out of Housing First as quickly as possible. The three pilots were important and a great start, but we know that it works; we have seen it work in other countries, particularly in Scandinavia, where rough sleeping has been entirely eradicated. Secondly, fewer than half of local authorities have a night shelter, so we need to fund and build more of those. Regional hubs are hugely important.
As the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned, we need to lift the freeze on the local housing allowance, which was introduced in 2016. We also need to embed and fully fund the Homelessness Reduction Act. It is a great piece of legislation, but we must monitor it to make sure that it is working and is fully funded and, equally importantly, that local authorities use it to its full and interpret it in the right way. That is hugely important, particularly in relation to the duties it places on them. As the hon. Gentleman also mentioned, we need a help-to-rent scheme. We need to look at people who have no recourse to public funds. In London and some of our big cities, between 30% and 40% of rough sleepers are non-British nationals and are not entitled to any support, so we need to find a solution for those individuals.
We need to start treating homelessness, and particularly rough sleeping, as a health issue. I mentioned alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health issues. We need mental health support workers to go out with every outreach team up and down the country. I am pleased to see that £30 million will be invested in that regard, which will make a huge difference. For the Minister to say at one of our all-party parliamentary group meetings that the Department very much sees rough sleeping and homelessness as a health issue was an important step change.
The hon. Gentleman may feel positive about the Government accepting that homelessness should be seen as a health issue, but his Government have cut public health funding.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about health funding. I have raised my own concerns about that privately with Ministers. There is a huge amount more work to do in that area. I specifically refer to outreach workers going out in our towns and cities across this country and providing support. It is often those outreach workers who are trusted to provide that support. However, I very much take her point.
Minister, we need specialist, well-funded interventions for those high-risk groups that I mentioned—particularly prison leavers, care leavers, survivors of domestic violence and the LGBTQ community. We have to give more support to those amazing charities and voluntary organisations that work so hard to tackle homelessness up and down our country. Many of those charities have been in existence for decades, but the pressures on them now are huge.
I apologise that I will not be able to stay to hear the Minister’s response. While I appreciate the hon. Gentlemen’s concern and care for what he thinks should be done, perhaps he could look at the record of the two years before and after the millennium. Those of us in local government then worked with and funded—or were supported by Government funding—via several different routes, the public sector and the third sector to provide the very services that he describes. Those services supported all sorts of vulnerable people before they became homeless. They were thought of not as homelessness services but as early intervention and prevention services, and they prevented a host of problems, not only rough sleeping.
As I mentioned, the last Labour Government made several helpful interventions, but I genuinely believe that throwing money at the issue, which the Labour Government did as much as any of their successors, is not wholly the answer. It worked like a painkiller, masking the pain, but did not address the underlying condition.
The hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly long speech. It is not about throwing money at homelessness. It is the policy of austerity that has led to the rise in homelessness. That is just a fact.
I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. I mentioned that the issue is in part about money, but it is not wholly about money; it is also about getting the right interventions in place. The hon. Lady may not have been listening entirely. I would very much welcome her coming to some of our APPG meetings, because then she would know that it is not just about austerity. Austerity may be part of the issue, because of course if we cut back on services up and down the country, everything has a consequence, but the reasons for homelessness and, in particular, rough sleeping are complex, varied and numerous. It cannot be put down to just one thing.
We need to address the availability of high-strength cheap alcohol on our high streets. I appreciate that doing something about that is not within the Minister’s gift, but I hope that she can take the issue away.
I know that this will be a controversial point, but we need to try to rechannel the generosity of the British public. Too many people are, understandably, giving money to people on the streets. My message to them is this. That generosity is incredible, but please direct the money to the amazing charities that work in our towns and cities up and down the country. By all means, support people with food, blankets and all sorts of other things, but not with money, because in too many cases, as we find if we speak to rough sleepers, it ends up going on drugs and alcohol, and sadly that is helping to perpetuate their rough sleeping. It is making the problem worse, not better, so I encourage people to support charities that are working on the ground and not to give money to individuals.
I want to come back to what the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) said. Yes, we can throw money at an issue, but unless we address the underlying cause, we will not solve it, and the underlying cause of this issue is that successive Governments have failed to build anywhere near enough social housing. That is as true of the last Labour Government as it was of the Government before them and of the Government before them. That is why I genuinely believe that, finally and most importantly, we need the most ambitious and largest Government social house building programme since the second world war. I refer the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) back to that rather punchy article on this issue.
Again, I cannot fault what the hon. Gentleman is saying about social housing. It is what all the homelessness charities are urging on us. I just hope that he can have some influence on the Government whom he supports. But perhaps he can explain, then, why rough sleeping fell by 75% in the last 10 years of the Labour Government and has gone up by 165% in less than 10 years of his own party’s Government.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. There are many reasons for what he refers to. The Government could tomorrow invest tens of millions of pounds—well, it would be more than tens of millions—in more temporary accommodation, and that would get more people off the streets, but it would not address the underlying problem, which is that we need long-term, permanent, secure accommodation for people up and down our country.
I come back to the fundamental point about social housing. I want us to get back to building in the region of 100,000 social houses a year. The Office for Budget Responsibility has estimated that in 2018-19 the total housing benefit bill is likely to hit an incredible £23.4 billion —£23.4 billion—and it is only going in one direction; it is only increasing. That means that we are spending more than £20 billion a year to mitigate the effects of a housing shortage brought about by successive Governments, without finding a long-term solution to the problem. Arguably, what is worse is that, because of the lack of social housing, those who need homes are being housed in the private rented sector, so taxpayers’ money is being transferred into the pockets of private landlords, which in turn only increases demand in the private rented sector and drives up rents for everyone else. I suggest that investing in social homes is a far more efficient use of public money. Once built, those social homes would be public assets that would appreciate in value.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. Does he agree with me on this point? The Government recently announced that they would make direct payments to private landlords to avoid escalating rent arrears. Would it not be sensible to make the same offer to social landlords?
I will have to look to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, because I believe that that is a recommendation that the all-party parliamentary group has made. It is one of those changes that would be a positive step.
The other reason why a large and ambitious programme of social housing would be a good thing is that it would provide—this is why there is a strong Conservative case for doing it—an immediate financial return through the reduced housing benefit bill. It would also alleviate hugely the pressure on the private rented sector and ultimately, I believe, lead to cheaper rents.
I will conclude because I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. Although I hugely support the Government’s aim and ambition, I want us to be far more ambitious, and, through the all-party parliamentary group, we will continue to push the Government to be more ambitious. I said earlier that homelessness is a little like an illness. I want us to invest fully and properly in the treatment and cure, and that does mean significant resource. So I say to the Minister: please set out an ambitious strategy to tackle the root causes, and the whole House—I believe that this would be cross-party—will support you in making the case to the Treasury. It would lead not only to a financial benefit but to a huge social benefit. One family homeless or one person sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. Let this be the Government who put in place the long-term strategy to end homelessness, and Minister, we will all be behind you.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I say to hon. Members that they may seek to make interventions, but I ask them to try to refrain from making comments while they are sitting down. I suggest that they seek to make interventions, rather than making comments from a sedentary position. I call Justin Madders.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. There were a lot of thanks in the opening remarks from my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), but I would like to thank him for securing the debate and for the excellent work that he does, alongside the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), in chairing the APPG on ending homelessness. My hon. Friend gave a passionate and well informed introduction to the subject.
Sleeping out on the streets happens all year round, but it is at times such as this, when the temperature is very low and any night could be someone’s last, that the issue comes into focus. I commend those organisations that have taken extra steps in recent weeks, when the weather has been particularly cold, but we must recognise —as I think hon. Members do—that, welcome as those interventions are, they deal only with the issue as it presents itself. We need to look at the underlying causes of what I consider to be a national scandal.
Rough sleeping is a national crisis. As we have heard, the figure has risen by 165% since 2010. No doubt we will hear—indeed, we have heard already—that there has been a 2% fall in the number of people sleeping rough across England as a whole in the last year, but what I see with my own eyes tells me that we have a crisis right here and now. I have been a Member of this House for just under four years and I have noticed a significant increase in the number of people sleeping in doorways on the walk back to my flat. This morning, while walking in, I saw lots of sleeping bags and cardboard boxes—evidence of people sleeping rough. I notice, whenever I go out in a big city, that there are more and more people sleeping on the streets; there are more than there used to be. I have also noticed an increase in the number of people coming to my surgery who are sleeping rough or facing homelessness. Every night when I leave this place, I see the people sheltering in the subways under the Palace of Westminster and I feel ashamed—ashamed that right by the corridors of power, in one of the richest countries in the world, we have people sleeping rough. I am sure that I am not the only person who, looking at that, thinks: how can we let this happen?
As we have heard, there is a huge crisis. There were 4,677 people sleeping rough on any given night last year, compared with 1,768 in a similar survey in 2010. Nearly 5,000 people sleep rough every night. Saying the number does not really do the issue justice. Imagine filling a stand at a lower-league football ground and saying that every single person in it will be out on the streets that night. Think about exactly where those people will go, how they will feel and how that could be happening to a similar number of people not just that night, but every night throughout the year. That gives us a sense of the scale of the challenge that we face.
In the context of these surveys, those who are seen sleeping rough are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said, only the tip of the iceberg. Rough sleeping is the most visible form of homelessness, but of course many people are in temporary accommodation; there are people relying on friends and family for a place to live; and there are people sheltering in alcoves or other places away from the worst excesses of the weather.
It has not always been like this. As we know, in 2010, after 20 years of concerted Government effort across the parties, rough sleeping appeared to be almost at an end. Because homelessness is not inevitable, it can be prevented. It is clear that the Government accept that it can be prevented, because they aim to eradicate it by 2027. That seems an awful long time away for such a national scandal. We need to act more firmly now.
We have heard about the connections between health and rough sleeping. The British Medical Association tells us that being homeless can have a devastating effect on people’s mental and physical health. That is borne out by the Office for National Statistics figures, which show that a staggering 597 people died while sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation in 2017. That means that every night, at least one homeless person died. The average age of the people dying is 44 for men and 42 for women. Those deaths are premature and entirely preventable. It is a stain on this country that we did not prevent those deaths.
The interventions and funding in the Government’s new rough sleeping strategy are welcome, but they are only a first step. If the Government are to reach their own targets of halving rough sleeping by 2022 and ending it by 2027, they must address the key drivers, which we have heard a bit about in the debate: spiralling housing costs, lack of social housing, insecurity for private renters and cuts to homelessness services. Only by addressing those issues can we have long-lasting change.
Since the Government came to power, rents have become increasingly unaffordable. Between 2011 and 2017, rents grew 60% faster than wages. In those circumstances, it is no wonder that people struggle to keep a roof over their heads. At the same time, welfare reforms have made private sector landlords increasingly reluctant to rent to tenants who rely on housing benefit. As we have heard, many landlords now refuse to accept tenants in receipt of benefit at all.
A quarter of private renters, equating to over 1 million households, rely on housing benefit or a housing element of universal credit to keep a roof over their head. Because of the decline in social housing stock, with nearly 1.2 million people trapped waiting for social housing, many of those families face greater and further instability with rising rents in the private rented sector. Housing benefit, as we have heard, is only paid up to the rate determined by the local housing allowance. The decision to freeze that in 2016 is causing real problems now. There is no requirement for landlords to let their properties at that level. It is a perfect recipe for people to fall further and further into debt.
If the Government were serious about tackling these issues and meeting the goals they have set, they would tackle the causes of homelessness. We need to make more homes available to people with a history of rough sleeping, and to continue to improve security for private renters. Three-year tenancies should be a minimum. We need to look at rent controls. We need to build thousands more homes for affordable rent.
Those are some of the causes, but I also question whether the system does enough to help those who become homeless. The new duties on local housing authorities to assess, prevent and relieve homelessness under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 are welcome. However, I have seen that amount to little more than handing out a list of private landlords for people to contact. Shelter tells us that the leading cause of homelessness is the loss of a private rented home, so I find it incredible that some local authorities see their duty to prevent homelessness as being fulfilled by nothing more than pointing people back in the direction of the sector that was responsible for their situation in the first place.
We know that, once evicted, many more people now struggle to find a new property due to the cost of securing a new tenancy, with deposits and other fees coming on top of the unaffordable rents that I have already referred to. I also have concerns that people who are given notice to quit by their private landlord are not really helped by the local authority. They are given no special priority until they are very close to the eviction date, which causes unnecessary stress and anxiety, and encourages—if not forces—landlords to go to court to get the eviction order they need. Who picks up the tab for those legal costs? Of course, it is the tenant. That approach does not help anyone.
Telling people who go into the council with a notice to quit that it might not be a lawful notice and they should seek legal advice is not actually helping people to get rehoused. The landlord will get them out eventually. It might take them a bit longer or cost them a bit more, but the council is not discharging its duties.
In response to the draft homelessness code of guidance, Shelter also identified a problem with the system for local connection referrals. Even when referrals are made in the proper way, people are often left in a period of limbo, during which they may not get any help with the relief of homelessness. This is even more of a problem when the referral is actually disputed. People in that situation are at risk of becoming citizens of nowhere, so it is hardly surprising that we see the consequences of that every night.
I am conscious that many hon. Members want to speak, so I will conclude. I believe that rough sleeping is a damning indictment of our society. The lack of priority and support we give to those who have fallen on hard times should shame us all. We have to do much better than we currently do.
I will not impose a time limit on speeches at this stage, but I urge hon. Members to keep to seven or eight minutes. I would appreciate that. Otherwise, I might set a time limit later.
Thank you very much, Mr Sharma.
If hon. Members have not already been, I recommend that they walk a few hundred yards down Millbank to see the exhibition of Don McCullin’s photographs at Tate Britain. He is famous for his haunting photographs of war over the past few decades. However, I had not previously seen the pictures he took in 1970 of homeless people in Spitalfields in the east end. One of those photographs is one of his most famous. They are at least as haunting as the images of the ravages of war that he produced. It is shaming that decades on we are still grappling with this problem, which should not exist in a successful, modern economy. His photographs are a reminder that these problems have been with us for some time.
Other hon. Members have spoken about the importance of measures to prevent homelessness in the first place. It makes sense, of course, to try to direct the focus of Government policy in so many areas of social concern towards prevention, rather than picking up the problem after it has happened. However, that is easier said than done. Generally, Finance Ministers are resistant to generalised bids to increase money in preventive measures, for fear that they will end up picking up the costs twice. That is one reason why it has been so hard to shift policy towards preventive measures in areas of public health, for instance. However, it is essential that we do so in relation to homelessness, because it is preventable.
The importance of mental health services has been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) was right to focus on housing supply. I have spent 14 years in my affluent constituency of Arundel and South Downs dealing with requests from local communities to prevent the building of new housing. In truth, much of that housing is for other relatively affluent people and only part of it goes to social housing. The concern about the impact of new housing—a genuine concern about the impact on the countryside, local services and so on—obscures the wider point, which is that there has been a systematic failure to ensure that housing supply meets demand.
This is not only a question of social housing provision, to which Opposition Members have rightly drawn attention. The failure to provide sufficient private housing also has a knock-on effect on rent levels: rents become higher because housing supply is too low. In turn, the state directs large amounts of money towards housing benefit in order to help people meet those rents, and we enter a vicious circle. It is important that we have determined measures to increase housing supply and that we try to deal with some of the problems and the objections that people have. That includes a mix of private sector and social housing.
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
Hon. Members have rightly drawn attention to concerns about welfare policy. The five-week wait for universal credit has been mentioned. I know that the Government have taken some steps on that, but they need to go further, because it has clearly been a factor in homelessness.
Housing benefit is also an issue, particularly the shared accommodation rate, which has been frozen since 2016. The charity Depaul, which I will come to shortly, has pointed out that in one night, official figures indicated that 225 young people aged 18 to 25 were sleeping rough, but only 57 rooms could be found that would be available to them at rents within the shared accommodation rate. The support that is available to people has not and cannot keep pace with the level of rents, because it has been frozen, and the local housing allowance does not cover rents for 90% of areas in England. That welfare issue has to be addressed.
A related budgetary issue has affected Stonepillow, a local homelessness charity in West Sussex. West Sussex County Council has found itself at the receiving end of sharp reductions in local government funding, so it in turn has decided to nearly halve the housing-related support allowance. Effectively, that passes the burden on to district councils, with the knock-on effect that support for Stonepillow will be reduced by £300,000. If we are serious about tackling these problems, we should not penalise the important charities that do so much good work on the ground in providing help to people who become homeless and in helping to prevent homelessness.
As well as preventing homelessness and rough sleeping, we need to make sure that measures are available to help people who have become victims of it. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the charity Depaul, which I mentioned earlier, and its Nightstop service. On 10 October, World Homeless Day, I and several other hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester, for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), and Baroness Suttie and Baroness Grender, slept out at the Oval cricket ground at an event organised by Depaul. Some 100 volunteers raised money for Depaul that evening. I declare an interest, which is that my partner is a fundraiser for Depaul, so it is not so much a financial interest for me as a matter of domestic harmony that I take an interest in such issues.
The experience of sleeping out on the concrete ground for just a few hours was a tiny insight into the experience that people have when they are sleeping rough. The truth is that we were all looked after before we pitched our cardboard boxes for the evening and, a few hours later, we were able to return to the warmth of our homes, a hot bath or shower, a meal and a job. Most of us were seized by the realisation of how debilitating it would be if we had to pick up our cardboard box and move on without any of those things to go to. I hope that when Depaul organises its sleep-out event in central London next year, many more hon. Members will take part to help the fundraising effort, draw attention to the issue and share in that experience on World Homeless Day.
Depaul runs a good service, Nightstop, which I mentioned. It has been going for a few years and it is interesting because it is a good example of the shared economy. Private individuals open up their homes and provide a bed at night for a homeless young person. Of course, they have to be approved and thoroughly vetted. The introduction to that service is a reminder of the various forms of homelessness, but those young people are often vulnerable and need a bed, security and a meal for the night.
In 2017, the Nightstop service provided more than 11,000 bed nights to nearly 1,500 young people. There is a tremendous opportunity to expand that volunteer-run service, but that would require additional funding. Less than half the local authority areas in the UK are covered by the Nightstop service, but Depaul is keen to expand it.
Depaul would like the Government to invest just £2.2 million over three years in five new sub-regional Nightstop services. After four years, it will pick up the funding for those services itself; it merely needs the seedcorn funding—the Government do not often get that kind of offer. That self-sufficient service would provide up to 7,500 more nights of emergency accommodation a year for young people. I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister, who takes a strong interest in these issues and who has done so much in the last year, to meet Depaul, perhaps visit a Nightstop service, and consider that incredibly cost-efficient and worthwhile proposal.
The numbers of people sleeping rough have levelled off, but they are still too high. Underneath the global figures, there are some big regional disparities that we need to understand, such as the disparity between the numbers of homeless people outside London and in London. In London, half the people sleeping rough are foreign nationals—almost all EU nationals—and the welfare issues around them are much more complex.
We should also realise that although the numbers appear to have reduced only slightly in the last year and are still too high, there was a much bigger reduction—23%—in the 73 areas that were targeted by additional money as part of the Government’s rough sleepers initiative introduced at the beginning of last year. That suggests that targeted funding, which is carefully directed at measures that are integrated and can help to deal with the problem, will succeed and is worth pursuing. This is a problem that can be dealt with.
This issue should embarrass and shame us as an advanced economy. I welcome the Government’s ambition to halve the number of people sleeping rough by 2022 and end rough sleeping by 2027, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, the chairman of the all-party group, of which I am also an officer, that we need to do better than that. The Government should make the issue their highest priority, because no Government should want it to happen on their watch.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I know you would be speaking on the issue if you were not chairing, and I congratulate you again on the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, which received Royal Assent recently.
I will not take up too much time; I will deal with just two issues. Rough sleeping is the tip of the iceberg. I agree with the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) that it is a complex issue, so I will say a bit about that. It is also a solvable issue, however, which was not entirely solved, but was largely reduced, by the application of skill and resources, so I will also say something about that and where we go with it.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the fact that some short-term solutions and immediate measures could be adopted to relieve the pressure of rough sleeping, as is often done at this time of year. I pay tribute to the Mayor of London for his initiatives and the specific action that he has recently taken in the cold weather to make sure that, on compassionate grounds alone, people who are forced to sleep outside on very cold nights have somewhere to go. That is good.
Equally, I pay tribute to the fact that the Mayor of London has made the expansion of affordable social housing a priority in London for the first time in many years, because London is severely affected. As has been said, even as the high numbers of rough sleepers flatlined nationally last year, they went up by 13% in London. Since 2010, rough sleeping has, I think, tripled in London, while it has gone up by about 165% overall. Yes, there are a lot of emergency and temporary measures that can be taken, but in reality we will not resolve this problem unless we address the underlying causes. I think everyone agrees on that, and it is good that there is consensus across the Chamber.
Some of those underlying causes are to do with the individual—I will come on to that in a moment—but a lot of them are to do with the housing system in this country, the instability of housing and the associated risk. I was struck by a figure from Crisis, which says that
“there were more than 170,000 families and individuals experiencing the worst forms of homelessness…This includes people sleeping on our streets, sofa-surfing with strangers, living in hostels, and stuck in other dangerous situations.”
That is an intolerable situation, but the trend in housing policy means that it has simply got worse over the years, because there has been huge growth in the use of temporary accommodation.
The ability of local authorities to discharge their housing responsibility into the private sector permanently under the Localism Act 2011 is one factor in that growth. As I have suggested, it is also about housing conditions—the very poor quality of housing and the attitude of landlords. Landlords may be willing to evict tenants who complain about the conditions they are in, or those conditions may simply become too bad and the properties unfit for habitation.
The problem is also related to restrictions on benefits. The cap on local housing allowance—one of the two key issues that Shelter identified in its briefing for this debate—makes it very difficult for anybody on who is on benefits to find housing in significant parts of the country, particularly in areas such as mine in inner London where housing costs are so high.
Universal credit is causing extraordinary problems. I met representatives of the Shepherds Bush Housing Group, which is one of the big housing associations in my area. They said that about 4% of their tenants are in some form of arrears, but the figure is three or four times that for those who are on universal credit. People are being evicted simply because the universal credit system is letting them down.
There is this fetish of relying on the private rented sector to solve problems that it simply is not designed to solve. The massive growth in the private rented sector and the decline in both owner-occupation and social housing, as a deliberate arm of Conservative Government policy, are at the root of these problems.
The other key point that Shelter makes—Members on both sides of the Chamber have also made it—is that we must have a significant commitment to social house building, including in expensive areas of the country. Social house building is very difficult because of land prices, and that is not just the case in London anymore; in other major cities and significant parts of the south of England, it is extremely difficult to achieve social house building.
How on earth did we get ourselves in a situation where £24 billion can go, with no long-term benefits in housing terms, into landlords’ pockets? I am sure that there are good landlords who use some of that money to invest, and landlords with property portfolios who are prepared to take on difficult tenants or tenants who are reliant on benefits. Neither of those scenarios reflect the picture that I find in my constituency, nor is that how the system is designed to work.
My second main point is that although the situation may be complicated, it is not a difficult one to resolve. We know what the solutions are, because we have a very sophisticated group of organisations—the big ones include St Mungo’s, Crisis and Shelter—which have huge reservoirs of knowledge about how to tackle the difficulties involved in homelessness. Homeless people are often very vulnerable people or people with complex problems, often related to addiction or mental health.
I know that there is a move now towards the Housing First model and I do not disagree with that, because putting a roof over somebody’s head is—I think this is fairly self-evident—key to ending homelessness. That model did not find favour previously because those tenancies would often break down, because people who were not used to managing their own lives in that way were unable to sustain tenancies.
The Housing First model obviously has to go hand in hand with a lot of support, but that support is generally there. We are dealing with people who are used to dealing —in an extraordinarily compassionate way but also in a professional way—with people with complex problems every day.
Two weeks ago, I was at one of the St Mungo’s hostels in my constituency. I go to those hostels often and we have hour-long sessions with their residents, and I get asked all sorts of questions. They are sophisticated, educated and intelligent people who happen to have fallen through the cracks and on hard times. I made my excuses and left when I started being asked why Gordon Brown sold the gold reserves and why Labour adopted private finance initiatives, which gives people an idea of where the debate was going. At that stage, I decided that I had another appointment and needed to move on.
Nevertheless, there is a willingness among residents of such hostels and among people who are sleeping rough, as well as among the organisations that look after them, to resolve these problems. The resources to do that have to be available, however, and I am just not finding that to be the case at the moment. Immediate investment is what is lacking.
I know that the Minister will talk about the Government’s rough sleeping initiative, which has the aim of reducing rough sleeping by half by 2022 and reducing it fully by 2027. Of course we will support the Government in that aim, but it means that in about five years’ time we will be in the position that we were 10 years ago. I find that a bit depressing, to be perfectly honest.
I will try to be positive. We all know the large organisations that we work with on this issue. As other Members have already mentioned, there are also a lot of small organisations in our own constituencies. I will mention one—I am a patron of it, so I am obviously biased towards it—called The Upper Room, which is in my constituency. It started in 1990 as a group of local people who were concerned about rough sleeping, both by British citizens and by a lot of European citizens, at that stage. The problem has not got any better, particularly with the increase in “no recourse to public funds”.
Simply out of sheer compassion, those local people got together and raised funds; they are now raising about £350,000 a year from individual donations and charitable giving. Every day they provide a hot meal for about 1,500 people, but they have also gone on to provide an employment service and—particularly for ex-offenders—a service that teaches people to drive. That is a very good skill to help people to get into employment.
Nobody asked those people to do that. It is not a state enterprise; this is people simply seeing a problem and trying to resolve it. The good will is there and the expertise is there. However, with all due respect to the Minister, I do not feel as though there is yet sufficient will to challenge the immediate problems of rough sleeping or to address the issue of housing policy.
It is gratifying that I am now hearing Conservative MPs talk about that issue, and I try not to intervene every time a Conservative MP tries to teach me about the benefits of social housing. It is good if there is going to be a cross-party consensus on that, but there needs to be a sea change in Government policy, not tweaking at the edges. It requires investment of billions of pounds, year on year, to turn things around. We are starting from a very low base, with a very low level of house building. It is not just about identifying the land, reforming the planning system or bringing developers to heel regarding what they want to build.
Frankly, the comment that was made to ITV—I think it was made yesterday—by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who I normally have a lot of time for, was a disgrace. To say to the Mayor, “You should concentrate more on building market housing and less on building social and affordable housing in London”—I mean, come and look at the problems in London of trying to get anybody housed, given the sort of conditions that people are living in and the length of time that people are waiting for a permanent home; it can be 10 or 15 years. Only by putting ideology to one side and saying that social housing is an absolutely key part of the housing market in this country will we ensure that these problems are not temporarily dealt with in a sticking-plaster way, but resolved for good.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) not only on securing this debate but on managing to stay on his feet for so long after losing a pint of blood, at least, and probably not having time for the tea and biscuits, given his rush to get here.
Unusually, I want to talk about the subject of the debate—rough sleeping. We have heard a lot about homelessness and housing generally. The issue is important, even though it affects only 4,677 people officially. I am sure it is much more than that. It is a totemic issue that affects many people in our constituencies who see it day in, day out, as of course do we. There is a temptation to conflate rough sleeping with homelessness and the number of families in temporary accommodation. Those are symptoms of the shortage of housing, or of housing in the right place, the shortage of affordable housing, affordable rents and housing that is affordable to buy or part-buy, as well as the lack of choice in the private sector and for those on housing benefit, as has been mentioned.
The Government have introduced some measures, we can say belatedly in some cases. It is slightly unfair to judge them on the basis of the reduction last year and then predicate the next few years on that. The manifesto commitments on the homelessness reduction strategy and the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which I was proud to support, are important components going forward and they absolutely cement the Government’s serious commitment in what is a cross-party consensus on a national emergency that we need to do something about.
The problem of rough sleeping, as hon. Members have already mentioned, is not simply about the availability of resources and bricks-and-mortar accommodation. Some rough sleepers simply will not come inside, for a host of reasons, many connected with mental health problems, as has been mentioned. What has changed over the past few years is the worryingly high incidence of ex-military who find themselves rough sleeping. They find it hard to make the transition from the discipline of the armed forces and to adapt to life outside. There has also been, we must admit, a big increase in the number of rough sleepers who are foreign nationals. Those are all new factors that we need to adapt to and deal with. However, I want to deal with a solution—specifically, what we have done in Worthing where there has been some real thinking outside the box. One project that I want to refer to is run by what was called the Worthing Homeless Churches Projects and has now been renamed Turning Tides.
Coastal towns like Worthing have traditionally had a problem with rough sleepers. Worthing was not excluded from that, but we wanted to find practical solutions. Turning Tides and the council got together to quantify the extent of the problem to see what initiatives they could come up with. They wanted to engage with local rough sleepers to make sure that the services offered were suitable and matched the individual needs of local rough sleepers. In November 2017 they calculated the highest number of rough sleepers, with a count estimate of 34 and an actual count of 19. We know the problem of the actual numbers and the hidden numbers, but it was a more accurate picture than we had had for some time. The biggest challenge, not surprisingly, was sourcing sufficient emergency accommodation to offer them some refuge. The supported housing schemes run by Worthing Homeless Churches Projects were constantly full, despite good throughput and move-on rates. I pay tribute to the innovative and practical schemes that it ran for those with alcohol, drug and other problems. However, many rough sleepers were waiting too long to gain access.
In 2017, the council and Worthing Homes, the local social landlord after a large-scale voluntary transfer from Worthing Council, held an event on housing matters, in which I participated, to try to find a consensus in the town about what we could do about the issue. Worthing Homes has been very proactive in trying to make available step-up accommodation f rough sleepers once they get back to some stability and are able to take on some independent living themselves. I pay tribute to it.
At the event was a local developer, Roffey Homes, which has done some very worthwhile and commendable projects in the town. Inspired by that event, the owner of Roffey Homes saw an opportunity to provide emergency accommodation. He had just bought the local nurses’ home, which was surplus to requirements, next to the local hospital and intended to develop it. He was not going to develop it for several years, so he offered Turning Tides a five-year lease on a peppercorn rent. The council chipped in, planning permission was obtained and the council helped fund the work to enable it to be used as a 37-bed high-support short-stay accommodation project. Housing benefit funded the majority of the 24/7 staffing and the project opened in May 2018. I have visited it and seen the benefits.
The last count of rough sleepers in November last year showed the number had virtually halved in Worthing as a direct consequence of the project, although we have not solved the problem. There are still rough sleepers. Some of them will not instantly go into accommodation even when it is available because they have more complicated problems, as I have said. The Lyndhurst Road project, as it was called, was modelled to be accessible to clients who had not managed the requirements of the Worthing Churches Homeless Projects’ more structured supported housing schemes. The project offered wrap-around support from the multi-disciplinary team using the best practice of MEAM: Making Every Adult Matter. It is not just a matter of providing accommodation. There are mental health support workers on site to help. People come regularly from the local benefits office to help with jobs, benefit applications and support. A computer suite offers skills and access to enable people to apply for benefits, job opportunities and other things.
Yesterday I was told the story of one individual by the head of Turning Tides, John Holmstrom, who has really nailed his colours to the mast of the project, and I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done. He told me:
“Today in court J told the Judge that Lyndhurst is the first place he has felt he can call home since his adoptive placement broke down when he was 13. J said he really likes Lyndhurst and trusts the staff and has never had that before...since J has been at Lyndhurst he has not been arrested or in trouble with the police”.
He was in court because of an historical issue before he became a tenant. His story applies to other people who have found not only accommodation but stability and a way of getting their lives back on track that will hopefully lead to some degree of independent living. It is not rocket science. The local council showed willing and used some Government money, and a local developer showed a bit of corporate social responsibility and some imagination. They and a well-run and well-supported homelessness charity that is very well regarded in our town came together, using the whole-systems approach that hon. Members have mentioned, to come up with a solution, rather than just constantly highlight the problems of homelessness and rough sleeping.
The project has not been without problems. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) mentioned the cuts in homelessness support that are affecting West Sussex charities. They will certainly impact on the project. It would be a great shame to see such good work go into reverse. The charity said:
“The government’s decision to maintain supported housing within the Housing Benefit scheme has been a critical factor to stabilise our supported housing. This was very welcome.”
However, it said:
“We would urge the support element funding that was devolved to Local Authorities under Supporting People is ring fenced so supported housing can be stabilised for the long term”—
so that projects can continue to benefit.
As I said, the project was not without problems. It has taken some brave characters, including two local councillors, to deal with it. I certainly pay tribute to Councillors Alex Harman and Keith Bickers who represent the area. There has been some antisocial behaviour, as often happens with such projects, usually not by people using the project themselves. It attracts drug dealing and antisocial behaviour to the vicinity, for which the project then gets blamed. It has taken brave local councillors and others to continue to support the project, despite residents’ complaints. They have gone out and organised public meetings and liaised with the police to get better police enforcement where there is antisocial behaviour and criminal activity in the area.
What I am outlining is the way forward. We can talk about the problems of homelessness and rough sleeping—the historical problems going back years—until we are blue in the face. We need such imaginative projects, and imaginative and forward-thinking people working in partnership to come up with solutions. Those solutions exist. We have not solved the problem in Worthing, but we have greatly alleviated it. It is noticeable that there has been a great reduction in the number of rough sleepers, who were causing problems in the town; that was being commented on. They have not just been hidden or disguised. People have been helped and supported, so that they will—I hope sustainably—avoid rough sleeping again in the future, when the accommodation comes to an end. That is the sort of practical solution to look at, and I am proud that it has been done in Worthing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, not least because of your interest and tireless work in the field we are considering. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on his opening speech and on his work with the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince). There need not be an issue of rough sleeping, which is why we are having this debate.
I want to challenge the Minister, as have many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, about ambition. I believe that she is committed to the agenda, but that she lacks ambition in talking about 2027 as the date for the end of rough sleeping. That is far too late, because of the many statistics we have heard, and because of the lives involved—lives of people we have personal contact with. People urgently need redress. If the metro Mayor of Manchester can shorten the timescale, and in the light of the progress that has been made in Worthing, there is no reason why the Minister, with the resources in her hands and the power of office, cannot make a significant difference and change the landscape. I therefore urge her to reflect on the debate and to shorten the timescale, so that in 2022 street homelessness in our communities will have been obliterated.
We have today heard many reasons for the level of homelessness and rough sleeping, and we recognise how the country’s housing market has completely failed. In York, luxury apartment after luxury apartment is built while there is a housing crisis and people cannot access the market. There are 1,500 people waiting for a house, and people sleep rough every night. However, what shook our city was hearing at the end of last year that 11 homeless people had died in York. I went to the council to investigate and find out more about those individuals’ lives. A quarter of the deaths of homeless people in Yorkshire were in my city—a city that everyone tells me is lovely, which it is. Why, then, are these things happening? There is affluence as well as huge poverty in the city. There is huge inequality.
The council told me that it was not a question of homelessness; drug dependency and alcohol were the factors. In fact, one person did not count, because they had come down from Scotland. Who do those people belong to? Who has responsibility for those lives? The reality is that often local authorities hand out train tickets so people can return where they came from. We must say that we are all responsible. If people reside on our doorstep, we must take responsibility for their lives and give them every opportunity. That includes people with no recourse to public funds—perhaps people who are here without legal documentation. They are human beings. We cannot and must not turn away from that, and it is a matter of shame that so many people have, for such a long time.
Before I go on to focus on deaths related to homelessness, I want to raise with the Minister the fact that local authorities still fail people and put them on to the streets. It was bitterly cold last week, and in York it was due to go down to minus 6 °C at night. My office had a phone call from a young woman. She had not complied with all the rules put upon her in the context of the support and services she was given. She was therefore turned away from accommodation, on to the streets. My office intervened and found a bed, but we cannot have such things happening on the council’s watch. It is a disgrace. I have talked to the Minister many times about what is happening about homelessness in the city. In the summer, a homeless person came to see me after not being allowed access to their tent, and being evicted from it by the local authority. If that is happening, something has gone seriously wrong.
We have heard the statistics, including the figure that 597 people are reported to have died while rough sleeping in the past year. That is a serious crisis and a stain on our systems. It means that people have died unnecessarily. I have reflected on the fact that in many such deaths there are related problems and issues of comorbidity, with 32% being related to drug poisoning, compared with a figure of 0.7% for the rest of the population. Ten per cent. of deaths in that group are alcohol-related, compared with 1.2% in the rest of the population; and mental health is involved in 13%, compared with 0.9% in the rest of the population. That shows the complexity of homelessness, which the Minister understands, but it also demonstrates the need for a public health approach to address the whole issue.
Professor Nicholas Pleace of the University of York has provided evidence for the importance of putting housing first. The evidence is there. We do not need pilots anymore. The work has been done, as we have seen in global examples from Canada, New Zealand and Scandinavia. Let us get the programme rolled out across the country. It will make a significant difference.
I understand that Nottingham has a nurse working with people on the streets; let us put such approaches in place. What a difference that will make. It will affect physical health: many communicable diseases including tuberculosis and hepatitis can affect rough sleepers. It will also make it possible to address serious concerns about substance misuse and alcohol dependency, among other factors. Foot care and podiatry and general practice services can also be provided in that way. A rough sleeper in my constituency had serious respiratory problems but was denied anywhere to stay and had to sleep out in the damp and cold. The relevant services need to be in place to provide holistic care for individuals.
We also need to get upstream, however. Many people are on the streets because they have experienced trauma, including ex-members of the armed forces, people who have had broken relationships or those who have lost their job. I had a conversation with a gentleman in my constituency. Life turned against him when he lost his job, and he could not afford to live in a city where housing is so expensive. Many rough sleepers are lonely, and many are broken individuals. During the day they may not have anywhere to go. I ask the Minister whether we can ensure that there can be a safe place for people to go 24/7, day and night, where they can get food at meal times. Can we ensure that homeless people get the basic amenity of 24-hour access to public toilets? Those simple things can make such a difference to people who sleep on the street. We must put such systems in place.
I want to mention the question of ownership again. When it comes to the deaths of homeless people, who has responsibility? Currently no one does. Where is that data held? What is the definition of a homeless death, and can we learn from carrying out proper investigations how to improve things?
I ask the Minister to make a commitment today that for every person who is homeless and who dies, a safeguarding audit review will be carried out, so that we can learn the right strategies that we need to prevent deaths—to have no more deaths—this year and moving forward. Without ownership, we are not only saying to those individuals that their life has not counted; we are saying that they did not exist. Somebody who has had their identity suppressed by the circumstances around them throughout their life does not have dignity in death either, so will the Minister at least make that commitment today in order to move this debate forward?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck.
Given that heckle, I will be considerate as there are Labour Members who want to speak, even though I am not under a formal time limit.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on having secured this debate, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). Rough sleeping is clearly an issue in Torbay, as it is in many other coastal communities. We have the contrast between those people with a £1-million boat in the harbour and a coastal apartment, and the people sleeping on the streets nearby.
The last count showed that 24 people were sleeping on the streets of Torbay. However, the Minister will know that from my time in local government, I have some suspicions about how the rough sleeper count is carried out: it is literally an exercise in going out and spotting homeless people. I suspect it is hard to work out another way of doing it, but if somebody is walking around, even though they visibly could have been sleeping on the street, they do not count towards the statistics. There is even some suggestion that if somebody is stood up with bedding around them, they may not be counted as a rough sleeper, even though most of us would look at them and see exactly what is going on.
The rough sleeper count is a measure that originates from Victorian times, and I am much happier with the way in which the Torbay End Street Homelessness campaign has set about doing a proper survey of those who are sleeping rough on the streets of the bay. Over the course of a week, people have been going out and engaging with those they find; not just spotting someone and saying, “There is someone who is sleeping rough,” but interviewing them about the reasons why they are sleeping rough, what their background is and what types of support services they have engaged with. It is clear that no one gets up in the morning and thinks, “It would be a great idea to go and sleep rough.” Some may feel it is their only choice in life, but we need to engage with those people and get genuine information that allows us to understand what has driven them to that position.
Another charity that works closely with those who find themselves on the streets of Torbay is People Assisting Torbay’s Homeless, a wonderful volunteer organisation that, sadly, is now trying to find a new home. It was removed from one of its previous properties because of a development going ahead, and now finds itself facing possession action by the local council. I certainly hope that the council will not implement a possession order until an alternative base has been found. I accept that the place offered up was temporary, but for PATH to be evicted and literally become homeless would be a rather cruel irony.
There is, of course, Shekinah in Torbay, which has provided a long-standing facility at Factory Row—the Leonard Stocks Centre, to which I used to be one of the closest residents. I recognise some of the comments that other Members have made about the issues that can occur, particularly when residents of such places are targeted, for no other reason than the evil intentions of those who are targeting them.
That leads us on, however, to a wonderful initiative that is happening in Torbay: the town’s night shelter, for which local churches come together and open their buildings to provide an option for those who are sleeping rough over winter. It is not just about having somewhere to keep warm and something to eat; it is about people finding a system of support and friendship, with a family or home atmosphere, to try to get them off the streets for good. Ultimately, it is not spending one night in a church hall that will make a difference to someone; it is having a system of support. I know that the churches in the bay are keen that their buildings should not just be magnificent Victorian structures that people visit on a Sunday morning, but places that really live out the gospel. That is a massive resource, and I know that some others are looking at how they can take it further.
I would certainly like Housing First to be extended into our bay, as we think it would make a great difference. The work of the Mayors of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands in driving that project forward is very welcome, and I do not see why it would not make a difference in Torbay. It has been slightly misconstrued as closing the hostel, but it is not: it is about making sure that people are supported from day one in terms of housing, rather than having to earn a right to housing via being in a hostel for a longer period of time. There will always be a need for emergency accommodation. Other Members have touched on the issue of housing supply, which clearly needs to be dealt with if we are to move forward.
I will conclude with some remarks about the Vagrancy Act 1824, which is a hopelessly out-of-date piece of legislation. I hope that in any review of that Act, we can take a mature cross-party approach, as happened with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and—to your credit, Ms Buck—your campaign for the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill the following year. That Bill became an Act, and it made a difference to people.
The 1824 Act is hideously out of date: it is both morally and practically wrong to think that homelessness can be dealt with by hauling people down to the magistrates court. I was only too happy to stand up against the idea of using a public spaces protection order against rough sleeping in Torbay—I did not see that as a practical thing to do at all—and I was pleased that councillors from both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups made it clear to the independent administration that it was not something they would tolerate or accept. PSPOs should be used against antisocial behaviour. The act of sleeping rough—a person putting their head down and going to sleep—should not lead to them being arrested by the police; it should lead to them being supported by agencies.
This has been a welcome debate, and one that could probably go on for a lot longer. I hope that we will be able to take some comfort from the Minister’s response.
Before I call the next speaker, it is obvious to Members that we have three speakers to go, and we will be moving to the Front Bench representatives just before 4 pm. I ask Members to time their contributions accordingly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing today’s debate.
Members of the public are rightly horrified by the idea that anyone should be sleeping rough. Only yesterday, people throughout the country watched a 19-year-old lad on Sky News struggling to maintain his sanity in a situation in which he had no money, no address, no home, no ability to wash or change his clothes, no way to apply for jobs, no prospect of achieving an interview—let alone being employed—and no access to any benefits or support because he was unable to provide written evidence that he was looking for work. If we are to eradicate rough sleeping, the first thing we have to do is to remove such ridiculous Catch-22 situations, which are imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions and by the way in which housing need is assessed. Whether people are addicted to drugs or alcohol, are long-term rough sleepers or young people who have recently fallen through the cracks, are ex-offenders or armed forces veterans, suffer from mental health problems, have learning difficulties or exhibit challenging behaviours, they will be unable to put their lives back together if they are rough sleeping. They will continue to cost our society more, unless and until they are housed.
Secondly, we have to provide a range of housing for people with a range of needs. I slightly take issue with some of the people who have spoken in this debate: the rough sleeping problem is not simply down to a lack of affordable homes. Not everyone is capable of successfully holding down a standard tenancy. Charities and voluntary sector organisations such as the Salvation Army and the YMCA provide housing with a significant level of support, but that costs money. Far from increasing the funding for supported housing, this Government are making it more difficult for the voluntary sector to provide it, with the exception of certain schemes such as the one mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Some people are far more difficult to house than others, but funding and regulations do not adequately allow for that. However difficult someone might be, it is less expensive to provide them with the most suitable housing than it is to house them in prison or hospital, yet that is precisely where a disproportionate number of those people end up.
Thirdly, we must do far more to deal with the causes of rough sleeping, particularly addiction, through prevention and rehabilitation. Any money invested in that repays society many times over in financial terms and, more importantly, in terms of lives transformed. The current level of investment in addiction, rehabilitation and prevention is pathetic. Ipswich Borough Council is combating homelessness by building council houses. Another 17 are ready to be completed in the next few weeks and 60 are about to start, but that will not, in itself, help rough sleepers. To help rough sleepers, we have to put in place operations such as the second homeless families unit that Ipswich is building. It will open in spring to provide homeless households with safe and supported temporary housing until they are able to move on to a permanent home.
Ipswich has a strong public campaign, which is supported by public bodies, charities and the business sector, to encourage people to make donations to the groups that are helping to get people off the streets, and to encourage people not to give their money to those who are begging. Not all rough sleepers beg, and certainly not all beggars are actually rough sleeping, although many present as rough sleepers to obtain the sympathy of the donor. Even when the beggar is a rough sleeper and they are not spending the money they receive on drugs or alcohol, they need somewhere warm and dry to stay, something to eat and, above all, help and advice to enable them once more to build liveable lives for themselves. Cash made from begging will not provide any of that.
We need society to be committed and to commit the resources it takes to eradicate rough sleeping. If we can do that, I believe we will also go a long way to reducing chronic addiction and begging.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. On a personal level, it is good to see the Housing Minister back in her role. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) not only for securing the debate, but for the great work he has been doing with the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on the all-party parliamentary group. I have been pleased to attend one or two of its meetings.
Austerity has many faces, but none is more damning than the number of people who are having to live rough on our streets. Across not just our cities, but our towns, the scenes of people sitting on street corners or lying on sleeping bags and mattresses and in bivouacs are probably the most shameful visible manifestation of a Government that just do not care. One does not have to go far to be made aware of the crisis. As we know, just 2 metres from the entrance to Parliament, we see people trying to survive against the odds. Here we are in Parliament, the supposedly powerful legislative body, and yet we are unable to persuade the Government that halving rough sleeping in five years or solving the issue by 2027 is an acceptable aim. The public believe that the situation is wrong, and the Opposition certainly agree. In fact, I think most of us in this room believe that the Government are showing neither urgency nor ambition in tackling the problem. Perhaps we can persuade them today.
In the past year, two people from the rough sleeping community within the Westminster tube station area have died. On each occasion when such things happen, outrage follows. The Secretary of State claims that it is one death too many, and that collectively we cannot allow it to happen again. However, the fact that people can die so close to this place suggests that there is too much easy rhetoric from Government and not enough real action dedicated to tackling this humanitarian disaster. To restate the oft-quoted fact, we are the sixth richest nation in the world. Let us be clear and honest: rough sleeping did not start with the coalition Government, but the crisis did. The two Governments since have done little to arrest the exponential increase in the numbers of people rough sleeping. Back in 2010, 1,768 people were recorded as rough sleeping. According to the 2018 count, which was published recently, the figure today stands at just under 4,700. That is a rise of 3,000, or 165%, since 2010.
Perhaps surprisingly, my constituency of Warwick and Leamington has had the highest number of rough sleepers per head of population across the west midlands. At present, 12 rough sleepers are officially recorded by the district council, although that figure is disputed by charity and voluntary workers. It would also be disputed by the public, who see so many more people on our streets every day. In 2017, the figure was 21.
One of the primary reasons why we find ourselves in this situation is simply the basic lack of social housing, as we have heard. I elevated that issue here through the parliamentary campaign for council housing, which has cross-party support. Since 1980, successive Governments have failed to deliver enough affordable housing, particularly social housing. To put that into focus, in the financial year 2017-18, the Government delivered just 6,463 social homes, while nearly 1.2 million people are on waiting lists. By way of example, in my constituency, the council has accepted housing developments that have under-delivered social and affordable housing. In the period from 2010 to 2017, only 28% of new homes built in major housing schemes in the area—against a policy of 40%—have been either social or affordable. The lack of housing stock results in the council having to take a harsher line because it is essentially rationing housing, leaving a lot of people in unsustainable situations.
However, the crisis is not just down to a lack of housing, although it is central to the problem, and I will return to that point shortly. Under the Government’s welfare policies, rates for local housing allowances have been frozen for five years from April 2016. The LHA now does not cover rents in more than 90% of areas in England. Then there is the added challenge of having to wait five weeks for universal credit, which has pushed so many people into arrears. Indeed, universal credit has a caused a significant rise in homelessness and rough sleeping.
For many who find themselves living on the streets, the lack of direct and immediate support to address their complex health and welfare needs perpetuates the crisis. In 2017-18, mental health needs were most often cited as the greatest need among people sleeping rough, with 50% of those assessed during the period having a need in that area. Alcohol-related support was the second most prevalent need, at 43%, while 40% of rough sleepers were assessed as having a support need relating to drug dependency. Those needs are compounded by the insecurity of the private rented sector. A significant number of the new rough sleepers—38% of them—recorded their last settled accommodation as private rented housing. Specifically, no-fault evictions are one of the leading causes of homelessness.
We all know of cases from our constituencies, and I hope Members will forgive me if I give just one illustration. A young man in my constituency approached me not so long ago. He has been homeless since October. He resides in a car and has previously had problems with drugs and alcohol, although in prison he received support for them. Since leaving prison, he has been reluctant to go into shared hostel accommodation, because he does not want to be exposed to similar behaviours again. The local council, however, will not allow him a single room in a hostel, because that is not in line with the policy, which is a progression from shared hostel room to single hostel room, to supported housing and then to independent residence. As a result, he continues to sleep rough, because he is adamant that he cannot go into a shared hostel.
A year ago, I called for a summit and brought together all the local agencies and authorities to pose the question of how we could address the issue. The ambition we set was to try to resolve and eliminate rough sleeping within a year. I am pleased to say that the council and other organisations seized on that ambition. Just a few months ago, the local council and its housing team opened William Wallsgrove House, a direct access hostel in Leamington. It provides around-the-clock accommodation, onsite support and referrals for 22 people, all year round.
Although that is positive, over recent years the Labour group on the council has been pressing for a change in the severe weather emergency protocol. Before, someone had to endure three consecutive nights of temperatures of 0 °C before they would be provided with accommodation. Now—many years later, after much pressing and on the insistence of that Labour group—that has been reduced to one night.
What are the solutions? I stress that more social housing is critical. As other Members have mentioned, the evidence from Scandinavia—particularly in Finland, where there is an absence of rough sleepers—shows that the issue can be addressed by a housing-first approach. It is therefore critical that we end the benefits freeze, re-establish the link between housing benefit and local rents, and reform universal credit.
I will end by saying this: as we have heard, a further 600 people died from homelessness in 2017—up 24% since 2013. That is almost two people every day. At the current rates, many thousands of people will die before this Government are defeated. That cannot be acceptable.
It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I know how personally committed you are to dealing with housing issues.
There is no more depressing image of the cumulative impact of the austerity policies of the Conservative Government and, before that, the coalition Government than the image of people sleeping rough on the streets everywhere we go. If anything, the last Labour Government failed to boast about their achievements on that. We can be incredibly proud of the fact that we virtually eradicated rough sleeping on our streets.
It has been a cumulative impact—a toxic cocktail of benefits cuts and sanctions, and a lack of support for people with mental health problems and addictions. All those things go together, of course. Often people present with a multitude of problems that result in their ending up on the streets. The failure to build housing or to provide affordable housing is part of that in particular.
The annual official account of rough sleepers that we carried out in December 2018 found that 82 people were sleeping rough in Bristol. That was down four from the previous year, but we know that that is just the tip of the iceberg; many more people over the course of the year will sleep rough. Bristol City Council is one of the few councils to keep any semblance of a record of homeless people who die in the city. Over the past five years in Bristol, at least 50 homeless people have died.
I pay tribute to Michael Yong, who was an excellent journalist at The Bristol Post. Sadly, he has just moved on, but he had been working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to tell the stories of all the people who had died, and to add a touch of humanity to them. Often their cause of death was unknown, their stories and even their dates of birth were not recorded, and in some cases it was an awfully long time before their families even realised that they had died.
We are trying to tackle the problem in Bristol. We have increased the provision for homeless people. There is a city-wide initiative for organisations to open their doors when the weather is particularly cold. Church groups, for example, and local hostels are involved. The city’s first 24-hour homeless shelter—St Anne’s House, in my constituency—was opened by the Secretary of State. I join others in paying tribute to St Mungo’s, which leads the rough sleeping partnership in the city.
Looking back at the history of Bristol, in Hillfields, in my constituency, some of the very first council houses were built 100 years ago under the Addison Act. In 1949, 70 years ago, Nye Bevan came to the city to lay one of the stones for the 10,000th house built since the second world war. That was when he was Minister for Housing. Everyone remembers him being Minister for Health, but he was Minister for Housing as well. It was crucial that those two things went together, because the population cannot be healthy unless they live in decent homes. It is so sad, as we celebrate the 100 years and the 70 years since those house-building programmes, that we are in the situation that we are in now.
Bristol is trying to build new homes. It has a target of building 2,000 homes a year, of which 800 will be affordable, by 2020. We are also setting up a new council-owned housing company that will give the council the ability to build even more new affordable homes. However, permitted development rights are a real problem. The fact that it is not necessary to apply for planning permission to convert office blocks to residential accommodation means that we do not have any power over the affordability element. In a place such as Bristol, that has a real impact.
I will briefly mention Jasper Thompson of Help Bristol’s Homeless, who is converting shipping containers into amazing homes for the homeless. The idea is that people will live in them for six months or so. They are really well furbished and well kitted-out. That also offers the opportunity for people who are moved off the streets into those homes to get extra support.
The Minister knows that I am concerned about supported housing provision—I have actually met with officials in her Department on that matter. The level of local housing allowance in Bristol is low. For a family living in a two-bedroom house, there is a monthly shortfall of around £217 between the LHA rate and a typical rent charge in the city. That is encouraging many providers to move into the supported housing sector, because they can make a lot more money. Some of them are not at all interested in providing support, and because the sector is not regulated, a business model is emerging that I think puts people at risk.
There is a particular property in my constituency where several people have died in recent years. Homeless people have actually said to me that they would not go there. They do not want to go there. They would be scared to go to Wick House, which is the name of the property in question. I have met with Lorna, the sister of Paul Way, who died in Wick House in 2017. It was meant to be supported accommodation, but it took support staff three days to knock on the door of his room and find his dead body. I also met with Catherine, the mother of George Mahoney, who died in 2016.
There have been some changes. Local authorities are piloting multi-disciplinary teams looking at all the different agencies that could perhaps help to regulate the sector more: the housing benefit people, the environment agencies, and people who deal with antisocial behaviour. I hope that Bristol can be part of that, and that there will be more unannounced inspections. We also need legislative changes to help to resolve the situation. We need to upgrade the definition of support; currently, it just has to be “more than minimal”. The definition of supported housing has not changed since 1977.
Ideally, everyone would have a home that they can call their own, and they would not be in halfway houses and temporary provision. However, if we are to get people off the streets, as a first measure we have to ensure that supported housing is fit for purpose. As I have said, it is costing local councils an awful lot of money, because providers can charge much higher rates for housing benefit properties than for ordinary accommodation. Organisations such as St Mungo’s are doing a great job providing such places, but others are exploiting the system, and I know that the Minister agrees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I, too, thank the hon. Members for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and for Colchester (Will Quince) for securing today’s debate.
There is no sadder sight for a Member of Parliament than to leave these buildings at night, or indeed at any time during the day, and see people sleeping rough on the streets next to our mother of Parliaments. Whether they are under cardboard or just look like a bundle of blankets, every single one is a real human tragedy. For me, it is a national embarrassment that some people are asked to sleep in those conditions, and to live their lives like that every day of the week.
Some of the most progressive and robust homelessness laws have been introduced in the Scottish Parliament in recent years. As a result of a major amendment to the Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003 that took effect from December 2012, local authorities in Scotland now have a duty to find permanent accommodation for all applicants who are unintentionally homeless. That led Shelter to describe Scotland as providing
“the best homelessness laws in Europe”.
Crisis, another charity focused on ending homelessness, said:
“This gives people in Scotland some of the strongest homelessness rights in the world.”
Nevertheless, a robust legal framework does not, in itself, solve all the problems; we still have people sleeping rough on our streets. That is why the Scottish Government set up a £50 million fund to tackle rough sleeping in 2017. We are also working with organisations such as Social Bite on its Housing First scheme, which will increase investment by £6.5 million over the programme period. The programme started with 8,000 people joining the world’s largest sleep-out in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh in December 2017, and a call to end homelessness in Scotland for good. The Sleep in the Park campaign was extended in December, with the number of people taking part increasing to 12,000. That gave those people an idea what it is like to be homeless for just one night, but imagine the impact on someone’s health and wellbeing when it becomes a relentless experience, night after night and week after week.
In November, the Scottish Government published an action plan to end homelessness and rough sleeping, which takes forward 70 recommendations from their homelessness and rough sleeping action group and focuses on providing a person-centred approach. At the heart of that approach is prevention, which many hon. Members have mentioned. The action plan will also prioritise the provision of settled and mainstream housing to ensure quick and effective responses and join up the planning process with as many resources as we can possibly bring together to solve the problem.
Aside from legislation, there are other factors that do not make it easy for people whose life is on the street. The underlying causes of homelessness must be addressed to get to the root of the problem. We cannot afford to ignore the impact of the UK Government’s austerity agenda, particularly on social security, from the four-year benefit freeze to—it has to be said, Minister—the shambolic roll-out of universal credit. Fransham and Dorling, two experts from the University of Oxford, argue that austerity policies lie at the heart of soaring homelessness and related health issues:
“What is needed is a comprehensive strategy that improves services for vulnerable people, an increased supply of affordable housing, more security of tenancies”.
The National Audit Office states that homelessness is
“likely to have been driven by welfare reforms”,
while the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has noted with concern the impact of social security reforms on the right to adequate housing. Several academic studies have also shown strong links between homelessness and Government reductions in welfare spending in England. It has been estimated that the number of homeless people in England has tripled since the Conservative Government’s tough austerity programme began.
The evidence is irrefutable. No matter how the Government cut it, no matter how they dress it up, there is a direct link between austerity policies and homelessness in the UK. The bedroom tax has forced some people out of their homes; in Scotland, we continue to fully mitigate that unfair policy with a view to abolishing it as soon as possible, but we cannot afford to mitigate every single daft policy that comes out of this place.
The impact of benefit sanctions is also widely known. Many claimants in my constituency are turning to food banks after being sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) introduced a private Member’s Bill to ensure that a person’s mental health, caring responsibilities and risk of homelessness were accounted for before a sanction could be applied. Disgracefully, that Bill—the Benefit Claimants Sanctions (Required Assessment) Bill—was shot down when the then Minister used parliamentary tactics to dismiss it. I ask the present Minister to reconsider my hon. Friend’s Bill and look at whether there is anything we can all learn from it to create a much fairer society.
Finally, I should mention the economic case for reducing homelessness, which in these troubled times should itself be an incentive for the UK Government to end homelessness and rough sleeping. In 2017, the NAO estimated that homelessness costs the public sector more than £1 billion a year, even before factoring in how the homeless are less likely to make a huge contribution to the economic wellbeing of the nation. A University of New Mexico study that examined the economic impact of homelessness has shown that it actually costs less to house someone who is chronically homeless than to leave them on the street: providing homeless people with housing led to a 15% saving of public money.
People who are appropriately housed are also more likely to gain employment, thereby paying back into the economy. In a world in which disrespect appears to be the order of the day, it is time we pushed for a much more respectful society. We cannot do that better than by giving people a roof over their head and a way of protecting their family. A 2018 report by Crisis suggests that for every £1 invested in the solutions recommended to move people directly out of homelessness, £2.80 will be generated in benefits, including cashable savings and a value for wellbeing. The report also points out that people who are moved out of homelessness are expected to use public services such as the NHS and the criminal justice system with much lower frequency.
We are in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis, which I am sure will be exacerbated by Brexit as jobs become less secure. I ask the Minister to act now, before the crisis becomes a disaster for so many individuals and families across the country. Her actions must go beyond her own Department; we need a cross-Government approach. If we cannot create homes for heroes, maybe we can create homes fit for people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this debate. I also congratulate him and the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on all their hard work as co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, not just in the winter months but all year round. They have championed the issue since they came to this place in 2015, and they have been very successful at drawing together organisations, individuals and Members from across the political spectrum to highlight the incredibly difficult circumstances and the plight of the most vulnerable in our society today.
I also thank the organisations that have circulated excellent briefings to Members: the Local Government Association; Mind, whose parliamentary reception I attended last night and will discuss briefly later; Depaul UK, which has been mentioned extensively; St Mungo’s, a steadfast charity that does incredible outreach and support work for people who are homeless; Agenda; Shelter; and Women’s Aid. Those are the organisations whose briefings I have with me, but there may well be others—so many organisations are pleased that we are having this debate.
The number of hon. Members who have participated today shows how important an issue homelessness is and how rapidly it is rising in the public consciousness as a demonstration of what our society is like today. I think a moment of reckoning is coming, because the number of people who are rough sleeping is increasing all the time. The Minister may well challenge me on the point, but in every city and every town around the country, people are experiencing homelessness. Our community’s perception of just how damaging that is for individuals and how it reflects on us all needs to be tackled far sooner than 2027, which is the date that she has given.
It would be very welcome if we discussed the issue all year round, not just in the cold winter months when it is plainly obvious that it must be deeply unsettling for anybody to sleep rough, wrapped up in blankets on the pavement or on cardboard. We cannot just have a sudden moment of conscience when it is cold and raining; it is a year-round issue that we should make every effort to tackle.
Sleeping rough is something that nobody should have to experience. Its impact is dire. Those who sleep rough are more likely to develop drug and alcohol dependency or experience increased problems with mental and physical health, and they are nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Six hundred people, with an average age of just 44, paid the ultimate cost while sleeping rough last year. They included 43-year-old Gyula Remes, a father of two, who died just outside this Palace while waiting for his first pay cheque.
It is shameful that an estimated 4,700 people slept on the street on a single night last year, with many more sleeping in cars, sofa surfing or out of sight of the authorities. I stress that that is an estimated figure—several colleagues have raised the problems with having estimated rather than concrete figures. Unless we know the real scale of the problem, we have no hope of tackling it. I hope the Minister will take that message away.
Rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010, so we have to acknowledge that specific policies put into place by this Government, and by the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, have led to more people suffering on our streets. We cannot ignore the impact of a housing system that is not fit for purpose, a stripped-down drug and alcohol support system, cuts to hostel and supported accommodation provision, and ill-thought-through changes to the benefits system that are leaving people homeless and driving them on to the streets. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) both mentioned the importance of supported housing, which is critical in ending the cyclical nature of homelessness and making sure that people have support—that they are not just given a roof over their heads and left to their own devices. It is also critical that supported housing is properly monitored to make sure it is fit for purpose and people are not put in dangerous situations.
Last week, I visited Rugby and met Labour’s candidate, Debbie Bannigan, who took me to see the work of Hope4. That organisation has seen a huge rise in the number of people using its services. It relies on donations and lottery funding to provide clothing, meals and somewhere to stay for just a few short hours throughout the day, as well as shower and laundry facilities—the only services in the whole town available for people who are rough sleeping.
The reality is that the root cause of rough sleeping is the failure to provide adequate housing for all. Booming house prices and a failure to build anywhere near enough social housing that is truly affordable—a point that we should really start to hammer home is that it needs to be truly affordable, because “affordable” has become an artificial description—mean that far too many in this country are living in housing insecurity. That is precisely the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) is drawing to our attention with his campaign for more social homes, and for council housing in particular. Social housing was once available to many who had a housing need, but a number of social rented homes equivalent to a city the size of Coventry have been lost through a combination of a move into so-called affordable housing, and schemes such as right to buy. The failure to provide adequate replacements means that in places such as Southwark, applicants for social housing may wait an average of three and a half years for a two-bedroom council property.
Many people are now in the private rented sector, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) raised the need for more security in that sector. At the moment, tenants may face unfair and punitive bans on properties across the sector, landlords may impose punitive rent rises if they want a tenant to leave and renters may be evicted through no fault of their own with just two months’ notice. I know my hon. Friend is deeply concerned about those points.
Last night, I attended the launch of Mind’s “Brick by brick” report, which tells us just how devastating housing insecurity can be for tenants with mental health problems. One in four such tenants have serious rent arrears, and they are four times more likely to report that poor housing is making their health worse. GPs spontaneously identify housing issues as a common contributing factor to their patients’ poor mental health. When the last barrier to homelessness is a rental market that is simply unsuitable for many people with complex or specific needs, it is unsurprising that many end up falling out of it and into homelessness and rough sleeping.
If the Government are serious about eradicating rough sleeping, they must eliminate the housing insecurity that fuels it. That requires more social housing and a private rental sector that places security of tenure at its heart.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) was particularly clear—2027 is far too long. Why does the Minister not raise her ambitions and bring that date forward? What is stopping her from doing that? I am sure that by now she knows what the causes of homelessness are. It is not just Opposition Members who are saying this; it is her own Back Benchers, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said that in five years’ time, we will have the glory of being back to where we were in 2009. That is not an achievement.
Will the Government look to address the shortage in social housing by placing a moratorium on right to buy and pledging to build 1 million genuinely affordable homes over 10 years, to make sure that we get back the council stock we need to get people off the streets? Will the Minister also address the insecurity that many in the private rented sector face by scrapping section 21 and reaffirming the rights of tenants on social security to rent without discrimination? That is something that I have raised with the likes of Zoopla. Will she tell us when we should expect a response to the Government’s consultation on longer tenancies? It closed five months ago and we are yet to hear anything. I also ask her to support the calls of the leader of the Labour party—as, surprisingly, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) has done today—and recognise the absolute pointlessness of the Vagrancy Act 1824.
Even if tenants find themselves homeless, it should not mean that they end up on the streets. After almost a decade of austerity, however, councils simply do not have the resources to provide the type of homelessness service that is needed to end rough sleeping.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, and that of Mr Sharma before you. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this debate and thank him and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for their tireless work as co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness.
This is a debate about rough sleeping, so I am thankful for the experiences and expertise shared today, whether that comes from a constituency or a wider perspective. I am grateful to hon. Members for their speeches and questions; I hope to answer them as I work through my speech, but given the time limit, I may not answer them all.
Ensuring that everyone has a decent, affordable, secure home is a core priority for this Government. That is why we have made a commitment to halve rough sleeping, as everybody has said—I am glad that everybody knows it—by 2022, and to end it by 2027. It is an ambitious target, but it is essential that we achieve it. Underpinning that bold commitment is a concerted cross-Government effort to address homelessness in all its forms.
As hon. Members will know, last year we launched the rough sleeping initiative, working with the areas with the highest levels of rough sleeping, and with the support of charities and experts from across the sector, many of which we have heard about today. We announced the rough sleeping strategy, backed by £100 million, and introduced the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, the most ambitious homelessness legislation in decades, with prevention at its heart. In total, we have committed £1.2 billion to 2020—a not insignificant amount of money—to ensure that the most vulnerable in society have the support they need.
I, for one, am encouraged by the figures published last week which show that our approach is working. This is a significant moment. For the first time in eight years, the number of people sleeping on our streets has fallen. That follows year-on-year increases, with an average annual increase of nearly 16%, so we are moving in the right direction. To be clear, our rough sleeping initiative has been up and running for five months in those 83 areas, and those areas have seen a 23% reduction in the count. That is just the beginning; we are bringing in further funding and embedding services. I look forward to seeing progress at the next count—which will deal once and for all with any question of my resigning.
I know we still have a way to go and, as many of you have remarked, it is simply unacceptable that people have to sleep on the streets in 2019. That does not reflect our country, which we want to be the best, which is why I am determined to put a stop to it. The cross-Government rough sleeping strategy, announced last August, is the blueprint for sustained action, looking across the spectrum from prevention to intervention to recovery. In the six months since our strategy was published, we have focused our energies on delivering key commitments that will help those in need and prevent people from sleeping rough in the first place.
We have announced the early adopters of our rapid rehousing pathway, an approach that a number of hon. Members have called for today, which includes 11 areas with Somewhere Safe to Stay hubs. A hub has already started delivering in Nottingham, helping people to secure routes off the streets, with the specialist support that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) was so keen to secure. We have also secured up to £30 million in the NHS long-term plan for specialist mental health services for people sleeping rough, which will be informed by the findings of a health provision audit to be carried out this year. We have provisionally allocated £34 million for 2019-20 to the 83 areas with the highest levels of rough sleeping to continue their excellent work supporting those currently on the streets, and opened up bidding for a further £11 million to all other local authorities to support them in helping people off the streets now.
There are particularly encouraging results in the 83 areas supported by our rough sleeping initiative, which is backed by £30 million of Government investment this year. In those areas, numbers have fallen by almost a quarter. Indeed, almost three quarters of RSI areas have reported decreases from the previous year. I thank councils across the country for working tirelessly to support people off the streets and into recovery. Those figures are proof of what can be achieved when we all pull together in the same direction.
In just seven months since the funding was announced, councils have used the investment to create an additional 1,700 beds and employ 500 dedicated staff, such as outreach workers, mental health specialists, nurses and substance misuse workers. This means that there are more people in warm beds tonight as a direct result of Government funding and the wrap-around support that goes with it. An excellent example of this is the local authority in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who secured this debate. It is receiving £615,000 this year, which provides funding for a worker from Solace Women’s Aid to support offenders who have experienced domestic abuse, and a further 72 new beds to tackle rough sleeping.
Some 33 Members have spoken in this debate, including both interventions and speeches. The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) made a fascinating intervention—at the last count, there were no rough sleepers in Knowsley.
But there is no proper counting system—
With respect, that is not good enough—
Order. I advise Members not to conduct conversations bilaterally.
In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, the number of rough sleepers is down to 13. In Liverpool it has reduced from 33 to 15, in Torbay from 24 to 19, and in the Worthing and Shoreham area from 35 to 11.
One of the specific questions I asked was whether the Minister would improve the data collection to ensure that these figures were robust. There is a question mark over them.
People have asked these questions. Some councils choose to do an estimate, and some choose to do a count. Personally, I prefer a count.
The number of people rough sleeping in York has reduced from 29 to 9, and I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central on all her hard work in that area. In Ipswich the number has gone down from 21 to 11. In the Warwick area it has gone down from 24 to 12—the area received £370,000-worth of Government funding to help with this. I work very well with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on these particular issues. Her area has received £583,000 of Government money and there has been a slight reduction in rough sleeping, but there is much more to do. We very much recognise the importance of the certainty of funding for services. The Chancellor has said there will be a spending review this year, and Ministers have made it clear that rough sleeping and homelessness are key priorities for this Government.
I shall crack on and then allow the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) to wrap up. We note the release of the first ever ONS death statistics—hon. Members have mentioned this—which will help us to ensure that we are targeting our action to prevent deaths. We know that the risk to life increases during periods of cold weather, which is why we launched an additional £5 million cold weather fund in October. The fund has already enabled us to increase outreach work further, extend winter shelter provision and—I am sure that Members will be pleased to hear—provide over 800 additional bed spaces. We are also ensuring that when a homeless person dies or is seriously injured, safeguarding adult reviews take place, where appropriate, so that local services can learn lessons from the tragic events and prevent them from happening in the future.
Will the Minister give way?
If I could just finish my sentence—it might help the hon. Lady.
We expect all local areas to conduct SARs according to guidance. We will also work with the LGA to ensure that lessons learnt from these reviews are shared with other safeguarding adult boards.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark raised the issue of female rough sleepers who have suffered domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is a devastating crime that nobody should have to suffer. Supporting victims of domestic abuse and violence is an absolute priority for the Government, and we need to do more to ensure that they are appropriately supported. We all agree that survivors of domestic abuse should have access to a safe home. Councils have a legal duty to provide accommodation to families and others who are vulnerable as a result of fleeing domestic abuse. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 requires councils to take reasonable steps to help eligible homeless families to secure accommodation.
They are exactly the kinds of vulnerable people who the Depaul Nightstop service is helping in half of local authorities. Would she agree to meet Depaul, and perhaps visit a Nightstop service, to see how important and cost-effective it is and to see the potential for the roll-out that I mentioned earlier?
Absolutely. My apologies—when I mentioned the fantastic reduction of rough sleepers in his area from 35 to 11, I meant to say that I would be delighted to meet Depaul.
At the moment, survivors of domestic abuse are subject to a vulnerability test. Could the Minister look at removing that, so that it is an automatic priority need?
We will keep all such matters under review.
I hope that my remarks have demonstrated the Government’s commitment to halving and ending rough sleeping and to reducing homelessness. I thank hon. Members for their speeches and questions, and I thank all the charities mentioned today. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and other hon. Members of different parties in the coming months and years. I also thank my brilliant team for all their hard work.
I thank both Chairs and everyone who contributed to the debate.
I asked several questions in my speech. The Minister referred to her team, and I hope they are busy drafting their reply to the inevitable letter in which I put those questions again, because not all of them were answered. Will the funding for the pilot be continued? Will the data be improved? Is the Minister still committed to resigning if rough sleeping rises again? Will there be changes to legal aid and the Zambrano restrictions? How can we ensure that safeguarding adult reviews are more routine? Councils are simply not carrying them out. Even in the example I gave, that did not occur.
There were several running themes in the debate. The first is shame. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) both touched on that powerfully. People are ashamed that the system in our country has compelled so many people to sleep rough. It simply should not be happening. There is a public appetite for change, but sadly not in the Government.
The second theme that came out strongly is ambition, which the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) touched on. The Government’s target is simply not ambitious enough. They are not on target to meet their weak, unambitious target to halve rough sleeping by 2022. Their figures show that they will not meet it. The risk is that this problem will continue for far longer than necessary. There was some complacency in the Minister’s response. She did not listen to the debate.
My hon. Friend, who opened the debate brilliantly, is summing it up brilliantly. I am afraid that I heard the Minister read out a prepared speech that just seemed to say that everything is going terribly well. It is complacency. We have heard very good speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House advocating an immediate solution to the problem.
Absolutely. There were some warm words, but they will be cold comfort to those who are living in these extreme conditions. The Minister said that three quarters of councils in the pilot areas have done better than average at reducing rough sleeping. That means that, even in the pilot areas, a quarter of councils have seen rough sleeping increase. That is simply not good enough. There may be pilots, but there does not seem to be a cockpit or even a plane. The Government must properly address this problem. I will end on that and start drafting my letter to the officials.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered rough sleeping.