Homeless Young People — [John Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 21st January 2015.

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

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.