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Liberal Democrats on Kent County Council

Speech by Layla Moran, MP in the House of Commons on Tuesday, 27th Februay 2018

It is a great pleasure to introduce this estimates day debate on the spending of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as it relates to homelessness. I would like to start by thanking the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) for co-sponsoring the debate. I also thank colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local ​Government Committee, all of whom supported our bid to the Backbench Business Committee. I am delighted that so many Members wish to speak.

I draw Members' attention to the reports of the Public Accounts Committee and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that are listed on the Order Paper. It was a real eye-opener to work on the Public Accounts Committee as a lead member on that inquiry, alongside the hon. Member for Chichester and the Committee's Chair, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I will focus my remarks today on that report, which is well worth a read.

The Public Accounts Committee heard and read evidence from a wide range of witnesses. I would especially like to thank St Mungo's for hosting us and showing us its exemplary work, which led in large part to the questioning we went on to do. The report, which received widespread media coverage, made a number of recommendations on how the Government could more effectively co-ordinate and prioritise spending on tackling rough sleeping and helping all homeless households. These issues are of huge concern across the House and across the country, but they are of equal concern to very many members of our communities, especially on such a freezing day, in a week that is unusually cold.

In my constituency of Oxford West and Abingdon, residents regularly raise concerns about rough sleeping and provision for homeless people-it is the No. 1 issue at the moment. I pay tribute to the incredible work being done in my constituency, especially by Homeless Oxfordshire, formerly known as Oxford Homeless Pathways. It has told me that in Oxford alone it is reaching out to, on average, two new people a day who are seeking its help.

Recent news reports have highlighted a heavy-handed approach by Oxford City Council, with notices issued threatening homeless people with fines of up to £2,500 if they did not move their belongings. The treatment of homeless people in our city has sparked outrage from the public. There is now real determination, and not just in Oxfordshire but across the country, to ensure that we treat those who are sleeping rough with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Following a campaign by Oxford University students, I was pleased to be able to introduce a private Member's Bill earlier this month aimed at repealing the archaic Vagrancy Act 1824, a Dickensian law that is no longer fit for purpose.​

Oxford is not alone in seeing an increase in the problem of homelessness. Anyone who has visited a town or city centre recently will know that rough sleeping is now at crisis levels. Indeed, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that homelessness is a national crisis, with the number of rough sleepers rising year on year since 2010, doubling to over 4,100 in 2016. Crisis estimates that the figure is now as high as 9,000, and possibly more. Last summer in England there were over 78,000 households in temporary accommodation-this is not just about rough sleeping-which is up by 65% since 2010. Then there are the hidden homeless: the sofa surfers or people staying temporarily with friends and family who escape national statistics on rough sleepers.

I am sure that hon. Members are aware of the scale of the problem. How can we not be, when we heard the story of the gentleman who died right on our doorstep in the underpass of Westminster tube station just a few weeks ago? It is clear that the House needs to take this issue much more seriously, and I am sure that many of our constituents would agree.

It is worth repeating some of the key statistics from the Public Accounts Committee's report. There has been a 134% increase in rough sleeping since 2011. The average life expectancy of a rough sleeper is only 47. People on the street are 17 times more likely to be the victims of violence than those in settled accommodation. Children in long-term temporary accommodation miss far more days of school, at an average of 55 days a year. The country is seeing record problems including record numbers of rough sleepers, and huge increases in the number of families living in temporary accommodation and in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, sometimes for two and a half years at a time. It has never been more important for this House to ensure that the Government are spending enough-and, critically, that they are spending wisely-to address this problem of national significance.

Having looked at the supplementary estimates-dare I say that I have not read them line by line?-it seems that the Ministry proposes an overall reduction of ​£470 million in its resource budget. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what impact this is likely to have on homelessness. But this is not just about overall spending; it is also about how effectively the money is spent. The Public Accounts Committee has expressed concern over how effectively taxpayers' money is being used. There have been some welcome developments, including the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

Local authorities spent £1.1 billion preventing and tackling homelessness in 2015-16, but the Public Accounts Committee found that there were problems: a lack of guidelines on how they should spend the funding they receive and what outcomes they are aiming for. The increase in spending to address homelessness coupled with ongoing cuts to local authority budgets means that councils are struggling to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. Instead, their funding is being spent on tackling homelessness after it has already occurred.

According to the National Audit Office report that underpinned our inquiry, spending on temporary accommodation, which is often poor, has risen from £622 million to £845 million. Meanwhile, countries such as Finland that have prioritised prevention are saving an average of £13,000 a year per homeless person. The key feature is that such countries give homeless people a stable place to stay, where they can rebuild their lives.

The estimate proposes a reduction in current spending on preventing homelessness, from £265.8 million to £263.6 million. It also proposes to remove £25 million of capital funding previously allocated for reducing homelessness that will now not be spent in 2017-18. Given that the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee ​were both clear that there needs to be a focus on preventing homelessness in the first place, these figures are a cause for concern.

I very much welcome the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, as did the whole Committee. Our concern, however, was that far too much sway was put on the Minister for that Act alone to be the panacea. It is not going to work without extra funding available to councils in order to implement it and without funding for truly affordable rents, particularly social rents.

Let me highlight the case of one of my constituents, who lives in a rented house in Abingdon with her two children, one of whom has autism. She recently contacted me because, despite working full time, she cannot afford her rent and is terrified of eviction. She has looked high and low, but cannot find anywhere to live in Abingdon. This story exemplifies the crux of the issue. The report showed that the main driver of the current rise in homeless is the spiralling rents in the private rented sector. As a nation, how did we get to the stage where a mother in full-time work cannot afford a roof over her head?

The estimates show a £259 million reduction in Homes and Communities Agency funding for starter homes and a £72 million reduction this year in affordable homes spending. This worries me. Meanwhile, the estimates show a significant increase in funding for Help to Buy. But those who are about to become homeless are very far from accessing Help to Buy: they have no spare cash, so how are they meant to raise the money for even a small deposit? The estimates also show that capital spend on other housing programmes will fall by £1.2 billion-a reduction of 40%-from £3 billion to £1.8 billion. Help to Buy is useful, but it is certainly not the fix-all solution. The Government have got the emphasis wrong.

Liberal Democrats would like to see a more ambitious programme of house building, but one that aims to be truly affordable-not 80% of market value-and that, critically, also includes rented housing. We have yet to hear from the Government how they are going to achieve that, in the latest Budget or elsewhere.

We also need to consider that people become homeless for a number of other reasons, the most common of which is the end of a private tenancy. Decreasing numbers of houses available for social rent means that local ​authorities are having to rely on private accommodation providers. This accommodation is often of a poor standard and does not offer value for money. There is a problem with landlords who do not want to accept people in receipt of housing allowance, and we suspect that universal credit will make this situation much worse.

The NAO has found that

"changes to Local Housing Allowance…are likely to have contributed to the affordability of tenancies for those on benefits, and are an element of the increase in homelessness."

The key point about joined-up thinking predates any Government. If we are truly to tackle the issue of homelessness, a key recommendation of the Committee's report is that not only should the money and the provisions of the Homelessness Reduction Act be available, but that we also press Governments to work together.

My last point is that a taskforce from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is meant to be leading this work, yet we were shocked to hear that the previous taskforce met only three times between 2015 and 2017. My understanding is that, as of last week, the new taskforce set up under the Homelessness Reduction Act has not even met once. It is critical that the Government take this matter seriously. Those who are homeless are in dire straits. They deserve not just our compassion and care, but, critically, they need us to find the money to put a roof over their heads. That is the best thing for them and, in the spirit of these estimates day debates, it is the most cost-effective thing to do.