Parliamentary debate on night shelters

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what provision they are making for homeless people left without access to night shelter provision following the Anglesey judgment on housing benefit and the funding of night shelters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, local authorities are best placed to make local provision for homeless people and have been allocated £470 million from 2011-12 until 2014-15 to prevent homelessness and tackle rough sleeping.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, if there were no material changes in the Government’s regulations concerning night shelters, why are homeless people who were in shelters now on the streets? In the light of the Anglesey judgment is there not an urgent need for the Minister to issue new guidance to close a revolving door which has sent vulnerable people, many of whose lives were, in any event, in freefall, back on to the streets, sleeping rough on park benches or in shop doorways or seeking hospital beds, and which in Salford precipitated the closure of Narrowgate, the only night shelter serving Manchester and Salford, which has, in the past, helped more than 2,000 people? To protect the homeless, do we not need to rapidly hammer out a humane and just solution, with new guidelines issued to local authorities and to charities working with the homeless?

Lord Freud: My Lords, clearly homelessness is a priority of this Government and we are putting a lot of resource into prevention. The most important area in which we are doing that is the No Second Night Out policy, which is proving very successful and is being run out across the country this year. This is an isolated example of how particular shelters are funded.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, how much consultation was there before this judgment was put into effect? Following the point of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has done tremendous work in this area, is it not time that we issued clear, simple guidelines? Will the Minister write to every local authority explaining that not only have benefits been paid in the past but, in spite of the judgment, they can be paid now and that no one need lose their place in a night shelter?

Lord Freud: My Lords, the actual finding was that a particular night shelter in Anglesey could not be treated as a dwelling because it was, basically, a converted hall. There was no reserving and the people there came on a first come, first-served basis every night. It was a particular finding which might apply to a few other places. However, that is about how local areas find the best possible funding for their support for homeless people.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top: My Lords, I declare my interests stated in the register. I know that the Minister understands that many homeless organisations are trying to move as many people as possible from hostel accommodation in to independent living. However, does he realise that that is now being put at threat because of the changes to the benefits system and, of course, the bedroom tax? In Newcastle, the local housing company has had to warn the Cyrenians, which is the biggest supplier, if you like, of work with the homeless, that it is coming to the stage where it will not be able to allocate any properties to the homeless because it will have to use them for people being transferred within their own estate.

Lord Freud: My Lords, that is clearly a very wide question and I find it hard to answer the specific point. On the point about hostels for the homeless, our best estimate is that there are about 9,000 bedrooms for people who are rough sleepers. A proportion of those may be affected by this particular provision. Authorities need to look at the other sources of funding, including the Supporting People programme, which received £6.5 billion in this spending review.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, can my noble friend remind your Lordships’ House how many spare bedrooms there are in the social housing sector and how many families live in overcrowded accommodation?

Lord Freud: My Lords, there are approximately a quarter of a million people living in overcrowded accommodation and 1 million spare bedrooms in homes lived in by people who receive benefits in the social rented sector.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Lord said that this was an isolated incident, but is he aware that local authorities are already cutting off housing benefit and that shelters are closing down? When will Homeless Link and Crisis have a reply to the representations that they made to DWP asking for an urgent clarification of this ruling?

Lord Freud: My Lords, this is a very particular ruling on what is a dwelling for which housing benefit is payable. Clearly, there are other ways to provide support for night shelters where they are not dwellings. As I said, that is in the Supporting People programme and in the homelessness prevention budget, which are the two large budgets. There may be a small number of the 9,000 or so bedroom spaces where one has to look carefully at what is the appropriate funding, but a large amount of effort is going into supporting rough sleepers and to make that provision. If the effect of this is to upgrade the provision of beds for those who are sleeping rough, that might be a rather good outcome.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the Minister said that homelessness was a priority for the Government. It is interesting to note that, after years of declining trends, 2010 marked the turning point when all forms of homelessness began to rise. Does the Minister accept that for many, a period of stay in a shelter is the first step to being able to obtain and keep a home? It is an environment where they can begin the transition from a chaotic lifestyle to something more stable. In those circumstances, why does not the Minister take up the suggestions that noble Lords have made to look specifically at statutory guidance or a tweak in the regulations so that the types of provision caught by this ruling are put back in the position where people assumed that they were before the judgment was made?

Lord Freud: My Lords, I emphasise that there is absolutely no change here in what is the kind of home for which housing benefit is appropriate. Where that is, in the case of Anglesey, a hall where the showers for those people are half a mile away, it may be that other forms of support, such as the Supporting People programme or homelessness prevention are more appropriate. The No Second Night Out programme, which is now being introduced throughout the country is beginning to make some impressive moves to make sure that people in the state of rough sleeping are caught early and got back on to the path, as the noble Lord said, out of a chaotic lifestyle into something where they can get themselves organised.