Housing for the Homeless - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:11 pm on 14th May 2020.

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Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh Conservative 5:11 pm, 14th May 2020

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bird, on securing this debate and on his passionate advocacy for homeless people not only in this House but in his dedicated work over three decades, in particular as founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue. I am grateful also to noble Lords who have contributed this afternoon. I found the debate thoughtful and well informed, and I note particularly the history of rough sleepers from the period of the Vagrancy Act through to that where they were simply ignored, and to this golden opportunity to end rough sleeping for good. I thank the noble Lord for taking us on that journey.

The Covid-19 pandemic has represented a devastating threat to communities—personally, I lost my mother last month to this ghastly virus. It continues to be a threat all over the world. It is important to note that the threat has been particularly stark for certain groups, one of which is vulnerable rough sleepers, who, unable to self-isolate, cannot protect themselves or prevent wider transmission of this awful disease.

The Government were quick to recognise this and moved swiftly to bring rough sleepers in off the streets and out of the most dangerous shared sleeping environments. This work was spearheaded by Dame Louise Casey. I also commend Jeremy Swain, the government adviser on homelessness. The work involved local authorities and wider homeless agencies up and down the country working tirelessly to set up new accommodation, often using hotels, to ensure that these vulnerable people were given a space to protect themselves in.

Within just over a month, 90% of those identified as rough sleepers have been given offers of accommodation. That is 5,400 rough sleepers taken off the streets, which is a remarkable achievement. It involved a huge effort from local government and the wider homelessness sector which has ultimately saved many lives. This Government have led this work and made more than £3.2 billion in funding available to local authorities to manage the impacts of Covid, which includes their work on rough sleeping.

I want to focus on some of the points that noble Lords raised. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is right that in order to end rough sleeping we need to look what causes these people to be roofless. My noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble Lords, Lord Bird and Lord McNicol, pointed to the need above all for a long-term plan. Clearly, such a plan will involve local authorities and charities, and, as mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, faith groups will play a critical part in delivering it. That long-term plan could come only with the political will and top cover provided by a Government who are prepared to stump up the cash. In just two months, £3.2 billion of funding was given to local government, but there is money set aside in addition to end rough sleeping.

The opportunity is that that Dame Louise Casey will spearhead a task force to lead the next phase of the Government’s support for rough sleepers during this pandemic. At this stage many of the things that noble Lords asked for have not been finalised—the terms of reference, the membership and the transparency process have all to be worked on—but I am sure that the points made in the debate will be taken up by Dame Louise and the task force. The overriding objective of this task force is to ensure that as many people as possible who have been brought in off the streets in this pandemic do not return to the streets and that they are retained in safe, secure and settled accommodation. The task force will work hand in hand with local and regional government and the homelessness agencies and shelters to do this and draw together expertise from across society, including businesses, faith groups, the health sector and the wider public sector, and of course communities. It will also ensure that the thousands of rough sleepers now in accommodation continue to receive the physical and mental support they need over the coming weeks. We are aware that some of the individuals in this accommodation have not engaged with services for many years, so in this midst of this terrible pandemic there is hope that this could be an opportunity to turn their lives around for good.

As for the types of accommodation we will look to secure, rough sleepers have different types and levels of need. We will be encouraging local authorities to identify appropriate accommodation for each individual. My noble friend Lord Randall talked about dog-friendly accommodation; that was a point well taken. Many noble Lords asked about money. There will be consideration of how the additional £381 million of funding announced at the Budget for move-on accommodation for rough sleepers might support this endeavour. I also want to refer to the £750 million of funding announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to support charities providing vital services and helping vulnerable groups through the Covid-19 crisis.

The Government are aware that many voluntary and community sector organisations are facing significant pressures and loss of income at a time when they are needed most. In response, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has secured a £6 million fund to assist the homelessness and rough sleeping charity sector as it continues its vital work during the coronavirus pandemic. The purpose of the £6 million fund is to support front-line homelessness and rough sleeping charities in their efforts to help keep homeless people and rough sleepers safe and supported while responding to the challenges brought by Covid-19. Big Society Capital and Social Investment Business have also recently established a new £25 million resilience and recovery loan fund. This will enable social lenders to provide emergency loans without fees or interest for the coming 12 months. More widely, Big Society Capital has announced a £100 million emergency response.

In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, this is the time for a big, bold plan. We believe that the Government, in setting up this task force and putting a considerable amount of money into support for rough sleepers, are going to seize that opportunity. But it will be a plan that requires every stakeholder, local authority, charity and faith group to make it happen. We are committed to supporting vulnerable rough sleepers, not just during the pandemic but long after it ends.