David Mackintosh is Member of Parliament for Northampton South.
Picture the scene: you’ve worked and paid your taxes for most of your adult life, but recently things have spiralled out of control and you’ve ended up without a roof over your head. Perhaps you’ve suffered a bereavement, a relationship breakdown or mental ill health. Quite reasonably, you approach your council for help, only to be told you aren’t a ‘priority’ under the law because you’re not deemed ‘vulnerable’ enough, despite having nowhere to live. Doesn’t sound right does it?
Yet all too often this is exactly what happens, as I found out recently during a major Select Committee inquiry into homelessness – the first of its kind for a decade. As we now publish our final report, it’s clear to me that something needs to change, and with social justice high on the government’s agenda, I believe our recommendations can make an important contribution.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the inquiry is the committee’s pledge to scrutinise and endorse the ‘Homelessness Reduction Bill’ put forward by my fellow committee member, Bob Blackman. This is an incredibly important bill with cross party support, and could finally put an end to a legal situation that means homeless people can be turned away when they approach their council for help. As it approaches its second reading in October, I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the House will offer it their support.
The law as it stands in England is failing too many homeless people, and even forcing them to sleep rough. During my time on the inquiry, we heard from ministers, councils and charities, as well as numerous practitioners working in the field of housing and homelessness, and this issue came up again and again. Yet by far the most powerful accounts came from people who had been homeless themselves. What really struck me was how anyone can become homeless given the wrong set of circumstances, but unless they fall into strict legal categories it can be very difficult to get help.
As former head of Northampton Borough Council, I know that most local authorities are doing their best under difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, the law as it stands means that in order to qualify for help, homeless people must first be deemed to be in ‘priority need’. This covers families, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities – and rightly so – yet large numbers of people fall outside these categories and struggle to get help.
The Homelessness Reduction Bill would introduce a new legal duty on councils to prevent and tackle homelessness regardless of whether or not someone is deemed to be a ‘priority’. Rather than being a drain on the public purse, such a law would actually save money since anyone who becomes homeless is more likely to need public services such as A&E, substance rehabilitation services or the police.
This isn’t an especially controversial proposal. Prevention is better than cure, and it makes far more sense if people can get help before they end up homeless. It would also put an end to the desperate injustice whereby ordinary people in need of a little help can be turned away with no option but to sleep on the streets. In my view, it is simply the right thing to do.