No, Brexit Is Not A Distraction From NHS Or Housing Crises

According to John Rentoul, writing in The Independent at the weekend: “Brexit is distracting the centre of Government – No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury – from attending to the pressing problems facing the country.” You can see his point. The demands exerted by negotiating a Brexit deal in Brussels that neither party wants, while fending off a Remainer-dominated parliament in London, is hardly conducive to solving big and worsening domestic problems.

He is rightly sceptical about the government’s ambitions to build the millions of houses the country needs; and who isn’t outraged that 22,800 elective operations were cancelled in England as a consequence of ‘winter pressures’? But neither is the fault of Brexit. They are just the latest instalments in a long line of policy failures that existed long before that delicious jolt to the system intruded on the banal politics that existed before 23 June 2016. Does he really think that government would have got its trowel out by now and built the 250,000 homes a year it has been promising? Or that it would have got its act together and solved the social care crisis, and in turn solved one of the underlying causes of the NHS crisis?

No, Rentoul is wrong. Brexit isn’t a distraction from more pressing matters. However big the crises of housebuilding and in the NHS – and they are as considerable as they are longstanding – Brexit, and the crisis of democracy we face if it is not implemented will be that much bigger. But if we get it right – and it is a mighty big ‘if’ given the concessions already made by the UK negotiators – and those who seek to undermine it fail in their attempts to sabotage the popular will, Brexit has the potential to genuinely transform the agenda across public policy.

Even if it is thwarted as sovereignty and independence are sacrificed in the name of maintaining a relationship with the supranational body we are supposedly trying to leave, the popular sentiment behind Brexit can’t so easily be put back in its box. Whatever happens over the coming weeks and months, it has the potential to be the catalyst for replacing the managerial target-setting that has plagued public services for decades with a culture of political contestation over competing visions of our collective future. Policy-makers, once deprived of the shelter provided to members of the EU from their respective citizenry, will become more exposed – as they should – to the pressure to act that comes from the questioning and debate generated by the public’s critical engagement with those who govern in their name.

None of this is automatic of course. The disengagement of the masses from politics in the UK has been a decades long process with its roots in the failure of past political projects of left and right. Also, the technocracy, restraint and risk-aversion that played a part in voters rejection of the elites at home and abroad and their reawakening as political subjects, continues to dominate public life. And it continues to stifle progress in building lots more houses and ensuring fewer beds are blocked, as surely as it inhibits those negotiating our exit from the EU or failing to plan for our post-Brexit future. The stasis that was with us before the summer of 2016 is still there if less seemingly immovable. It is only by truly involving the people in the policy process – an old mantra amongst policy wonks curiously absent of recent – that we can finally shift it.

First published in Huffington Post

How to end homelessness

Until recently, homelessness would only come to public attention in the run-up to Christmas. But things are changing. Homelessness is now being openly discussed by politicians ‘after years in the policy wilderness’, says Patrick Butler at the Guardian. Politicians ‘seem almost to be trying to outdo each other’ with their schemes to tackle it, he says.

The Conservative government has pledged to halve rough sleeping by the end of this parliament, and to eliminate it by 2027. The Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force in April. It will impose new duties on local authorities – including to prevent and relieve homelessness for all ‘eligible applicants’, not just those deemed to be in priority need or ‘unintentionally homeless’. Housing First pilots have been announced to provide accommodation and wraparound support for the long-term homeless.

And yet the Rough Sleeping and Homelessness Reduction Taskforce, unveiled as part of last year’s autumn budget, has yet to meet. And some local authorities still stand accused of treating the homeless with contempt. Windsor council’s determination to clear the streets of homeless people before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in May caused controversy. The rise of ‘hostile architecture’ – with anti-homeless sprinklers, strategically placed bike racks and metal bars on park benches all making life even more uncomfortable for rough sleepers – has also, rightly, been met with hostility.

Then there was the recent death of a Portuguese man, a former model who had hit hard times and who was struggling with alcohol and mental-health problems. He had overstayed at one hostel and was awaiting admittance to another, but then he died while sleeping in the freezing cold outside Westminster Tube station – virtually on parliament’s doorstep. MPs took to social media. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that the ‘powerful can’t carry on walking by on the other side’; it is time we ‘took up the moral challenge and properly housed everyone’, he said.

Westminster is Britain’s main hotspot for rough sleeping (217 were counted on one night last autumn). The official figures suggest street homelessness has doubled since 2010; 4,751 people were sleeping rough in England in 2017. But this is widely understood to be an underestimate, relying as it does on local-authority counts and, more often, estimates. Nor does it include similar rises in the numbers of people living in temporary accommodation, or, more controversially, the ‘hidden homeless’. A recent ComRes survey found that 41 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds admit to ‘sofa surfing’.

The failure to build enough housing, or enough affordable housing, is often cited as a major contributor to the problem of homelessness. In January, Corbyn announced that a Labour government would immediately, upon being elected, buy every homeless person in the UK a house, even if that meant seizing properties left empty by developers. And yet, for all its grandstanding, the political class has consistently undershot the building of the 250,000 new homes a year – at least – that Britain needs.

House-building in the UK peaked at 183,600 in 2007. It reached a low of 75,350 in 2009 and is now averaging around 150,000 a year. This has lead to a backlog of unmet needs, unfit housing stock, and ever-rising prices and rents – key contributors to today’s unprecedented levels of homelessness. The new legislation will help, but it is only by building the government’s target of 300,000 houses a year now, and not, as planned, by the mid-2020s, that we can begin to ensure that nobody need fear losing their home.

Many argue that it is central government’s programme of austerity, including cuts to local services and to benefits, especially for 16- to 18-year-olds, who are no longer eligible for housing benefit, that has created the current problem. There is certainly a need to address the problems associated with changes to the welfare system, albeit without further fostering a culture of extended adolescence among the young. But blaming the Tories is too easy. The crisis of affordability, of rising housing costs and stagnating incomes, is a longstanding one. It is this that motors the evictions that are the leading cause of homelessness. To solve this problem, we need less grandstanding and more serious investment in infrastructure.

First published in spiked

Accommodating to Homelessness

As a society we have accommodated to homelessness. The homeless appear in the national consciousness once a year at Xmas. We associate the problem with cardboard boxes and the acts of kindly strangers, rather than seeing it as something that might be solved by better social policy. Not that I want to knock charitable feeling on the part of the public. Gloucester City Council has been running a much criticised poster campaign that urges people not to give rough sleepers any money because many of them are not really homeless. I don’t know about you but nothing makes me want to buy a rough sleeper a can of Special Brew more than being told not to by officialdom.

Frequently Asked Questions by Anthony Luvera and Gerald Mclaverty

There was outrage this month when Council Leader Simon Dudley asked the police to clear Windsor – prior to the eagerly anticipated Royal Wedding – of ‘an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy’ to ‘protect residents and tourists’. He suggested they use 19th Century vagrancy law and its latter day equivalent the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) to do the job. Russell Brand launched an online petition to ‘Show love to Harry and Meghan AND help the homeless’ by setting up a shelter in neighbouring Slough. It quickly attracted thousands of signatures, and Cllr Dudley is now facing a vote of no confidence.

But there is nothing unusual about the authorities harassing of the street homeless. Under pressure from campaign groups like the excellent Manifesto Club, local authorities and others using powers such as ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) and PSPOs (Public Space Protection Orders) have now been told by the Home Office that they must not ‘target specific groups or the most vulnerable in our communities’. I’m of the view that the homeless should be a public nuisance, that’s how we know we’ve got a problem.

But what is the problem? There is a rarely acknowledged conflation of homelessnesses. It tends to be exaggerated by campaigners to include ‘sofa surfing’ young people and the ‘hidden homeless’ living, albeit not ideally, in overcrowded homes. Equally it is underestimated by government – so that the official homeless count includes only families who are granted public housing after being assessed to be ‘unintentionally homeless’ by local authorities. When Theresa May, not unreasonably, made this distinctions there was outrage.

Frequently Asked Questions by Anthony Luvera and Gerald Mclaverty

Responding to Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, who claimed 2,500 children in her constitutency would ‘wake up homeless on Christmas day’, the prime minster rightly pointed out that this doesn’t mean that the streets of that South London district would be filled with homeless children. The constant reference to homeless children (Shelter claims a class-worth of children in every London school is homeless) is also cynically emotive. We need to deal in facts. These children are part of homeless households, not fending for themselves.

We need clarity if we are to find the solutions we need to end, or at least reduce, homelessness. But the figures, particularly for rough sleeping, are notoriously dodgy. According to Shelter about 9,000 people in England are sleeping rough on the streets, and another 9,000 on buses and in tents and cars. 78,000 households are living in temporary accommodation and there are around 300,000 homeless people across Britain. But if you look at the figures produced by local authorities (via headcounts and estimates), there were 4,134 people living on the streets in 2016, i.e. less than half the Shelter figure though still double that recorded in 2010. But whatever the correct figures are, behind the homelessness problem is longstanding multiple policy failure. From housing and welfare policy to mental health services things are going badly wrong and have been for some considerable time.

It is estimated that we need to build at least 250,000 homes a year (in the post-war period we were averaging 300,000). And yet we undershoot this by some margin year-on-year – house building in the UK peaked at 183,600 in 2007, reached a low of 75,350 in 2009 and is now averaging around 150,000 i.e. half of what the country needs. This is leading to a backlog of unmet demand, unfit housing stock and ever rising prices and rents. We don’t need to build affordable housing. We need to build so much housing that it becomes affordable.

But homelessness is not just a bricks and mortar problem. Mental health patients can find themselves homeless if they are discharged without the support they need. The number of homeless households categorised as a priority because of mental illness has gone up from 3,200 in 2010 to 5,470 in 2017. Homeless Link claims that 44% of homeless people have a diagnosed mental health problem. But, and this should cause us to doubt the robustness of mental health figures too, it also claims that 23% – nearly a quarter! – of the general population also have a mental health problem. So we have exaggeration here too.

A Soldier’s Story by David Tovey

According to Shelter eviction is the biggest single cause of homelessness at the moment. Welfare reform, the withdrawal of housing support, benefits freezes and benefits cuts are all widely understood to be having a considerable impact on people’s ability to afford to pay their rent. But it is also estimated that 70,000 young people (18-24 year olds) across Britain have claimed to be homeless in the past year. They are part of the ‘hidden homelessness’ problem, it is argued, made worse by their no longer being eligible for housing benefit. Here I have a problem: both with the suggestion that so many young people really have nowhere to go, and with the idea that the state should step in.

There has been a stark failure to build the housing we need. That must be tackled with some urgency until we are building well in excess of a quarter of a million homes a year. We also need to ensure that care and support is targeted at those who most need it; and that our sprawling, complex and clunky welfare system is up to the job of helping people when they need it without nannying young people into an extended state of adolescence.

If we are to address the problems that underlie the recent rises in homelessness, we need to be able to have frank debates about the welfare system and attitudes to the young, while recognising the complexity of the problem and the multitude of individual circumstances that can lead to the experience of homelessness, and without this becoming an excuse for inaction or a lack of ambition. Trying to address the growing issue of homelessness is difficult but it needn’t be intractable.

This is the text of my contribution to Rough Justice: A Public Discussion organised by Liverpool Salon with the Museum of Homelessness, at Tate Liverpool on 23 January as part of State of the Nation: Exchanges on Homelessness.

The sorry state of welfare

Universal credit – the Tories’ flagship welfare policy aimed at saving money, easing claimants’ transition into work, and simplifying the benefits system by merging six different benefits into one – has hit headlines recently for all the wrong reasons.

As it has been rolled out, the requirement that claimants wait six weeks or more before receiving payment has, reportedly, led to everything from indebtedness to evictions. And the charge attached to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) hotline has caused outrage, too.

Last month, Labour put forward an opposition-day (that is, non-binding) motion calling for the roll-out of universal credit to be halted. It passed 229 to nil. Controversially, Tory MPs were instructed to abstain or absent themselves in an effort to avoid a backbench revolt.

It has been widely reported that the DWP helpline costs 55p per minute, which is hardly affordable for the already hard-up. In fact, the cost varies from 3p to 55p on a mobile, and is no more than 9p on a landline. Nevertheless, it became part of a narrative that the Tory government is being grasping and inhumane.

The Archbishop of York described those being bitten by the roll-out as the ‘present-day successors’ of the widows and orphans referred to in the Bible. Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, has said the government must ‘avert a Christmas disaster’. Much of this is overdone, similar to over-the-top claims about food poverty and suicidal benefits claimants. But there are still some real problems with universal credit.

Food banks have been reporting increased demand for some time, and rising homelessness has been linked to welfare reform. The Smith Institute has linked the introduction of universal credit with millions of pounds worth of rent arrears in Southwark and Croydon in south London. And according to SNP MP Drew Hendry, 60 per cent of his constituency caseload is universal-credit-related. He has complained of a ‘systematic lack of care shown to those most vulnerable in our society’.

Universal credit has been beset by delays and controversy from the start. And until recently, it has been rolled out in an almost apologetic way – at the rate of five Job Centres a month. This was due to be accelerated to include all new claimants by autumn 2018, so that it would be fully implemented by 2022 to cover an estimated seven million households. (Such is the extent of the problem of welfare dependency.) But it’s looking unlikely that target will be met.

There have been very real problems with the way in which universal credit has been rolled out. And on these issues, there have been welcome signs of retreat, as a result of the pressure exerted inside and outside of parliament. There’s been a u-turn on a cap for housing benefit for social-housing tenants, a reduction on the six-week wait is expected to be in next month’s budget, and the helpline is now free of charge.

But the principle behind universal credit is a good one, and needs to be defended. The architect of universal credit, former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, still maintains that it could ‘dramatically change lives for the better’. This ambition, to reform the welfare system and make it fit for the new century, has unfortunately been bogged down in political point-scoring and design failures.

Welfare dependency is a longstanding social, economic and cultural problem. It will take more than a technical fix to solve it. But at least the Tories recognise there is a problem, and are trying to treat benefits claimants like adults. Under universal credit, claimants receive their benefits directly. (Housing benefit, for example, previously went straight to landlords.) Also, it is paid on a monthly basis, like a salary, instead of fortnightly or weekly. Many of its critics, by contrast, think ‘vulnerable’ claimants are incapable of budgeting for themselves.

Virtue-signalling over the needy may shame the government into another u-turn, but it will do nothing to help claimants. What’s more, the rows over universal credit – a policy that, in principle, all parties support – makes it seem more drastic than it is. It is a policy that is argued for in the language of ‘supporting’ the ‘vulnerable’. A reminder that there’s still a much broader debate to be had about the future of the welfare state.

First published in sp!ked

Did Cathy Come Home? Homelessness Revisited

First published in Huffington Post

I was speaking at a debate on homelessness a few weeks ago at the Battle of Ideas Festival (a wonderful event that I urge you all to go to next year by the way!). What was most striking for me was that there was little battle over the fact that it’s at least as bad as it’s ever been. Which is quite a thing when you consider the hook for the debate was the 50 year old groundbreaking docu-drama Cathy Come Home, that so shocked the nation that it gave rise to the campaigning charities Crisis and Shelter that are still with us today.

How could homelessness have got worse when we’ve otherwise become so much more affluent? What is causing today’s homelessness problem and what solutions are being put forward to solve it? In trying to answer that question I found as many difficulties with the proposed solutions as I did with the problem they were supposedly designed to solve.

Homelessness comes in many different forms: from rough sleeping, staying in hostels, shelters and temporary accommodation; to those officially recognised as ‘statutorily homeless’ by their local authority, as well as those ‘hidden’ in overcrowded housing, squatting, ‘sofa surfing’, sharing or sleeping on the night bus. In the space of five years the numbers deemed homeless have roughly doubled. Those living in temporary accommodation have risen by 40%. In 2015, 30% of those recorded as statutorily homeless were private tenants forced out of their home because they could no longer afford to pay the rent; and in the same year it is estimated that 2.3 million households contained ‘concealed’ single people.

The government plans to build 400,000 affordable homes by 2021 – half of them starter homes and 135,000 shared ownership. Most experts will tell you that we need to build at least 250,000 homes (‘affordable’ or not) every year. There has been wide support for the Homelessness Reduction Bill; not least from my co-panellist Daniel Dumoulin at St Mungo’s who was involved in its drafting, and from MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee. Recently voted through to the next stage in parliament, it will impose greater duties on local authorities to advise the homeless, (somehow) prevent homelessness happening in the first place, and to provide relief or emergency accommodation where necessary. All without building more houses.

The problem is, of course, that you can’t legislate against homelessness or force local authorities to provide stock that they don’t have. So what should be done instead? We need to build at least sufficient housing to break even i.e. to replace aged stock, and then more again to reflect the growing population and the changing shape of households. This isn’t a ‘luxury’, as my co-panellist Rebecca Wilson of the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness claimed. It is a necessity if we are to prevent further rises in homelessness, and if house prices and rents are to fall and become genuinely affordable. Policy-makers and campaigners need to stop accommodating to diminished expectations, and start accommodating people with the housing they need and want. That’s not to say that a bricks and mortar approach to the homelessness problem is going to be enough – as is clear from the mix of personal, socio-economic and policy determinants at play. There needs to be more targeting of more resources in more coordinated ways if the specific, complex and entrenched, needs of some homeless people are to be properly addressed.

We also need to stop expecting the homeless to play the vulnerability card. That would mean, for instance, abolishing the indignity of people having to prove that they are in ‘priority need’ and instead making common cause with them to demand more. I agree with Ken Loach, the man responsible for Cathy Come Home, who said in a recent interview: ‘People are not docile victims … they fight back’. He’s right, or at least he would be if he didn’t level this accusation at the Tory right alone – as my co-panellist, John Moss, chairman of an almshouses charity and Tory councillor, might agree.

Across the political spectrum the homeless tend to be treated as passive recipients, whether of abuse or pity. While bad housing and welfare policy are creating more homelessness, it is often the critics of these policies that are creating homeless victims. The left infantilise young adults, thinking 18-21 year olds are too vulnerable to have their benefits taken away, as will happen next year. And they think little of tenants too, campaigning against government policy that says they and not their landlord should receive their housing benefit. Our right wing government is, in this instance at least, doing the right thing by expecting tenants to pay their own rent. Apparently Loach is thinking of rejoining the Labour Party with the supposedly left-wing Corbyn in charge. If he knew this he’d surely think again?