HC Deb 09 May 2000 vol 349 cc630-2
3. Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

If he will make a statement on progress made in reducing the number of rough sleepers. [120141]

9. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

If he will make a statement on progress made in providing services to rough sleepers. [120147]

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

We are implementing the proposals in our national strategy "Coming in from the Cold". I am pleased to announce that I have agreed the final step required to ensure that there are enough hostel beds for vulnerable rough sleepers in London. We will spend £9.6 million on 150 hostel beds, which will bring the total to the target set out in the strategy. In December, we met our first milestone of reducing the number of rough sleepers by one tenth. January street counts showed that there had been a fall of around one third in the number of people sleeping rough in central London since June 1998.

Laura Moffatt

That is most welcome news, but I would like to take the argument a little further. Clearly, there is now a commitment to deal with rough sleeping. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important part of the new package is to ensure that rough sleepers do not return to the streets? Does she also agree that we should share the good practice of many local authorities in and around London, such as short-term accommodation for the young—STAY—in Crawley and the foyer projects of local government, the London and Quadrant housing trust and the Housing Corporation, which give young people stability and ensure that they do not return to the streets?

Ms Armstrong

My hon. Friend is right; it is very important that we do more, both to prevent people needing to end up on the streets and to ensure that, once we get them inside having slept rough, we sustain their ability to remain in stable accommodation and work with them consistently. Projects such as the ones that she described in Crawley are exactly those that we are seeking to develop throughout the country, so that people recognise that coming to London does not mean pavements covered in gold, and they are able to find a settled life in their home area.

Fiona Mactaggart

I was very pleased to welcome the Minister to Slough to open a practical project at the Look Ahead hostel, offering 18 places, to reduce the number of rough sleepers in our town. It is clear from speaking to its residents that crucial to improving services for rough sleepers is the quality of health care that they receive. Many have had problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and if health services and GPs do not provide them with care, they are likely to return to the streets. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Department of Health ways in which it can work with housing projects to improve health care for rough sleepers and former rough sleepers to keep them off the streets?

Ms Armstrong

I was delighted to visit and open the Serena Hall hostel in Slough last week. It is another good example of co-operation between central and local government and the Housing Corporation to ensure appropriate services. We know that many people end up sleeping rough because they abuse drugs or alcohol, but that the necessary services have simply not been available at the time and in the place that they needed them. I assure my hon. Friend that we are already working very closely with the Department of Health. We are joining funds in order to establish contact and assessment teams to pick up people who have specific problems, and to ensure that they come inside and receive appropriate services. Mental and physical health and the tackling of drug and alcohol abuse are central to the strategy.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Will the Minister take this opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) who, when he was Housing Minister, launched the rough sleepers initiative, which was so successful under the previous Government? In working out how successful the RSI has been, does she agree that it is important to compare winter figures with winter figures and summer figures with summer figures?

Unlike the figures that the Minister quoted, the reality is that, in June 1998, there were 620 rough sleepers in London, but by June 1999 that number had increased to 635. If one compares winter figures with winter figures, one also finds an increase in the number of rough sleepers in London that is quite contrary to the spin that the Minister put on it. Is she not concerned that the decline in investment in social housing under this Government is causing a net increase in homelessness—unless one has the good fortune to be provided with a subsidised house by the RMT?

Ms Armstrong

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but the figures that I gave demonstrate a reduction not only since we began the strategy, but year on year from January to January. I am really sorry that he is not full-heartedly behind the policy. The problem with the previous Government's policy was that about £250 million was spent and much new accommodation provided, but there was no reduction in the number of people sleeping rough. Our strategy builds on what the previous Government did, but goes much further. We believe that it is not necessary for people to live on the streets, and we will make sure that they do not.