Before I call Melanie Onn to ask her urgent question, may I express my sadness on behalf of the whole House at the death yesterday in the subway outside this House? I also ask Members to be aware that, in advance of an inquest, the facts are not, and cannot be, fully known, and therefore please to show some restraint in commenting on that case, out of respect to the family and friends of the individual concerned.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government what he is doing to prevent the deaths of people who are homeless.
Every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. Each is a tragedy, each a life cut short. In particular, I share the sadness that every Member will feel on learning of the death of a homeless man close to Parliament only yesterday. As you say, Mr Speaker, while we must allow the investigations to take place, I will be asking Westminster City Council to refer this to its safeguarding adults board to look into the matter and see that lessons are learned and applied.
Today’s publication of Office for National Statistics data on the estimated number of deaths of homeless people is stark, with an estimated 597 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales in 2017. It is simply unacceptable for lives to be cut short in this way. I believe we have a moral duty to act. The Government are committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and ending it by 2027. Last week, we published our rough-sleeping strategy delivery plan, which sets out how we will do this. It gives updates on progress we have already made on the 61 commitments in the strategy and sets out clear milestones for activity.
That said, this is about action now. Our rough-sleeping initiative, backed by £30 million of funding this year, is delivering at least 1,750 new bed spaces and an additional 500 outreach workers in areas across the country where rough sleeping is most prevalent. Only this week, we announced the location of 11 rough-sleeping hubs across the country to provide immediate shelter and rapid assessment now, which will help thousands of people over the next two years.
Today’s statistics underline the need to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. We are investing £1.2 billion to reduce and prevent homelessness. Much of this funding is already having an impact, providing vital support to help people off the streets for good. Early intervention and prevention are the key, and that has been the focus of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which came into force in April this year. We will continue to work tirelessly with local authorities and partners across the country to ensure we provide the advice and support they need, but I recognise that this cold weather period is a particularly difficult time. That is why I launched an additional £5 million cold weather fund in October. The fund has already enabled us to increase outreach work further and to extend winter shelter provision, providing more than 400 additional bed spaces.
The death of anyone who is homeless is a tragedy. We remain focused and resolute in our commitment to make rough sleeping a thing of the past, and where we need to do more, we will.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I share your sympathies with the friends and family of Gyula Remes, the 43-year-old who died two nights ago in the underpass to the entrance to this Palace in which we all sit. I am sure that all colleagues will be equally as distressed and shocked as I was, but this is not the first time. It is not even the first time this year: in February, another man died in the same place. So what will it take to shake this Government out of their complacency and out of their outsourcing of responsibility?
Today, the Office for National Statistics data tells us that there were an estimated 597 deaths of homeless people in 2017 alone. Not only could the actual figure be much higher, but it is one that has gone up by 24% since 2013. These figures are the result of an increasingly fracturing system of social security and support. They are the result of Government decisions and Government choices. Five thousand people on any given night can be sleeping rough in this country. Crisis estimates that 24,000 will be sleeping rough in cars, tents and makeshift beds this winter, while 120,000 children are without a permanent home. This cannot be acceptable.
When social security payments are delayed, frustrated or stopped; when mental health services are overstretched, with thresholds so high as to be inaccessible; when council budgets are slashed so that outreach services are lost and drug and alcohol support minimised; when we have an explosion of insecure work; and when people struggle to see their GP—all of these combine to leave those at the highest risk of homelessness out in the cold, and that is literally.
Rather than blaming vulnerable people, as the Secretary of State did in his article yesterday in The Guardian, for these failings, saying that it was their fault—relationship breakdowns and irresponsible behaviour—will he say whether he recognises that the welfare state should be a safety net for our society? If he does, will he say that it is not currently working? Will he acknowledge that more support in the availability and access of health support—mental and physical—is needed, and that homelessness and homeless deaths should be treated as a public health issue, not solely one of housing?
Does the Secretary of State accept that selling off council houses and housing association properties reduces the number of properties available for local authorities quickly to house vulnerable people in? Will he match Labour’s £100 million cold weather plan to give every rough sleeper somewhere to stay during the winter? This place has proved, under previous Administrations, that it does not need to wait nine years to solve a homelessness problem. If previous Administrations can do it, why cannot he?
I would say to the hon. Lady that I share a great deal of her focus, her attention and the issues she has flagged up to the House this morning. I would also challenge her very firmly on what she said, in a direct accusation, about my own viewpoint on rough sleeping. No one—no one—chooses to be on the street. No one chooses that life.
The figures that the hon. Lady rightly highlights are stark, as I indicated in my initial response. What is also stark is the 50% increase in the number of deaths linked to drugs that those figures highlight as well. Therefore, these are complex matters to do with mental health and addiction. Sadly, the evidence does point to the fact that issues such as, for example, the loss of tenancies are factors that lie behind this, as are issues of childhood abuse. There are other factors, too.
That is why we published the rough-sleeping strategy in August, which was to cover all these issues—not just my responsibilities in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, but those in relation to welfare and to prisons; we see some of the issues in relation to prisoners simply being released out on to the streets. It is intended to cover, and is covering, all those grounds. I did highlight the action that is being taken now.
The hon. Lady highlighted issues relating to universal credit and the work we are doing with the Department for Work and Pensions to see where further steps may be taken, knowing that some who are vulnerable might find it difficult to find their way through the system. The DWP is providing support and, equally, we are providing additional funding and support through our navigator project and others so that those who are in the most need, the most vulnerable, are able to get the support they need.
There is absolutely no complacency from me or from this side of the House on the need to deal with the urgent issue of rough sleeping and homelessness. It is something that we are taking hugely seriously as a priority, especially in the current cold weather. That is why I have underlined the action that we are taking now. No one chooses to live on the street, and no one should die as a consequence of being homeless or as a consequence of rough sleeping. That is why we are taking action and why I have committed an initial £100 million through the rough-sleeping strategy, in addition to the £30 million that councils are receiving directly this year. That is part of a £1.2 billion effort over homelessness.
There is a sense of action, of purpose and of bringing about change, and that is firmly what I intend to do, and what I am doing, through various measures. I recognise the need for a cross-party spirit, and we are working with the Mayor of London, the Mayor of Manchester and others to ensure that we make rough sleeping a thing of the past and that we deal firmly and in a committed way with the issue of homelessness more broadly.
I agree with Tony Benn that a memorial there would be a happy thing for the Badge Messengers and others who helped to look after him.
Joe Dunlop’s play, “The Strange Petitioner”, gives an illustration of the old Robert Andrews talking to the young Robert Andrews about how he came to be on the streets. He had all the services that were possible, but he denied them and would not take benefits. He was well cared for at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and he had his funeral there the day after the service for Sir William Staveley. That was a great thing that the church did.
I hope that most of us will not look for simplistic answers and that we will back the Secretary of State’s extra initiatives as well as paying tribute to all the voluntary organisations—including Cyrenians, St Mungo’s, Turning Tides in Worthing and the Samaritans—which deal with this work all the time, together with the council mental health workers, to whom I pay a great tribute.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the incredible work that is being done across the country and some of the many organisations that are doing it. I would like to pay particular tribute to the London homelessness charity, the Connection at St Martin’s, which had been working with the homeless man who sadly lost his life yesterday. I spent time last night at a homelessness shelter and I heard the stories of two men there. They told me about their difficult challenges and their different pathways into homelessness, both of which were very complex. That underlines the challenges and issues that we are dealing with, and shows why it is important that we take a broad, overarching approach to ensure that we can prevent, intervene and provide a sense of recovery. We must approach this with a concerted focus on all fronts.
I should like to extend my sympathies to the family and friends of Mr Remes. The number of people sleeping rough has more than doubled since 2010, according to the Government’s own figures. Nearly 600 people died on the streets in England and Wales last year, yet the Secretary of State claimed this week that this was not the result of Government policies. Countless charities are pointing to cuts to public services as one of the main contributory factors to the shocking rise in homelessness. Would he consider visiting some of those organisations and hearing at first hand what everyone else in the country knows—namely, that austerity is pushing people on to the streets and putting lives at risk? With the roll-out of universal credit, charities are warning that up to 1 million vulnerable people are at risk of destitution and homelessness. Will he also commit to meeting the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and urging her to pause the roll-out of universal credit until it is clear that effective safeguards are in place to ensure that the system does not create a new tier of rough sleepers on our streets? Lastly, on homelessness and domestic abuse, will the Secretary of State tell me what action he is taking to ensure that the vulnerability test is not used as a gatekeeping tool by local authorities in England?
In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s last point, absolutely not. The Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mrs Wheeler, is working very closely on that.
The hon. Gentleman asked about universal credit. I point to the £1 billion in discretionary housing payments that the Department for Work and Pensions has put in place to protect the most vulnerable claimants. As I mentioned, we are working with the DWP. He asked me about a meeting—actually, the DWP is part of the core group that helped inform the work on the rough-sleeping strategy. Indeed, we are very much working in close concert with the DWP to ensure that, where improvements can be made, support is provided. I know that the Secretary of State is looking at these issues calmly and carefully.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned reaching out to those who work on the frontline. I speak regularly with a number of the charities and other organisations working on the frontline in this sector, and I will continue to make all the necessary visits to talk to those who have been sleeping rough to learn from their experiences and, as I have said, to take further action as required.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, following the introduction of my Homelessness Reduction Act 2018, the statistics released by the Department covering the period from April to June this year show that 58,660 households have been directly assisted under that legislation? Will he also set out an urgent message not only to Members of this House, but to all members of the public, so that when they identify someone who is clearly sleeping rough, action can be taken to point those vulnerable people to the help and assistance that they desperately need?
I commend my hon. Friend for all his work and efforts in relation to the Homelessness Reduction Act. He points to some of the direct support that is happening as a consequence of that legislation coming into place.
My hon. Friend asks what people should do. Clearly there is the StreetLink app, which that is a direct means by which people can identify someone who is living out on the street and see that they get the support and help that they need. From the conversations that I have had with many charities and the voluntary sector, it is clear that help is there. One of the challenges is getting people to take that help and getting them into accommodation where they will be safe and warm. I commend those groups for all of the action that is taking place.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to go out one cold November night with the rough sleeper team in Kensington. I was hoping to guide the workers to some sites I knew where people to whom I had spoken had been sleeping. However, I was told that they could not count people in any kind of bivouac or tent as rough sleepers. They may be homeless, but they do not count as rough sleepers if they have a covering of any kind over their heads. Is the Secretary of State aware of that, and will he please review it to ensure that vulnerable people do not die alone unnoticed, unmourned and uncounted as rough sleepers?
I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that I want the data to be as accurate and correct as possible. If there are any examples of where that is not taking place, then I am very happy to investigate further. Today’s data is challenging and stark, but it is right that we have that information to ensure that we act and that resources and focus are effectively targeted and delivered so that we are helping people off the street and preventing homelessness and rough sleeping in the first place.
I know that my right hon. Friend is a compassionate man who is concerned about the many routes that exist to being homeless. We have rough sleepers in St Albans, and, having talked to the council’s chief executive, I know for a fact that they have been approached to try to bring them in. Because of their addictions or drink problems they will not, or cannot, access the services that are on offer, as many of those services do not have a wet facility to allow people with either drink or drug habits to come in. What more can be done to help authorities offer a more varied service for those who cannot drop their dependencies and therefore cannot access many of the services that are on offer?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. We have asked NHS England to provide £30 million of funding over the next five years, specifically targeted in this arena, to provide a rapid audit of health service provision to rough sleepers, including mental health and substance misuse treatment. It is right that my hon. Friend makes this point and equally right that we act.
May I start by saying how grateful I am to have received confirmation this morning that the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill has now become law? I thank the Secretary of State and the ministerial team for all their support with that.
The Secretary of State has said that homelessness is not simply a result of Government policies, and he is right to cite the complex causes that drive people on to the street, but can he help us to explain why those complex causes—whether it is drug and alcohol abuse or relationship breakdown—have coincidentally risen by 170% since 2010?
First and foremost, let me congratulate and commend the hon. Lady for her work on the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act. It was a great moment when Mr Speaker was able to underline that the Bill had been given Royal Assent, so that it is now an Act. The hon. Lady championed the Bill so firmly, and we were pleased to support her in taking forward an important piece of legislation that I hope will start to make a real difference in the new year.
I am not going to hide away from the increase in numbers; those figures are profound. This is why we are taking the steps that we are. I pointed to a number of the complex factors that underlie this issue, but the situation is stark. I am not going to shirk from the fact that the number of those sleeping rough has increased. It is unacceptable. I am absolutely prepared to look at all evidence in relation to this issue, so that we not only learn but actually make the difference, ensure that we make rough sleeping a thing of the past and take still further action to prevent homelessness in the first place.
The most recent briefing that I received on the scale of this problem by a researcher who is following 100 rough sleepers in our part of London said that the 100% common thread was addiction—to legal drugs such as alcohol, and to illegal drugs. What data does the Secretary of State have on the proportion of addiction to legal and illegal drugs? Does this not reinforce the case that we need a royal commission on the prohibition of narcotic drugs, so that we can assess the costs and benefits of that policy and the implications it has for preventing access to services for people in the way that my hon. Friend Mrs Main has just mentioned?
My right hon. Friend asks about the evidence. I point him to the Office for National Statistics data that has been released this morning, showing that 190 estimated deaths of homeless people in 2017 were due to drug poisoning; that is 32% of the total number. Alcohol-specific causes accounted for 62 deaths and suicides for 78 deaths, respectively 10% and 13% of the estimated deaths. There is no doubt that drugs and alcohol addiction are a core component of the challenges that we are seeing, which is why we are putting in place additional support. I am profoundly concerned about the implications of new psychoactive substances such as Spice, and the impact that they have had in places such as Manchester and certain parts of London. We are providing additional training and support in relation to those substances and their links to rough sleeping, but we must equally continue to take a very firm approach to drugs.
The tragedy of hundreds of homeless people dying on our streets is shocking, appalling and shameful, but it is not surprising. It is an inevitable consequence of the Government’s failure to address the root causes of rising homelessness. Research from Shelter shows that the Government’s arbitrary benefits cap is now so low that it is not possible for some households, especially households with children, to even cover the cost of rent in the cheapest areas of the country. Will the Government review the cap and remove this completely unnecessary driver of increased and prolonged homelessness?
There are a number of causes of people becoming homeless in the first place. For example, security of tenancy is a significant cause, which is why I have consulted on longer tenancies. I will continue to work with the Department for Work and Pensions on universal credit and, where there is evidence, on the links to homelessness. Where further changes may be needed, I will have those discussions with the Secretary of State.
Before I was a Member of Parliament, I volunteered with a homeless outreach service called Thames Reach. I pay tribute to such services for the work do. They often work antisocial hours, with personal danger to the individuals involved, but they really make a difference. While volunteering, I learned about the complex reasons for rough sleeping and how common it is for people who are rough sleeping to have mental health problems. What steps are the Government taking to support the mental health needs of people who are sleeping rough?
I certainly recognise the picture that my hon. Friend paints about the challenges of mental health and how we respond to the dual diagnosis of mental health problems and addiction. That is why we are asking NHS England to provide an additional £30 million and are looking at ways in which services can be delivered. Part of the funding we are giving is to provide support workers who can sustain people in their accommodation. It is precisely those issues that our approach is intended to respond to.
Three weeks ago I joined the census that shames us, counting rough sleepers in Birmingham. There, beneath the Christmas lights, we found a man without legs sleeping next to his wheelchair in doorways. We found wounded veterans sleeping in arcades. We met a man in the grounds of the cathedral who had had his benefits stopped. We met people fresh out of prison. We met people self-medicating for trauma with drugs and alcohol. These are our neighbours, and some will not survive the winter. Today, coroners do not record homelessness in full on death certificates. That has to change, because we in this House need to know the whole truth about the depths of this scandal. Perhaps then we can shame this Government into dramatically speeding up their timetable to end rough sleeping for good.
I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s passion in relation to this issue, and I take the cases that he highlights hugely seriously. He makes a point about the proper recording of deaths linked to homelessness, and I will certainly take that up with the Ministry of Justice. This is about not only ensuring that we have the data but how we bring about change and learn and apply lessons to see that homelessness is prevented and reduced and that we act to end rough sleeping and save the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our society.
The people of Chelmsford were very saddened earlier this year by the death of Mr Rob O’Connor in our city centre on a cold winter night, despite the fact that the night shelter had beds available. His case, like many others, was very complex. I was pleased by the Government’s announcement of new Somewhere Safe to Stay centres, which will enable multiple agencies to give individuals the best tailored support. I would love to have one of those in Essex. We have also made bids under the rapid rehousing pathway for more move-on housing, housing navigators and a social lettings agency, to enable faster movement into homes for these complex cases. Will the Secretary of State look favourably on those bids?
I note my hon. Friend’s bid for funding from all the different elements we have announced. She makes a difficult and important point about helping people into support. Sadly, in a number of cases, support is provided and accommodation is offered, but for different reasons, that is not taken up. We must all redouble our efforts to encourage people who have been identified to take up that support, which could save their lives.
The Secretary of State said that no one should die from being homeless, but these statistics show that they clearly are, and in ever greater numbers. He rightly talked about early intervention and prevention. What is he doing personally within Government to lobby for reverses to cuts to drug and alcohol support services?
I would point to the additional funding that the rough-sleeping strategy seeks to deliver on the very important elements that are focused on providing support on mental health and other health services, because those issues do, very directly, matter. The rough-sleeping strategy is not set in stone. I have said that there will be annual reviews of the strategy, because I know that we need to respond to changing evidence and changing circumstances. I am determined that where further steps are required, we will take action.
Lewes District Council has a new homelessness outreach team that visits people who are rough sleeping. I welcome the £100 million for the rough-sleeping strategy, but does the Secretary of State not agree that many of the budget cuts to local government, which have reduced mental health services and help for ex-offenders and those with addiction, have cut preventive work to the bone, and that local government needs that funding to be able to prevent rough sleeping in the first place?
I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise the provisional statement that I made last week on local government finance, which gave a real-terms increase to local government for the 2019-20 financial year, and indeed provided £650 million of additional support for social care and dealing with some of the most vulnerable to whom she is very firmly pointing. In making her points, I hope she recognises that we have listened to a number of the concerns of local government in seeking to provide that additional finance. Obviously, I will continue to make the case as we look to the spending review next year.
Is it not a reflection on today’s society that before I came here this morning, a major TV channel talked about this issue of deaths of the homeless for about 30 seconds, yet spent 25 minutes talking about what had happened here after PMQs yesterday? The priorities were all wrong. Every death of a homeless person is a stain on our society. If we are judged as a nation and a Government on how we treat our most vulnerable, then our nation and our Government are broken. I will make it my new year’s resolution to do everything I can to alleviate homelessness in this country, whether that be by donating to homeless people or by working on a longer-term strategy in my constituency to try to reduce it. Will the Secretary of State do the same?
I can say to the hon. Lady that this is an absolute priority for me. She makes her point about the country and the society we should be very powerfully. In terms of giving directly to the charities, some of them point to the challenges about sustaining people on the streets. The charities sometimes give a difficult and hard message, but it is important to recognise it in that way. I look forward to working with her in the new year as we seek to meet those challenges.
Following on from the question by my hon. Friend Helen Whately, will my right hon. Friend outline what further steps Government can take to help homeless people with mental health issues, because I understand that suicide was a major factor in today’s figures?
My hon. Friend will no doubt have heard the figures that I referred to a little while back about some of the causes that contribute to this. We are seeking to undertake a rapid audit of health service provision for rough sleepers, including mental health and substance misuse treatment, because sometimes it is very difficult to ensure that access to the services that are there is delivered. That is why we are doing that audit and why the additional funds are being committed to support services as well.
Following a very useful meeting with St Mungo’s, I would like to ask the Secretary of State two things. First, will he work with the DWP to ensure that as part of the universal credit roll-out, outreach workers are sent into hostels, that being the most effective way of ensuring that people are able to claim that benefit? Secondly, does he agree that it is not just a case of ensuring that deaths of homeless people are recorded but that they are fully investigated?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I commend St Mungo’s for its excellent work, for what it does out in our communities and for the difference it is making. I had a conversation with the chief executive of St Mungo’s this morning on some of the work it is doing now and, equally, on how, through our rough-sleeping advisory panel, we continue to work with those across the sector.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about giving help in hostels, and that point was also made to me last night. Within our rough-sleeping strategy we have a navigators programme, which is aimed precisely at guiding people through what is sometimes a complex system to ensure they get the support they need.
Of the 600 homeless people who died on our streets last year, 85% were men, one third died of drug poisoning and the highest mortality rates were in London and the north-west of England. Will the Secretary of State ensure that, whatever Government help is provided, it is provided to where it will be most effective?
I can assure my hon. Friend that our rough-sleeping initiative is targeted at the 83 areas with the highest pressure and the highest demand. Obviously we will continue to reflect on that as evidence emerges. If the patterns change, clearly we will redirect resources, but he makes an important point about London and the north-west, where a lot of resource is being provided. Indeed, Manchester is one of the areas where we have our Housing First programme, which is aimed at providing help more quickly.
On my way into Parliament this morning, I stopped to talk to a man who was begging on the embankment. His name is James and he is from Manchester, which he left for personal reasons. James told me that he wants to become a Big Issue seller in the new year, but in the meantime he faces a cold and lonely Christmas. What policies does the Secretary of State have in place to help James and the thousands of other people like him across the country?
I misspoke in my last answer. I should have highlighted that our Housing First programme is also in the west midlands and Liverpool.
The hon. Lady mentions immediate support, and I would point to the £30 million that is going to local authorities this year. I would also point to the £5 million cold weather fund, which I announced in October and which is about providing support now, for this winter, to ensure that we are providing accommodation to more people. The last figures I saw show that the fund is delivering more than 400 extra beds, on top of the additional support that has been provided. That sense of urgency and purpose is one that I entirely hear and understand.
Having spent much of my student years working in homeless shelters in the evenings, I am particularly passionate about this cause. Hearing about it today reminds me of those evenings and of the amount of methadone and substance abuse I saw on our streets. Will the Secretary of State please talk not just about the care the Government are providing but about the care that we, as a community, can provide and about how we can shape ourselves as families, as groups and, indeed, as a society to look after the most vulnerable? This is not just about the state; it is about us as individuals and as communities.
I absolutely hear my hon. Friend’s point. Of course the Government, local authorities, charities and the voluntary sector all have a key role to play and are doing amazing work. There are things we can do, too. By acting collectively and together, we can provide a solution and answers to the challenges we see.
Many homeless people on the streets have a little dog, which is often their only companion, but they are asked to give up their dog in order to gain a place in a shelter. The all-party dog advisory welfare group heard from a wonderful organisation, Dogs on the Streets, which provides veterinary care and help to homeless people with pets. Can much more be done to provide accommodation that will not only take a homeless person off the street but allow them to keep their pet?
The hon. Lady makes a serious and important point. At an additional shelter that opened in Bristol, one of the first young men I spoke to had his dog with him. Indeed, I spoke to another homeless person last night who also had a dog, and the shelter that I visited accommodated rough sleepers and their dogs. If there are further lessons that we can learn and apply to ensure that good practice is reflected and recognised, we will do so, and I appreciate the hon. Lady making that point in the way she did.
Support services in Torbay do a strong job in reaching out to rough sleepers, but evidence suggests that too many end up back on the street at a later date—which is why we are considering adopting a Housing First approach, which we discussed yesterday with the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mrs Wheeler. What evidence has the Secretary of State seen emerge from the Government’s major pilots of Housing First, to see whether that will be effective?
We have seen international evidence that underlines the benefit of the Housing First model, which is why we are piloting it in three areas around the country. Those pilots are getting up and running, and I welcome the fact that in Birmingham the first homes are now being provided. I want to learn from that approach and ensure that we apply good practice and sustain people in their accommodation. We want to provide an opportunity to support and help people, and ensure that they turn their lives around.
When pioneering Bristol journalist Michael Yong wrote an article in August about 50 homeless people who had died in Bristol over the previous five years, he was trying to humanise them and show that behind the statistics are real people with hopes and fears. Will the Secretary of State commit to understanding that this is a public health crisis that needs public health solutions, such as drug and alcohol counselling, mental health counselling, and many other aspects that have health causes at their root?
I recognise the health issues that the hon. Lady highlights, and I was pleased to visit Bristol a few weeks ago to see new provision that has been put in place. This is about providing support and opportunity, and once someone has taken up that help and got into accommodation, we must address and respond to their needs there. It is also about the prevention agenda, and I will continue to work with the Department of Health and Social Care to respond to the important points raised by the hon. Lady.
Will the Secretary of State talk to colleagues across the Government about public institutions that release people on to the street? I recently had a case of someone who was released from a secure mental health institution on to the street, and he ended up in prison. Does the Secretary agree that it cannot be right for public institutions not to check where someone will live when they leave that institution?
I do, and the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which was championed by my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, is about that duty to refer, and the obligations on public bodies to consider the issues raised by homelessness. The hon. Gentleman highlights a point about custodial settings, and we have pilots in three prisons, supported by the Ministry of Justice, to ensure that someone who is released on a Friday evening when housing services are shut does not simply go out on the street. We must break that and stop it happening, and I take very seriously the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.
As Liberal Democrat spokesperson for housing, I too send my condolences to the family and friends of the homeless man who died two nights ago. It is a tragedy that can leave no one in this House untouched and unconcerned.
One month ago in Bath I organised a homelessness conference with Julian House. Some excellent organisations took part, including my housing association, Curo, and the Albert Kennedy Trust, which do excellent work on homelessness. They all agree that at the bottom of the issue lies a chronic shortage of social housing. The Liberal Democrats are demanding the building of 100,000 new social homes every year—the current output is less than 10,000—to address that chronic shortage. When will the Government recognise that the private sector will not deliver the number of social houses that we need? A public sector has to deliver those houses. Social housing is a social project, and the Government need to put resources into it.
First and foremost, the issue is about individuals—a point made by Thangam Debbonaire and other hon. Members. Secondly, there has been a lack of focus and attention on social housing for years, frankly. That is why we are investing through our affordable homes programme and, just as importantly, through the release of borrowing restrictions so that councils can build the next generation of council homes and increase the number of social and affordable homes, to meet need.
Ipswich Borough Council has provided an instant access homelessness hospital in Ipswich for many years, since before recent legislation; incidentally, it can also provide accommodation for homeless people’s dogs, which is fantastic. However, it cannot afford to provide 24-hour reception facilities or sufficient support for the most difficult people. When will the Government fund housing authorities sufficiently so that they can provide that support for the most difficult people? When will the right hon. Gentleman’s Department persuade county councils to stop cutting the support for citizens advice bureaux and other advice agencies that help to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place?
There are clear duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017; obviously, we are carefully considering its implementation, with funding provided to support that activity. I commend the work taking place in Ipswich, which sounds as though it is making a real difference. I would ask the hon. Gentleman’s authority to work closely with our rough-sleeping team at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We are seeking to provide advice; if there are challenges to meet, that can be done through that team.
We should not accept a society where a man can die on the steps of Parliament because he does not have a roof over his head. Sadly, a man also died in Barnsley earlier this year. There will be 100 people without a home in my town this Christmas. The Secretary of State said that we had a moral duty to tackle the scandal. Will he commit to more funding for councils such as mine in Barnsley?
I do believe that there is a moral duty to act, which is why we have taken a number of steps, including the additional funding through the rough-sleeping initiative and the rough-sleeping strategy. Equally, there is the challenge of helping people to take support and provision when it is there. Sadly, in a number of cases where we have seen deaths, support and accommodation has been offered but not taken up, sometimes because of some of the other issues and challenges. The hon. Lady certainly has my commitment to challenge this and take the agenda forward. Today’s figures are unacceptable, and I am determined to act further.
The Secretary of State is a boyish 50; according to the latest statistics, the average age of homeless males who died was 44. Will he reflect on the fact that, when he was in his early 40s, this issue had largely been solved and dealt with by Government action during the early 2000s? The current crisis is a product of a combination of complacency and austerity. If he is serious about resolving the situation, it will require more than just words; it will require getting the whole Government working together on the issue as a top priority.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: this is not just about my Department, but Departments across Whitehall. A ministerial group involving the key Departments meets and is focused on taking the action needed.
It is shocking that, according to today’s figures, the average age of someone dying on the streets or as a consequence of homelessness is 44—younger than the hon. Gentleman or I am. That is stark: it underlines the chronic health issues that may be involved—drugs, alcohol and other issues, too—and the need for us to act.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answers so far and his commitment to addressing homelessness. Some 8 million people are only one pay cheque away from losing their homes. Does he agree that we must recognise that being homeless does not involve only those who are unemployed or who have mental health issues? Some people may become homeless because of the removal of their overtime or a cut to their working hours. How does he intend to help those on the brink of homelessness?
I appreciate the situation in Northern Ireland and the support and accommodation available there. There are different pictures in different parts of our United Kingdom. Part of this is about ensuring we have a strong economy, creating jobs and growth and the prosperity agenda that sits behind all this, so we can and will look forward to the future positively. Equally, I come back to the point, particularly in relation to England and Wales, about longer tenancies and security in tenancies. That is why I am reflecting carefully on the consultation we carried out a few months back.
Last year, 597 homeless people died on our streets. Just imagine: that is nearly one dead homeless person for every seat in this Chamber. One cold dead homeless person where I sit, where the Minister sits and where you sit, Mr Speaker. It happens not just in big cities, however. Henryk Smolarz died on the streets in Plymouth. Does the Minister think not just about the big cities, but the small cities, towns and rural areas where the combination of street homelessness and people living in insecure accommodation is as much a problem as in the big cities?
I do. I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman on that. I talked about the 83 priority areas. That is based on last year’s count. We are obviously looking at other data, too, to ensure that our focus and attention is very firmly on areas of need. Where there is good practice that can be shared, we will absolutely do that. I am desperately saddened to hear of the particular case in Plymouth that he highlights. We will be working not just in the big cities, but across the country to provide support where it is needed.
I entirely endorse everything my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire said about the need to treat this situation as a public health emergency. I also echo her praise for Michael Yong, the reporter from the Bristol Post. One issue that Michael has also been looking at is the quality of supported housing in the city, particularly in one property in my constituency that is clearly not fit for purpose. The Secretary of State visited the new homeless shelter in St Anne’s in my constituency, which I hope will do a great deal to help homeless people over the winter. May I urge him to look at regulating supported housing providers that are not doing such a good job, to make sure that people get the services they need?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s important point. I want to see appropriate support and provision being provided across the board. I think there is some good practice that we can point to, but there is also not good practice. Therefore, we need to take measures to ensure that people are being cared for. Ultimately, we are talking about some of the most vulnerable people we could point to. They lack confidence—putting aside all the other issues—and the ability to get help. I feel their vulnerability very keenly. We need to learn and to ensure that appropriate standards are in place. I am very happy to look into any further issues she may wish to raise in relation to her particular case in Bristol.
On average, two people a week die while homeless in Scotland. The average life expectancy of a homeless person in Scotland is just 39. People sleeping on the streets in Scotland before they register as homeless is up 10% from 2016 to 2018. That shows the data picture is not clear. Under Labour, targeted action reduced rough sleeping by 75%. It is not an accident that homelessness has increased. It is because of a failure of policy in mental health, addictions, poverty, social security, housing and immigration. All those areas are failing, and as a result people are dying. If the Secretary of State is willing to address the fundamental failure of public policy, he has to turn to his Front-Bench colleagues and make them accept the reality of what austerity has done and the social destruction it is causing in every part of the United Kingdom. We have to get a grip on this in our national interest.
I recognise the need for concerted action across the board. When I look at the numbers, I see that we have not done enough and that we need to do more. That is what the rough-sleeping strategy is all about and that is what a number of things I have spoken to the House about this morning are profoundly all about. I want rough sleeping to be a thing of the past. There are clear lessons that we can apply and learn from. I will continue to reflect on and review the data as it emerges. As I said, we have provided an initial £100 million for the rough-sleeping strategy. I intend to have annual reviews so that, where further steps and measures are needed, we can take action to ensure we are making a difference.
My question is about violent assaults on rough sleepers. I am sure that most Members—indeed, most right-minded people—have been horrified and felt revulsion at the recent attacks on people who are already in an extremely weak and vulnerable position and, in particular, at the fact that some of the perpetrators have filmed their attacks and circulated them on social media as though they were some perverted form of sport or entertainment. What further action can the Minister take on this front? Will he ensure, for instance, that the relevant statutory agencies have drawn up plans to identify the potential threat and to offer protection against it for vulnerable homeless people?
Such examples are utterly repugnant and will, I know, be absolutely condemned by everyone in the House. We are talking about some of the most vulnerable people who are out on the streets, and the fact that they can be preyed upon and the purpose is somehow to provide entertainment is disgusting. We are working with the Home Office, which is taking steps to bring together police and crime commissioners to deal with the policing aspects. We need to look at the issue on a number of fronts to ensure that action is taken. The rough-sleeping strategy refers to the number of assaults and the greater propensity to victimise those who are out on the streets. That is unacceptable, which is why we will continue to work with the Home Office.