All 1 Emma Reynolds contributions to the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017

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Fri 28th Oct 2016
Homelessness Reduction Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading: House of Commons

Homelessness Reduction Bill Debate

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Homelessness Reduction Bill

Emma Reynolds Excerpts
2nd reading: House of Commons
Friday 28th October 2016

(7 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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For 40 years, we in this House have forced local authorities to ration the help they provide to the homeless.

I looked at what I could do. I served in local government for 24 years and saw at first hand the damage that homelessness can do to ordinary people who, through no fault of their own, lose their homes. I also sit on the Communities and Local Government Committee, which published its inquiry into homelessness in August. The Committee made particular efforts with ex-homeless people and young care leavers, which led directly to the report’s recommendations that form the basis of the Bill.

The aim of the Bill is to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place and to prevent people from ever having to sleep rough. In case anyone misunderstands the extent of homelessness, rough sleeping has doubled since 2010. It was up 30% last year alone, with 3,569 people reported as sleeping rough on any one night in 2014. In London, 8,096 people slept rough at some point in 2015-16, an increase of 7% from 2014-15. Last year, 112,330 people in England made a homelessness application, a 26% rise since 2009-10, with 54,430 accepted as homeless and in need of assistance.

If we combat homelessness at an early stage before it becomes a crisis, we will save money in the long run for local authorities. Research commissioned by Crisis, based on in-depth interviews with 86 people who have experienced homelessness, estimates that £742,141 of public money was spent on 86 cases during a 90-day period of homelessness. Overall public spending would fall by £370 million if 40,000 people were prevented from experiencing one year of homelessness, based on an average reduction in public spending of £9,266 per person a year.

Emma Reynolds Portrait Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab)
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I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill, which I fully support. On prevention, does he agree that in Wales the Labour Government have introduced measures very similar to those in the Bill? They are starting to work. Unlike in England, homelessness is dropping. He talks about a false economy. The Welsh Government have put money up front to deal with this issue, but I am sure they will save money in the long run.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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I will come on to the situation in Wales in a moment.

The anticipated savings will include direct savings to local authority homelessness teams. Drawing on the lessons from Wales, which the hon. Lady rightly raises, academics commissioned by Crisis estimate that a projected 20% increase in prevention and relief activity could produce an additional cost of £43.9 million, but that that would be offset by a £46.8 million reduction in spending on people who are already homeless. That is partly due to reductions in the use of temporary accommodation and a greater focus on preventing homelessness. Over time, this should reduce the number of people who lose their home in the first place. This would require more intensive support through either a relief duty or an offer of settled accommodation under the main duty of homelessness.

The Bill should also make savings for other public bodies. Research by Crisis into the cost savings of prevention and relief duties in England suggest that in just six months we could save £2.88 million for the criminal justice system and £1.2 million to £3.8 million for the national health service, including over £500,000 of savings for accident and emergency departments alone. What we know is that people who are sleeping rough are far more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases and they have to use the NHS repeatedly.

In Wales, the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 came into force on 27 April 2015—a great day, the one after my birthday. The experience gained from that legislation has helped to inform measures in the Bill in certain areas. Wales has seen a 69% reduction in the number of households owed the main homelessness duty, with only 1,563 households owed the main homelessness duty in the first year of the new prevention and relief duties. In the first year, 7,128 households were provided with prevention assistance, of which 4,599, or 65%, had a successful outcome. Temporary accommodation has fallen by 16% in Wales since the introduction of the new duties, saving £697,980. In London, which accounts for 72% of temporary accommodation, even half that reduction would save some £37 million.

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Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)
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Let me begin by expressing my thanks and gratitude to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), not merely for his Bill but for the enormous amount of work that he has done over the last few weeks in building a coalition of support across the House and among outside organisations. We should not underestimate his commitment, or his success in building that support for his Bill.

Members have referred to the work of the Communities and Local Government Committee. We in the House are used to following precedents—we seem to do it all the time—but I think that, on this occasion, we have actually created a precedent. A report from a Select Committee has provided the basis for a private Member’s Bill, the Bill has then been subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Select Committee, and the Committee’s subsequent report has helped to produce the Bill in its final form. That, I think, is unique. No one can find an example of its being done before. It is an important example of the two ways in which Back Benchers can best shape and influence legislation in this House—private Members’ Bills and Select Committees—coming together in a powerful way to produce legislation that has support right across the House and will, I hope, reach the statute book. I thank all my colleagues on the Select Committee for the work they have put into it.

Homelessness is a growing problem, as can be seen from the 50% increase in local authority acceptances since 2010 and the growing number of rough sleepers. We also know that the figures do not reflect the true situation. The UK Statistics Authority has said that the figures are not fit for purpose and the Government have agreed to review them, but this is a difficult job. It is difficult enough trying to count rough sleepers. The St Mungo’s estimates for London are eight times higher than the Government figures. We also know that many people go to a local authority and are not recorded properly. Then there are the thousands or tens of thousands who are living in overcrowded accommodation or sofa surfing, and who do not present to a local authority at all. They are not counted in the figures, but we know they are there. The problem is therefore far bigger than the figures indicate.

The Bill, admirable though it is and despite its support across the House, will not deal with the fundamental problem of the housing crisis in this country. There is a shortage of housing caused by decades of not building enough homes by Governments of all political persuasions. Interestingly, when the Select Committee asked three young witnesses what was the most important thing this House could do to deal with homelessness, they all said, “Build more social housing.” That was reflected in recommendation 3 of our first report on homelessness, which stated:

“There is therefore a case for the development of homes for affordable rent which we encourage the Government to act on by working with local authorities to deliver the homes that are needed at a local level.”

It is helpful that the new Minister for Housing and Planning is beginning to reflect that point in his comments. We look forward to the White Paper and the autumn statement, which hopefully will recognise that although homes to buy are important, there are many people who cannot afford to buy and who need a home for rent. That is something for the Government to consider.

Emma Reynolds Portrait Emma Reynolds
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I welcome my hon. Friend’s focus on the housing crisis and the failure of the Government to deal with it. Obviously, successive Governments have failed to build enough homes. May I bring him back to his point about supply? Is it not the case that some of the Government’s policies, such as forcing councils to sell council homes and watering down section 106 agreements to focus purely on starter homes, rather than council homes, are making the problem much, much worse?

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
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Personally, I agree with my hon. Friend. The Select Committee looked at this matter for our report on housing associations and the right to buy, and that was reflected in our report on homelessness. We accepted that there should be a housing programme to provide more homes in local areas to reflect local needs, and that it should include homes to buy and homes to rent. That was agreed across the parties. There is a need to recognise that housing markets are different across the country and that what is appropriate in London is not necessarily appropriate in the north-east. It is appropriate to look at local need and provide the homes that are needed in particular areas. There was all-party support for that.

The Select Committee looked at the problem of the growing gap between private market rents and the local housing allowance. Some 40% of homelessness cases are caused by the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy, often because the tenants cannot afford to pay the rent. In Westminster, the gap between the average rent and the local housing allowance is £500 a month. But it is not just Westminster: in Cambridgeshire, the gap is £250 a month. Those are large figures. If the local housing allowance is frozen from now until 2020, the gap will get worse. Recommendation 2 of the Select Committee’s first report on homelessness states:

“Local Housing Allowances levels should also be reviewed so that they more closely reflect market rents.”

There was cross-party agreement on that. It is a problem that in many areas, when people are made homeless, there is no social housing for them to go into and no private rented housing they can afford either. That needs to be addressed.

There are also problems with supported housing, although the Government have rowed back from their initial intention to relate the cost of supported housing to the local housing allowance. This still needs to be thought through. There are particular problems for people in supported housing who get back into work and then find that they cannot meet the cost of supported housing because housing benefit is withdrawn completely. That problem was raised with the Select Committee by a lot of young people during our inquiry and it needs to be addressed. People must be able to get back into work without finding, suddenly, that they have lost their supported housing at the time they most need it.

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Emma Reynolds Portrait Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on bringing forward the Bill and the manner in which he has done so. He has fostered cross-party working and pre-legislative scrutiny from the Communities and Local Government Committee, on which he sits. Given the time restrictions and the interest in speaking in the debate, I will try to be brief. I want to make three points.

First, homelessness is an issue that is close to my heart. Some 34 years ago, my mother and I found ourselves in that situation. As a single parent, my mum applied to the local council for a council home. Fortunately for us, we were able to stay with friends of hers while we waited for a flat to become available. We were then lucky enough to secure a council property.

I do not remember that experience, but my mum does and I know that she experienced the warmth, sanctity and relief that moving into a council property brought to our small family. We were lucky. In the 1980s, local councils could quite easily give people in our situation that sort of help and support. Frankly, it was a lot cheaper than what would happen now, three decades later. We would have been put into emergency accommodation or the private rented sector, where we might not have been able to afford the rent. I welcome the shift the Bill is trying to engender, from cure to prevention.

I welcome the fact that the Government are supporting this legislation, but they are pursuing wider policies that go against the grain of the progress that the Bill is trying to make. For example, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) has already asked the Government to rethink, and I agree, the idea of forcing councils to sell off council homes to fund the introduction of right to buy for housing association homes, which will result in fewer and fewer council homes being made available. Since the 1980s, we have lost 1.6 million council properties, the majority of which have not been replaced.

A second example is watering down section 106 agreements and replacing affordability requirements for starter homes. I think we should help people to get on the housing ladder, but, as many of my hon. Friends have said, some people will simply not be able to afford to buy and will have to rent. Thirdly, the Government need to reflect more widely on the cuts to local councils, both broadly and particularly in the area of public health. We know that within the complex web of reasons for homelessness, addiction is one driver and councils are increasingly finding it difficult to provide the support.

My second main point is that since the Government came to power in 2010, after the progress made during our 13 years in power before that, the number of rough sleepers has unfortunately doubled—the hon. Member for Harrow East was honest about that—and homelessness is increasing, yet that is not happening in either Scotland or Wales. A few moments ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) was urging the Government—I echo his remarks—to learn from the experience in Wales.

In his opening speech, the hon. Member for Harrow East said that new duties must bring new money. He is absolutely right—and that is what has happened in Wales. It has introduced very similar provisions, ensuring that single homeless people get the support they need as well, while also introducing a specific pot of money. In this financial year, for example, local authorities in Wales were given £4.9 million. As a result of backing up legislative reform with money, we can see how to make a real impact on people’s lives by reducing the number of people who find themselves homeless.

Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
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In the London Borough of Redbridge, the cost of temporary accommodation has risen by £5 million in the last two years, and my council estimates that some of the welcome measures in the Bill might place an additional burden of an extra £5 million. I thus strongly support my hon. Friend’s point—that the new duties are welcome, but they must be properly funded.

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Emma Reynolds Portrait Emma Reynolds
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Following on from my hon. Friend’s point, we all know from our own local council areas that homelessness is a problem, but I have to say that in London the scale of the problem is of a totally different magnitude. When we think about this Bill, we have to make sure that London councils get the resources they need. If they do not, Wolverhampton Council, Birmingham Council, Sheffield Council and other councils around the country will also be affected. When people are made homeless, they are often forced out of borough to places where housing is cheaper. I am not a London-centric MP—I am from the west midlands—but we need to pay specific attention to London. I am not being purely selfish about this, but when there is a problem for London, it then becomes a problem for other parts of the country. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that when he deals with the money resolution for the Bill.

That was to be my third and final point, but let me add that councils need extra resources. Many of them are already trying to do preventive work, although, as we heard from the hon. Member for Harrow East, that is not the case in every part of the country, and we need to engender the cultural shift to which he referred. Budgetary pressures on the good councils are preventing them from doing more. Each year, through a range of interventions, Wolverhampton Council prevents about 1,500 households from becoming homeless, and it tells me that homelessness is rising, but it is receiving no extra money to help it to tackle that rise.

Any extra money that we give to councils must include resources that will enable them to do something about the private rented sector. As we heard earlier from the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), 40% of homeless people find themselves homeless owing to eviction from privately rented accommodation. When I was shadow Housing Minister, we had an ambitious programme to improve the regulation of the private rented sector. I know that Wolverhampton Council would like more power to regulate the private sector and support good landlords, while ensuring that those whose properties are in poor condition are forced out of the market.

I support the Bill, but if the paper on which these measures are written is to mean anything, it must be backed up by resources.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Marcus Jones Portrait Mr Jones
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As I have said, homelessness is not just about housing supply. It is about a number of issues and I am going to outline a number of steps the Government are going to take to tackle rough sleeping; those steps will wrap around the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East to support the most disadvantaged in society.

This Government did bring forward the first social impact bond in the world to help the most entrenched rough sleepers on London’s streets. We are now going to build on that success and introduce a social impact bond with a £10 million rough sleeping fund for it, which will allow local partnerships to work with some of the most entrenched rough sleepers, focusing on getting them into accommodation and using personalised support to address their complex needs. This will be open to all areas but we will particularly be interested in hearing from areas with the highest levels of rough sleeping.

Our programme will mean innovation and collaboration to prevent homelessness. Our £20 million grant fund for prevention trailblazer areas will help up to 20 local areas to go further and faster with reform, laying the groundwork for many of the changes we want to see through my hon. Friend’s legislation. They will adopt and develop best practice and data-driven approaches to identify people at risk of homelessness, and will provide them with early support to prevent a crisis. Southwark, Newcastle and Greater Manchester are our early adopters and will be taking forward a range of initiatives. Projects will include collaboration with a wide range of services to identify people who are at risk of homelessness, and to work with them well before they are threatened with eviction. Early adopters will also test innovative approaches to preventing homelessness to help us build our evidence base on what works. Taken together, these three funds make up a strong package of local support that will make an immediate difference to the lives of homeless people in our country.

It is not just local change that is needed. I am also driving action across Government through the ministerial working group on homelessness. The group is focusing on many key initiatives, the first of which is the development of cross-departmental indicators, so that we can track the progress that all Departments are making in tackling homelessness. Homelessness is not just a housing issue, and that is why, through the ministerial working group, we will work closely with health services, such as hospital discharge teams and mental health services, to understand what more they could do to help to prevent homelessness. Finally, the group is looking at how we can ensure that people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness receive the help that they need to get into work.

This Government are committed to going even further. That is why last year we said that we were looking at options, including legislation, to prevent more people from becoming homeless, and I am pleased that the Government are now providing full support to the Homelessness Reduction Bill. This important piece of legislation will reform the support offered to everyone who is at risk of homelessness, better protecting vulnerable households. Services will focus on intervening earlier, and working with people before they reach crisis point. People who do face a homelessness crisis will get quicker help to resolve it.

The Bill requires local authorities to provide new homelessness services to all those affected, not just those who are protected under existing legislation. My hon. Friend provided an excellent description of the effect that the Bill will have. I particularly draw Members’ attention to the extension of the duty on local authorities to provide advisory services. This means that services must be designed with certain vulnerable groups in mind, such as care leavers and victims of domestic abuse. This will mean that people at risk of homelessness will receive more meaningful information earlier, to help them to prevent their own homelessness.

Emma Reynolds Portrait Emma Reynolds
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Can the Minister reassure the House that the Bill’s money resolution will provide sufficient resources to allow local authorities to comply with their new duties, in order the make the Bill a reality?

Marcus Jones Portrait Mr Jones
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I thank the hon. Lady for bringing up a point that Members across the House have rightly raised today. I shall say more about this later, but I hope that I will be able to reassure her and other Members that the Government are absolutely committed to providing new funding to local authorities to allow them to discharge the new duties in the Bill.

As I was saying, preventing homelessness as early as possible is critical. Importantly, the Bill places a duty on local authorities to start helping applicants 56 days before they are threatened with homelessness. This doubles the current period for help and brings it more into line with the notice period for ending an assured shorthold tenancy, which is currently the lead trigger for statutory homelessness acceptances.

The Bill will place a duty on local authorities to take reasonable steps to prevent homelessness for eligible households threatened with homelessness. It will also ensure that other local services refer those who are either homeless or at risk of being homeless to local authority housing teams, and that care leavers are more easily able to establish a local connection and so are not deterred from seeking support, should they need it.

The Bill will make a real difference; it offers support to a much wider group of people who need it than the existing legislation, which is why I am today pleased to offer the House the Government’s full and unfettered support for the Bill. I can confirm that the Government will fund the additional costs of the Bill, in line with the long-standing new burdens arrangements.

As I said to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), there will be new funding for local authorities. We will work closely with local authorities and homelessness charities to ensure the successful implementation of the Bill. That includes a commitment to working together on any guidance and codes of practice that will be required to sit alongside the new legislation.