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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I should like to add a word to the exchange that took place between the Minister and my noble friend Lady Hanham during our debate on Amendment No. 1. I entirely concur with the Minister and my noble friend that holding the Committee debate upstairs worked well and was constructive. However, I hope that that will not be taken as meaning that we should take a whole series of Committee debates off the Floor of the House, because we in this House gain enormously from being able to take part in several different Committee debates, rather than, as in the House of Commons, being locked up in one Committee and unable to speak more widely.
I mention that only in case that exchange, which was most felicitous, had been misunderstood. I should also like to add a word based on experience in the City of Westminster in support of what my noble friend said in moving Amendment No. 2.
There was concern during the homelessness count a year or two ago that the numbers in Victoria Street had suddenly risen sharply. There was therefore an attempt to verify why that had happened and whether the figures were accurate. As chance had it, a count was taken at 10 p.m. and at 2 a.m., to see what movement there was in the figures during the particular night in May on which the count was held. It transpired that at 2 a.m. a number of people were present who those taking the count knew perfectly well had flatswho were in accommodationbut who had decided to come down to chat with their friends who were sleeping rough. The picture is therefore potentially blurred. The greater focus that we can bring to the facts the better.
In terms of historic continuity, between the period when the Savoy Palace belonged to John of Gaunt and the time when the Savoy became a luxury hotel, there were hostels for the homeless in the Strand on a fairly continuous basisduring the Tudor and Stuart periods. The fact that people still sleep in shop doorways in the Strand is an index of the extraordinary continuity that sometimes occurs in our affairs.
However, when we clear such an area that is notorious for rough sleepingI mean notorious in the sense of attracting public attentionby an holistic method, such as was referred to in Committee upstairs and may have been referred to on Second Reading, displacement will occur. That is what had produced the sudden upsurge of numbers in Victoria Streetincluding, tragically, a murder in Strutton Ground that some of your Lordships may remember. Imposing an obligation on the local authorityin that case, Westminster City Councilto treat rough sleepers in its municipal area is therefore thoroughly desirable.
To reinforce what my noble friend said at the close of her speech, the Westminster branch of the Council of Churches has a sub-committee on homelessness with which I used frequently to meet when I was in the other place. It was clear from parish experience across Westminster that there were a fair number of rough sleepers whom it would be difficult to persuade not to sleep rough, because they had always followed that life. We should not take the focus off rough sleepers, whatever previous legislation saysI recognise what the Minister said in Committee. The last thing that we want is to slip back after the achievements that the Government can rightly claim from the initiatives that they set up under the homelessness czar.
Lord Fearn: My Lords, I also rise to support Amendment No. 2. On 15th November, when rough sleepers were counted, the figure totalled 532 for the whole of England, which I found hard to believe. It has since been proven wrong by many institutions that look after rough sleepers, such as the Simon Community. It said that there were many more rough sleepers but that that night there was a purge by police, when it is alleged that the police used a heavy hand and forced many people into hostels. Parties were also given on that night in cities, which brought in homeless people. That was, to say the least, rather strange.
In Sheffield, the count was one; in Birmingham, the count was two; in Liverpool, where a lot of people sleep rough, the count was not high, although I do not know exactly what it was. People sleep rough in my home town of Southport, but that did not figure in the count.
So I am concerned that people who sleep rough are not included in any kind of register or strategy by housing authorities. As a member of a local authority, I know that many slip through the net. How can the Minister ensure that rough sleepers are included among those who need accommodation?
I imagine that the Minister is well seized of the point that it is not just a question of providing more houses or hostels but one of total care and rehabilitation of people who have fallen out of normal society.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, perhaps I may turn first to Amendments Nos. 2 and 5 which address the position with regard to rough sleepers. I agree entirely with the policy aim enunciated by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke; we must maintain our focus on rough sleepers and not lose the ground gained by Louise Casey and the Rough Sleepers' Unit over the past few years of their operation. We believe that we have achieved that in the following way. Homelessness, as defined in Section 175 of the Housing Act 1996, includes rough sleepers. That is the advice we have received and which has been reaffirmed since this matter was raised in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham.
I believe that local housing authorities and housing practitioners fully understand that any definition of homelessness must include rough sleeping. If there is any remaining doubt, first, the point has been asserted both in Committee and again on Report and, secondly, the draft code of guidance which has been sent to the noble Baroness, along with copies to all other interested noble Lords, states explicitly that authorities must take account of rough sleeping in their reviews and when devising strategies. I hope that noble Lords will agree that the policy aim is the same, and that it is simply a legal question as to how that policy is achieved.
I should like to deal with the wider points raised in our debate on the position of rough sleepers. I reiterate that rough sleepers must be included in local authority strategies. It is vital that that focus is maintained. The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Fearn, referred to the issue of the rough sleeping count. Counts are not undertaken only in May; they are made regularly throughout the year. The most recent count was undertaken last November. The method used is to take a count of all those sleeping rough on one particular night. Everyone accepts that such a count provides a useful snapshot of the numbers involved. The methodology employed by the Rough Sleepers' Unit was developed by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in partnership with the voluntary sector. Despite occasional criticism, independent evaluations have shown consistently that
The noble Lord, Lord Fearn, referred to a number of allegations that have been made. For example, he pointed out that there had been a police purge of rough sleepers in London. Inquiries were made by my department on this point, but there is absolutely no truth in the suggestion that there was such a police purge preceding a count. Although it has been suggested that there are inaccuracies, it is widely believed among those directly involved in the care of rough sleepers that the numbers have been dramatically reduced as a result of the work of the Rough Sleepers' Unit. It is extremely important that that point should be acknowledged. It is also important to note that allegations made in relation to the count are not stated as facts, as the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, put them in relation to the count made at the end of last year. Lastly, it is important to ensure that the gains achieved are consolidated so that the problem does not continue.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, as exemplified by the noble Lord, Lord Fearn, in the statistics he quoted, the most recent count was broken down by district. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister could confirm that that will continue to be the case so that, for example, all the London boroughs will record their counts on one night. Of course I acknowledge that undertaking one count in May and one in November is a sensible compromise; counts are taken once in warm weather and once in cold.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I know that the count is broken down between cities; that is, counts are taken for Birmingham, Sheffield and so forth, as well as for London. Perhaps I may write to the noble Lord with regard to the specifics of how the count for London is broken down.
I turn to Amendment No. 3, spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. The amendment would require housing authorities specifically to assess the levels and likely future levels of homelessness among older people in their district. The noble Baroness was candid and told the House that this is a probing amendment seeking certain assurances from me. First, I should say that this is an important issue. Homelessness, or the threat of homelessness, among elderly people is a specific problem which needs to be addressed by local authorities. It is a particularly frightening prospect for people as they grow older.
I am pleased to say that the draft good practice guide on homelessness strategies, which I sent out to noble Lords under a covering letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, explicitly points out the need to provide specialist and preventive support services for older people, among other groups. It addresses certain specific needs and refers to the good practice guidance published by Help the Aged, Coming Home: a guide to good practice by projects helping older
I turn now to two specific issues. Supporting People is an important initiative which seeks to embrace the needs of elderly people, ensuring that they can stay in their homes, while supporting the needs of those elderly who do become homeless. The noble Baroness also referred to the problems caused by the lack of affordable housing. That is an important issue which is even more significant in parts of London and the South East, as well as in other areas. It is a matter which we keep constantly under review. In the light of those remarks, I hope that the noble Baroness will not move her amendment.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I believe that my small amendment, which develops an argument we began at the previous stage of the Bill, has encouraged quite an interesting short debate on the question of rough sleepers. Perhaps my lack of experience of this House is beginning to lead me to the view that some of the worth of tabling amendments lies in putting on the record in Hansard the views of noble Lords with regard to certain aspects of an issue so that they can be referred to later.
The question of rough sleepers vexes us all, in particular the underlying reasons; namely, why are some people in that position and what will happen to them in the future? It is absolutely essential that an eye is constantly kept on the situation and that responsibility for addressing it is firmly pinned down. For as long as the Rough Sleepers' Unit still exists in one form or anotherI acknowledge again today as I did in Committee the extremely valuable work undertaken by the unitperhaps the amendment we are considering would not matter all that much. However, if there was any question that the Rough Sleepers' Unit would no longer continue its work, it would be fundamentally important to ensure that local authorities take up responsibility for looking after the homeless and rough sleepers.