Nick calls for greater efforts to end rough sleeping

Debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday 7 February 2019. To read the full debate please click here.

If hon. Members have not already been, I recommend that they walk a few hundred yards down Millbank to see the exhibition of Don McCullin’s photographs at Tate Britain. He is famous for his haunting photographs of war over the past few decades. However, I had not previously seen the pictures he took in 1970 of homeless people in Spitalfields in the east end. One of those photographs is one of his most famous. They are at least as haunting as the images of the ravages of war that he produced. It is shaming that decades on we are still grappling with this problem, which should not exist in a successful, modern economy. His photographs are a reminder that these problems have been with us for some time.

Other hon. Members have spoken about the importance of measures to prevent homelessness in the first place. It makes sense, of course, to try to direct the focus of Government policy in so many areas of social concern towards prevention, rather than picking up the problem after it has happened. However, that is easier said than done. Generally, Finance Ministers are resistant to generalised bids to increase money in preventive measures, for fear that they will end up picking up the costs twice. That is one reason why it has been so hard to shift policy towards preventive measures in areas of public health, for instance. However, it is essential that we do so in relation to homelessness, because it is preventable.

The importance of mental health services has been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) was right to focus on housing supply. I have spent 14 years in my affluent constituency of Arundel and South Downs dealing with requests from local communities to prevent the building of new housing. In truth, much of that housing is for other relatively affluent people and only part of it goes to social housing. The concern about the impact of new housing—a genuine concern about the impact on the countryside, local services and so on—obscures the wider point, which is that there has been a systematic failure to ensure that housing supply meets demand.

This is not only a question of social housing provision, to which Opposition Members have rightly drawn attention. The failure to provide sufficient private housing also has a knock-on effect on rent levels: rents become higher because housing supply is too low. In turn, the state directs large amounts of money towards housing benefit in order to help people meet those rents, and we enter a vicious circle. It is important that we have determined measures to increase housing supply and that we try to deal with some of the problems and the objections that people have. That includes a mix of private sector and social housing.

Hon. Members have rightly drawn attention to concerns about welfare policy. The five-week wait for universal credit has been mentioned. I know that the Government have taken some steps on that, but they need to go further, because it has clearly been a factor in homelessness.

Housing benefit is also an issue, particularly the shared accommodation rate, which has been frozen since 2016. The charity Depaul, which I will come to shortly, has pointed out that in one night, official figures indicated that 225 young people aged 18 to 25 were sleeping rough, but only 57 rooms could be found that would be available to them at rents within the shared accommodation rate. The support that is available to people has not and cannot keep pace with the level of rents, because it has been frozen, and the local housing allowance does not cover rents for 90% of areas in England. That welfare issue has to be addressed.

A related budgetary issue has affected Stonepillow, a local homelessness charity in West Sussex. West Sussex County Council has found itself at the receiving end of sharp reductions in local government funding, so it in turn has decided to nearly halve the housing-related support allowance. Effectively, that passes the burden on to district councils, with the knock-on effect that support for Stonepillow will be reduced by £300,000. If we are serious about tackling these problems, we should not penalise the important charities that do so much good work on the ground in providing help to people who become homeless and in helping to prevent homelessness.

As well as preventing homelessness and rough sleeping, we need to make sure that measures are available to help people who have become victims of it. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the charity Depaul, which I mentioned earlier, and its Nightstop service. On 10 October, World Homeless Day, I and several other hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince), for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), and Baroness Suttie and Baroness Grender, slept out at the Oval cricket ground at an event organised by Depaul. Some 100 volunteers raised money for Depaul that evening. I declare an interest, which is that my partner is a fundraiser for Depaul, so it is not so much a financial interest for me as a matter of domestic harmony that I take an interest in such issues.

The experience of sleeping out on the concrete ground for just a few hours was a tiny insight into the experience that people have when they are sleeping rough. The truth is that we were all looked after before we pitched our cardboard boxes for the evening and, a few hours later, we were able to return to the warmth of our homes, a hot bath or shower, a meal and a job. Most of us were seized by the realisation of how debilitating it would be if we had to pick up our cardboard box and move on without any of those things to go to. I hope that when Depaul organises its sleep-out event in central London next year, many more hon. Members will take part to help the fundraising effort, draw attention to the issue and share in that experience on World Homeless Day.

Depaul runs a good service, Nightstop, which I mentioned. It has been going for a few years and it is interesting because it is a good example of the shared economy. Private individuals open up their homes and provide a bed at night for a homeless young person. Of course, they have to be approved and thoroughly vetted. The introduction to that service is a reminder of the various forms of homelessness, but those young people are often vulnerable and need a bed, security and a meal for the night.

In 2017, the Nightstop service provided more than 11,000 bed nights to nearly 1,500 young people. There is a tremendous opportunity to expand that volunteer-run service, but that would require additional funding. Less than half the local authority areas in the UK are covered by the Nightstop service, but Depaul is keen to expand it.

Depaul would like the Government to invest just £2.2 million over three years in five new sub-regional Nightstop services. After four years, it will pick up the funding for those services itself; it merely needs the seedcorn funding—the Government do not often get that kind of offer. That self-sufficient service would provide up to 7,500 more nights of emergency accommodation a year for young people. I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister, who takes a strong interest in these issues and who has done so much in the last year, to meet Depaul, perhaps visit a Nightstop service, and consider that incredibly cost-efficient and worthwhile proposal.

The numbers of people sleeping rough have levelled off, but they are still too high. Underneath the global figures, there are some big regional disparities that we need to understand, such as the disparity between the numbers of homeless people outside London and in London. In London, half the people sleeping rough are foreign nationals—almost all EU nationals—and the welfare issues around them are much more complex.

We should also realise that although the numbers appear to have reduced only slightly in the last year and are still too high, there was a much bigger reduction—23%—in the 73 areas that were targeted by additional money as part of the Government’s rough sleepers initiative introduced at the beginning of last year. That suggests that targeted funding, which is carefully directed at measures that are integrated and can help to deal with the problem, will succeed and is worth pursuing. This is a problem that can be dealt with.

This issue should embarrass and shame us as an advanced economy. I welcome the Government’s ambition to halve the number of people sleeping rough by 2022 and end rough sleeping by 2027, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, the chairman of the all-party group, of which I am also an officer, that we need to do better than that. The Government should make the issue their highest priority, because no Government should want it to happen on their watch.

SpeechesAlexander Black