Bob Blackman is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Harrow East.
Earlier this year, I heard from a young woman who became homeless at the age of 23 after the ending of a difficult relationship. She had worked all her adult life, but when she approached her council for help, she was told she wasn’t ‘vulnerable enough’ for help and that she wasn’t a ‘priority’ under the law. She had nowhere to go, and, as she reported to the Communities and Local Government Committee of which I’m a part, the experience still affects her to this day.
The committee recently published the findings of its wide-ranging inquiry into homelessness – the first of its kind for a decade. Over the course of nine months, we collected evidence and spoke to dozens of witnesses, some experts, others ordinary people with experience of homelessness, and two conclusions stood out very clearly: homelessness remains one of the great social injustices of our time, and if we are to tackle it, the law in England needs to change.
When Theresa May took office earlier this year, she set out a bold vision for government with social justice at its heart, and I believe we now have a major opportunity to contribute to that vision. That’s why I’ve put forward my ‘Homelessness Reduction Bill’, a Private Members’ Bill aimed at tackling the injustice of homelessness. Crucially, this now has the backing of the entire Select Committee, including MPs from all major parties, who have agreed to endorse and scrutinise it ahead of its second reading. In light of this, I’m hoping that MPs of all political persuasions can get get behind the bill when it comes before parliament in late October.
As it stands, the law in England is failing homeless people by denying them help when it is needed most. During my time on the inquiry, I heard from people who had been forced to sleep rough because they couldn’t get help from their council. This is a desperate state of affairs, but there is something we can do about it.
While many local authorities are doing their best in difficult circumstances, the law means that in order to quality for help, homeless people have to fall into certain legal categories that make them a ‘priority’. These cover families, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities – and rightly so – yet unfortunately, large numbers of people fall outside these categories, even if they’re sleeping on the street, and often that means they can’t get help.
If passed, my bill would introduce a new legal duty on councils requiring them to prevent and tackle homelessness regardless of whether or not someone is deemed to be ‘priority need’. Aside from ending a longstanding injustice, this will also benefit the public purse, since homeless people are more likely to need public services such as accident and emergency, substance rehabilitation services or the police. Crisis, the homelessness charity, has previously estimated that preventing people from becoming homeless could save between £3,000 and £18,000 for every person helped in the first year alone.
Put simply, this is a bill for social justice, but it also makes good economic sense, and if it makes it into law, we’ll have left a lasting legacy of which we can be immensely proud.