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Homeless People: Prevention of Deaths

Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 1 October 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question today by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, let me say first and foremost that every single death on our streets is a tragedy. Today’s statistics have provided us all with a stark reminder that there is so much more to be done. Every death on our streets is one too many, and this Government will work tirelessly to ensure that lives are not needlessly cut short. The fact that an estimated 726 people—mothers, fathers, siblings; all somebody’s loved one—died while homeless in 2018 will concern not only every Member of this House but everyone up and down the country.

As you will know, this Government are committed to putting an end to rough sleeping by 2027 and halving it by 2022. We changed the law to help make this happen. In April 2018, the Homelessness Reduction Act—some of the most ambitious legislation in this area in decades—came into force. We now have a year’s worth of evidence, which shows that more people are being supported earlier, and this is having a clear impact on the prevention of homelessness.

Last year, the Government published the first rough sleeping strategy, underpinned by £1.2 billion of funding, which laid out how we will work towards ending rough sleeping for good. Indeed, last year we reversed the trend when we saw a reduction in rough sleeping. A key element of this was the rough sleeping initiative. A total of £76 million has been invested in over 200 areas. This year, the rough sleeping initiative will fund 750 additional staff and approximately 2,600 new bed spaces.

Next year, we are going further. We will be providing a further £422 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. This is a £54 million increase in funding from the previous year—a real-terms increase of 13%.

The cold weather period is a particularly difficult time for those sleeping rough, so the Government have launched a second year of the cold weather fund. We are making £10 million available to local authorities to support rough sleepers off the streets. This will build on last year’s fund, which helped relieve more than 7,000 individuals from rough sleeping over the winter.

These statistics have reminded us of the fateful impact of substance and alcohol misuse. We know that the use of new psychoactive substances—so-called NPS—is rising. These are dangerous drugs with unpredictable effects and that is why it is so important that people get the support they need. In 2019, we brought forward new training for front-line staff to help them engage with and support rough sleepers under the influence of such substances, and we are working with the Home Office to ensure that rough sleepers are considered in the forthcoming alcohol strategy, which will focus on vulnerable people.

There is so much more to be done. Our work is continuing, our funding is increasing, and our determination is unfaltering. We are committed to making rough sleeping a thing of the past”.

My Lords, first, I draw to the attention of the House my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the Minister for repeating the answer to the Urgent Question given in the other place earlier today.

We have seen a huge rise in rough sleeping. We can see it in in every town and city in this country. This simply was not the case 10 years ago. Just look at Westminster tube station—I come in via the tube station almost every day; I have been in this House nearly 10 years—and it just was not the case. Every day now there are more and more homeless people in the tube station. It is absolutely appalling and shameful in one of the richest countries in the world.

There is the widest possible agreement—from homeless charities to the National Audit Office to cross-party Select Committees—that government policy has not helped in this respect. Today’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 726 homeless people died last year. That is up by half in the last five years.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, does he accept that the £10 million in respect of the cold weather fund will be insufficient and that further funds will have to be provided for this fund? Secondly, will he agree to meet me and a delegation of local government leaders and charities to discuss the inadequate levels of funding being provided for the Homelessness Reduction Act? It is a good bit of legislation, but we need funds to make it work.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the rest of the House that one death in this way is one too many. I am very sorry to report that there was one further death in Wiltshire last night, which noble Lords may have heard of.

I will answer the noble Lord’s two questions. First, on the £10 million, we believe that this is enough; clearly this is such a serious matter that we will keep this very much under review, but this is a figure that has taken account of the statistics. Secondly, of course I would be very pleased to meet the noble Lord and anybody else he cared to bring along to discuss the level of funding for this important matter.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my local government interests. While the Minister has used the example of the Homelessness Reduction Act as being a good start, which I would agree with, the Government nevertheless have failed to repeal the Vagrancy Act, a nearly 200-year-old Act, which is still being used by police forces up and down the country to remove rough sleepers from the streets. In March 2019 the Ministry of Justice reported that, between 2014 and 2017, 6,518 people were found guilty under the Vagrancy Act. Does the Minister agree that the Act ought to be repealed at the earliest opportunity?

This matter has not particularly come up in my brief. It was discussed, but I do not agree with it. Having said that, the noble Baroness has raised an issue that I will certainly take back and consider. As she will know, of course we are talking about deaths here rather than pure homelessness. Homelessness is bad enough in itself, but, as has been mentioned, the reasons for the deaths are based largely —52%—on drug misuse and alcohol misuse, and this is an area that I think we urgently need to look at. We are already, and have been for some time, in touch with the Department of Health and Social Care and also the DWP. This, I think, is the real essence of the problem.

My Lords, I welcome the extra £54 million in last month’s spending review to combat rough sleeping and homelessness, particularly as there is strong evidence that, where the resources of the RSI have been focused, rough sleeping has fallen much faster than elsewhere. If we are to make further progress in tackling rough sleeping, particularly among single people, I ask my noble friend to ensure that the local housing allowances are reviewed so that single people who are threatened with homelessness can find suitable, affordable accommodation in the area.

I thank my noble friend for that. I believe that he raised this in a debate, I think last week. It is clearly a matter of concern to him, and also to us. I will take this matter back to the Treasury, and no doubt it will be put into the melting pot, as it were, for the next round.

My Lords, the Government recognise in their strategy that 10% of rough sleepers in London come from a background of local authority care and they have set aside money for personal advisers to support young people leaving care who are at risk of rough sleeping and homelessness so that they do not arrive at that stage. But recent reports have highlighted that local authorities are under such pressure that too often young people leaving care are placed in supported accommodation that is often anything but that. Can the Minister tell the House how effective the Government’s strategy has been so far in reducing the percentage of rough sleepers who come from a background of local authority care?

The noble Earl makes a good point. It is very important that we have skilled people on the ground, because the only way to help people is to go to them individually, find out what their problems are and help them. To answer the noble Earl’s question, the number of households in temporary accommodation has increased by 5%. Good work is being done to take people off the streets and put them into temporary accommodation. The figure is actually 84,740—up from 80,720 at the end of March last year. It is small progress, but at least it is progress.

I do not have anything to declare, other than the period of 2003-05 when I had ministerial responsibility for this area. I inherited from my noble friend Lady Armstrong the scheme put together by Louise Casey that, between 1997 and 2010, led to the virtual elimination of rough sleeping in a very technical, measured, practical way, which I saw working at first hand over those couple of years. Can the Minister say whether all the new things he has just read out, with extra money for this, that and the other, will put the resource level back to what it was in 2010?

I do not believe so. I take note of what the noble Lord said about his experience, but I do think that, putting aside these tragic deaths, because that is the focus of the Question, the rough sleeping initiative is showing some success in terms of homelessness itself. As I said, in 2018, the annual rough sleeping snapshot recorded a 19% reduction in rough sleeping since 2017, but as I also said, there is much work to be done. This is a really serious issue and we can see it ourselves outside Westminster tube and beyond.

Does the Minister agree that we owe a great debt to the many voluntary organisations that are filling the gap that the Government are unable to fill? I have a link with the Whitechapel Mission. Last year it served 100,000 breakfasts. They are tremendous people and we say thank you to them, wherever they are, whatever they do.

The Minister praised the reduction in the number of rough sleepers in the last year. That total is 80 out of more than 8,000. It is not something we can be proud of. Today’s figure, which has been referred to already, is that we are worse off than we were in 2010. The Government’s strategy certainly is not generous enough to meet the needs of so many people, especially as the winter is coming on. For instance, I speak to people at these various places and they say, “Yes, we can provide breakfasts, showers and clothing, but we can’t provide beds”. I know that one particular part of London that used to have 37 places—I think I have the correct figure—where people who wanted to sleep could do so has had that reduced to two. I ask the Minister to do something to reverse this trend instead of just praising ourselves for something that just is not true.

It is important to be clear on the facts. A reduction is still a reduction, but I am also very clear about the challenges we have. There is no question of pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes about this. I think the noble Lord is being far too pessimistic, because the rough sleeping initiative investment for 2019-20 is estimated to deliver 750 staff on the ground, providing more than 2,600 bed spaces this year. That has not happened before and I think the noble Lord should be a little more generous in acknowledging that. I finish by saying that I too pay tribute to the number of local charities that help in this very difficult area, often working through the night.