Homelessness - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 11:50 am on 20 December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 11:50, 20 December 2018

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

“Mr Speaker, every death of someone sleeping rough on our streets is one too many. Each is a tragedy, each is a life cut short. In particular, I share the sadness that every Member of this House will feel on learning of the death of a homeless man close to Parliament only yesterday. As you say, 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.

The ONS data published today 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 to see lives cut short in this way. I believe we have a moral duty to act. This 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 the progress we have already made on the 61 commitments in the strategy and sets out clear milestones for activity.

But it is about action now. Our rough sleeping initiative, backed by £30 million in 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 have announced the location of 11 rough sleeping hubs across the country, which will provide immediate shelter and rapid assessment now, which will help thousands of people over the next two years.

But today’s statistics underline the need to stop people 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 key, and that was the focus of the Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force in April this year.

We will continue to work tirelessly with local authorities and partners across the country to ensure that we are providing 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 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”.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 11:53, 20 December 2018

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Indeed, two days ago the second man this year died on our parliamentary doorstep. This man has a name: Gyula Remes, a 43 year-old Hungarian who will undoubtedly have a family somewhere in Hungary. Like me, many of your Lordships daily walk past the four or five men and women who have made Parliament’s doorstep their home. It is going to be their home for Christmas, they told me this morning. One of them is an ex-serviceman. Noble Lords who drive into Parliament must have noticed the increase in the number of people sleeping on the doorsteps in Westminster and witnessed the shame that this brings to us all. I suggest that noble Lords who do drive into Parliament might go outside and have a look at the tributes to Gyula.

Does the Minister know these fellow citizens on our doorstep? Has he spoken to them? I hope that when the Minister answers he will address the point that while the Government may have their rough sleepers plan, it is not working. What are this Government going to do about the fact that rough sleeping has doubled on their watch? That is from the Government’s figures, but Crisis says that they are a fivefold underestimate.

Does the Minister agree with his colleague Mr Brokenshire, who says in the newspapers that this explosion in rough sleeping is nothing to do with this Government’s policy, or will he acknowledge that this Government’s policies and priorities will have to change to deal with the shame that this homelessness brings to our rich nation? So many of our fellow citizens have no home and are exposed to danger: 600 deaths this year show a 24% increase in the number of deaths on our streets in the last five years. There is also the awfulness of sleeping in doorways at the entrance to our Parliament. How many more deaths will it take before the Government resolve this problem?

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that contribution and, as she has done, I offer sincere condolences on behalf of the Government and the House to the family of Gyula Remes and his friends—I think he had many in this country as well as in his native Hungary. In answer to the noble Baroness, I do speak to homeless people, and not just in Westminster. She is right that it is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy everywhere—not just here but up and down the country—that this is happening.

However, we have to acknowledge that this is perhaps much more complex than the noble Baroness suggested. For example, from the figures that she has no doubt seen today—the first set of such figures; we never previously had ONS figures on this issue and we should welcome that we now have this analysis—we know they indicate that over a third of the deaths have drugs as an element. That is not to minimise the issue but to show that there are many aspects we need to grapple with. It is not just a question of providing funding without knowing where it is going. Many of the deaths are also related to suicide or alcohol; I think more than half involve those three elements. So while, yes, it is about ensuring that we get the figures down, it is, as I say, much more complex than she suggests.

I also pay tribute, particularly at this time of year, to the many third sector bodies and charities which help. St Mungo’s springs to mind, but many others are helping and we should knowledge the great role they play, as well as local authorities. I will highlight one thing in the Statement. In the other place the Secretary of State highlighted the £5 million fund for cold weather, which was announced in October. A lot of that funding is still not committed and local authorities can bid in for it. The Secretary of State will issue that message to them again today, but I encourage them to bid because there is money available, as well as the money we have announced in relation to the early adopters of the rough sleeping initiative.

Perhaps I could accentuate one other thing in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and for the benefit of the House. These figures do not relate just to rough sleeping; they are homelessness figures. It is where homelessness is featured on the death certificate, and some of those deaths will be people who have not been sleeping rough but have been in emergency accommodation, for example. So, again, it is perhaps a bit more complex than a first sight indicates.

Photo of Baroness Grender Baroness Grender Liberal Democrat

My Lords, will the Minister join me in encouraging everyone to download and support the excellent app StreetLink on their phone? The app is backed by St Mungo’s and Homeless Link, and it enables people to report to an outreach team immediately if they see someone sleeping rough. I really recommend it to all colleagues and anyone else listening as it is excellent—but please donate when you use it.

The Minister talks of £5 million. Can he tell us how it is possible for Cabinet members to sign off on an additional £2 billion for a no-deal Brexit when it is entirely in their power to rule that out? Would that money not be better spent on this urgent problem to ensure that there are no more deaths on our streets of people sleeping rough? Where the money has been spent by local authorities, the numbers are coming down—but overall in England, the numbers are still going up and it is a disgrace.

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness for the reference to downloading the StreetLink app backed by Homeless Link. That is very valuable advice and I encourage people to do that. On her second point, as I indicated, this is not just about money. Of course the money is important, and we have committed money to it. We announced money just this week in relation to 11 more hubs and we have the rough sleeping initiative areas that were announced previously: much money is committed there. We have to make sure the money is properly spent, so, yes, it is about the money, but it is not just about that, and nor is this problem unique to England. Sadly it is, broadly speaking, a pan-European problem. There have been some successes in Finland and we had a representative of Finland on the rough sleeping advisory board. Our noble Lord, Lord Bird, is on it, as are the mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, Andy Street and others. It meets regularly and it is taking action and taking the initiative. Once again, I encourage local authorities to look at whether they can bid in for some of the money relating to cold weather. The point is that it is not just about money, important though that is.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

My Lords, some years ago I took part in one of those rather insane television programmes which meant that I slept on the streets for about eight nights. Even though I was completely safe and I knew that it was coming to an end, I cannot begin to describe the feelings of hopelessness and terror that it induced in me. It was not just that I was hopeless and terrified and had nothing but that I had nowhere to go. I was frequently told, “Go and get a job”—which was quite impossible. I was wearing rubbishy old clothes and had carrier bags and I was not even allowed to sit in a café. It seems to me that we put charity money into keeping people perhaps safe overnight—and safety is very marginal in some of these shelters, especially for women, as I know—but they have to be helped to get out of this situation and to get jobs. It is not enough to hurl a few pounds to give them a hot dinner over Christmas. This is about the rest of their lives and the cost and the shame to all of us. I beseech the Government to take this much more seriously.

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the noble Baroness. First, I do take this extremely seriously. The noble Baroness is right that there is a short-term issue of getting help immediately, which we should not belittle as it is a real issue and it is right that we do that—but there is a longer-term issue, particularly about finding jobs. The noble Baroness is right about that. That is why some of the commitments that we are making in the rough sleeping strategy relate to just that: the wraparound, the commitment to see that individuals—and these are individuals, very much so—are helped and that we ensure that help gets to them, particularly in relation to finding jobs. I agree with that.

Photo of The Bishop of Rochester The Bishop of Rochester Bishop

My Lords, despite what the noble Baroness has just said about jobs, some of the people who have died had jobs and were homeless yet in work. That seems to compound the scandal. The Minister might have seen an article in today’s Financial Times, which features, of all places, Tunbridge Wells and the work of Habitat for Humanity, the YMCA and the churches there in tackling homelessness. It identifies the issue that among the people who are being helped are some who are in work. Does the Minister accept that this phenomenon is a particular scandal? What is the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to work on not just the homelessness dimensions of this but on the employment dimensions which lead to this strange conjunction which we seem to be experiencing?

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the right reverend Prelate. As I have indicated, this is a very complex problem. The contribution of the right reverend Prelate about people who are in work yet are still homeless perhaps illustrates that. That demands much greater attention that it has had in the past, and it is why we have the strategy and the commitments, and why there will be ongoing work, particularly individualising this so that individuals get care and attention and in that way we take care of the many different facets exhibited by a serious and tragic problem, as we have seen in the most recent case on our doorstep.