It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ms Buck, who has been a remarkable and outstanding champion of homeless people for many years. In a most dramatic and vivid way, she has brought home the sheer scale of human misery felt by hundreds of thousands of those we represent. The voice of homeless people has been heard in Parliament today.
Like my hon. Friend, I see the ever-lengthening queues of the desperate in my constituency: families trying to get a decent home at a price that they can afford who are being evicted; and those whose lives have come apart, who have spiralled down and ended up homeless on the streets. They are good men and women who deserve better in 21st-century England.
Homelessness and rough sleeping in 21st-century Britain, the seventh-richest nation on earth, are a disgrace and a scar on our society. Those were the sentiments of the Prime Minister when he was in opposition in 2009. Indeed, in August 2011, the Housing Minister said:
“Tackling homelessness and rough sleeping is what first got me into politics”.
No one doubts the Minister’s desire to bring an end to homelessness and rough sleeping. In opposition, he set up the Conservative homelessness foundation. In government, he has set up a cross-Government working group on homelessness and introduced a “no second night out” policy. However, with sadness I have to say that as we have seen all too often with the Minister and the Government, the rhetoric and the reality are very different indeed.
On the Minister’s watch, the consequences of the Government’s economic, housing and benefits policies have been devastating. We now have the biggest housing crisis in a generation, and, at its heart, the depressing statistics of homelessness up by 14% and rough sleeping up by 23%. The truth is that homelessness is rising precisely because their economic and housing policies are failing.
I have some questions for the Housing Minister. Does he accept that the Government were warned that the 60% cut in investment in the 2010 comprehensive spending review would have catastrophic consequences and that they have led, as today’s figures from the Homes and Communities Agency have demonstrated, to a 68% collapse in the building of affordable houses? Does he accept that the Government were warned that the toxic combination of increasing rents in the private sector, collapsing affordable house building and ill-thought-through changes to the benefits system would mean thousands of families being uprooted, particularly in London? The private secretary to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote last year that the cap and other housing benefit reforms could result in 40,000 people being made homeless and that the policy could cost more than it saved. Does the Minister accept that the Government were warned about the consequences of the biggest cuts to local government expenditure in history and the cuts to Supporting People?
As we have heard my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk and David Simpson say eloquently, the consequences have been serious. The city of Birmingham, which I am proud to represent, has had the biggest cuts in local government history in the past two years: £312 million, including £15 million in cuts to the big society through cuts to the charitable and voluntary sectors.
In Birmingham, and throughout Britain, there have been cutbacks in services to homeless people. Again, the statistics are depressing; 58% of projects have received reduced funding, leading to a reduction of one in 10 staff—
1,400 people—caring for the homeless. The number of clients using day centres for the homeless has risen by nearly a third and there are 22% fewer empty beds on an average night. The research report, “SNAP 2012”, produced by Homeless Link, shows that there are 1,544 fewer bed spaces in 2012, compared to the previous year.
As a result of the Government’s actions—their failed economic policies—there is higher unemployment and the greatest squeeze on living standards in a generation, with families and individuals struggling to stay in their homes, whether owned or rented. Increasing numbers of people are presenting as homeless or are out on the street, not to mention the cuts to services that provide the safety net. There has been a catastrophic fall in construction, which is at the heart of the double-dip recession made in Downing street.
The Government’s failed housing policies are contributing to the growing housing crisis and the collapse in affordable house building. The private rented sector is defined by ever-increasing rents and, all too often, poor standards, with one in two homes in the sector not meeting the decent homes standard. Social housing providers are increasingly unsupported and their tenants shamefully demonised by Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North used powerful case studies to demonstrate eloquently that the combination of the Government’s failing housing and economic policies and their benefit changes is leading, as the Housing Minister was warned, to misery on a grand scale. Tenants are forced out of their private rented homes because of the housing benefit changes and councils cannot find anywhere to put them. Many landlords are increasingly leaving the housing benefit tenant market. Councils are told by the Government that tenants should not be sent elsewhere in the country, but councils cannot keep them locally, so tenants end up in hotels paid for by the taxpayer, costing the taxpayer more and leading to more misery for the tenants. That is the economics of the madhouse.
We Labour Members learnt in government that homelessness can only be tackled by addressing all the factors contributing to it. Above all, more homes are needed. In government, Labour delivered 2 million new homes—500,000 affordable homes—and introduced Supporting People, bringing together seven income streams from across central Government to give the necessary housing and related support, particularly for vulnerable people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale is right to say that as a consequence of Labour’s determination to tackle the scandal of homelessness and bad housing, there was, progressively, a 70% reduction in homelessness. That reduction has gone dramatically into reverse under this Government.