Homeless Young People — [John Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:27 pm on 21st January 2015.

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Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham 3:27 pm, 21st 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.