Homeless Young People — [John Robertson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 21 January 2015.

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Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay 2:30, 21 January 2015

Mr Robertson, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate. I warmly welcome right hon. and hon. Members who have joined us here. May I ask if it is in order for me to also welcome to the debate people in the Public Gallery, some of whom are former homeless people?

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

Thank you, Mr Robertson.

As we know, homelessness is a crisis. It is devastating, and it should not happen to anyone. We should all be clear that we are just a few steps away from finding ourselves with nowhere to go, whether through the loss of our jobs or our health, or relationship breakdown. Homelessness can be an isolating and frightening experience. Homeless people often feel that they are invisible, ignored and forgotten. At worst, homelessness can mean sleeping rough on the streets. Of course, we all know that the problem of homelessness is much bigger than the problem of rough sleeping. It is clear that, after years of declining trends, all forms of homelessness have risen due to the shortage of housing and the ongoing effects of the worst economic recession for 100 years.

I register my thanks to Crisis, Shelter, Homeless Link, Centrepoint, the local government ombudsman, Depaul UK, Generation Rent, the Children’s Society and Gallery Youth, as well as to the House of Commons Library for providing supporting information for this debate. I acknowledge the profoundly good work done by many smaller charities across the country, such as St Petroc’s Society and the St Austell community kitchen, in my constituency, and many religious groups that seek to help people who find themselves with nowhere to go.

Crisis points out that almost one in 10 people say they have been homeless at some point, with a fifth of those people saying that it has happened in the past five years. I spent a period after a relationship breakdown out of the flat that we had been in and sofa-surfing with my friends. Although that is not rough sleeping, it is a form of homelessness. The experience was traumatic for me and even more traumatic, I suspect, for the friends I was imposing on. I remain very grateful for their help.

It happened to me later in life, but, alarmingly, half of all homeless people first become homeless aged under 21, with the majority facing the experience again and again because they cannot get the help that they need. Indeed, the Children’s Society tells us that every year about 14,000 children aged 16 or 17 present themselves as homeless, and many are placed in inappropriate accommodation such as bed and breakfast and short-term lets.

Last year, about 3,400 16 or 17-year-olds left care and found themselves in need of accommodation. Soon-to-be-published Children’s Society research shows that more than two thirds of children assessed because of a risk of homelessness are not offered any help, and that a quarter of 16 to 17-year-olds assessed are housed in unsuitable accommodation after presenting themselves.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I, too, recognise the plight of young people leaving care. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that it should be Government policy to ban the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for such people.

According to Crisis, only 15% of Members of Parliament believe that people get proper support on homelessness; two thirds of MPs think that there should be clearer duties placed on local authorities to do more; and three quarters of MPs believe that it should be a priority for Government. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a specific and wider duty of care for homeless people needs to be placed on local authorities and that they should also have the resources they need to deliver a proper service?

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

I could not agree more, both about the inappropriateness of bed and breakfast accommodation for vulnerable young people—I will mention that later—and about the need to remove the two tiers in the system at the moment for those who are in priority need and those who are not. Experience in the rest of the United Kingdom shows that reform is possible. The mantra in this debate should be that nobody is turned away when they present themselves as homeless.

We know that the increase in the number of homeless young people is despite the fact that 16 and 17-year-olds are supposed to be protected by both the Children Act 1989 and the Housing Act 1988. Charity advocacy services say that they often have to help young people who are not given the adequate protection that this House has asked local authorities to provide under those statutes. It is not just charities saying that. The local government ombudsman says it, too, stating:

“The use of bed and breakfast accommodation often leads to families and young people living in cramped conditions and sharing facilities with adults who may be vulnerable or have significant social problems.”

Research, both from the Minister’s Department and from Crisis, has found that young people who experience homelessness are considerably more vulnerable as a group than other homeless people. They often first experienced homelessness at a very young age, with a third of young people surveyed having become homeless for the first time before the age of 15. Homelessness at a young age that is not resolved can lead to an ongoing cycle of homelessness, with a significant minority of all homeless people—four in ten—having first become homeless before the age of 20. It is critical that we prevent that cycle before it begins.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he recognise the experience of many hon. Members in dealing with homeless young people who have had a harsh experience of gatekeeping when approaching local authorities? In one example that I am still dealing with, we are now in the third calendar year of the local authority, Westminster, resisting an application regarding homelessness from a young man with psychosis, in the course of which we have had to go to court at least once. The total cost to the local authority of refusing to accept homelessness must vastly outweigh what would have been invested if that young man had been able to get a home in the first place.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

I am aware of the excellent work that the hon. Lady has done in campaigning on the issue in general and on the specific case that she mentions. I know that she has fought strongly for that individual’s right to access proper services. I think we are all aware that local authorities are the key gatekeeper in this process. The duty that this House puts on local authorities needs to be clear, and their pathways need to be certain to lead to help for the young people who approach them.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, National Policy Statements Sub-Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although ring-fencing is not something that we generally encourage, its removal had quite a significant effect in Northumberland, for example in the move from block-booking supported accommodation from providers to spot-purchase? That is difficult for charities such as Gallery Youth and Berwick Youth Project to cope with.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

My right hon. Friend is right. After the ring fence was removed by the previous Government, the impact was felt in Cornwall under the current Government because of the difficult decisions that they had to take to rebalance the books. Supporting People was one of the first areas of funding to be cut in Cornwall. I found myself sleeping outside county hall overnight, with a cohort of vulnerable people, in protest at that decision. I understand exactly the impact of the removal of the ring fence and the budget constraints on providing such vital services.

The point is not simply that the street is an unsafe and unsuitable place for young people. Most young people who present to statutory services as homeless do so because another strategy for coping with having no safe permanent place to live has broken down. The places young people sleep in an effort to stay off the street are often unsuitable for them as vulnerable individuals.

A third of young people Crisis spoke to during a survey admitted to committing a minor crime in the hope of being taken into custody for the night; 17% had avoided bail or committed an offence to receive custodial accommodation and therefore a bed for the night; almost 20% had attempted to admit themselves to accident and emergency departments to get a bed for the night; and, alarmingly, 10% had entered into a sexual relationship to get a bed for the night. These are not safe havens for young people: they put them in danger of further exploitation.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

Well done to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He is talking about vulnerable young people. Winchester Churches Nightshelter contacted me in advance of the debate and said that the complexity of its guests’ needs had significantly increased in recent years. Many referrals have a mental health issue, a substance abuse issue or both. Although many of the services are there, they are not working together to meet such complex needs. Does he agree that the next frontier in tackling homelessness among young people must be a national focus by the next Government, of whichever colour, on addressing multiple needs?

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We see a cohort presenting with complex needs that are often associated with substance abuse—whether that is alcohol or illicit drugs—mental health issues and, perhaps, abuse in the family background. As well as having a mantra of nobody being turned away, we have to get to grips with the fact that we need to provide joined-up services in a holistic way to deal with the underlying issues that people present with.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, which is timely and important. I apologise that I am unable to stay for the whole debate because of other commitments.

Within the hierarchy of needs that the hon. Gentleman describes, does he accept that a number of children coming out of care, or in circumstances in which their care arrangements have broken down, seem to fall off the scale altogether as far as the appropriate authorities are concerned? That needs addressing, too.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

The right hon. Gentleman puts an important point on the record. If the state is taking care of young people for a period of time for whatever reason, surely one of its first duties as a guardian is to ensure a smooth transition from the care setting to an environment in which they can flourish and look after themselves. For many, the process becomes a cliff edge when their care package runs out without ongoing support, placing them a position that means they are unable to manage their finances and understand the situation around them or their obligations. They do not have the ongoing support that they need to adapt in the way that someone with a family could. The right hon. Gentleman’s point is entirely right.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous in giving way. I, too, congratulate him on securing the debate. On his point about vulnerable children, does he agree that situations of domestic abuse and domestic violence, which might well result in children becoming more vulnerable, should be considered in relation to wider policies, whether in local government or support services?

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

The hon. Lady makes a perfectly valid point. Abuse can come in many forms, whether violent, sexual or psychological. Often, family breakdown has a lasting negative impact on people’s mental health. I have a constituent who was turned away by his family and booted out the door because he came out to them as gay. That had a devastating impact, and when he presented to Cornwall council as homeless and was unable to get any support, it felt like a double whammy. Ultimately, we were able to secure support for him, but the hon. Lady makes exactly the right point—many of the individuals who present as homeless have complex underlying needs. We do not do them or ourselves a favour if we do not address those needs.

The first place where many people present with complex needs is their local council. Councils are in a unique position to assist people, but when they fail to do so, people in need of help can be left with nowhere to go and their experience can quickly spiral deeper and deeper into chaotic homelessness. Evidence shows that while the number of young people accepted by local authorities as statutorily homeless is going down, the number of young people accessing homelessness services is increasing.

Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this exceptionally important debate. Does he agree that there is a risk that the figures he cites underplay the extent of the problem? I have a constituent who for immigration purposes has no recourse to public funds. Her baby daughter—the daughter of a British man who through violence is no longer part of that household—desperately needs adequate housing, yet the council takes the view that it is not obliged to meet the housing need of the mother or that little girl.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

My hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner on these issues for his constituents, and he makes exactly the right point. The official statistics belie the reality of the situation. We know the numbers presented by the Minister, the Department and third parties, such as Crisis, but we are all aware that the housing crisis is such that many thousands more people than the official figures suggest are in inappropriate or overcrowded accommodation or stuck at home in difficult relationships or sofa-surfing. Part of the answer, as I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, is getting on and building more homes, but it is also about making the pathways easier for those presenting as homeless.

One of the tragedies is that most single homeless people are not considered to be a priority by local authorities, meaning that the council has no legal duty to find them housing. Many are ignored and given little or no help. Crisis recently carried out a mystery shopper exercise called “Turned Away”, in which eight formerly homeless people visited 16 local authorities to examine the quality of advice and assistance provided to single homeless people. In well over half—50 of the 87 visits—the help offered was inadequate. In 29 cases, they were simply turned away without any help or the opportunity to speak to a housing adviser. That included situations where the mystery shoppers were portraying very vulnerable characters, such as a victim of domestic violence or a woman with serious mental health problems.

That is the result when single homeless people actually get in front of the local authority, but many can be deterred from approaching their local authority at all because of previous negative experiences or low expectations on the outcome. A third of single homeless people who had previously approached their local authority for help said that they did not do so during their most recent episode of homelessness because of the lack of help offered the first time round.

When homeless people do approach their council, the consequences of being turned away with no support can be disastrous. Many are left with no option but to sleep on the floors of friends and family, squat in abandoned buildings or, in the worst examples, sleep rough. That can lead to their falling into a situation where support needs and other issues develop, resulting in their being trapped in homelessness for far longer. We all know that rough sleeping is a traumatising experience that impacts hugely on an individual’s health and well-being. Mental and physical health problems can be exacerbated by rough sleeping. Homelessness is also dangerous, with homeless people 13 times more likely to be victims of crime than the general public. Indeed, the average age of death for someone sleeping rough is just 47, which is 30 years younger than the national average. Homelessness is also expensive. As well as the huge personal cost to individuals, the financial costs are significant. The annual cost of homelessness to the Exchequer is estimated to be £1 billion.

We need to take action now to ensure that homeless people get the help they need. The law creates a two-tier system, with one level for those in priority need who are owed the full homelessness duty by their local authority and another for those who are judged not to be owed that duty and can be turned away with little or no help. I want to see all parties in the House commit to carrying out a review of the support given to single people under homelessness legislation in England.

Over the years, Governments of all colours have tried to resolve the persistent problem of single homelessness, but the law has always held back progress. The devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales have taken different approaches. In Scotland, priority need has been abolished, meaning that all homeless people are entitled to accommodation. The Welsh Government have recently introduced a new duty for local authorities to take steps to prevent homelessness for anyone threatened with losing their home, regardless of their priority need status. That shows that reform is possible. The next UK Government should consider what lessons can be learned to reform the law in England.

As Alex Cunningham said, there is a lot of support for tackling homelessness—56% of the public agree that the Government should do more and 78% of MPs believe that tackling homelessness should be a priority. We regularly hear from colleagues in the Tea Room about the difficult experiences we all have in getting help for the very vulnerable people who approach us. Ms Buck made that point. Homelessness is a devastating experience that should not happen to anyone in the 21st century.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this extremely important issue to the House. A delegation from Youth Homelessness North East came to the House of Commons last week—Sir Alan Beith was in attendance—and we had an excellent meeting. The prime reason for youth homelessness is the parents being no longer willing to accommodate them. However, there are other important reasons: welfare reform; the bedroom tax; the extension of the shared accommodation rate; and sanctions. Those are all part of a welfare reform package, introduced by this Government, that has been devastating for young people in our communities. What will the Government do to row back from that and help the young people highlighted in this afternoon’s debate?

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the point he makes. I visited a project in Newcastle called Outlook, which helps to house homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youngsters who find themselves kicked out of their home when they come out, so I am aware of some of the very good work that happens in his part of the country. On welfare reform, my party and I have no truck with anybody who seeks to remove housing benefit from the under-25s. Difficult decisions have been necessary to rebalance the public finances, but such a measure would simply punish further a group of people who are often very vulnerable.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

There are some fantastic organisations such as St Mungo’s Broadway, which is based in my constituency. Another problem that needs to be dealt with is the lack of accommodation: move-on accommodation, first-stage accommodation, hostel accommodation, and permanent council accommodation. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s area of the country has problems as much as mine does, and such problems must be tackled by any incoming Government.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. He may be surprised to know that I have visited St Mungo’s Broadway in the past five years to see the very good work that it does in transiting people from rough sleeping into intensively supported accommodation, then making the transit to more independent living. As a project, it is an exemplar. The very good work that goes on his constituency should be commended.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. I am sure he will acknowledge that one of the things the Government have done to enable local authorities to discharge their homelessness duty is give local authorities a power to discharge that duty to the private sector, which has seen more people being housed.

The hon. Gentleman asked how many MPs want to tackle this scourge in our society. Is he aware of the story of the good Samaritan? When I walk into Parliament, I occasionally see people sleeping rough in the tube station. They are passed every day by hundreds of MPs. How many colleagues, like me, have seen them and phoned the “No Second Night Out” line to report them as homeless, and how many colleagues simply pass by on the other side, rather than take responsibility to try to help tackle the issue?

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Phoning the “No Second Night Out” scheme is something that we can all do—certainly in London—every time we somebody sleeping rough.

I have visited Centrepoint in London, St Mungo’s, Outlook and other projects around the country, and I know that, although Members of Parliament may not be putting out press releases and tweeting about their actions in this area, colleagues from all parties do a lot of good work in this area. The matter is urgent and we need to bring homelessness in the United Kingdom to an end, particularly homelessness among very vulnerable groups such as young people.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale 2:53, 21 January 2015

I thank Stephen Gilbert for securing this important debate. He made an excellent speech. That is not a compliment that I throw around lightly; I truly mean it. He made a great contribution on an exceptionally important issue.

It can often seem that modern politics is swamped by statistics, but some statistics really cut through and tell us something about modern Britain and the society in which we live. The current figures on the number of young homeless people fit that description. They tell us something about our society that we probably do not want to hear.

We live in one of the richest countries in the world—that is the reality—but last year more than 100,000 people approached their local council as homeless. We know that many of them are young single people with nowhere to turn and no one to rely on. Figures from the charity Homeless Link show that 53% of people using homeless services in England are between the ages of 16 and 25. That is a shocking percentage. For me there is only one word to describe the current situation: failure. I am sure all hon. Members would agree there is nothing that anyone could have done to bring homelessness upon themselves at the age of 16. When we see a young homeless person, it is a sign not of their failure but of our failure.

The main point I want to make is that we need to do more to prevent young people from becoming homeless in the first place. I want to pay tribute to the many organisations that help support young homeless people and keep them safe. In Rochdale, fantastic work is being done by Petrus, a charity that deals with young homeless people throughout the borough. Petrus is a real force for good. For example, it has been instrumental in helping young girls who have been at risk of on-street grooming in the town. In one case that I heard about, Petrus helped a girl who was described as “the most at-risk young person in Rochdale”. Petrus staff built trust with her, helped her realise she was being groomed and got her to a safe place out of town, but the work of Petrus goes far beyond simply keeping people safe. Its approach is to help young people rebuild their lives and give them opportunities to move on.

In another case, Petrus helped a young girl who was extremely vulnerable and difficult to deal with. Initially, it took her in for a weekend, but she ended up staying for a year. By the end of that year, the girl had become the only young person in the north-west to complete a work experience programme with AstraZeneca, which involved her travelling up to 90 miles to get to work. She progressed to such an extent that she even came here and spoke about her experience as part of the Youth Parliament. It is a really inspiring story and a testament to the fantastic work of the staff at Petrus.

However, even great charities such as Petrus are struggling to cope with the numbers of homeless people that we are seeing at the moment. Figures supplied to me by the charity Crisis show that in the financial year 2013-14 there were 927 households in Rochdale that made a homelessness application—nearly 1,000 in a small town like Rochdale. It is hard to believe. What is even harder to believe is the rate at which that figure is increasing.

Since 2010, the number of people in priority need in Rochdale has increased by 354%. More worrying is that the number of people found not to be in priority need has increased by 332%. I say it is more worrying because, as the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay pointed out, many of the people who are not in priority need are young people who then—literally—have to live their lives out on the street. They are single young homeless people. The fact that we have seen such a big increase recently is no coincidence. We have been through a recession, and that has had an effect, but we are now in recovery and still the number of homeless people keeps on rising. It is clear to me that the Government are simply not doing enough to address the causes of homelessness among young people.

Although the theme of the debate is Government support for young homeless people, my view is that the real problems start much earlier. What we need to focus on more is preventing young people from becoming homeless in the first place.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Shadow Minister (Education)

I agree with my hon. Friend about prevention. Along with the local authority in the Wigan borough, the “Hidden Voices” project has worked with young homeless people to produce a prevention pack for schools, which perhaps dispels some of the myths about how easy it is to live on the streets. Young homeless people can explain why they went on the street and how that can be avoided. Such projects need to be supported.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, not least because the voluntary sector is at the forefront of innovative solutions such as the one she described, which can dissuade people from becoming homeless or prevent homelessness from occurring. I, too, pay tribute to the organisation in Wigan that she mentioned.

Another key issue for Government action must be the housing crisis. It is no surprise that we have the lowest rate of house building since the 1920s and have seen a dramatic increase in the number of young homeless people —the two must surely be related. The lack of housing supply is causing house prices and rents to soar, often pricing young people out of the market completely. When combined with low pay and insecure work, that creates a lethal cocktail that leaves young people extremely vulnerable. When young people are left exposed in that way, a proper safety net to help them before they end up on the streets is vital.

Under the current Government, some of the structures to support and help young people have been dismantled, such as the local welfare assistance schemes. The money for those schemes was spent directly by local authorities to help the most vulnerable people in their areas, and it could come, for example, in the form of a crisis loan if there was an emergency situation such as a broken boiler or a leaking roof. The loans went to people who desperately needed help and were a real lifeline. Under those schemes, money was also given in community care grants and used to fund charities that work with vulnerable people, such as the Cripplegate Foundation in Islington, which works with marginalised people, including victims of domestic violence. Many of those young people are the most likely to become homeless, and the work done by such charities has been vital in preventing that.

The money for the welfare assistance schemes was clearly a lifeline for many people, but the Government have decided to cut it. At first, of course, they did not admit to cutting it. The Government tried to sneak out the news in the local government finance settlement in late December 2013. They did not get away with that and were challenged by local authorities and charities. Finally, the Government agreed to consult on their proposals for the welfare assistance fund, which I welcomed. The consultation found that if the funding were cut, 75% of local authorities would not be able to afford to fund the schemes from the core grant. Having heard that, and knowing how important the money is, we might have thought that the Government would continue to fund local welfare, but no; they have gone ahead and cut the money.

That is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that Ministers will still not admit that that is exactly what they are doing. Listening to the local government finance settlement in December, it sounded as though £130 million remained available, but that was only smoke and mirrors. The reality is that the money was cut. The £130 million mentioned was simply money that the Government have identified for local welfare, but they expect it to be found by local authorities from the core grant.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

I share the hon. Gentleman’s great concern about the cuts in the local welfare assistance schemes. I very much hope that there is time to achieve at least part of the budget for extra funds before the final announcement on the local government finance settlement. People should speak more about the fund and the excellent schemes that it is used on—it is the post of last resort, which is so important.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale

I am glad that the hon. Lady agrees with me, but the Government and Ministers whom she supports do not. They have not increased the budget; they have simply identified an amount of money, but it is not additional and is expected to come from the core grant. That is not acceptable, not least because the Government’s own consultation showed that 75% of local authorities could not afford to find the money should it be needed, which it clearly is because we have a dramatic increase in homelessness.

When the Minister speaks, I hope that he will admit that the money has been cut and take responsibility for the results of that decision. We know what the results will be: struggling people will not be helped; more young people will be abandoned; and, ultimately, more young people will be homeless on our streets.

To conclude, I make the following points. The figures about homeless people speak for themselves. Government policy has contributed to the situation, and we need a concerted effort from the Government to combat it. In previous years, we have seen successful Government initiatives such as the rough sleepers initiative. We need to find the determination to do that again.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I am glad that he mentioned London, where there has been a 77% increase in street homelessness under this Government, which is exactly because we do not have such initiatives any more and because deliberate Government policy has been not to build affordable housing or to provide the type of accommodation that young homeless people can live in.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale

I completely take on board that point. We cannot remove such support. The lender of last resort should be the Government, the state or local authorities. A raft of support is always needed at the 11th hour, at the worst point in a person’s life, but it is being taken away completely.

In the short term, steps can be taken. A simple one would be to reverse the cut in local welfare assistance and to allow councils to get support to vulnerable people before it is too late. Spending that small amount of money—£130 million is small in the scale of things—would help to prevent more money from having to be spent for a bigger cost further down the line. Most importantly, it would prevent thousands of young people from ending up on the streets, giving them a chance for a better life.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 3:06, 21 January 2015

First, may I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Stephen Gilbert, on securing the debate and on his excellent speech, which gave a comprehensive appraisal and thoroughly good analysis of the situation? I associate myself with the comments that he made about the wide range of organisations acting nationally to raise awareness about young homeless people and to provide a range of solutions and services to support them so ably.

I am, however, rather disappointed with the speech made by Simon Danczuk, who preceded me and introduced party politics. The young people who are watching the debate deserve something rather better from us. We should be making a determined effort to use the data in the Crisis report and other reports to be released shortly, such as the one from the Children’s Society, to work together to do something—

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I will make some progress before I take an intervention.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale

Will the hon. Lady give way, given that she made reference to me?

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

When I have made this particular point, I am happy to do so.

The Conservative party has a long tradition of campaigning on homelessness. In the 1970s, MPs Iain Macleod and William Shearman were in favour of the first legislation to be introduced to protect homeless people. My right hon. Friend Sir George Young introduced the rough sleepers initiative, which cut dramatically the numbers of people sleeping on our streets. More recently, Boris Johnson has made tackling rough sleeping in London a central part of his mayoralty.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I will give way when I have finished making this point.

As a Cornish MP, I have seen first hand the coalition Government deliver real improvements in services for homeless people. Before I was a Member of Parliament—I came into the House in 2010—for a great deal of my life I volunteered in charities looking after and seeking to help homeless people, whether in New York, where I lived in my 20s and ran a shelter for homeless men, or in my home town of Truro, where I volunteer with Truro Homeless Action Group and help with the excellent work of St Petroc’s Society.

Before I was elected, I participated in the rough sleeper counts. However, the guidance given by the Government of the day made it so difficult to count the number of homeless people that Cornwall was deemed to have a rough-sleeping population of two. Since the coalition came in and properly opened up the rough sleepers count, we have been getting much better data on the scale of the problem. Sadly, although it is no surprise to any of us who live there, Cornwall is now deemed to have the second largest homeless population outside London. Without that honest collection of data, we will never be able to take the steps needed to tackle these issues.

Those reforms were brought in by this Government, which underlines the fact the issue has all-party support. We all understand that nothing could be worse than being homeless. We may not always agree on every measure, or on how to tackle the issue, but turning it into a party political football does no service to the debate.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale

Let me be clear: before entering Parliament, I carried out research into homelessness issues for 10 or 12 years while I was working for The Big Issue in the North, and I suspect I have met more homeless people and visited more homeless projects than the hon. Lady has had hot dinners, so I know what I am talking about. Let me make it clear that I am all in favour of consensus, but the Government need to be judged on their record on dealing with homelessness, and that record is very poor. I am in favour of consensus, but if the Government fail on this issue, it is right and important that young people see the Opposition challenging that failure and helping to come up with solutions.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I am not going to lower the tone of the debate and further let down the young people who are watching it by responding to that personal attack. As I have said before, I have volunteered throughout my life on the issue of homelessness—I still volunteer now, and I am well into my 50s. I do not know how many hot dinners the hon. Gentleman has had, but it is silly and demeaning to start personally attacking hon. Members’ motivations. I am in no doubt that hon. Members from all parts of the political spectrum care deeply about homelessness and have been personally committed to dealing with it as volunteers or in other appropriate ways. I really want to carry on with the debate.

I am proud to stand on my record and on the record of what the Government have delivered to help homeless people in Cornwall and prevent homelessness there. One person sleeping rough in my constituency, one person sofa surfing or one person living in unacceptable accommodation is one too many, and I will continue day and night to do what I can, but there has been significant improvement. Once we had better data from the rough sleepers count, the money followed, and Cornwall council has received considerable sums, which have been fed into really good third sector organisations such as St Petroc’s and Glen Carne, voluntary organisations such as the Truro Homeless Action Group, the statutory sector and the NHS. I could speak for half an hour about the different activities that are going on to prevent homelessness and to help homeless people, so I will stand on my record.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I am going to make a little progress.

That is not to say that I am complacent or that much more does not need to be done. I very much welcome the Crisis report, and I support a lot of its recommendations. The ones I would like to discuss today build on the need for a better evidence base for local planners and those making housing decisions.

Under the Government’s planning reforms, each local authority must do a local housing need assessment to make sure its local plan meets the unmet housing need of the people it represents. Having gone through that process in great detail locally, I know that some groups of people, such as young homeless people who are sofa surfing, are difficult to pick up in the statistics used to form the local housing needs assessment. Assessments must be robust and data driven, using data from the Office for National Statistics and others, but it would be useful—this is one of the recommendations from Crisis—to look at the guidance given to local authorities as they plan their local housing needs assessment to make sure that those young homeless people are picked up on and that their needs are met.

Following the success of the “No Second Night Out project”, which has done very well in Cornwall, we have much more information about young people and people of other ages who are homeless, but we now need, as part of the planning process, to work out how we can build more appropriate housing for their needs. People have all sorts of complex needs—they may have mental health issues or substance abuse issues, or they may be fleeing domestic violence—and they need supported accommodation, and the Glen Carne charity in my constituency provides it so well.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

On data, the hon. Lady made specific reference to London. Since Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, rough sleeping has increased every year. In the summer of 2014, it was 19% higher than in the six months over the summer of 2013. Is the hon. Lady honestly saying that that year-on-year increase in rough sleeping is a consequence of better data? If so, what is the point of having better data and failing to do anything about it?

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Speaking from personal experience in my constituency, I can absolutely say yes. Now we have the tools to go out there and try to get as accurate a count as we can. We will then have a far better understanding of the underlying reasons why people—we are talking not just about numbers, but about people’s lives—are homeless so that we can put in place the appropriate services to help them into accommodation. The money follows the problem, and having those tools has brought extra resources into my constituency. It is vital that we carry on gathering data so that we can better plan to meet the needs of people who are currently homeless and prevent more people from becoming homeless.

The other recommendation from Crisis I would like the Minister seriously to consider is that we go back to local authorities to see how well the legislation we created in this place is implemented. A key finding of the Crisis report was that the legislation was not implemented consistently. Contained within that was another recommendation—that we come up with an inspection regime. We have done that very well with the Care Quality Commission, which we have asked to inspect providers of health and social care services. Given that a decent home is essential for people’s health and well-being, it would be a good idea to think about how we can extend the CQC’s remit so that it can inspect providers of housing for vulnerable groups and the sorts of accommodation we have heard about today, which take people off the street, providing accommodation that is often supervised in some way, as well as a package of care for a couple of years. That would be really good.

Associated with that, I would like it to become common practice for people in councils and organisations responsible for preventing homelessness and supporting homeless people to be part of health and wellbeing boards, because decent housing is important to health and well-being. Some local authorities have included such people on their health and wellbeing boards, but that is not common practice. Including people on those boards will really help those providing joined-up services locally to understand the complexity of the issues confronting people who face the prospect of homelessness or who are experiencing homelessness. It will also enable those providing services—whether social, housing or health services—to better meet the needs of the particularly vulnerable group we have been discussing.

I know that colleagues want to speak, so let me conclude by saying that the Government have made huge progress, and I have seen that in my constituency. However, I urge the Minister to take seriously the recommendations made by Crisis, which it presented in a non-party political way. We can then take them forward, review what is working, understand what is not working and bring in necessary reforms in the next Parliament.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 3:19, 21 January 2015

I shall speak fairly briefly, as I had not intended to speak in the debate. I congratulate Stephen Gilbert on securing it.

I want to focus on one factor that drives homelessness, based on my constituency experience. Sarah Newton was in search of political consensus, and in our debate in December the two sides of the House did reach some consensus on the way in which an increasingly harsh benefit sanctions regime is driving people into homelessness.

In the September recess I conducted a community consultation in my constituency. We had something like 63 meetings over three weeks. Individuals and voluntary, community and faith sector organisations working on homelessness raised the issue of benefits sanctions as a significant factor in their work. For example, the cathedral project in Sheffield works with homeless people sleeping on the streets, to get them back into society. On the back of offering a breakfast service, it attracts them in and builds a relationship. It offers support and training and helps people to secure accommodation. It has been successful with such intervention for many years. People from the project reported to me that as a result of the increased pressure from the DWP and the harsher regime of benefit sanctioning, those whom they had helped into accommodation were getting letters whose significance they did not understand, or, in many cases, that they could not read. That would lead to their missing an appointment, and immediately, with no warning—no amber light or signals—their benefits would be cut and they would be unable to maintain their accommodation. When they presented themselves at the DWP the response was, “Go along to the cathedral Archer project. They’ll feed you.” That has transformed the project from a charity that could make a strategic intervention to tackle homelessness into a crisis centre.

That approach to benefits sanctioning has been taken up by Sheffield Citizens Advice. Its social policy group conducted a survey over 12 months and produced a report in May on the experience of JSA sanctions. I want to make it clear that I do not oppose sanctions in principle. Used appropriately and benignly they play a constructive role in encouraging people into work and providing a disincentive to the behaviour of those who do not co-operate with the system. The problem is that they are not being used benignly. To be effective, a sanctions regime must be humane. The report from Sheffield Citizens Advice showed that the system is neither humane nor effective in its avowed purpose of getting people into work and enabling them to afford accommodation.

I was presented with examples from its survey. One person, called Alan, was given a four-week sanction for not actively seeking work. He had limited literacy and numeracy skills and thought it important, so that he could get into work, to enrol on the English and maths course that was offered. He was on it for eight weeks, and thought that because he was on the course provided he did not have to sign on. He failed; he was not given a warning. He was immediately sanctioned.

Tony was vulnerable because of learning challenges and dyslexia. He cannot read or write. Despite getting significant support in looking for work from a local job club, he was sanctioned for not doing enough about his jobseeking. How did the DWP tell Tony that he was not doing enough? It sent him a letter, knowing—because it was on his records—that he could not read. Because he could not read the letter he was sent, he was immediately sanctioned.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, National Policy Statements Sub-Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

A similar example happened to a young person in my constituency. He did not have a mobile phone but was required to give a mobile phone number. He gave his girlfriend’s mobile phone number and was sanctioned because that was not considered adequate.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure we could all cite similar examples from our constituency case load. The question is why we have such a punitive sanction regime. I was out fairly recently knocking on doors, as many hon. Members have been doing lately, and I talked to a constituent who is a jobcentre worker. We discussed her work, and she told me that she and her colleagues were under pressure to impose sanctions and hit targets. In a survey of Public and Commercial Services Union workers representing jobcentre workers, 23% said that they had been given explicit targets for referring claimants for sanctions; 36% said they had been placed on a performance improvement plan for not making enough sanctions; and 10% had gone through poor performance procedures for not making enough sanction referrals.

The Government have said that there is no pressure to sanction, but somehow a culture has been created in the DWP that suggests otherwise. The DWP acknowledges that statistics on sanctions are collated centrally and that managers can be contacted if their performance is out of line with that of other job centres. It says that that is a matter of good management and that no league tables are compiled, or targets set. In that case, why is a lower level of sanctions seen as an indication of poor performance, requiring managerial action? We need to recognise the impact of the DWP benefits sanction regime, which is driving up homelessness. I ask the Minister to commit to talk to DWP colleagues about that.

Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham 3:27, 21 January 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Gilbert on securing this debate on a policy area in which he has developed extensive expertise, both while in Parliament and previously. I have great admiration for that.

I am not a housing policy expert, unlike other hon. Members who have spoken. I am a generalist, but like others I have the ability to do something that is at the heart of an MP’s job as a representative: to tell my constituents’ stories to people in power in Parliament, who can do something about them. I mentioned in an intervention a terrible case of housing need, affecting a woman and her family, which not only the council but Government policy refuse to address. I think that beneath that, ultimately, is the desire to create a hostile environment, so as to achieve other policy objectives. However, I want to bring to the debate the stories of three working men: family men in full-time permanent employment, whose families are under all sorts of pressures. Such situations are generally multi-factorial; there is not just one thing to be fixed, to make things right.

The families involved are at risk of being totally undermined by their housing need. That is an important point. House building is often not very popular with some of my constituents and there is great scepticism among them about whether house building will, of itself, serve the housing need in their communities. However, much of the housing need is not visible to them in the way it is to Members of Parliament, who have the privilege of coming to an appreciation of it in our constituency surgeries.

The housing need of the men whose situations I will discuss is well hidden; as I hope to explain through their cases, failure to address it could ultimately generate greater housing need. We are told that family breakdown is one of the causes of increased household formation, which is a major factor driving the need for housing. Although it might not be as easy to consider that issue when debating housing as it is to scapegoat groups of people or blame immigration policy, it is a very real factor in the housing need of our society, and so I hope to shine a light on it briefly this afternoon.

The first case I want to tell hon. Members about is that of a man with a family of seven, with an eighth child who is now at university and so no longer in the household but who is still being supported as well. He is a working man with a full-time permanent job who has been supporting his family. The man was in a private let, with no need for support from the Government, supporting his family and working hard to provide their standard of living. But when that private let came to an end, as the landlord exercised their right to put their investments elsewhere, the man found it impossible to find another for a family of his size.

For the first time, therefore, the man turned to the public sector for support through social housing; private landlords refused to take a family of that size because of concerns about wear and tear on their properties. He managed to get some social housing in Chippenham, but what he got for his family of seven was a two-bedroom flat. They are suffering from chronic overcrowding, and it is proving incredibly difficult to meet their housing need. We all know that if that family were not to stay together great priority would be given to meeting their new housing need, but as long as he keeps his job and they stay together, it is difficult for them to receive the housing that they need to live together as a family.

The next working man whose story I want to tell is a single father who is sharing an open-plan studio flat—although frankly I cannot quite tell what the difference is between that and a bedsit—with his 15-year-old daughter. Given the layout of the flat, he does his best to provide her with some privacy, but it is difficult for the pair of them to share it. It is a private let, and he has a good relationship with the landlord, who does what can be done to make the home affordable.

The truth of the matter is that that family need somewhere bigger, but because the father has to meet debt repayments—repayments that he has been keeping up, on a reasonable loan with a respectable lender—he is not able to afford the housing that they need; nor is he eligible for any help. It is incredibly important to him that his daughter should be able to live with him, but we know that if that family were to break up and she were to live with someone else or seek independent support for housing, she would be a greater priority than if the pair of them were to continue, as is their choice, to live together as a family. By failing to meet his need we not only risk the future of that family unit but could create greater demands for help with housing.

The final story I wish to share is altogether more complicated and illustrates how vulnerable people with housing needs can be refused help because of the complexity of their circumstances. A professional working man came to see me. He and his partner are going through child protection processes because he is a victim of domestic violence from her, and, although as I understand it, she has never caused any harm to the children in the household, she has been told that she cannot stay overnight in the family home in the interests of protecting the children. If the children are not to be taken into care, she can no longer use her home and so is homeless.

That woman grew up with learning difficulties and suffers serious mental illness. Of course, the children in that family should be protected. However, she is a vulnerable person who needs help. Instead, the action of one department of the council has created a situation in which she has been forced out of her home. She has been forced to sleep on the sofas of friends and relatives. She has no entitlement to support with her housing need and has been denied any because technically she has a home, even though the council has made it impossible for her to live in it.

These are the difficult and hidden stories of my constituents and the housing needs they have in the otherwise delightful part of Wiltshire in which we have the privilege to live. Those stories illustrate the housing need that we, as a society, have to address. They also illustrate—I hope the Minister will grapple with this challenge—the need to take preventive action on homelessness, so that we do not find ourselves meeting the much greater costs of dealing with the crises and the further housing need that follow family breakdown. Unless we can face up to those difficult challenges, we will find an even greater task ahead of us.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Housing) 3:36, 21 January 2015

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Stephen Gilbert on securing this debate and giving us all the chance to discuss this important issue.

Many hon. Members have spoken of their own personal experiences, including volunteering. The hon. Gentleman gave a good opening speech, in which he pointed out that he had been in a pretty desperate situation himself, doing what is called sofa-surfing, something that sounds better than it is—it is a stressful situation for anyone, as it is just one step away from becoming a rough sleeper.

Today’s debate is about Government support for young people who are homeless, but I want to start by putting on the record my tribute and thanks to the many charitable organisations that do such important work on this issue. Some have representatives here today. Since I became shadow Housing Minister, I have had a lot help, support and advice from Crisis. Its No One Turned Away campaign is one that we have all read about and, I am sure, are all passionate about. I also pay tribute to Centrepoint, St Mungo’s Broadway, Depaul, YMCA, Shelter, Homeless Link and countless others.

In my constituency and hometown of Wolverhampton there are small local charities such as P3, Home Group Stonham, the RMC—Refugee and Migrant Centre—TLC college and the Haven. Churches all round the country also help people, through soup kitchens and also, sometimes, by providing shelter. Only yesterday, in Bedford, I visited the YMCA Beds for All home, which provides housing and support for homeless people of a variety of ages who have just come out of hospital. It was tremendous to see the work that the YMCA is doing to help those people turn their lives around.

My hon. Friend Simon Danczuk pointed out that we are one of the richest countries in the world. That is why it is so incredibly tragic and unacceptable that homelessness is with us. We talk about the numbers, but in my opinion one homeless person is one too many. I am sure that homelessness must be a terrifying experience for anybody, but it is particularly so for young people. The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint estimates that as many as 80,000 young people in the UK experience homelessness of some kind every year. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay highlighted, according to research by Crisis, half of all homeless people first became homeless under the age of 21. The majority of those who, unfortunately, first experience homelessness at such a young age face that experience again and again because they cannot get the help they need.

When a person has a number of complex problems, it can take only one thing to tip them into homelessness. When I visited a Crisis at Christmas centre over the Christmas period, I was reminded of that. I asked one of the volunteer chefs, “Why do you give up 10 days of your time during the Christmas period, when there is family pressure on you to be at home, to do what you are doing here?” He said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That was a stark reminder that it is all too easy for people to reach that tipping point and find themselves in such a situation.

Many hon. Members have already pointed out that many young people are driven to homelessness by a dispute at home or by their families kicking them out. The dispute might be due to overcrowding in the family home, as Duncan Hames said, or because the young person or someone in their family has a new or existing mental health problem. All sorts of issues contribute to those tragic situations. If the young person does not have family support, which is vital, although many of us take it for granted, it is all too easy for them to enter a downward spiral.

As many hon. Members have said, young homeless people are much more vulnerable than the rest of the homeless population. Shockingly, two in five have experienced abuse at home and a third have been in care. There are also wider structural causes, such as a lack of affordable housing, the housing crisis, extreme poverty, unemployment and worklessness.

I am proud of the previous Labour Government’s record. We were determined to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness, and during our period in office there was a 70% drop in the numbers. We launched the flagship Supporting People programme, created the rough sleepers unit to reduce rough sleeping, and dramatically reduced the number of people and families in long-term bed-and-breakfast accommodation. When we left office there was still more to do, but I fear that since 2010, for a number of reasons, that progress has been rolled back.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale said, we have had a deep recession, but apparently we are in a recovery and the economy is growing. However, the number of people who are homeless and sleeping rough has continued to rise. Data from the Combined Homeless and Information Network, or CHAIN—a recording system for the homelessness charity St Mungo’s Broadway —show that 762 people found sleeping on the streets of London last year were under 25, which was a big increase on the 436 it found in 2009-10. For every person on the street, there are thousands without a decent, secure home.

I welcome the Government’s “No Second Night Out” initiative, which builds on some of the things we did in government, but I am afraid that some of their broader actions have made things much harder for young people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that not one speaker from the Government parties has mentioned welfare reform, which is having an impact on homelessness? Not one of them has talked about the bedroom tax, sanctions or the other things that we have mentioned. We are entitled to disagree about whether this is a political issue, but Sarah Newton suggested that we were lowering the tone of the debate by talking about politics. Politics is about choice, and politicians of all political persuasions are entitled to challenge other politicians. The political decisions that have been made are causing mayhem for young homeless people.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Housing)

And it is the responsibility of the official Opposition to hold the Government to account.

Although we welcome the Government’s “No Second Night Out” initiative, the overall framework within which we are working is worse than it was when we left office. We have had the bedroom tax and the housing crisis—the number of houses being built is the lowest in peacetime since the 1920s. Lower numbers of affordable homes are being built—in particular, homes for social rent, on which many people on low incomes rely. I am concerned about the worrying rise in the use of benefit sanctions, about which my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield spoke eloquently. The Government deny it, but it seems that jobcentres have unofficial targets for sanctions. In many cases, as has been highlighted, it is being done unfairly and is causing hardship.

Councils such as Wolverhampton, Newcastle, Rochdale and Sheffield are facing the biggest local government cuts in the country, especially compared with wealthier areas. My hon. Friend Ian Lavery is right that political choices have been made. Unfortunately, the Government’s political choices have made the situation worse.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I agree that we must situate this problem among a raft of policies. There is an association between homelessness and drug problems. We have discovered that last year, as a result of the cuts to the work being done with drug users, there was a 30% increase in deaths associated with drugs.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Housing)

That is truly worrying. Many of these problems are connected with substance misuse and mental health problems. Young people, in particular, must have much earlier access to help. That could be help with fighting an addiction or with mental health problems that sometimes become apparent only in people’s later teenage years, their 20s or further on in their lives.

It is important that the next Government—I hope they are a Labour Government—get the framework right. We have got to build more homes and, crucially, more affordable homes. We are going to abolish the bedroom tax and make renting in the private rental sector much more secure and stable, because at the moment tenants are not getting a good deal. We are one of the richest countries in the world, so it is unacceptable that we have such a high level of homelessness, especially among our vulnerable young people. The next Labour Government will tackle the tragic phenomenon of youth homelessness. We will take the concerted action across government that is desperately needed to get those people the help they need.

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 3:48, 21 January 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Stephen Gilbert for securing such an important debate.

I recognise many of the issues that hon. Members have raised, which is why tackling homelessness and rough sleeping is a key priority for the Government. I have no doubt that being homeless affects every aspect of a person’s life. I do not want to see anybody in the frightening, difficult and challenging situation that my hon. Friend described, particularly because many of the individuals affected are extremely vulnerable.

I understand and share my hon. Friend’s ambition to eradicate homelessness altogether. However, a crisis in an individual’s life can happen at any time. The key things are preventing homelessness and helping individuals who find themselves in that situation. Whichever Government are in power, they can put significant resource into dealing with the issue, and I should put on record that we have put half a billion pounds into tackling homelessness and an additional £445 million into addressing some of the welfare reform issues involved. However, many of the key interventions are undertaken by charities such as Crisis and others, and the vast majority of the work is undertaken by local authorities, which do an enormous amount, and I want to pay tribute to the individuals involved. That half a billion pounds has prevented almost 700,000 households from becoming homeless since 2010, so a significant amount of prevention work is going on. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that Cornwall has intervened for 5,000 households and supported those individuals, and I applaud its efforts to look after people who have found themselves in that difficult situation.

We should recognise that despite the tough set of economic circumstances, statutory homelessness is now lower than in 27 of the past 30 years, which is a significant change. However, the Government want to make sure that there is a strong safety net; it is particularly important that families and vulnerable individuals should have a house to live in. We have made sure that when particular authorities have been struggling to keep within the law as far as the six-week window on bed and breakfast accommodation is concerned, we have put additional money in to be able to intervene for those authorities. By working with them and with their peer councils, we reduced the number of such instances by 96% by December 2013. Those really high levels of reduction have continued in the years since.

The issue of housing supply was raised, and that could be a political matter—I recognise this is a political arena—but we should recognise that housing supply has not kept up with demand for many decades. Coming out of a recession, it is not just about pressing a button and getting housing going again. We need to have the skill set, the resource and the confidence in the market needed to build houses, and we have to make sure that councils have sufficient land to be able to do so.

However, I want to put on record the fact that 217,000 affordable homes have been built since April 2010, involving £19.5 billion of public and private moneys. The affordable homes programme will deliver 170,000 houses by March this year, and a further project to deliver 275,000 houses with £38 billion of public and private money is en route.

There are two interesting results: first, we have built more affordable homes than were built during any equivalent period in the past 20 years. Although I recognise that all Governments have struggled to deliver affordable homes, we are building a significant number. Secondly, more council homes have been built in the lifetime of this Government than in the 13 years of the previous Administration.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Housing)

Will the Minister recognise that the number of homes built for social rent fell last year to its lowest level in 20 years, and also that the Government have changed their definition of affordability to 80% of market rent?

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Lots of houses are needed in lots of different formats. The reality is that the houses are being built, and as I said, the number of affordable houses being built is greater now than at any period in the past 20 years. I reiterate the point that I have just made: this Administration have delivered more council houses in their period in government than were delivered in the 13 years of the previous Government.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

It is, of course, worth having a debate about what the coalition has achieved over the past five years, but more crucially, I ask the Minister to consider two questions. First, will he issue stronger guidance to local authorities about the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for younger homeless people? Secondly, will he commit to having a review of the differentiation between priority need and non-priority need, which sees so many people slip through the net, as my hon. Friend Duncan Hames indicated earlier?

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I have already written to local authorities regarding B and B accommodation. I will continue to do so—not only about B and Bs, but about the standard of accommodation that is out there. When people use public moneys, particularly for private accommodation, I expect them to make sure that the standard of housing is appropriate.

I want to read out some of the points relating to the review, for the simple reason that I chair a joint ministerial group, and we will publish a report shortly and call for evidence from lots of different organisations. There is an opportunity for that review and report to be brought together, so the next Government—of whichever kind, and I hope they are a Conservative majority Government —have a powerful piece of evidence. As my hon. Friend Sarah Newton said, it is important to gather evidence to make determinations about how we spend our resource. The report will provide a substantial amount of evidence based on which a future Government can make choices.

We have recently announced the £8 million “Help for Single Homeless” fund. Thirty-four local authority partnerships have received that money, which will support some 22,000 people. The issue of complex needs was raised by several Members. We are working with Crisis and have provided it with some £14 million. With the support of its access to the private rented sector in particular, we hope to help some 10,000 single homeless people address and sustain private rented accommodation by 2016, and to help an impressive 90% of those sustain that accommodation for more than six months. It is important to ensure that people have a certain period of time in accommodation, not just a few weeks, so that it becomes a home. It is important that we put money into that.

The work of StreetLink has been recognised. It is an extremely powerful tool that every citizen can contribute to, and it has now helped more than 21,000 rough sleepers. My hon. Friend Jake Berry mentioned the issue of people walking on the other side of the street and ignoring the individual concerned. My experience is that some people do not know what to do to help them, and now they have a tool to do so. If they see somebody and want to intervene, they can, and a local resource will be used to ensure that people do not spend a second night out there. That is a really important way for the citizen to participate.

I have lots more statistics here, but Members raised some really important points, and I want to go through them quickly. I would appreciate it if Paul Blomfield dropped me a note about the guy who could not read, and I would like to challenge colleagues on that. I know that Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions have made some changes in the rules relating to sanctions, but I meet Ministers from that Department frequently, and I would like to take those examples, challenge what is going on and make sure that we get the system right and appropriate.

On the point about local authorities’ work being variable, some excellent authorities are doing some great work, but some are placing individuals in accommodation that is not appropriate. There is a gold standard, and we have put £2.3 million into ensuring that there are decent homes. If a local authority is not placing people in appropriate accommodation, we will challenge it.

I want to challenge some of the figures that my friend Simon Danczuk—he is a friend—gave.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

Why has the Minister not mentioned once—nor has any Government Member—the impact that welfare reform is having on homeless people? Listen to the homeless people in every—

Photo of Kris Hopkins Kris Hopkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I would like to have time to respond. I did mention right at the beginning the amount of money we are putting in.

On what the hon. Member for Rochdale said, I did not sneak anything out—I am 6-foot-6 and 18 stone. If he looks through Hansard, he will find that I said that there is no more money and we are doing a consultation.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for securing the debate, and I am more than willing to answer any other comments and questions that friends from around the House have raised.