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17 Oct 2006 : Column 215WH—continued

In Penwith alone—my constituency covers most of Kerrier, Penwith and, of course, the Isles of Scilly—the count on 14 and 15 March last year demonstrated that there were six rough sleepers in Penwith district. It is the smallest by far of the six districts in Cornwall. The figure for Cornwall as a whole was 11. That is an absurd figure. Anyone who works in the relevant policy sphere will know that that does not at all reflect the seriousness of the problem in the area. The figures that the Salvation Army gave me for that period suggest that the number was in the region of 40. Some of the latest figures suggest that the number remains the same. The official figures that I have had most recently from
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Penwith district council, despite tremendous efforts by the district and by other stakeholders working together to bear down on the problem, show eight rough sleepers now in the district.

Transient people coming to the end of the line are an issue. The district has the image of a place to which people can escape, and that is a theme that certainly has an effect in an area such as my own. However, we also generate a significant amount of indigenous homelessness, and the Government need to take that fact on board. The ministerial response to me on this matter suggested that the reason for the relevant figure was a problem with the statistical measures that were used, or a problem with Penwith district council and its manner of addressing the problem. I was told that officers from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister came down and spoke to local stakeholders, and suggested ways to tackle the problem. All those measures were already in place in the area. There are also 65 people in bed and breakfast. Those are single people, not families. Alternative hostel accommodation is being provided for families in my area.

There is a significant problem in the area, and the Government do not seem to want to accept that it is a problem. I believe that they view it as a matter of the statistical count, and of the homeless people themselves, rather than as the product of a dysfunctional, malfunctioning housing market in which pressure higher up leads inevitably to unbearable pressure further down the housing supply chain, so that large numbers of people are homeless in areas such as mine. Those areas need their problems addressed.

I hope that the Minister will accept that what I have outlined is not simply a statistical exercise, but is an issue that must be related to the working of the whole housing market.

Several hon. Members rose

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I have asked the Doorkeeper to get the drilling to cease, so I hope that hon. Members will rise above it. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 12 o’clock, and three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, so short contributions would be appreciated.

11.36 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on raising this appropriate debate, at a time when we know Cathy coming home is still an issue. I am glad that she pointed out how much has changed and the improvements that have been made, although there is still much more that we can do. I want to discuss that in the brief time that I have.

I took an interest in this issue because, after the 2005 general election, I was challenged, as I often am, by BBC Radio Norfolk, to say what I was doing about homelessness. I held my hand up and said, “Well, not a lot, really,” but I knew then that I had better do something about it, and my researcher and I set to work in the Norwich area to find out how homelessness was created. We visited rough sleepers, soup kitchens, drug counsellors, housing officers and charity chief executives, and managed to get them all together in a room. They were all very well at telling me
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individually how well they were behaving, but they did not seem to know each other or work together very creatively. That was the lesson that I came away with after my initial six months of study; they really ought to work together. We need a whole city programme in which that happens, and we need to be radical about looking after homeless people.

There is a lot of confusion among the service users, who have been given little help or information by statutory bodies, and who are sent from one charity to another and one hostel to another. There is no standard process for them to follow, and it is no wonder that they fall through the net; in actuality there is no net. There is no way of tracking an individual’s progress through the system and no uniform method of assessment and referral. It is difficult to get information about where to go. There is no uniform assessment of needs at all.

My young researcher asked why there was not a website in the city of Norwich, which has had a proud record on housing for years. I know that not everyone uses websites, but that would at least be a slightly creative thing to do in this day and age to enable people to see which places were or were not full. I think that that will happen now.

I have been through all the statistics and have found out that the number of households in temporary accommodation in the eastern region rose by 171 per cent. between 1997 and 2005. I always can be suspicious of statistics and figures, but that one is being heavily quoted, and perhaps the Minister would look into it.

The issue of housing—the lack of affordable and social housing that affects families across the board, from the homeless to first-time buyers and others—has already been covered in the debate. I know that the Government are making efforts to increase affordable housing, and I welcome that. The right to buy has crippled the housing stock in Norwich. Both Norwich MPs get many visits on the subject. Nearly half of every surgery is taken up by people who cannot find a home and do not understand why there are empty homes in the city of Norwich that they cannot get into. Some of those people would be quite prepared to go into the houses and decorate them, but there is always some pathetic excuse as to why they cannot use houses that have been empty for a few months or so. That is one problem with the affordable housing issue.

As an aside I ask this: when we do build houses, could we please think about the environment and climate change? Also, having a bit of photovoltaics around would not do any harm. We could combine the problems.

The second prong of homelessness has not been touched on today, so I shall spend a minute on that. I want to lubricate the system by which people who are registered as being homeless can be helped. We cannot immediately put people into homes because the homes are not there; I want to address the issue of how assessments are made as to whether people have made themselves homeless. Under section 191 of the Housing Act 1996 the local authority must determine if an applicant is intentionally homeless. The Department for Communities and Local Government guidelines on homelessness say that an applicant is intentionally homeless if they have deliberately done or failed to do something
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which has caused them to be homeless. That leaves little room for the interpretation of individual circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North has illustrated one or two cases, and I will give another. She referred to “Cathy Come Home”; those were the days. Back then, everybody had to watch because there were only two channels, BBC and ITV. My goodness, those were the days; we had to watch political history unfolding in front of our eyes on television rather than skipping and floating around 50 different channels. I have a young male constituent who suffers from depression, which is common in people who are homeless. Mental health problems occur much more frequently than in the days of “Cathy Come Home”. My constituent lived in private rented accommodation and had problems managing his money, which is not particularly abnormal; it happens. He got into rent arrears and lost his tenancy, and he was classified as intentionally homeless. The stringent interpretation of the priority need legislation is leaving many vulnerable people homeless who really should not be and who need our help. The system has to help them. My constituent found it difficult to get local people to take his problem seriously. Legislation and the filling in of forms got in his way, as he found that incompatible with his particular problems.

I went round and talked to people about the paper-based medical assessments, which people have to fill in. A general practitioner’s word is not good enough; a medical assessment form has to be filled in. I met the Norfolk and Waveney mental health partnership homeless mentally ill outreach team—there’s a mouthful—who told me that the council in the eastern region refused evidence of an applicant’s doctor or support workers in favour of these paper-based medical reports. The council relies heavily on the type of medication and dosage in making a final assessment of a person’s condition and, therefore, whether they are in priority need.

There is a world-class agency in Norwich called Julian Housing Support, which gives amazing housing support for people with mental health problems. That organisation says that it is necessary to assess people as individuals rather than through a strict medical model that fails to take into account a person’s choice to decline medication, and other factors. People with mental illnesses frequently do not take their medication or do what their doctors tell them. Gosh, does anybody in the Chamber do everything that their doctor tells them? I certainly hope not.

I have tabled parliamentary questions on this issue, and was told that it is for a local authority to decide which services to use, and the Department recommends certain agencies as being useful. In friendship, I say to the Minister that we need high-quality initial decision making about individuals. Is the Department prepared to commission research into the quality of these paper-based assessments and withdraw support if they are found wanting? I believe that some of them will be found wanting, and that there may be other ways to get the necessary information.

We know that because of the nature of homelessness, many people find themselves in the same situation on a regular basis. Drug and alcohol dependencies are much more frequent than they were 40 or so years ago. Mental health problems and drug and alcohol dependency
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mean that there is a whole new problem, which needs to be handled in a new way because of the vulnerability of the people concerned.

I am pleased that Norwich city council now has a full-time private sector facilitator to help people to get into private accommodation, and I congratulate the council on that. I also congratulate the landlords in Norwich on trying to help out. However, we should not spend all our time helping private landlords; we should find other solutions to help the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.

I shall finish by talking about hostels and the problems with them. They are always full, there is no move-on accommodation, the individuals who stay in them become institutionalised, and rough sleepers cannot get a foot on the ladder of rehabilitation. I have talked to Norfolk Supporting People and Norwich city council, which has produced a marvellous document, “A Review of Hostels and Supported Housing in the Greater Norwich Housing Sub Region”, for which I have high hopes. We had a meeting, and somebody from the Department came and gave a presentation about the work being done by the Department’s hostels capital improvement programme, which helps to create bright, vibrant, positive, modern hostels. Was not the PowerPoint presentation magnificent?

The scheme’s mantra, quite rightly, is not more beds, but better beds. Its aim is to make hostels centres of excellence. We need more such programmes to help people, because hostels become full very quickly, and people become institutionalised and cannot move on. We need more of that kind of programme and we need hostels that are supportive and rehabilitative environments in which people can access health and career services and counselling. While the Minister is at it, I wonder if she would give Norwich city council a bit more money. It has good ideas but its homelessness grant is very small.

11.47 am

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Taylor, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this important debate. I come to the debate from the perspective of a Member in the capital with all the housing problems we have here, particularly concerning the homeless, but I understand that there are other perspectives and problems. One theme of today’s debate is the fact that homelessness is becoming a significant problem in all regions of the country and that we need to deal with it.

I congratulate the Government on making homelessness a priority. Others have spoken at length about the rough sleeping initiative, which has been very successful, but no one mentioned the introduction of the strategy for local government on homelessness, which has focused local authorities’ attention on the issue and some of the supply steps that they can take to deal with it. We have also had the extension of priority categories—16 and 17-year-olds who are vulnerable and people who come from institutional settings—which has done a great deal to stop people falling through the safety net into rough sleeping.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, Mr. Taylor. I had another engagement.

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My hon. Friend mentioned vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds. Does he agree that the work of the foyer movement is doing in relation to housing for vulnerable young people is especially important in this country? Does he share my hope that the Government will reconsider the 16-hour rule which prevents some young people, at the age of 19, in foyers from receiving housing benefit, and which makes them choose between education and somewhere to live?

Mr. Love: I agree with all of that. I assume that the Minister will not be able to respond directly on the 16-hour rule. I will add, however, that while the foyer movement is doing an exceptionally good job, there is a real problem with move-on accommodation. That comes back to the homelessness issue.

My final point about the Government’s initiative is that we should accept the work that is being done to end the use of bed and breakfasts for families. I would, however, concur with those who mentioned the large amount of emerging evidence showing that bed and breakfast is still used for families in the short term. I hope that the Minister will take that issue back to the Department.

I want to look now at some of the continuing problems that we have with homelessness. I make no excuse for focusing to some extent on the situation in the capital, where homelessness is still a significant problem. Nationwide, about 100,000 families live in temporary accommodation and something like 116,000 children are particularly affected, according to Shelter. Although I congratulate the Government on setting a target to halve the numbers in temporary accommodation over the next few years, it is a major task, and they need to redouble their efforts to deal with all the issues involved. Let me just mention some of those issues.

Others have mentioned the time that people spend in temporary accommodation, and the insecurity and isolation that they experience as a result. There is also the impact on the health of many of those who live in temporary accommodation, and it is mainly children who are affected. Finally, families are continuously moved from one set of temporary accommodation to another, especially in London, and the amount of time that children spend out of school has an impact on their education and their future ability to achieve more as part of the next generation. Those are real concerns, which have been expressed right across the board.

I want to echo a question that I raised earlier about the standard of temporary accommodation. We are often told that such accommodation is good quality, and there have undoubtedly been improvements. Indeed, there was some very bad accommodation five or 10 years ago, but things have not improved so much that we cannot still say that many people still live in bad accommodation; indeed, three constituents came to my last surgery to talk specifically about the quality of their accommodation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North talked in some detail about the emerging problem of the rather over-zealous way in which people attempt to prevent homelessness. In particular, they are using the private rented sector for settled accommodation, but many of the people who are placed in that sector have had dismal and negative experiences of it. It does not
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seem adequate to the task of providing settled accommodation to put such people back into that sector.

When the changes were made to the Housing Bill, mediation was touted as a way forward, and I still accept that 100 per cent., but some local authorities have been rather over-zealous in implementing mediation. It is often used as a weapon to persuade 16 and 17-year-olds whose relationships have broken down to go back into the family or to persuade those in marital situations that have broken down to reunite, when there is no real prospect of securing a settled situation.

I am acutely aware of the time, Mr. Taylor, so let me briefly mention solutions. We must press the Minister on this because we are coming round to the comprehensive spending review, which will give us an opportunity to look at solutions. I recognise that the things that the Government are doing will continue to produce improvements and I hope that we will be able to halve the number of people in temporary accommodation over the next few years. However, we all recognise that we need to go further, and that was one of the major recommendations of the Barker review, which the Government set up. The review clearly showed the slump in the provision of new affordable rented accommodation, and steps must be taken to address that problem.

The Communities and Local Government Committee, in its recent report, which I hope the Minister and the Department are looking at closely, suggested that there needed to be a significant increase in affordable accommodation. However, it also went further. Some of the resources that are available are spent not only on affordable rented accommodation, but on providing low-cost home ownership. I am very supportive of low-cost home ownership initiatives, and I want to see the 1 million additional home owners the Government have committed themselves to creating, but we must look carefully at the balance of resources between the two issues. I therefore echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), because we need to think seriously about additional resources.

The Government have set themselves a priority for housing, and cross-cutting reviews on housing and growth are going on. Given all the concerns that our constituents have expressed to us, let me therefore make a plea to the Government as they undertake that work. The only real solution to the problems of homelessness is additional supply of affordable rented accommodation. I therefore hope that the Minister will respond on that point and, more importantly, take it back for discussion in the Department.

11.55 pm

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