My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Suttie on securing this timely and important debate, if only because I get to follow the real insight and context of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell.
The SDGs are an important part of the toolkit for us to scrutinise the work of the Government. I will focus my comments on goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities and, within that, goal 11.1: to ensure by 2030,
“access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing”.
I echo my noble friend Lady Suttie’s concerns about the danger of losing sight of the domestic issue, while wholeheartedly agreeing that it was a proud moment when we achieved 0.7% of GNI for developing nations under the coalition—guaranteed, by the way, through a Private Member’s Bill from Michael Moore because the Conservatives in government refused to deliver it through government time. I suspect that when David Cameron signed up to these aims in 2015 and called for all Governments to be held to account for the implementation of the global goals, he was looking beyond our borders and thinking that others needed to play catch-up rather than him. Now, in 2018, he has departed for his £25,000 Marie Antoinette-style shepherd’s hut.
What a contrast with the communities in the UK that will fall far short of the original objectives when this Government deliver the voluntary national review in July 2019. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley said, just last Friday a UN rapporteur ended a two-week mission and concluded that this Government have inflicted “great misery” on their people with,
“punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous”,
policies. The report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next year, states that in the UK,
“poverty is a political choice”.
He said that about 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute, being unable to afford basic essentials. These figures are taken from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The IFS also predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022. Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur and human rights lawyer, said that it was his belief that this Government are in denial.
I see that the Government pushed back hard on the UN report, but Philip Alston is not alone in his findings. The recent investigation by two highly respected journalists at the Times, Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson, uncovered a similar story. As they have written in their columns and comments since, they were shocked by what they found in some communities: children going without meals, schools having to find shoes for children and the scandal that continues because of the lack of decent social housing, leaving people on low or no incomes with little choice but to rent in the worst parts of the private sector. Their investigation highlighted the toxic combination of unscrupulous landlords and inadequate benefit for housing, which is pushing thousands of families into homelessness. They found that housing benefit does not cover rents in 95% of the country. Only yesterday, the Residential Landlords Association published a report citing the benefit system as the main cause of ending a tenancy and leading to homelessness. To be a low-income family in the UK—even in work—in the private rented sector is to constantly teeter on the brink of homelessness.
Last year, 123,130 children were in temporary accommodation, defined as statutorily homeless. Today, Shelter published its annual report on homelessness, revealing that 320,000 people are homeless in Britain, This amounts to a year-on-year increase of 13,000, as my noble friend Lady Suttie said. The estimate suggests that nationally one in 200 people is homeless. In London it is much worse: every night we see people sleeping out on the streets.
My noble friend Lady Suttie and I team up once a year to do an annual sleep-out for the charity Depaul, which helps young homeless people. It is only one night a year; she is a hardy Scot who can sleep while it is raining, while I am the soft southerner who always wakes up the minute it starts. For us it is a small reminder of what it is like to sleep out, but it is nothing like the danger, the insecurity, the toll on mental health, the substance abuse and the early death, which Dame Louise Casey and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, worked so hard to eradicate and reduce in the late 1990s in the early days of the Blair Government. It is back, and it is like an epidemic.
This week the Huffington Post conducted an investigation which showed that the Government’s use of “snapshot” rough sleeper counts on just one night of the year in autumn were being used to provide data on the nationwide levels of homelessness. It did its own analysis, which showed that 33 of 326 local authorities in England recorded zero rough sleepers for 2017, including, for example, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, where street sleepers are visible throughout the year.
I appreciate that the Minister will be unable to answer on the 169 targets today, so if he is unable to answer my questions, in particular on goal 11.1, will he undertake to write and respond to the following questions? First, which stakeholders will be involved in drawing up the VNRs relating to poverty, statutory homelessness and rough sleeping? Secondly, given that a year ago my complaint about government use of statistics on homelessness was upheld by the UK Statistics Authority, what methodology will be used to report on homelessness as part of goal 11.1? Is the Minister satisfied that that will be an accurate reflection? Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself and making an assumption that that figure will even be used, so my third question is: will homelessness and rough sleeping figures be reported as part of the identified challenges when reporting this July? Fourthly, I was extremely concerned to learn in the WWF brief for this debate that as yet there appears to be no consultation plan in preparation for reporting in July. Given the significant need for partnership to deliver this, is the Minister concerned that the Government are leaving it a little late, and when will the consultation plan be made available?
The SDG global indicators are a noble intent, and the Government were right to sign up to them in 2015. But it is critical that partnerships are formed and challenging questions are asked here at home, particularly on a goal that promises housing for all when it is so obvious that right here, right now, we are falling far short of that objective.