It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). Like everybody else, I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), the promoter of the Bill, and I am proud to be one of its cross-party sponsors.
Several weeks ago, the Prime Minister took to the stage at our party conference to deliver her vision for Britain: a country where every single person, regardless of their background or that of their parents, has the chance to be all they want to be, where government stands up for the weak and stands up to the strong.
Hon. Members might forgive Henry for his scepticism. At the age of 22, Henry found himself on the streets after being physically abused and thrown out of his home by his father who refused to accept that he was gay. Vulnerable and in desperate need of help, Henry turned to his local London borough, repeatedly waiting for hours in packed receptions, only to be told that there was nothing that could be done, that he was not a priority and certainly not a statutory priority. Effectively in his mind, he did not matter. It is for people like Henry for whom we are standing up today and this week. We want to ensure that, at the very least, we have in statute a duty to prevent people like Henry from going through the cycle of despair without a home.
There have been many good speeches today; no doubt there are still more to come, but they will be getting briefer as we get to the time that will see this Bill safely on its passage. They will not necessarily bridge that gap in credibility that people like Henry see as they gaze across at this fine building. I am talking about those people across the Thames who are facing another night on the streets. It is, as others have said, a scandal that we too readily tolerate, and have tolerated, the increasing number of homeless people. It is also a preventable scandal, which today we can do something about by supporting this Bill.
The point of this Bill is to ensure that the causes of homelessness are tackled, so that people do not reach that crisis of being without a home. Inevitably, that means empowering councils and other agencies to focus more on the drivers of homelessness. Sadly, in the front seat is family relationship breakdown, which for six out of 10 young people is the main cause of homelessness, according to a Centrepoint report this week. This Bill will provide that duty of prevention. Yes, the burden will fall heavily on local authorities, but the responsibility is a shared one, particularly when one considers the costs of youth homelessness, which mainly hits central Government budgets. That is why I welcome the Government’s support today, and we look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. Inevitably, the Government are already picking up the costs, and so they need to be involved in investing in prevention.
Centrepoint’s recent report highlights that the main cost of youth homelessness alone—on top of costs of offending, poor mental health, lack of education, employment or training, and domestic violence and so on—falls predominantly on the welfare budget. For those under 18, that amounts to £9,000 per young person per year, rising for 18 to 24-year-olds to £12,000. That amounts to some £560 million a year just in terms of homelessness. The Government’s £40 million announcement is welcome, but those figures put the problem in context and show us what is needed to be able to shift the focus on to prevention. Such a shift obviously makes so much sense both in terms of value for money and of social benefits.
Homelessness is a complex issue, because it involves individuals with multiple and complex needs. As we know from the great work of St Mungo’s and its supported accommodation—it also has accommodation in my constituency—of the 1,036 people who have slept rough and who are currently in its accommodation, three quarters have mental health problems, 65% have drug or alcohol problems and half have a physical condition that has a substantial effect on their health. We therefore need to deal with things in the round and ensure that all agencies of government, centrally as well as locally, are focused on seeking to prevent homelessness.
The stark reality is that the average life expectancy of someone who is street homeless is 47—so someone of my age. At the age of 47, that would be it. That is appalling and hard to comprehend. We must be able to shift that in this day and age.
As the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said, there are examples of good practice. In my borough, there are individuals who are working incredibly hard—in John Wilkes House and others—to do a great job. Sadly, there are far too many examples of bad practice across local authorities. In my constituency, I have had some examples of really appalling, shoddy practices that dehumanise individuals as they try to seek help. This Bill will ensure that there is a level playing field for those who do not currently see that—the homeless. The reality is that we need to ensure that the good practice highlighted by Centrepoint of mediation, whole-family approaches, multi-agency working, and of the single frontier for services needs to spread throughout our land to help the most vulnerable.
All too often in my years as a Member of Parliament and as a councillor, I have seen that outer London boroughs such as mine can be in denial about the real numbers of homeless people—the hidden homeless and the real street homeless. They can acquiesce—not least because they are allowed to by legislation—to seeing those at risk of homelessness gravitate to central London hostels, to the Greater London Authority’s excellent scheme of No Second Night Out and the rest. They can effectively sit on their statutory hands while others pick up the Bill. This is what this Bill seeks to address by ensuring that there is co-operation in relief and duty of prevention, and I welcome that.
I will press on so that others can speak.
We need to do what we can to tackle this issue. I am therefore disappointed, but not surprised, that my borough of Enfield and other north London councils in the North London Housing Partnership have sent round a submission that is very critical of this Bill. It says that it is unworkable in London and that it will increase homelessness. That is a huge shame. In their words:
“This is likely to detract from the very effective homelessness prevention that already takes place.”
They are in denial. I wholly disagree with them. We need to respect that the funds and support are needed. We need to look at those without recourse to public funds, and to support those who do not have family or local connections. I say to my council and others that what is unworkable is what Crisis reported, which is that what was offered to the 50 out of the 87 mystery shoppers—the people acting as single homeless people—was wholly insufficient. They reported a lack of private interview rooms and the insensitivity of staff, which was akin to public humiliation. Sympathy and empathy, which are there in individuals, were sadly in short supply. The poverty-related shame and the stigma were reinforced by what they received from their local authorities. That must end. That is what is unworkable. It is unworkable that many were just dismissed with a selection of leaflets that they were unable to understand or to decipher. Some were simply told to browse on Gumtree. That is unacceptable in this day and age, just as it is unacceptable to see the rising level of homelessness.
We must ensure for the good conscience of our nation that we do not just let people fall back on the priority need and sitting on our hands aspect of practice at the moment, and that we deliver much more comprehensive preventative duty. We need to recognise that the safety net provided by the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 is aged, failing and unworkable for the homeless. We must get on and back this Bill.
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