Local Housing Allowance and Homelessness — [Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:33 am on 24th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 10:33 am, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Sharma on securing this important and timely debate and on spelling out the reality for so many of our people. I also congratulate him on the 12th anniversary of his election to Parliament yesterday, which we were pleased to celebrate last evening.

As my hon. Friend said, we know that rough sleeping in London has hit a record high with an 18% rise on last year, but it is not limited to London. Since 2010, when the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition Government came to power, rough sleeping has more than doubled across England, and there is no one reason for that. There are ways that it could have been prevented, but successive Governments since 2010 seem to have been content to allow the numbers to escalate. Even when they have admitted that there is an issue, the Government have failed to act. Two Prime Ministers have seen the numbers grow on their watch. I wonder what the new one, due to be installed later today, will make of such a terrible legacy and what he will do to sort it out.

Our Governments and Prime Ministers have been too preoccupied with Brexit and internal warring, meaning that people across this country have been let down and forced on to the streets because they simply have no other option. It is not that the Government do not know what is happening to people who are being made homeless. Ministers are quite happy to turn up and spout at events like the recent one hosted by Crisis, but we know that for all their rhetoric and plans, rough sleeping has dropped by less than 2% in the past year. If it is to be eradicated, at that rate it will take 50 years to sort it out, so I am left with no other conclusion than to ask whether they simply do not care enough to act.

Let us look at what the Conservatives have done—the decimation of social housing up and down the country over recent years, a failure to build the social housing needed, and the erosion of the welfare state. Such failures have been major factors in generating a worrying rise in homelessness, and it is across the piece. Jim Shannon is always in his place speaking up for the people of Northern Ireland. He made it very clear that the crisis here in the UK is reflected in Northern Ireland, too, and it is families that suffer as a result.

There is ultimately one root cause that must be tackled if we are serious about ending homelessness. We need to increase the availability and affordability of housing. Stable and secure homes will give people the best chance of moving on from homelessness, or preventing it altogether. Unfortunately, we are in a position where having housing for every person is seen as an ambitious goal when it should be the standard and the bare minimum. The Government have moved the goalposts of what is seen as reasonable and turned adequate housing for all into the unachievable.

We know that many people live on low incomes. A person could work 40 hours a week on the minimum wage and not be able to afford the cost of renting privately in some places in this country, especially if they have children. We should not have a race to the bottom where only those with higher incomes can afford adequate housing. Those on lower incomes deserve secure, decent living conditions with affordable rents, but that is not the situation in Westminster North, as my hon. Friend Ms Buck said. Not a single home is available for low-income families and we have the lamentable situation where former council homes are now out of reach of the poorest people because of rents of as much as £500 a week.

On the need for social housing, Andrew Selous spoke of the need to build more homes more quickly. He talked about energy-efficient and bill-free homes, and he is entirely correct about that—no doubt about that—but the Government have built fewer than 7,000 new homes provided at social rent in England in 2017-2018, when what we need is 90,000 each year for the next 15 years just to tackle the backlog of housing need. People are being forced to turn to private rented housing. Although some positive moves have been made regarding tenant fees, affordability is still a major problem, even if people can find a property in the first place.

My hon. Friend Dr Drew spoke of private landlords refusing to take people on benefits. What does the Minister have to say about that? Is he surprised that private landlords are not always accommodating and understanding when their tenants are late with their rent payments? The reality is that families are being evicted because they cannot keep up with rent payments, and they enter undesirable living arrangements—sleeping on the floors of other family members, at best, and sleeping in cars and on the streets. We have heard other examples as well. Often it means that families are split up, leading to more pain and suffering.

Research from Crisis—we have heard much about its research—and the Chartered Institute of Housing has shown that cuts to local housing allowance rates mean that in 92% of areas in Great Britain, single people and couples or small families who need local housing allowance to pay their rent will struggle to find somewhere to live that they can actually afford. Until social housing can meet demand, people on low incomes must be able to find secure and stable housing in the private rented sector. Shelter has said that targeted affordability funding is not alleviating the problem. The top-up grant for areas most affected by the freeze in local housing allowance—just a 3% increase—has not worked.