What’s the basic minimum that we would think acceptable as help for someone who is homeless, has nowhere else to turn and asks their local council for help? I think that many people would be taken aback that if you are single—that is, you don’t have dependent children—you are likely to be turned away with little or no help.
It is not hard to understand why families are prioritised; of course the instability and trauma of homelessness is something that no child should have to go through. But single people can be at risk precisely because they are on their own and a system that offers them so little is as counterproductive as it is unjust. Indeed, research estimates that preventing someone from becoming homeless could save between £3,000 and £18,000 in the first year alone for every person helped.
I therefore strongly support the recommendations of the independent expert panel that recently reviewed England’s homelessness legislation. The group, which included local authorities as well as homelessness charities, academics and lawyers, took evidence from reforms in Scotland and Wales. They make a convincing case that England, too, can do far better.
The panel recommends that changes are made to the legislation which would:
Improve the advice available to everyone approaching their council as homeless;
Place a stronger duty on local authorities to try and prevent more people from becoming homeless and encourage local authorities to tackle homelessness at a much earlier stage.
Protection for families would not be weakened and dealing with family homelessness more quickly should prove more effective and cost effective.
The panel have very helpfully laid out which parts of the Housing Act 1996 would need to be amended in order to bring in these changes. The proposal is ready and waiting to be taken up by the Government or by a backbencher as a Private Members Bill.
Crisis commissioned leading academics, Dr Peter Mackie and Nicholas Pleace, to estimate how much a change in the law would cost. They have worked out that an additional £43.9 million would be needed in order for Local Authorities to prevent and tackle homelessness early but that this would be offset by a £46.8 million reduction in spending on people who are already homeless.
The lack of help available to single homeless people is not a new issue, but it badly needs a new approach and I have high hopes that that is what this government will deliver. Ministers should be commended for the fact that they are looking “very seriously” at whether the homelessness legislation should be reformed.
But for those facing another night on the streets, the urgency cannot be overstated. I know that I am not the only Conservative MP who would warmly welcome a private members bill to tackle this unless we see movement soon.
I believe there is strong cross-party support for changing current homelessness legislation. It is not a niche issue, nor is it a problem that only affects a handful of constituencies. There are very few issues that unites all MPs, but a piece of legislation addressing homelessness should provide the opportunity for both sides of the House to work together in addressing this problem.