Sarah Jones – 2020 Speech on Rough Sleeping

Below is the text of the speech made by Sarah Jones, the Labour MP for Croydon Central, in the House of Commons on 27 February 2020.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Rough sleeping is not inevitable in a country as decent and well off as ours. The cost of a decade of austerity has been over 700 deaths last year on our streets and huge numbers of children and families in bed-and-breakfast and temporary accommodation. It is the defining mark of this Conservative Government. Any improvement on that record is welcome, but today’s figures show that the number of people sleeping rough in shop doorways and on park benches is more than double what it was when Labour left government. That shames us all and it shames Conservative Ministers most of all. It must end.

Today’s figures come with a big health warning: everyone, from the Secretary of State to homelessness charities, knows that these statistics are an unreliable undercount of the true scale of the problem. The figures have been refused national statistics status—a mark of

“trustworthiness, quality and public value”

Yesterday, Labour’s shadow Housing Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), wrote to the UK Statistics Authority to ask it to investigate their accuracy.

That follows new data obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act, showing that Ministers have been dramatically under-reporting the scale of rough sleeping. The BBC revealed that 25,000 people are sleeping rough in England—five times the number recorded by the Government’s statistics. Even on today’s unreliable figures, the Government are set to break their pledge to end rough sleeping by the end of the Parliament. At the current rate of progress, they will not end rough ​sleeping until 2037, so while the Secretary of State’s ambitious words are welcome, how does he intend to reach his target without further investment?

The announcement today that the Government will go some way towards following Labour’s proposals and fund housing for rough sleepers following the Housing First model is welcome, but we remember that the Secretary of State’s party promised 200,000 starter homes and did not build a single one. When the Prime Minster was Mayor of London, he promised to end rough sleeping in the capital by 2012, but rough sleeping doubled. We are right to be sceptical and ask the Secretary of State to clarify: by what date will these homes will be made available? How will the locations be determined? And is the funding genuinely extra, as he claims, or has it been diverted from other programmes in the Department’s budget?

It is not just that the Government have turned a blind eye to the homelessness crisis for so long—which they have—but they have refused to face up to the fact that they actively created the crisis. They have cut £1 billion a year from local homelessness reduction budgets and there is no commitment to reverse that. They have cut investment in new homes for social rent to record levels, with no commitment to reverse that, and they have failed to deliver on their pledge to end unfair evictions—the leading cause of homelessness.

Much like other symptoms of the housing crisis, such as the spiralling housing benefit bill, the funding needed to tackle rough sleeping will continue to rise if we do not invest in addressing the root causes of the housing crisis. That means more than warm words about bringing health and housing together; it means facing up to the impact of deep cuts to welfare, mental health support and addiction services since 2010. However, the Government are in denial about the root causes of homelessness. Perhaps that is why the Housing Secretary chose to appoint someone as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, with specific responsibility for rough sleeping, who thinks that sleeping rough is a lifestyle choice and who claimed that

“many people choose to be on the street”—[Official Report, 29 January 2020; Vol. 670, c. 858.]

He also claimed that it is more comfortable than going on exercise in the Army— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)

Order.

Sarah Jones

That is particularly insulting to the hundreds of our armed forces veterans who are sleeping rough, who this Government have abandoned despite their years of service to our country.

As the first snow of the new decade falls on our streets outside, we must face up to the human cost of this Conservative Government: two people a day are dying on our streets; 127,000 children are homeless in temporary accommodation; and the rough sleeping figures are five times higher than the official statistics. Homelessness was tackled by the last Labour Government when we inherited a similar scale of crisis. We reduced rough sleeping by three quarters. The Secretary of State’s announcements today will not go far enough to deliver on his targets. To quote Louise Casey:

“We have gone from a beacon of success to an international example of failure”,​

and we

“must not allow this issue to be ignored, we must feel its impact and act as the country we are proud to be.”