HC Deb 07 March 2000 vol 345 cc849-51
4. Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

What progress has been made in reducing the number of rough sleepers. [112175]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

In December 1999, we published our national strategy on rough sleeping "Coming in from the Cold" and announced that the number of people sleeping rough across England had already fallen by more than 10 per cent. between June 1998 and June 1999. More recent street counts have shown that the number of people sleeping rough in central London has fallen by one third over the past year.

Mr. Beard

I thank the Minister for that welcome reply. What support services are being provided to encourage former rough sleepers to stay in permanent accommodation rather than take to the streets again?

Ms Armstrong

That is an important part of the strategy. "Coming in from the Cold" refers not just to coming into a building but to coming into a supportive framework. People will be tracked, given support when they eventually move from hostel accommodation into more permanent accommodation and given support while they are there. We are encouraging voluntary organisations to work with us in a new way to ensure that people who are rehoused have the support to continue to maintain their independent living.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

As Ms Casey has indicated that the solution to the problem of rough sleeping in Westminster is at the heart of the problem in central London, will the Minister pay tribute to the network of voluntary agencies, the police and the local authority that Ms Casey has inherited?

Ms Armstrong

I am delighted to pay tribute to the work that is going on in Westminster and the co-operation between the local authority, the Government, the police and the voluntary sector. Significant changes are taking place, and the number of rough sleepers in Westminster is an important part of tackling the problem overall. I am encouraged that co-operative working across the board and new ways of working are already showing real results.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the welcome progress being made in reducing the number of rough sleepers. However, will she consider the effect of the case of my constituent Ruth Wyner, who has been jailed under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, on charity workers and others in the homelessness sector who might be afraid of a similar occurrence?

Ms Armstrong

I know that there has been much concern about that case, although I cannot comment on it because it is under appeal. I can reassure my hon. Friend and the charity world that the case should have no impact on how people work. Those who run hostels or work with rough sleepers have a clear responsibility to take every care with the most vulnerable people, including those who are drug-dependent. However, they should have nothing to do with drug dealing, which is, and has long been, illegal. For many years, charities have ensured that they worked with that fact. My understanding is that the case makes no difference—

Madam Speaker

Order. The case is sub judice, and the right hon. Lady should not discuss it in that way.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Does the Minister agree that rough sleepers should be directly involved in designing schemes intended to help them? Given her answer about empty homes, is she aware that there are across the country—including in central London—significantly more empty homes than registered homeless households? Would she be prepared to consider extending the powers of local councils to allow them to take tougher action to bring those empty homes back into use?

Ms Armstrong

I expect rough sleepers and the homeless to be involved in developing any strategy. Outside London, local authorities are in control of strategy. I remind the hon. Gentleman that homelessness is rarely simply a matter of not having housing. Our responsibility is to ensure that we tackle coherently across Government and Departments the real tragedy of rough sleeping, and we are determined to do that. We believe that we can further reduce the number of people sleeping rough, and that we can tackle the overall problem. That requires everyone—including local authorities—to play their parts.