Christmas Adjournment — [David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:57 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 1:57 pm, 20th December 2018

Thank you, Mr Hanson. I was expecting to come a little further down the list, but I am delighted to be called so early.

It is something of a relief to be attending a debate with time for issues other than the B word—although we are all mentioning it. Although Brexit has been all-consuming of the Government’s time, energy and actions, the day-to-day reality for my constituents and those outside the Westminster bubble is quite different. There are 130,000 children who will wake up on Christmas morning without a permanent place to call home. My local accident and emergency unit is so full that my constituents have been left queuing outside it in the cold. The pressure on our police means that antisocial behaviour is running rife in my local town centre—an area crying out for more bobbies on the beat. Although the Government have found billions of pounds for contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit, our vital public services teeter ever closer to breaking point.

I want to use my time today to bring to hon. Members’ attention three of the issues most important to my constituents. Let me start with housing. A year ago to the day, I spoke in this debate about the homelessness crisis across the country. I have reread my speech, and it is disheartening that every single word is still applicable one year on. In fact, if anything, the situation is now worse. Some 80,000 households across England will spend this Christmas trapped in temporary accommodation. Last year, I brought to Parliament’s attention the 86 homeless families in my constituency housed in a converted warehouse in the heart of one of south London’s busiest working industrial estates. One year on, many of those families are preparing for yet another Christmas in that so-called temporary limbo. They do not have the facilities to cook a Christmas dinner. They have no space for a Christmas tree, with families of up to five people sharing a single room, and there is little chance of presents, with every penny possible set aside to save for the extortionate deposit that may one day provide the golden ticket needed for the private rented sector. How many more families must be trapped in this limbo before the Government make absolute priorities of tackling homelessness and building the social housing and genuinely affordable homes for which we are so desperate?

The second issue is universal credit, which has been at the forefront of debate over recent months. For my constituents, the botched roll-out of the supposed flagship reform of the benefits system has undoubtedly caused chaos and misery. Take my constituent Mrs D, who wrote to me earlier this week and said:

“Universal credit has been a complete shambles for my family. We’ve explained to the children that Santa won’t deliver much this year and that there won’t be a Christmas dinner. Universal credit doesn’t make work pay, it puts you in debt.”

Another constituent of mine, Mrs L, was made redundant last year after 10 years working as a school administrator. Since January, she has worked on an agency basis for an employment agency. Universal credit assesses a person’s circumstances within a set monthly assessment period, however, so the dates of their universal credit claim and monthly pay packet are of paramount importance. For Mrs L, that has proven to be a nightmare. She anticipated a payment on 22 November, but was not paid until 18 December and, for the first time in her whole working life, she finds herself in rent arrears. She is now so worried about the irregularity of her payments that she questions whether it is in her financial interest to work for the agency. That makes a mockery of the idea that the system helps people to get into work. How much longer will the Government stand idly by while the least well-off continue to fall through the broken net of universal credit?

I will use my remaining time on a more positive note, to highlight a quite different organisation in my constituency, which is changing the lives of so many young, vulnerable constituents. The WISH Centre is a charity that prevents self-harm, and offers a community-based model that provides therapy and counselling in schools and at the centre. Over recent months, the Centre for Mental Health conducted an evaluation of the WISH Centre. The results were outstanding and worthy of being brought to the attention of the Chamber.

The report found that an extraordinary 81% of young people who have been helped by the WISH Centre have either significantly reduced their self-harm, or have stopped altogether. The young people themselves describe the project as holistic; it focuses on their strengths and builds resilience at each individual’s own pace. The report highlights the relief brought to sufferers, parents, carers and teachers, and evidences cost savings in both mental health and school budgets. Its recommendation is clear: the WISH approach should be introduced by clinical commissioning groups and authorities across England. Fortunately, the WISH Centre is actively looking to share its methodologies more widely, and I will happily introduce any hon. or right hon. Member to the scheme, if they would like more information.

With the Government trapped in Brexit turmoil, I sincerely hope that the Christmas period will bring them time to reflect on the day-to-day reality of those who I have described.

“People just walk past us and they are supposed to be going into that building to change the world that we live in.”

Those are the words of Jamie Leigh, who has been sleeping rough outside the gates of the Parliamentary Estate. I sincerely hope that the Government offer her more hope in 2019.