There is welcome news this morning, of a reduction in the number of people sleeping rough in England. There were 4,266 people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2019. This is down by 411 people or nine per cent from last year and down ten per cent from the peak in 2017. But it is up by 2,498 people or 141 per cent since 2010.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick MP:

“Today’s figures show that we are making promising progress, building on last year’s achievement which saw the first fall in the number of people sleeping rough for the first time in eight years.

“It is a moral scandal that in 2020 so many people continue to sleep rough on the streets, and that is why I am determined to end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament.

“This confirms what I have seen since becoming Housing Secretary – that dedicated, targeted support backed by unparalleled levels of Government support is getting vulnerable people off the streets and into safe accommodation where they can turn their lives around.

“But this doesn’t mean our work ends here. I will not rest until we have eradicated rough sleeping, and I remain absolutely committed to ending this social ill once and for, which is why I welcome today’s appointment of Dame Louise Casey to lead an urgent review into the causes of rough sleeping, alongside an additional £236m to get people off the streets.

“These measures will help ensure we help every rough sleeper in the country off the street by the end of this Parliament.”

All these estimates are problematic. Of course, the snapshot figure for one particular night will be much lower than for the number that slept rough at one stage or another last year. The BBC has put a figure on the latter of 28,000 – based on FOI requests to local authorities.

This should not be confused with the figure for homelessness as officially defined. That includes people in temporary accommodation – hotels, hostels or (usually low quality) housing. The latest figure for that, a “snapshot” from June 30th last year, was 86,130. On top of that official tally, we have squatters and sofa surfers. A significant increase in the housing supply would increase choice, improve standards, and reduce rents. That would be a great help.  But it would not solve the problem, especially for rough sleepers. Often the difficulties they face include mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism – or combinations of all three. Many do not speak English.

It is highly likely that the situation has been improved by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, a piece of private members legislation that was brought in by Bob Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East. This required earlier intervention by local authorities to find alternative accommodation for those facing homelessness. That is more sensible than waiting for the bailiffs to appear and then putting the family up in the nearest Premier Inn. So that was about seeking to avert an emergency. But it also obliged councils to provide some emergency relief – even if it is a single young man in good health – rather than just leave him to sleep on the streets. Before, they could refuse help as he was not a “priority” – once obliged to sleep on a park bench his circumstances would tend to deteriorate pretty quickly until he became a “priority”.

I realise that it is one thing for politicians to pass a law – another for it to work in practice. Blackman himself has stressed on this site that the “culture” also needs to change. For instance, councils have complained that the extra funding (£73 million over four years) for their new duties under this Act is not sufficient. That ignores the point that leaving people to sleep rough has higher costs – not just for the NHS and the criminal justice system but also to local authorities – for adult social care as well as housing.

Dame Louise’s appointment to consider what more could be achieved is welcome. The Troubled Families programme she ran has proved transformational – its results were a vindication despite earlier ill-judged criticism.

She also had significant success with the Rough Sleepers Unit that she ran during the Blair Government – though even then there were arguments about the accuracy of the statistics.

Offering rough sleepers a roof over their head is an important start. But drifting in and out of scuzzy hostels will not provide the specialist help that is needed. Local authorities should use their public health budgets far more effectively – so much of this substantial funding is currently wasted. Many who need “specialist housing” – for instance, to get treatment for drug addiction” – are instead placed in “generic housing”.

It is also important for the law to unheld. If rough sleepers are illegal immigrants then this should be identified and they should be deported. The police should also uphold the law if rough sleepers are seen taking drugs, engaged in threatening behaviour, or shoplifting. Some may say this is harsh. Is it more caring for the police to pass by on the other side?

It is announced that “the Government already investing £1.2 billion to tackle homelessness” and that an extra £236 million is to be made available “to get people off the streets.” That £236 million figure is huge – equivalent to over £55,000 for each of the 4,266 rough sleepers identified in the snapshot last year. There is a lazy habit of justifying any spending announcement by calling it “investment.” There is already money sloshing around but it is not being used effectively – the Public Health ring fenced grant to local authorities this year is £3.1 billion. The difficulty, as I mentioned above, is that not much of it produces any tangible benefit. But it is quite true that ignoring the plight of rough sleepers means a significant financial as well as human cost.

I look forward to seeing what Dame Louise comes up with. The Government should be commended for its leadership. But the police and the local authorities already have the power and the money to do far more about this most obvious moral disgrace than is being done at present.