Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 13 of Session 2005-06, dated 22 November 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"Fourteen years ago, this Committee called for better information on homelessness. We are still waiting. The official statistics remain inadequate and unreliable. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister must work with local authorities and voluntary organisations to understand the real reasons for homelessness and to determine whether support provided to the homeless is effective.

"Bed and Breakfast accommodation is highly unsuitable for families with children and so the sharp reduction between 2002 and 2004 in the number of families forced to live in such accommodation was a significant achievement. What ODPM must do is make sure that such families are not simply being moved on to yet another kind of unsatisfactory accommodation. The Department must also be more vigorous in promoting innovative alternatives to the short-term solution of temporary, rented housing.

"The amount of rough sleeping has been cut by two-thirds from 1999. But, without proper integrated support, such people often leave their hostels, voluntarily or through eviction, to return to the streets.

"It is inevitable that, in areas such as London and the South-East, the shortage of affordable housing is likely to continue for some years. It would be quite unjust if homeless households were not getting their fair share of such housing. ODPM needs to make sure that housing associations are not avoiding their obligation to local authorities to provide permanent homes for the homeless."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 13th Report of this Session, which examined levels and causes of homelessness, progress in alleviating the consequences of homelessness and the development of a more effective range of services to prevent homelessness in the first place.

Homelessness can have a profound impact on the health, welfare and employment prospects of those who experience it. The life expectancy of those living rough on the streets is only 42 years. Children living in insecure, shared or temporary accommodation whilst waiting for a settled home often have their schooling disrupted and are more prone to behavioural problems.

Around £1 billion per year is spent on measures to prevent and deal with homelessness. In March 2002 the Government published "More Than A Roof", which identified the need for new and more coordinated action over a period of years and the development of services that would help people before they found themselves in a crisis situation.

A separate Homelessness Directorate within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was established in 2002 to provide a new focus across government for policy development and coordination on homelessness issues.

The Directorate's target setting, supported by financial support and advice to local authorities, has helped to bring about significant alleviation of the worst consequences of homelessness. The amount of rough sleeping is less than one third of the levels six years ago. And families with children are now only rarely accommodated in Bed and Breakfasts. Effort now needs to turn to ensuring there is sufficient support to prevent hostel residents going back out on the streets and that local authority procedures are improved to reduce the use of temporary accommodation.

The Directorate is trialling many promising approaches for preventing homelessness amongst different risk groups. But the effectiveness of these efforts is compromised by the lack of meaningful data on the full range of homelessness needs. Official statistics provide only limited information on the circumstances of those in crisis and for whom local authorities have a statutory duty to house. More needs to be known about those in inadequate accommodation and the triggers that cause them to seek local authority help.

The Homelessness Act 2002 extended the duty local authorities have to give assistance and advice to those seeking a home as well as extending the categories of vulnerable people the local authority must house. The Act also required local authorities to carry out a multi-agency homelessness review and develop and publish strategies for dealing with homelessness. These strategies contain a number of common and fundamental weaknesses which cast doubt on the ability of many local authorities to identify and deliver desired improvements in homelessness services.

Homelessness is inevitably influenced by the availability of affordable housing. Despite the additional investment being made, pressure on affordable housing in regions such as London and the South East is likely to continue for a number of years. ODPM should obtain assurance that homeless households are obtaining their fair share of affordable housing and that housing associations are not avoiding their obligations to local authorities to provide it.

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