David Cameron was totally thrown in the TV interview with Jeremy Paxman by the first question about people using food banks. He failed the empathy test, showed no interest in the people affected and resorted immediately to his learned statistics about the number of jobs the Government has created and so on.
Cameron is plainly uncomfortable dealing with the reality of poverty in Britain, some of it long lasting and much of it created by his policies – notably, in the case of food banks, his capricious and punitive removal of benefits under the ‘sanctions’ regime and the bedroom tax.
His discomfort arises from two things: first, he does not want to be exposed as the heartless and cruel person he is, willing to inflict such harsh policies; and secondly, he does not seem to have the first idea or any experience at all about the lives of poor people on which to base his response.
In the interviews, housing was once again the dog that didn’t bark. It plainly wasn’t on Paxman’s radar. Which is a pity because I would have liked the next question after food banks to have been about homelessness. I think Cameron would have been equally at a loss to understand what it is and how brutal it has become.
Of course the discourse of homelessness presupposes the concept of a home. Cameron talks about this a lot, but only in the context of people who aspire to own their own home. Then he goes dewy-eyed and waxes lyrical about a ‘home of your own’ and how it underpins everything else: a place of safety, health, family life, self-worth, well-being, prosperity, and community. He never mentions the importance of ‘home’ in the context of tenants paying hopelessly over the odds for a hovel, or having to pay for an ‘extra’ but much needed bedroom, or families dumped in bed and breakfast hotels.
He simply does not understand that it is the very concept of ‘a home’ and its vital importance in our lives that is the moral driver behind ending homelessness.
Labour’s record on homelessness can best be described as mixed. Important rights were restored and then gradually whittled away again as councils came under increasing pressure from the shortage of supply and rising demand of all kinds. All councils learned about ‘gatekeeping’ although some went much further than others and others strayed well into illegality.
But since 2010 the policies of the Coalition – the Tories do not surprise me, but the complicity of the LibDems is genuinely shocking – have had appalling consequences. The numbers of households applying to councils and being accepted has kept going up since the Coalition came in despite the most draconian policies and bureaucratic barriers being imposed.
The trends are clear and the records of the different Governments are there to be seen. It took Labour some years after 1997 to get rising homelessness under control, but there was then an unbroken period of 6 years when both the number of households accepted as homeless and the number in temporary accommodation fell. The numbers in TA fell by more than two-thirds between 2003 and 2010.
Since 2011 the number of ‘acceptances’ (around 48% of applications under the Act are ‘accepted’) has risen steeply again as have the numbers in temporary accommodation (although the latter has seemingly plateaued).
Cameron’s warm words about the importance of family life and of children getting a good start is empty rhetoric for homeless people. Of the 61,970 households in TA at the end of 2014, 46,700 included 90,450 children. Worse, 2,030 of these households were in bed and breakfast accommodation, an increase of 31% on the previous year. Scandalously, 780 had been in B&B for more than the legal limit of 6 weeks, an increase of 55% from the previous year end.
It is no surprise that the largest numbers are in London. But the London-specific feature that is most noteworthy is households located in TA in a different district frm their own. Nationally there were 16,000 such households , of which 93% (14,830) were from London, a 29% increase on the previous year. In the global scheme of things these numbers may seem small, but each one involves a household facing total dislocation in their lives, a change of schools, a loss of family support and community. It is always particularly worrying when families are in contact with children’s social work services; some of the worst abuse cases in recent years have involved families who became lost between different districts.
All statistics are taken from the latest official ‘Statutory Homelessness’ statistics released by DCLG on 26 March 2015. The statistical release contains a lot of useful background information concerning homelessness, including a summary explanation of the law and links to detailed tables.
On a side note: my friend Chris Holmes used to object to the use of the term ‘statutory homelessness’ on the grounds that there is no such thing as ‘non-statutory homelessness’ – all homeless people have rights under the law, even if it is limited to advice and assistance rather than a duty to secure accommodation. This is not just a semantic point: the DCLG report is shocking enough, but it is important to note that ‘acceptances’ are those who have been able to make a formal application under the Act and meet all of the criteria (priority group, unintentionally homeless). Many more are ‘discouraged’ from applying, simply do not know their rights, or do not qualify. Other information suggests that the numbers of single homeless people, whether sofa-surfing or living on the streets or in hostels, are also increasing steadily.