Homelessness & Rough Sleeping

Mark made the following contributions to a Westminster Hall debate on homelessness tabled by Shabana Mahmood MP. 

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

I congratulate Shabana Mahmood on securing this important debate.

As the nights draw in and the winter chill becomes more apparent, the thoughts of many Londoners—I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that this is the first city of the United Kingdom—turn to the homeless people who, each night, lay down their blankets and boxes in dark corners of this great city of ours. Their presence makes all of us ask questions about where we as a society are falling short. I am afraid that to many of us who live in and represent central London, it seems that the number of homeless people and rough sleepers is increasing very quickly.

I live, with my wife and two children, a stone’s throw from Westminster cathedral, and from The Passage, a charity sponsored predominantly by the Roman Catholic Church that has provided succour for the less fortunate for a century and a half. One need only look around the streets literally a few hundred yards from this Chamber and witness the many people, young men in particular, sleeping rough in Westminster station to understand that the situation has become markedly worse in recent months. Constituents from all over my constituency worry about the people they find each morning in their doorways.

All of us know that local authorities have a statutory obligation to undertake regular counts of people sleeping on their streets. Figures from Westminster city council indicate that the number of rough sleepers has increased sharply: a total of some 2,440 people were recorded bedding down as rough sleepers in 2012-13. Although that was a slight reduction on the figure for the previous year, the number in 2009-10 was only 1,693, so there has been an increase of over 40% in the past three years. Meanwhile, in the other part of my constituency, the City of London, the most recent figures available, for the period from 1 September to 31 October, indicate a marked increase of 39% in the number of rough sleepers when compared with the same period last year.

To understand how to respond, we must first grasp why people sleep rough. To be honest, for as long as big cities—particularly ones such as London—have existed, people have slept on the streets. There are myriad reasons why, but over the past few years, and certainly in the time that I have represented my central London seat, we have tended to see two quite distinct categories of rough sleepers, with very different stories to tell.

The number of so-called traditional rough sleepers in Westminster has remained relatively static. They tend to be people with an addiction problem—some 52% of the homeless take drugs, and 20% drink alcohol at harmful levels—people who have been affected by family breakdown, or, of course, people with mental health difficulties: nearly half of the people on our streets have long-term mental health needs. Colleagues will recall the “Street Stories” exhibition that I sponsored in this House only a few years ago, for the homeless charitySt Mungo’s, which aimed to educate parliamentarians about why that very diverse group turned to the streets.

That group of rough sleepers is well known to outreach groups. Local authorities and established charities patiently conduct long-term and meaningful work to rehabilitate such people into mainstream society. Homelessness services provide support to over 40,000 homeless people a year, delivering cost savings to public service budgets, and better outcomes for the most vulnerable. It has been estimated that a single rough sleeper on the streets of London costs some £35,000 a year in crime, emergency health and social services alone.

Jim Shannon (Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health); Strangford, DUP)

Obviously, the Churches and charities that the hon. Gentleman referred to are major contributors to helping homeless people, but the Salvation Army and the Simon Community also do tremendous work with homeless people. I want to underline the importance of that work.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

A huge amount of charitable work is done by voluntary groups, many of which have grown out of nothing in recent years. We should welcome that.

As the Minister knows, the Mayor of London has a programme that aims to ensure that no person spends more than one night sleeping rough on the streets of London. That is now the case for eight out of 10 rough sleepers, but of course, logically, that means that for one in five rough sleepers, the promise of only one night on the streets is not being kept. I support the broad thrust of the changes that have been made to housing benefit entitlement, and have done so repeatedly, both in TV studios and in this House, but both the Mayor and I continue to make the case to the Government that those changes will continue to have a disproportionate impact on central London, where rents, to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, has referred, are at their highest. I have expressed those concerns to the ministerial team in Parliament. It is also deeply concerning that although rough sleeping continues to rise, there is a reduction in the amount of available support. Hostel bed spaces are being reduced at a concerning rate, and are at their lowest number since 2008.

There is a second group of homeless people, namely foreign nationals, many of whom have no recourse to public funds and therefore require an alternative policy response. In the midst of the changes that will go through Parliament over the next 24 hours and that will impact on Romanians and Bulgarians—all of us agree with those changes—we should remember that those who do come here could be an even bigger strain on public services in the first few months of 2014.

People from central European countries now make up 32% of all rough sleepers in Westminster. That is no surprise: following the enlargements of the European Union in 2004 and 2008, Westminster experienced a sudden influx of new arrivals from eastern Europe, often via Victoria coach station. In advance of the enlargements, both Westminster city council and I warned repeatedly of the increased dangers of jobless and unqualified nationals from the new EU accession countries ending up sleeping rough, but the previous Government failed to put into place proper plans to deal with the sudden influx. I am afraid that the situation has not improved in the three and a half years since the coalition came into office.

Those nationals were particularly at risk of homelessness, as the law prevented them from accessing benefits provided by local authorities to residents, as well as state benefits such as income support, shelter and drug treatment services. Many new arrivals had a firm idea of where they would live and work, and I emphasise that many are making a fantastic contribution to our economy, but for others, the likelihood of them descending rapidly into street life was exacerbated because they had no other means of support. Westminster city council has done a lot of work to help those individuals, sometimes by trying to reconnect them with their families back home, assisting with repatriation, providing language services, and so on.

The issue of rough sleepers from central and eastern Europe has taken on a new dimension in recent months. I have repeatedly warned that my constituency may prove to be the canary in the mine on many of these issues. Many of us have seen at first hand the Roma Gypsy encampments that sprung up around Marble Arch during last year’s Olympics. Some of the people living in those encampments were part of an organised begging operation deliberately targeting the lucrative west end tourist market.

I receive weekly reports from exasperated constituents who find spontaneous bedrooms in their doorways and litter and excrement in garden squares, and who are harassed daily by aggressive beggars. One St James’s resident reports rubbish bags being ripped open almost nightly, covering the pavement with litter. The problem is real and must be dealt with. It must be put into the public domain as thoughtfully as possible, not least at this time of year, and it must be recognised that the significant number of people who come to this country make a positive contribution, but the minority is getting ever bigger and may end up causing major social issues.

I have so much more to say, but I respect the fact that other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. I would like to make one more point before finishing. I appreciate that the Government are doing a lot of work behind the scenes. They have launched a £1.7 million gold standard support and training scheme to help local authorities to tackle homelessness. The concern of all of us is not that the will is lacking, but the lack of resources. We have no idea of the numbers, and the extent to which the problem is likely to be exacerbated in the months ahead. I am interested to hear what the Minister says today, but more importantly, he should keep a watching brief on the issue in the early weeks and months of 2014, because urgent remedial action may be required, not just here in central London, but in many parts of the country.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

My hon. Friend will realise that I very much agree with what he has to say on the macro-economic side about the very insidious—dangerous—long-term effects on the British economy of quantitative easing. Will he accept that part of the difficulty with housing law, which goes back almost 100 years—the first rent Acts came in at the end of the first world war—is that, every time, we try to add another elastoplast to the system when there needs to be a much more imaginative approach by politicians, academics and the like to looking at the way in which our housing market operates? All too often, we have seen short-term problems, which we have tried to solve with new legislation, rather than recognising, as my hon. Friend rightly said, that it has been state action and legislation in the past that has helped to produce all the absurdities and anomalies currently seen in our private rented sector.

Steven Baker (Wycombe, Conservative)

I agree, but it is not enough for us just to look at increasing supply. We should be looking at those factors that increase demand, such as the tragedy of family breakdown, which perhaps I will go into in more detail in the debate in the main Chamber later on hunger.

Nicholas Boles (Grantham and Stamford, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I hope you will forgive me if I am a little croaky in my speech; I am grateful for the amplification. I congratulate Shabana Mahmood on securing this extremely important and sobering debate. We heard some truly harrowing stories from her most of all, but also from my hon. Friend Steve Baker.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, for taking a bit of time to talk about her constituent and her two daughters. I can only hope that Birmingham city council and the other organisations that she talked about will find a way to enable her constituent to find a secure home, so that her constituent does not have to think that she made a mistake in leaving a man who was violent towards her.

We also heard from a number of hon. Members about the vital role of charities, Churches and other voluntary groups. I might get some of the names wrong, because I was interpreting them at some speed, but we heard about SIFA Fireside in Birmingham, the Leonard Stocks centre in Torbay, the Wycombe Homeless Connection and Petrus in Rochdale. It is clear that all those organisations do vital work, which would be necessary however much money Government had to spend on programmes. Those organisations bring a personal touch, a commitment, whether from faith or general good will, and an innovative approach to helping often some of the most troubled people in our society.

In the relatively short time I have, I could run through the myriad initiatives and schemes that the Government have created to try to help sort out the problem of homelessness. I could talk about the gold standard scheme, the rough sleeping social impact bond, Homeless Link, the Homelessness Transition Fund, the Crisis private rented sector access development programme, the homelessness prevention grant, discretionary housing payments, the sanctuary scheme, the “Places of Change” programme, the “No Second Night Out” scheme and StreetLink. We all know that those schemes—all of which are valuable, important and well intentioned—are not the fundamental solution to the problem.

One of the most startling facts about homelessness over the past 10 or 20 years is that it was at its height when the economy was booming, and when Government spending was growing as fast as it has ever grown. Homelessness peaked in 2003-04; sadly, it only reached the level it is at now in 2008, just when the financial crash hit. Throughout a period when the economy was booming and public expenditure was growing, homelessness did not fall. It was only brought down to its current level in 2008. The devastating financial crash in 2008 has had economic and social ripples that will continue for years and decades to come, and one of those ripples has affected some people’s ability to afford to maintain their tenancies. We heard a lot about the rising importance of the ending of private sector tenancies in explaining the rise in homelessness.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

I am afraid that the financial crisis and the ongoing difficulties that any company, large or small, has in borrowing money mean that the ability of house builders, large or small, to borrow to build will also be affected for many years to come.

Nicholas Boles (Grantham and Stamford, Conservative)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and anticipates a point I want to make. We all accept that the fundamental solution to the underlying problem that produces homelessness and rough sleeping is simple to explain and very difficult to achieve. The solution is, as Emma Reynolds mentioned, the consistent delivery of more housing of all kinds, all tenures, all numbers of bedrooms and in all parts of the country; the consistent delivery of more jobs that pay more than the minimum wage and are stable and secure; and a consistent need to do a better job than we have been doing in controlling immigration, particularly by those who do not have the means to support themselves in this country.

In winding up the debate—I am happy to take any particular questions that Members raised to my colleagues in the Department, if there is an answer or a meeting that they would like to have to follow up—I want to reflect on those fundamental solutions and why I believe, for all the difficult decisions that we are making on welfare reform and benefits, that the Government’s strategy is the only strategy that can successfully produce an economy that supports a society that does not allow homelessness to continue at its current rate.

Adrian Sanders (Torbay, Liberal Democrat)

Members have mentioned not only homeless hostels under threat, but women’s refuges. I often wonder why there is not a refuge or a hostel in every local authority area. Often, those refuges or hostels serve people from other local authority areas. Is there some mechanism that Government could use to ensure that the appropriate funding goes to refuges and hostels that serve wider areas, so that the burden does not fall just on that local authority?

Nicholas Boles (Grantham and Stamford, Conservative)

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will come back to him in writing on that question, which is important. He also made the important point on the possibility of ring-fencing the homelessness prevention grant. I will allow the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Kris Hopkins, to respond to that in an intelligent way, rather than make it up on the hoof.

Karen Buck (Westminster North, Labour)

Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm what his predecessors said, which is that local authorities should, other than in exceptional circumstances, care for their own homeless locally in recognised local

connections? Alternatively, does he think that local authorities should give their homeless to other councils to have to worry about?

Nicholas Boles (Grantham and Stamford, Conservative)

It is clearly right that local authorities should do everything in their power to house people within their own boundaries, whether temporarily, if that is unfortunately the only possibility, or ultimately permanently. It is deeply regrettable that some authorities have found that they are not able to do that. We are constantly writing to them, speaking to them and putting pressure on them to ensure that they fulfil that duty, because it is clear and important.

Briefly, on the bigger argument, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East pointed out that we have been building far too few homes, not just recently, but over the past 20 years. We can all make political points about whether house building rate are lower than they were five years ago, but the fact is that we have had the most devastating financial crash and the deepest recession in 100 years. It is not surprising, at a time when several of our major banks had to be nationalised and others bailed out by the taxpayer, that the possibility of lending money to builders to build and to people to buy houses has become severely constrained, and that has led to a dramatic fall in house building.

The Government are utterly determined—I am utterly determined—to do everything we can to reform the planning system, the funding streams for mortgages and the lending for builders, to enable the rate of house building to increase. It is also clear that we need more housing of a tenure type and cost that makes it available to many of the people likely to be affected by homelessness. I simply point out that nobody’s record is perfect on this matter. The previous Government presided over a dramatic fall in the number of affordable houses available to people, and under this Government, the number has gone up. We have managed to build just less than 100,000 affordable houses in the three years that we have been in office, but that is not enough and we accept that. We hope that we will build 170,000 over the life of this Parliament. Are 170,000 houses enough to deal with the problems that we have, and the 20-year backlog in house building? No, they are not.

At the same time, however, we have created 1.5 million jobs, and I am sure that all hon. Members will accept that the long-term solution, to prevent more people falling into homelessness, and to help the people whom Members have all admirably mentioned, is to enable those people to get stable jobs that pay them more than the minimum wage, and ideally more than the living wage. That will enable them to hold down a tenancy, whether in social housing or private rented housing. That is the solution to the homelessness problem of our country.