Winter Homelessness Support

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 16th December 2020.

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Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 4:30 pm, 16th December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered support for the homeless during the winter months.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I am grateful that I have been able to secure this debate to discuss support for the homeless as we head into Christmas and the winter months. I am delighted that so many hon. Members are keen to take part in the debate and represent their constituents’ concerns. I hope that I speak for us all, no matter what our political affiliation, when I say that we want the issues of rough sleeping and homelessness to be solved. We all aspire to the same end goal—to see homelessness assigned to the history books.

I am extremely proud that one of the Government’s main priorities is to end rough sleeping by 2024. As hon. Members will be aware, the issues surrounding rough sleeping and homelessness are acute in central London, and particularly in my constituency. We need only step outside this building to witness the problems, and the scale of the challenge that we face. I receive regular correspondence from businesses and residents who are concerned for the welfare of rough sleepers, so today I want to focus my concern on the first stages of supporting those who sleep rough on the streets into a bed and the right support environment. Other colleagues may want to discuss later stages of the journey, such as moving individuals into settled accommodation, but for me and my constituents the major concern is to support people off the streets in the first place.

It is important that we understand the different cohorts of rough sleepers on the streets. Today I am speaking specifically about Westminster, which has more rough sleepers than any borough in the country. The latest overnight count in Westminster took place in November. It provided a snapshot of the night-time street population. On count night, Westminster found 242 people sleeping rough. Of those, just under half were UK or Irish nationals. The rest represented a wide range of nationalities, but substantially the remainder were eastern European. Beyond nationality there are many underlying causes for people finding themselves on the street.

From my previous experience of being responsible for rough sleeping policy in Westminster, and my long association with charities such as St Mungo’s and The Passage, there are generally three main cohorts of rough sleepers in Westminster. First, there are those suffering with acute mental health or addiction issues. They are often mistrustful of the support that is offered, having been let down by society throughout their life, and refuse to engage with outreach teams. The second cohort is economic migrants, who may choose to sleep outside or in a tent in order to save their earnings, which they send back to their families. They often have no recourse to public funds, owing to their nationality, so help from local authorities eludes them anyway. The third cohort is those who are suffering at the hands of gangmasters as modern-day slaves. Some will have been brought here against their will to beg, to be forced into prostitution or to commit crime. Many are brought here under false pretences with promises of accommodation, only for that not to materialise.

Allow me to outline what support I believe should be considered if we are to end rough sleeping for good. First, for those suffering from mental health and addiction issues the answer is clear. We need to offer greater social care and specialist medical support alongside the safety of a bed. I am proud that Westminster City Council has more than 400 beds for rough sleepers on any given night. However, I have spoken in depth with the council and the charities involved, and it is now clear to me that what is needed is sustained and long-term support, attached to that bed—an addiction counsellor, psychiatric help and medical support for those who have suffered after years of sleeping rough.

The current pandemic has shown that when central and local government works together, much can be achieved. During the first lockdown, the Everyone In strategy saw 90% of those on the street brought in. With integrated services available, many accepted the mental health and addiction help provided as part of the covid-19 support. A bed is one thing, but without the support services attached, it will not change much for those in desperate need.

I am therefore delighted that the Government clearly understand the importance of tackling mental health and addiction. The extra help for rough sleepers with dependency issues announced this week, including £1.1 million to Westminster for addiction support, clearly shows that Ministers now understand the importance of tackling the causes—why so many find themselves on the street. If we are to end rough sleeping, however, that funding must continue. Tackling the causes of rough sleeping takes long-term, sustainable funding.

Secondly, if the Government are to achieve their goal of ending rough sleeping, they must also repeal the Vagrancy Act. Much has been spoken about repealing that out-of-date legislation, but it is now time for action. The Vagrancy Act, passed in 1824, is simply not fit for purpose. It fails to address the acute 21st-century problems that public sector agencies and charities work tirelessly to deal with among the street population.

Rather than seek to help those on the street, the Vagrancy Act criminalises them. Sadly, in some desperate cases, the Vagrancy Act is the last resort to take people off the street and into the support that they need, albeit that requires police intervention. In place of the Act, I would like to see legislation that allows for assertive outreach that puts protection, not criminality, at its heart. So many on the street present with complex needs and do not have the mental health capacity to make the decision, for their own wellbeing, to accept the help on offer.

Does the woman sleeping in an underpass not far from here, with maggots growing out of her leg but consistently refusing help to come inside, really have the mental capacity? Has the time come to overhaul the mental health threshold for those on the street, to allow outreach workers to make the decision on their behalf? The alternative is the status quo, which allows people to remain on the street, failing to address their serious mental health problems. I am not a great believer in state intervention, but were my son or daughter on the street with serious addiction or mental health problems, I would want to know that society has the levers available to make the decision for them, for their own wellbeing, and possibly to save their life.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I recall sitting outside Charing Cross station watching a guy drink water from a puddle like a dog, and up to several thousand people passed him before anyone did anything about it. Likewise, kids in the summer have a bit of a party and take loads of drugs, but the weather changes and they are addicted. They need to be got off the streets before what started as a party ends as a nightmare. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

As I want to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak in this debate, I do not have time to go into the detail that discussion of the other issues faced by economic migrants and modern-day slaves who find themselves on the street would deserve, but I will turn to them briefly. Their issues are as complex as those of people dealing with health and addiction issues, especially as agencies are often hampered in the support that they can offer because foreign nationals may not have access to public funds.

To help those cohorts requires much greater co-ordination across government, between the Home Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and local authorities. In the case of modern-day slaves, those people desperately need our support, but the difficulty in law is how to criminalise their gangmasters without criminalising those who have been trafficked on to our streets. What support or help should we offer them? Would they like to return home? Should we help them return home? Such matters can only be truly addressed by a deeper and honest conversation across Government, local authorities and the charity sector.

For too long the elephant in the room has been the issue of the “no recourse to public funds” category and whether to suspend it—a difficult decision, I recognise, but one that does need addressing. As I have highlighted, the issues around rough sleeping are complex and there are no easy answers. If we are to achieve the Government’s laudable aim to end rough sleeping, greater support for health and addiction issues, and a reassessment of both the Vagrancy Act and the no recourse to public funds rules are all required.

I recognise and welcome the increased focus and funding that the Government have provided to local authorities to support rough sleeping this year. The Government are clearly determined to end rough sleeping and I look forward to providing support to Ministers to achieve our shared goal. I look forward to the contributions of Members and the Minister’s response.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I remind all right hon. and hon. Members to respect the one-way system, to sanitise microphones using the cleaning materials, and to dispose of the materials in the bin. I think we have enough room so that people can sit in the horseshoe. I suggest a four-minute time limit, so that everybody can come in. I will call the wind-ups just before 10 past 5, if that is all right. I call Stephen Timms.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 4:41 pm, 16th December 2020

Thank you, Mrs Miller. I congratulate Nickie Aiken on securing the debate, and I agree with a great deal of what she had to say. Like her, I see what is happening around Westminster. I came in via the Embankment this morning and it is impossible to miss the tents under Hungerford bridge, where a growing number of people seem to be making their homes. It shames all of us that in this city so many are sleeping rough in that way.

The one policy that could deal with that effectively is a substantial programme of investment in social housing. I recognise that Ministers are sincere in wanting to end the scourge of rough sleeping, and I acknowledge the commitment that the Government have made. In reality, we are not going to end rough sleeping without a substantial programme of new social house building. I see no sign of that happening. Without it, we are not going to end rough sleeping.

I particularly want to pay tribute to the network of church-based homelessness night shelters in London that operate in winter. At least one has been set up in every London borough. Seven or 14 churches take it in turns to gather volunteers to provide a hot meal, a bed and some breakfast to rough sleepers, one night per week. In past years, for hundreds of people it has been the only alternative to sleeping rough. I pay tribute to Housing Justice, which supports their work and liaises between them and the Mayor of London.

I welcome the imaginative support that the Minister’s Department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, has been providing to that network lately. This year the network are working on alternative covid-safe provision. Unavoidably, that means less capacity. I think the Department has provided about £2 million to support their work, to enable them to operate in a covid-safe way. I commend the Department and the night shelters. Last February, St Paul’s Cathedral hosted a service to celebrate their work and to thank the hundreds of volunteers who keep them going. Everybody there will have agreed with the Bishop of Edmonton, the chair of Housing Justice, who was the preacher, that volunteers should not have to do that work.

I want to refer to a point that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster highlighted in her opening speech about people with leave to remain in the UK but no recourse to public funds. The Local Government Association brief for this debate highlights the large number seen by councils who, their work stopped because of the pandemic, are unable to claim benefits because of the no recourse to public funds condition, and who face homelessness and destitution. Expectations on councils to support people with NRPF have changed during the pandemic. Councils are obliged in law to support families and adults with care and support needs, but not others. Local welfare funds, provided through councils, are not available to those with NRPF.

The Minister’s Department rightly made it clear at the outset that councils should provide shelter for people sleeping rough, even if those people had no recourse to public funds. However, the legal unclarity has made matters harder, and sadly the enlightenment of the Minister’s Department has not been emulated by the Home Office. Government guidance has not been updated on what assistance can be accessed by people with no recourse to public funds. So, will the Minister press her colleagues in the Home Office to do what the Women and Equalities Committee—a Committee chaired by a former Home Office Minister, Caroline Nokes— recommended unanimously in its report published yesterday, and suspend the no recourse to public funds restriction for the duration of the pandemic?

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 4:46 pm, 16th December 2020

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken on securing the debate. She actually knows what she is talking about in this regard, having grappled with the centre of gravity for street homelessness in our national life.

What is street homelessness? To me, street homelessness has almost nothing to do with housing. In my experience—I have got some; I reckon that I have spent four and a half to five months of my life living on the streets of various cities, here and in the United States—street homelessness is actually a health issue. We are only ever going to deal with the problem if the Government understand that, and if the fabulous Minister present today were to spend most of her time in the Department of Health.

Street homelessness is about mental health or about addiction, and very often a combination of the two. I know that the media and lots of us in all parties in the House like to present homelessness as the fault of the evil Government of x hue or y hue, and of the evil bedroom tax, and benefit cuts, or whatever else. In my experience, there are people on the streets who would fit into that category, and I am in no doubt that there are tens of thousands of homeless people in the so-called sofa-surfing arena, but of the street homeless people, only a tiny number fit in that category. Everybody else is drug-addicted or mentally ill.

Actually, I would add a new thing that had not occurred to me until the Minister mentioned state intervention just now, because there is another thing that the street homeless have in common—including the lady with maggots, who I have not met yet but will seek out—and that is that they no longer have family or friends who are interested in them.

I am all for the small state, but I actually agree with Stephen Timms and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster that the state has got to take a bigger role in the lives of this really relatively small number of people—possibly 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000 people nationally, but obviously that figure twirls around. I think we need to ensure that.

The other observation that I will make—again I agree with the right hon. Member for East Ham—is that ultimately, of course, lack of housing is going to impact the people at the very, very bottom, and we need to sort that out; but we should also be mindful that we are increasing our population, and we still are under this Government, to the tune of 1 million people every three years.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 4:48 pm, 16th December 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken for securing today’s debate. I absolutely agree with everything that she and Stephen Timms said about social housing need. Investment in social housing is absolutely imperative.

A year ago, I was elected on a promise to end rough sleeping in Hastings and Rye by the end of this Parliament, and to prevent homelessness—a promise to local residents that I intend to keep. I am pleased that although we have been battered and bashed by covid-19, the Government have not lost sight of their desire to ensure that we support the most vulnerable and eradicate rough sleeping once and for all. The determination to live up to that promise is clear in the actions that have been taken throughout the covid-19 pandemic to help and support rough sleepers and the homeless.

There was the initial funding of £3.2 million given to local authorities in March for the Everyone In campaign to help get rough sleepers off the streets as coronavirus spread. To ensure that rough sleepers do not return to the streets after the pandemic, the Government launched the Next Steps accommodation programme, which provides funding of more than £250 million to local authorities and their partners in 2020-21 for short and medium-term accommodation solutions, and also more than £150 million to 276 schemes for longer-term accommodation solutions.

This winter the Government have announced masses of funding and a welcome package to protect rough sleepers over the winter months. All told, over this pandemic and into the winter, the Government have allocated more than £700 million in ring-fenced funding to support rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping. In Hastings we have an acute issue with rough sleeping. The local authority has one of the highest rates of rough sleeping in our region, having increased from three in 2010 to 48 people sleeping on the streets in 2018. That increase is deeply concerning, but it is not just the raw numbers that alarm me; it is also the way in which we approach the issue.

The best thing we can do is to offer rough sleepers and those registered as homeless Housing First with full wraparound support. Too often, I have heard of cases of rough sleepers being taken off the streets and put into temporary, insecure and poor quality accommodation and simply left there. I want to see a proper series of interventions that provide more secure quality accommodation, access to health services to deal with any addictions, health concerns or mental illness, and also support with skills training and employability advice to help sustain tenancies and get rough sleepers off the cold, wintry streets and back on their feet, standing tall with a future to look on with hope and pride.

Too often we have sought quick wins in short-term solutions. We need to make sure that we have a long-term plan with the funding. I am pleased with the support and the emphasis that the Government have put on supporting local authorities and organisations to help the most vulnerable, but, going forward, we need a more holistic approach to tackling the underlying causes of rough sleeping to really give these people a fresh start.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead 4:52 pm, 16th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I thank Nickie Aiken for securing this important debate.

In January, I delivered my maiden speech on homelessness, and it seems appropriate to return to the subject for what is likely to be my final contribution of 2020. Much has changed since then. The country has found itself under attack from an invisible and previously unknown enemy. While the public were urged to stay at home, local authorities and third sector organisations leapt into action to ensure that no one was left on the streets. Thanks to their tireless efforts, countless lives were saved, but the Government failed to capitalise on that success. Decisive action was needed to end the scourge of homelessness forever. Instead, the funding dried up and people were sent back on to the streets once again.

As we draw closer to the longest night of the year with the temperatures set to plummet, we find ourselves once again debating support for homeless people. The scale of the crisis was demonstrated by the recent news that 778 homeless people died in 2019. That was a 7% increase on the year before and the highest number since the Office for National Statistics began to monitor cases in 2013.

Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy, and those of us who have the great privilege of serving here must ensure that that awful death toll is never repeated. Local authorities must be given the resources that they need to provide rough sleepers with safe, self-contained accommodation this winter. I am deeply concerned by the Government’s decision to reopen communal night shelters over the Christmas period, a decision that has been criticised by Crisis and more than 16 other housing and health charities.

Homeless people are far more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to covid-19. They should not be forced to choose between spending a night freezing on the streets or jeopardising their health in communal accommodation. We also need to take steps to prevent people driven into poverty by the combined threat of deprivation and covid from becoming yet more involuntary recruits to the ranks of the homeless this winter and every winter to come.

I welcome the Government’s decision to extend the ban on evictions until 11 January, but with cases rising across the country and joblessness soaring, it is imperative that the ban is extended until we have decisively won the war on covid. I also urge the Government to listen to leading housing charities and remove the benefit cap, end the freeze on local housing allowance and strengthen financial support for those at risk of homelessness. Support must be made available for everyone who needs it, regardless of nationality or immigration status. That means ending once and for all the punitive and discriminatory policy of no recourse to public funds.

The housing crisis must be tackled head on. For far too long, successive Governments have failed to address the pressing need to build secure and affordable housing. There are more than 1.2 million people on the waiting list for social housing, but a mere 5,000 new homes were built last year. That has left millions of people in precarious housing situations, paying sky-high rents that spiral ever upwards while wages spiral down.

Today, almost half of private renters are just one pay cheque away from homelessness. That has to change. More than ever, we need an ambitious house building programme that delivers the high-quality, affordable housing stock that our country desperately needs. We need to end the disastrous right to buy programme, which for decades has prevented local authorities from building much-needed council houses. I believe that council house building on a scale similar to that of the post-war years is the best way to end the scourge of homelessness and the shameful shortage of decent homes.

Our ambition should match the needs of our country. Our reward will be more stable and prosperous communities, homes to be proud of and an end to the tragedy of human beings being forced to live their lives on the streets and taking shelter beneath cardboard boxes.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 4:56 pm, 16th December 2020

It is a pleasure to join this debate with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness, I wholeheartedly congratulate Nickie Aiken on securing this debate.

A year ago, the Government were elected with a manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping in this Parliament. That is a welcome and ambitious agenda. This year, they could go some way to meeting that target through Everyone In, which is estimated to have helped 30,000 people.

We should put on the record our gratitude to charities such as St Mungo’s, which operates in Southwark, and councils such as the London borough of Southwark for all the support they have given in this difficult period. Southwark has helped 799 people, and at one point was providing help to more than one third of all those accommodated in the entire capital city.

That 30,000 figure follows the Government claim in January that there were only 5,000 rough sleepers in the country. My first question to the Minister is: when will the Government implement a new, robust measurement, rather than that finger-in-the-air approach? During Everyone In, Combined Homelessness and Information Network stats showed that there were still 3,500 people sleeping on the streets from July, so has the Minister done an assessment of why that was happening that can be shared with the House?

One of the reasons that has been identified today is no recourse to public funds. The Government simply are not funding everyone. Ten per cent. of those helped in the London borough of Southwark had no recourse to public funds. Is that figure the same nationally, Minister? Will the Government fix the misnomer of Everyone In and actually fund everyone? Will the Minister acknowledge that it is cheaper to cancel the no recourse to public funds restrictions than to require councils, using public money, to spend more on emergency accommodation?

We should recognise that Everyone In has saved lives. One study published in The Lancet suggested that 266 deaths, more than 21,000 infections and more than 1,000 hospital admissions had been avoided, so it has saved lives and saved the NHS from being overwhelmed. That safety-first approach needs to continue.

Southwark is using the Robes Project—a fantastic organisation—to provide self-contained rooms this winter, because communal shelters cannot operate due to the risk of covid. Will the Government also commit to funding safe accommodation for everyone this winter? I ask that because their cold weather fund, which has already been announced, is £3 million lower this year than it was last year, despite the covid risks, the higher costs and the growing risk of not just becoming homeless but being homeless.

We have just heard about the ONS figures, which were published on Monday, that show that there is a greater risk of dying on our streets. It was 778 last year—up 7% on the previous year. An extra person every week dies on our streets. That is the highest ever figure. It rose last year and is very likely to jump again in 2021 if the Government do not act now. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister what specific measures are being adopted to tackle the problem of people dying on our streets.

That is a legitimate question. Look at the situation we face: not just covid, but the rise in unemployment, the return of evictions and the continued lack of support for people facing hostile environment policies. To put some numbers on that, nearly 67,000 people approached English local authorities for homelessness assistance between April and June this year. That figure is likely to rise further in the next statistics. The Government need to recognise the scale of the problem, and fully resource councils to respond to and manage the volume they are seeing. A failure to act will mean not just a missed manifesto target, but that councils and charities are overwhelmed, that covid infections will rise, and that there will be more deaths on our streets. That will be the brutal reality if the Government fail to act.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 5:00 pm, 16th December 2020

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Miller, and I congratulate Nickie Aiken on securing this debate.

I cannot think of many things worse than being homeless. Maybe it is not surprising that homeless people are three and a half times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. The suicide rate among rough sleepers is estimated to have increased by 30% in just 12 months, and Birmingham has recorded 25 homeless deaths over a 12-month period—not all of them suicides, but that is the second highest rate in the country. More people will almost certainly perish on our streets this winter. In Birmingham, over 3,500 house- holds are homeless, living in temporary accommodation, which includes bed and breakfasts and some pretty grim hotels. Some 16,000 households are on the Birmingham housing register.

It is not a lack of will that causes these problems. We saw during the Everyone In programme what can be achieved, and I really admire the energy and determination of Birmingham Councillor Sharon Thompson in trying to make a difference. However, we need a more joined-up response, and we need to agree that homelessness is as much of an evil as hunger or disease. I do not wish to strike a discordant note in this debate, but I was slightly surprised by the emphasis that the hon. Members for Cities of London and Westminster and for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) placed on people’s social problems, at a time when so many prominent voices in the Tory party have been promoting Housing First as a policy. I would be really interested to hear from the Minister whether there is a view on that.

Birmingham is a generous city, and The Birmingham Mail’s #BrumWish campaign has raised money from its readers for more than 2,000 presents for children living in homeless accommodation this Christmas. However, we cannot solve homelessness with donations: we need action to address the lack of affordable housing. Private rents in Birmingham are already too high, and with the economic uncertainty that lies ahead, there will be a further increase in homelessness unless some practical measures to address exorbitant rents are introduced.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I totally get the hon. Gentleman’s point about 60,000 people on waiting lists, emergency accommodation and everything else, but this is what we always do. We are always conflating the homelessness of the sorts of people the hon. Gentleman is talking about with the street homeless, who are sometimes used as a thing to batter Government with. I think there is a very big difference between the entrenched street homeless and the sorts of people that the hon. Gentleman is describing. They are different, and we will not help the street homeless or our cohorts unless we accept that there is a difference between the two groups.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I guess my point is that we should be helping both. I would say it is as simple as that: I do not really want to divide and separate these people, but to help both groups.

We also need strengthened arrangements to prevent developers wriggling out of obligations to provide affordable housing by fiddling figures to disguise their real profit margins at the expense of homeless people. That is what is happening in my city, and I will wager that it is happening up and down the country. As the Minister will know, too many people in Birmingham and elsewhere are placed in expensive and dodgy exempt accommodation, draining the public purse of money that could be put to much better use in tackling homelessness on both of these fronts. We should be dealing with the people on the streets, but if a child is sharing a bed with their three sisters and mother in a bed-and-breakfast house in Birmingham, they do not have much of a future, either.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:05 pm, 16th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I, too, congratulate Nickie Aiken on securing this very important debate.

The covid-19 pandemic has hugely impacted so much of our lives. Many people are now facing redundancy and financial hardship. This public health crisis proves now more than ever that ending homelessness and rough sleeping should be a priority. Obviously, housing and homelessness is a devolved topic, but by virtue of our third party obligations here, we are compelled to take part in the debates. This has been an interesting debate, and I want to offer just a few thoughts on what happens in Scotland—and not by any means to say that we are doing this better, because I think that homelessness is a blight on all of us. I do not think any of us would disagree that one person homeless is one too many. But certainly in Scotland, the SNP has ensured that Scots have some of the strongest homelessness rights in the world. They mean that anyone who is experiencing or even at risk of homelessness is entitled to receive help from the local authority, including accommodation.

The SNP is clear on the fact that a settled home is vital in supporting people to have a happy and healthy life. That is why the Scottish Government are investing £32.5 million, which is more than half their £50-million Ending Homelessness Together fund, to support local authorities to prioritise settled accommodation for all.

In addition to more investment, this year the Scottish Government, along with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, published an updated “Ending Homelessness Together” action plan, and one of the most significant recommendations in the action plan is the phasing out of night shelters in Scotland. Night shelters will be replaced with rehousing welcome centres for people who would otherwise be sleeping rough this winter. The centres will provide emergency accommodation, and people using the centres will be offered targeted support, including for wellbeing, health and social care issues, legal rights, employment and welfare. I think that that will be life changing for people experiencing homelessness.

The Scottish Government have also announced a £100-million package of further measures to alleviate the social harms caused by the covid-19 pandemic. That includes £5 million to help those at risk of homelessness to find a settled home. As part of the £100 million, Scotland’s winter plan for social protection includes £15 million of flexible funding for local authorities entering covid-19 protection level 4, which Glasgow has just been in. That can be used to pay for food and essentials.

It is clear that UK Home Office policies are causing people to face destitution and homelessness over the winter months. My party and I remain very concerned that the Home Office plans to deport non-UK nationals who are sleeping rough. That is clearly a very inhumane and backward policy. I am afraid that those actions will undermine the UK Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping in England, alongside undermining the vital work of the devolved Administrations to help those most vulnerable during the pandemic.

The issue of no recourse to public funds has come up this afternoon. Likewise, the SNP Government have repeatedly called on the UK Government to suspend the no-recourse-to-public-funds policy and enable people to access public services, including health advice, during the coronavirus pandemic. The Scottish Government will continue to extend support to people with no recourse to public funds where possible, but it would be good to have action by the UK Government on that as well.

On 16 November, the Scottish Government announced a further £278,000 of funding for six organisations supporting people subject to NRPF. The grants will support projects in Edinburgh and Glasgow that are helping people subject to the UK Government’s policy, which imposes conditions on someone because of their immigration status and restricts access to welfare, housing and financial support. I think we would all agree that coronavirus is not something that respects people’s immigration status—I will leave the Minister to reflect on that.

Despite the measures put in place by the Scottish Government, this area of work and pensions policy is clearly reserved to Westminster, and I think that that brings us to the crux of the issue, because until Scotland is an independent country, it is an inescapable reality that—

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is coming on to this, but perhaps he could outline what the SNP Government are doing to tackle drug deaths in Scotland, given the alarming figures that we have seen for Scotland—they are higher than average—and given the prevalence of such deaths in the homeless community.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Member is absolutely right. I am a Glasgow MP and the drug death figures in Scotland are totally and utterly unacceptable. More action is needed on that and I will not hide from that fact. If the UK Government are unwilling to take action on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, they should devolve those powers to the Scottish Parliament—that would be very helpful.

Politicians not just in Scotland, but right across the UK, have got to have a very difficult conversation. It is a brave thing for politicians to stand up and say, “Perhaps look at moving to safe consumption rooms, as they have done in many parts of the world.” If we want to tackle the drugs issue, it should be above party politics. UK Government Ministers are going to have to come to the very difficult decision about something like what we see in Portugal, Australia and Germany. Neil Coyle is right to put that on the record. The drugs death issue has been forgotten about during this public health crisis.

The covid-19 pandemic has proven to us all just how utterly tragic this Government have been at handling a crisis. With the possibility of a no-deal Brexit on the horizon, I dread to think how much worse it could get for the poorest people in our society.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Secretary of State for Housing 5:10 pm, 16th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I commend Nickie Aiken on her commitment to ending homelessness and on the skills and knowledge evident in her speech. We have had a thorough and impassioned debate, rightly so, but I hardly know where to start. We have had these debates before and I am sure the Minister can already guess some of the things I am going to say—but I think they bear repetition.

Government MPs made my point for me when they called for better funding for mental health and for drug and alcohol addiction services. The fact that those services are lacking and that we need to fund them is a sign of what has happened over the last 10 years. It is also an illustration of the fact that acts have consequences. When Governments take decisions in—let’s just pick a year at random—2010, the consequences can be felt 10 years on. They still are. They are outside the door here and they are on the streets of Bristol, Rochester and Strood and Westminster. They are on the streets in all our constituencies, but they are also—it is related—in temporary accommodation across the country. The two things are related; it should not be either/or.

As my hon. Friend Steve McCabe said, living in temporary accommodation is a bad way to live. It is bad for children and it is bad for children’s education. Across the country today, 130,000 children will be living in a place where there is not only usually nowhere suitable to cook a safe, healthy meal, let alone a celebratory one, but where there is no way to do homework, where there is no wi-fi signal, where they will fall behind in school. That will hurt us all.

That child who is falling behind in school because of their time in temporary accommodation could be the child that develops a cure for cancer, or comes up with some radical way of improving environmental cleanliness, or something—anything. We are going to lose out on their potential, because they are falling behind because they are homeless. That is a consequence of Government decision making.

I will touch briefly on rough sleeping and then on other forms of homelessness. First, I have some questions for the Minister. How much exactly of the Protect programme and the cold weather fund has made it out of the door, as of today? As I understand it, although the £15 million Protect programme was announced and a £10 million cold weather fund was announced, on Monday only £9.8 million of the Protect programme had been allocated. Why not the rest of the money—the other £5.2 million?

Have councils actually got the cold weather fund in their hands? It is cold already. The Government worked well with councils and charities in March to bring everybody in, but it is colder now and there is less money, and my council and councillors across the country are telling us of their struggle to keep going.

Rough sleeping is the tip of an iceberg; I know the Minister will expect me to say this, but I believe it to be true—it is the sharp end of a broken housing system with escalating private rents, widening inequality of income and people in insecure jobs who get into difficulties the minute disaster strikes because they have never been able to save money because their income is so unstable.

There is a chronic lack of supply. As my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms mentioned, there is no way of solving homelessness without addressing supply and, equally, there is no way of addressing supply without addressing social housing—truly affordable housing, council housing or housing association housing, with support. The system we have at the moment is being exploited in cities across the country, where exempt accommodation, although sometimes run very well, is often run badly. It is paid for from the public purse. This is not just an issue of morality. There is also the issue of cost.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Shadow Secretary of State for Housing

I am very aware of time, because I know the Minister has a lot to say. I will continue, if the hon. Member will allow; he has intervened on various speakers.

My hon. Friend Mick Whitley rightly highlighted the number of people who die while homeless. Pioneering work in my city of Bristol by the journalist Michael Yong showed the humanity behind every one of those stories as well as, I am afraid to say, showing that they were preventable deaths. A policy failure lay behind almost every case.

Too often homelessness, particularly street homelessness, is seen as a sad but inevitable fact of life or a moral failing on the part of the person who is homeless, and it is neither. It is a consequence of decisions taken by Governments. It can go up, but it can also go down. We must make it go down and end it. I am talking about not just street homelessness, but making sure that the underlying causes of wider homelessness are tackled.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:15 pm, 16th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken on securing this debate. I pay tribute to her work and passion in this area, which I have felt strongly in the couple of months that I have been in post. I also pay tribute to my neighbour, my hon. Friend Adam Holloway, whose direct experience in the area—he probably has more than many hon. Members present—and long-standing passion to target work on the issue is inspirational.

I thank Neil Coyle for his work with the APPG. As he knows, I look forward to working with him on some of the challenges. I am grateful to all hon. Members who have taken the time to speak on behalf of their constituents for the passion with which they have made their arguments, particularly Steve McCabe, with whom I have had several conversations already about a number of issues. Again, I commit to working with him on the things that concern him.

I know that many of these issues are close to hon. Members’ hearts. Mick Whitley rightly highlighted the release on Monday of death stats of people who have sadly and tragically died in emergency accommodation or on the streets. Today’s debate is key because in 2019, two in five of those poor individuals, which equates to 289 people, lost their lives due to drug poisoning, and 112 people lost their lives due to suicide. I will not name the individual, because I have not checked with his mother before speaking, but I lost a primary school friend last year for that reason. For many years, he had been part of the rough sleeping fraternity in my community that I have worked with. I am not ignorant of the challenges that those individuals face on the streets, which is why I am pleased to be in this role in Government.

It is unacceptable that people should be without a roof over their head during the cold winter months. Winter poses a number of new challenges for rough sleepers and for those who work tirelessly to support them. That is why we have put in place measures to ensure that local authorities can protect vulnerable people this winter and meet the challenges of the coming months.

In October, we announced a comprehensive winter support package for rough sleepers, which gives local areas the tools that they need to protect individuals from life-threatening cold weather and covid. It included the £10 million winter fund, which is available to all local authorities to protect rough sleepers. Those vital funds are being used to bring forward self-contained accommodation to support rough sleepers off the streets.

We understand the role that faith and community-led accommodation plays in local authority pathways out of homelessness during winter. Like Stephen Timms and others, I pay tribute to the voluntary sector and our faith and community-led organisations that do so much to support the work of Government and that work directly with those individuals. That is why we have been working with Public Health England to provide the operating principles that enable shelters to open as safely as possible. We have been clear, however, that night shelters should be used only where absolutely necessary—based on a detailed covid-19 risk assessment, to protect against the risk to health and life of individuals remaining on the streets—and when there is no alternative: in cold weather, for example.

Local authorities and shelter providers have been working together to offer self-contained accommodation options to users. We expect to see a reduced number of shelters opening this year. To address that, we have created the £2 million homelessness winter transformation fund, to help the faith, community and voluntary sector groups move away from their traditional communal models. They have been providing more innovative solutions, and I am pleased to update Members about how there have been some innovative and exciting bids from the voluntary, faith and community sector. Homeless Link has also been able to add £1.3 million to the fund from the national lottery and Comic Relief, increasing the budget to meet demands. The successful applicants will get notice of their grants ahead of Christmas.

In response to national restrictions, the Protect programme was launched. It provides £50 million in targeted support to address the housing and health needs of rough sleepers during the winter months. Local authorities are already delivering those key services. The Protect programme involves intensive work with a number of local authorities, including Westminster and the Greater London Authority. The additional funding is bringing forward new provision, including additional off-the-street emergency accommodation and a pan-London covid-care facility, which will save lives.

To answer Thangam Debbonaire directly about allocations and whether those funds are with authorities, I should say that we are working with the areas in most need. We are working with them to agree forward plans, and those funds will be issued as soon as we are able. Ultimately, however, the authorities that we are having those conversations and agreeing those plans with have the assurance of the delivery of that work. We are working with councils up and down the country. We have asked local areas to update their rough sleeping and severe weather plans, so that the measures will ensure that the wider sector has the resource to protect rough sleepers not only from severe cold weather but from the risks of covid.

I remind Members that such programmes do not sit in isolation. Many have mentioned the success of the Everyone In campaign, so I will not restate the figures, but we supported more than 29,000 vulnerable people during it.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Sorry, but I want to make some progress and tackle some of the points made by the hon. Member for Bristol West.

In October, we announced allocations to local partners for move-on accommodation—3,300 new long-term homes—building on the assets of local councils to deliver accommodation into the future. That is part of a broader package to deliver 6,000 homes.

As has rightly been mentioned today, rough sleepers require specialised wrap-around support, with stable accommodation on top of that. That is why on Monday I announced the allocation to the substance misuse programme, which will deliver £23 million to the 43 priority areas with the highest level of need, including three pan-London projects. Those vital funds will provide the specialist support needed to enable people sleeping rough with substance misuse to rebuild their lives off the street and to move towards longer-term accommodation.

Here, I will say that I absolutely understand the link between mental health and substance misuse with regards to dealing with the impact on some of our most entrenched rough sleepers, and the challenges not only for the people who work with rough sleepers but, obviously, to the long-term success of being able to get those individuals into accommodation. That is why I am pleased with the work, and looking forward to the outcomes, of the Housing First pilots, which are operating around the country, and their continuation. We hope to build the strong argument in this country in order to make that argument across Government, so that we can roll out as much of it as we can.

I will speak quickly about no recourse to public funds. Obviously, we know that rough sleepers’ immigration status is an issue. The rules in relation to the legal position have not changed. Local authorities must use their judgment in assessing what support they may lawfully give to each person on an individual basis, considering the person’s specific needs and circumstances. We know that local authorities regularly make such judgments on accommodating individuals, when, for example, there is extreme weather or a risk to life. Of course, I understand that that is an issue for many local authorities and for hon. Members. I have had conversations already with the leader of Westminster City Council in relation to this particular challenge, and they are continuing. I am also speaking to the Home Office, and will continue to work to build clarity in the system for councils.

I want to touch quickly on substance misuse. I sent a “Dear colleague” letter to colleagues across the House on Monday, including the results of a survey on rough sleepers—the first of its kind, where we got data directly from rough sleepers. It showed that 82% have a mental health vulnerability, and 60% are affected by substance misuse. Obviously, that is not a complete picture, but it is the first data that we have had directly from the individuals who are suffering.

We announced the £23 million on Monday, but next year that will be supported by £52 million. I absolutely understand the link between rough sleeping and some of the health challenges, and in my role I cannot say I have all the answers now, but I can give a commitment to work across Government with colleagues to tackle some of the issues. Mental health is a major part of that, and obviously we already have £30 million of funding for mental health services that is being delivered by the Department of Health and Social Care.

The Vagrancy Act 1824 is a complex issue, of concern to many Members. We know from our engagement with stakeholders that there are diverging views about the necessity for and relevance of the Act, which is why the Government believe a review is the right course of action. We are looking at options including retention, repeal, replacement and amendment. I have already started to look at the issue in detail, but at the heart of the review will be the experiences and perceptions of a range of stakeholders, including the homelessness sector, the police, local authorities and business representatives. Work is ongoing, and the Government will be giving updates on the findings in due course. I look forward to working with Members, but I reiterate that the Government continue to be clear that we will not criminalise, and do not want to criminalise, individuals who are rough sleeping. We understand the complex individual circumstances that can lead to rough sleeping.

If I have a couple of minutes, I would like quickly to touch on social housing. It is absolutely something that the Government care about, and that is why we have launched the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme. It is true that we need to move on temporary accommodation and that is why we have the Next Steps funding. That is exactly what we are doing about getting individuals moving on from Everyone In.

I am running out of time. I shall write to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark about the data, because it is too complex to talk about now.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 5:28 pm, 16th December 2020

I thank all the hon. Members who took part in this vital debate. We have heard from Members representing places across the country how homelessness can affect our constituencies.

I take the point that Steve McCabe made about Housing First. We could have spoken for hours about that, but it is the entrenched rough sleepers who concern me more, because I do not believe that they have the mental capacity to respond to the outreach work that we offer.

I thank the Minister for her pledge on the Vagrancy Act 1824 and the fact that we will be looking at welfare rather than criminalisation. The word “vagrancy” should be taken out of the Act, anyway. I thank everyone, and hope we can work together to end rough sleeping.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered support for the homeless during the winter months.

Sitting adjourned.