For my generation, a 1966 BBC play ‘Cathy Come Home’ is seared into our memories. It was later to be voted the best TV drama ever broadcast. It told the story of a young couple, who through job loss and pregnancy descend into poverty and homelessness.
The play had been watched by 12 million viewers and created an enormous response. It led directly to the formation of the Crisis charity, which focused on the plight of the homeless, and significant support for the charity Shelter which, quite coincidentally, was launched a few days after the first broadcast.
However, despite the public outcry, there was no real institutional response until a decade later when the James Callaghan Labour government delivered the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act in 1977.
Twenty years later, the incoming Labour government inherited high levels of homelessness and set about cutting both rough-sleeping of individuals and of families in temporary accommodation. Between 1997 and 2010, ‘statutory’ homelessness fell by almost two-thirds (62%), from over 100,000 households to 40,000, and the number of people sleeping rough fell by roughly three-quarters (75%).
Recently, the National Audit Office (NAO) has published its report on the impact of the welfare reforms on homelessness since 2010 1 .
I don’t think that I have ever read a NAO report which has carried such thinly-veiled criticism of the responsible government ministers over the last seven years, and of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat and successive Conservative governments as a whole, for their lamentable disregard and disinterest on the increasing scale of homelessness and the plight of affected individuals and families.
The NAO reports that, in March 2017, there were 77,240 households in temporary accommodation in England, an increase of 60% since 2011. These households included 120,540 children, a 73% increase.
Homelessness currently costs the public purse more than £1 billion a year, with more than three quarters of this being spent on temporary accommodation, most funded by housing benefit.
And, what is causing this rising homelessness? The NAO says that it is the ending of private sector tenancies, which has overtaken all other causes to become the biggest single driver of statutory homelessness in England. The proportion of households becoming homeless by the end of an assured shorthold tenancy increased from 11% during 2009-10 to 32% during 2016-17.
So, as well as delivering a completely dysfunctional housing market, which has seen owner-occupation falling, a greater proportion of households being priced out of ownership, and rents taking record proportions of household income, the government’s policies of insecure tenancies and cuts in housing benefit are leading to five families are being made homeless in England every hour of each and every day.
Despite a 21% real terms cut in councils’ overall spending on housing services since 2010, spending on homelessness services has massively increased since 2010. The proportion of homeless households in temporary accommodation outside their local council area – away from family, friends, work and schools – has increased from 13% in 2011 to 28% today.
The NAO report then goes on to confirm that the government has no cross government strategy to prevent and tackle homelessness. It’s data collection is lacklustre and it takes no steps to monitor what is happening in local communities up and down the country.
In fact, without the recent passing of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 – which was only initiated and delivered because of the commitment of MPs of all parties in the Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair – there would have been no government action to address the increasing plight of homeless families.
David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Theresa May should hold their heads in shame for this state of affairs. How dare they talk about the sanctity of family life, the importance of family stability, the essential need for children to get a good start in life, when they have consciously implemented policies which ensure that record numbers (still rising) of children are to be denied such opportunities?