The second reading of the Homelessness Reduction Bill took place in the chamber on Friday 28 October. Here’s the text of the full speech I hoped to make during the debate. In the event, I had to cut it short, but was still able to contribute – as so many of my constituents had asked me to do.
Between 5am and 8am on 9September 2016, 94 people were counted sleeping rough in Bristol. That’s 94 people sleeping in doorways, in makeshift tents, in carpark stairwells, in Bristol on just one night.
That’s not counting people who are homeless but staying with family and friends, or who have found a place in a hostel or refuge or night shelter.
It’s not counting the people who are counting the pennies to pay the rent. The people on the edge of homelessness, often in work but on a low income, or dealing with sudden changes in employment, or illness.
Of those 94 people sleeping rough, 24 had mental health needs. 12 were over 50.
Underneath the numbers, every one is an individual in an impossible situation, a person, cold and frightened, who has been let down or got into a mess and not know how to get out.
That’s why the last Labour government set up the Rough Sleepers’ Unit, brought in the Homelessness Act and expanded councils’ homelessness duties to include care leavers, people fleeing domestic violence, young people and those leaving the armed services.
Under Labour, homelessness fell by 75 per cent. That’s Labour’s record.
While under the Tory government homelessness is rising sharply, as is poverty, as are private rents. That’s the Tory record.
This bill goes some way to helping people at risk of homelessness and I welcome that. By stepping in early councils can and do prevent people’s situations from deteriorating to the point that they have nowhere to go.
But this will not solve our housing crisis. The government knows this. Earlier this year the Housing Minister announced a million new homes to be built this Parliament. They need to hurry up. Their own figures show only 139,000 were built in the year to July. We need to build 200-300,000 per year.
In July, the House of Lords Economic Committee concluded that “if the government is serious about the desire to build more homes across all sectors it should relax the arbitrary limits on what local councils are able to borrow to build more homes. There is no set limit to the amount a local authority can borrow to build a swimming pool, the same should apply to housing.” They also said government should give councils power to charge council tax on land with planning permission granted after a certain time. It urged the government release more public land for building.
In Bristol, average rents rose by nearly 10 per cent last year. There’s a real risk tenants who can’t pay more are evicted so rent can be increased. Will the government admit that it is treating housing as a privilege, not a right?
At the moment, on the day they are granted asylum, refugees are given 28 days’ notice to find somewhere to live and money to live on. Sometimes there is help – and voluntary organisations and the council in Bristol do a great deal. But sometimes this leads to rough sleeping and the start of long-term homelessness. Will the government commit to reforming the integration system for refugees?
It is easy to call for parity between mental and physical health – but the reality is very different. Risk of and actual homelessness makes depression worse. Will the government move beyond warm words on mental health and put its money where its mouth is?
In Bristol we do a great deal to help people in all stages of homelessness.
The St Mungo’s outreach workers, who took me out on the dawn tea run recently, try to get people into hostels, give them advice and help with health problems. They respond to reports from the public on street link app.
- Emmaus Bristol helps people back into training, volunteering and work..
- Next Link helps victims of domestic violence.
- Bristol Drugs Project helps people with drug problems.
- Talking Money helps with debt and money problems.
- One25 helps women in street prostitution.
- My caseworkers help advise people and get them into accommodation..
- Our new Labour Mayor and his team have made housing a priority.
But the government has to get serious, otherwise all these people will continue to have to pick up the pieces of our broken housing problem.
This Tory government has presided over six years decline in our national housing situation. Rents rising. Social housing getting harder and harder to come by. Nowhere near enough affordable homes being built. A private rented sector which penalises people who are working hard but haven’t had a pay rise in years. Rogue landlords allowed to get away with accommodation you wouldn’t want any human to live in.
How can members of the government be content with this? The government may have agreed to support this Bill, which I welcome, but it needs to do far more than that.
It needs to sort out the private rented sector. It needs to put refugee integration support and mental health care on secure footings. Above all, Mr Speaker, it needs to give councils the tools they need to be able to BUILD MORE AFFORDABLE HOMES! Now, not next year. Thousands, not a handful. And good quality, well-insulated, low carbon-impact homes.
Although this bill isn’t perfect, I’ll be voting for it. And as I do, I’ll be thinking of everyone I met with St Mungo’s early one morning in Bristol.
I’ll be thinking of the family struggling to make rent, despite both parents taking on extra jobs.
Of the child living in squalid conditions with a parent desperate to protect them from damp and cold.
Of the refugee who thought everything was going to be OK, and suddenly found that there was no home.
I hope that we can show today that all of us in this place care deeply about them, and that we are doing everything we can to find them a home.