Bob Blackman is the MP for Harrow East.
Today, my Homelessness Reduction Bill faces what could be its final test in the Commons. It has come a long way since it was first presented to parliament in June of last year. It has been scrutinised and amended, debated and scrutinised again. It has won Government backing, has been featured on the Today programme, and passed its second reading with unanimous support. After that, it withstood seven Committee Stage sessions, leading to Government amendments to correct areas with unintended consequences that were identified with the full backing of the charity groups, landlord bodies and local government bodies involved.
While that should seemingly put it into a strong position, nothing in the life of a Private Member’s Bill is for certain.
The support of colleagues so far has been incredible, but despite this, three amendments have been laid by the Opposition. Even if these do not go to a vote and are merely there to allow for debate on those subjects, the Bill could easily run out of time and fall as a result. It would be a terrible shame if, after so much good will has been built up on all sides of the House, and with all sectors backing it, it did not survive its Report Stage.
I very much hope that we’ll once more witness the kind of overwhelming support that helped get it through its second reading unopposed, given the importance of this piece of legislation. If and when we get there, the ‘Homelessness Reduction Act’ would be a true landmark and something a Conservative government could be rightly proud to have supported. It will help put an end to the longstanding injustice that means homeless people who approach their council for help can be turned away with little or nothing at all. It will help to prevent more people from losing their home, and make sure those that do can get support regardless of whether or not they’re a ‘priority’ under existing rules.
Having spent years working at local authority level, this is something I feel very strongly about. Last year, when I sat on the CLG Select Committee inquiry into homelessness, we heard first hand from people who couldn’t get help when they so desperately needed it. Many local authorities are doing their best in difficult circumstances, but the law means that in order to qualify for help, homeless people have to fall into strict legal categories, chiefly families, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities. People falling outside these categories often can’t get help even if they are sleeping on the street.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill isn’t supposed to be a cure-all. It won’t end homelessness by itself, but it will help to fix a part of the system that isn’t working for too many people. It will introduce a new duty on councils to help prevent homelessness up to 56 days before it happens, and a duty to take active steps to support people out of homelessness regardless of whether they are in ‘priority need’.
Of course, councils will need additional funding to make this work, and the government has already pledged £48 million towards set-up costs in the first two years. However, in the long term the bill will save money for both local and national government. Aside from the dreadful human cost, homelessness is very expensive. Councils are having difficulty keeping up with the demand and are using expensive temporary accommodation at the crisis point, rather than intervening earlier to prevent people from getting to that stage of need. Then there is the fact that homeless people are more likely to need support from A&E, mental and physical health services and substance rehabilitation. Crisis commissioned academics have estimated that public spending would fall by £370 million if 40,000 people were prevented from being homeless for a year. The logic is clear.
Exactly 40 years ago the Housing Act (1977) introduced the first legal protections for homeless people, but it left out large swathes of people who for decades have been unable to get help when they need it most. I believe it’s time we finished the job, and I hope that my fellow MPs will join me and help make 2017 a landmark year for tackling homelessness.