While Theresa May twists and turns trying to sell her bodged Brexit deal, a pile of other pressing problems are stacked in the Government’s in-tray.
With the first widespread winter snow forecast this week, few are more urgent than the deaths of homeless people in hostels and on our streets. Some will have missed the shocking news just before Christmas that official figures show at least 597 people died homeless last year, up 24% in the last five years.
The public know more needs to be done. One of the nicest letters I’ve had recently came before Christmas after I was interviewed on television about Labour’s plans for helping rough sleepers. A pensioner wrote with a cheque for £75, which I was glad to pass on the rough sleeping charity St Mungo’s.
Every generous act like this helps, but everyone knows that charity alone can’t fix the crisis of rough sleeping on our streets. And the public know the root causes of relentlessly rising homelessness lie in government decisions. The increase in rough sleeping each and every year since 2010 is the desperately foreseeable effect of Ministers slashing investment in affordable housing, cutting housing benefit, withdrawing most funding for homelessness hostels, and refusing to give the growing number of private renters any rights to security in their home.
This is now a national crisis. There is nothing inevitable or necessary about thousands of people who tonight will sleep outside for want of a place to stay. Not just living on the streets in greater numbers, but dying there too.
We can save lives this winter. In the first month of 2019, the Government has a duty to act before the death toll rises higher.
I’ve set out Labour’s plan for what they should do. Unbelievably, in 21st Century Britain there is no guaranteed shelter from the winter cold for those who find themselves homeless, and in some parts of the country there is little or no emergency accommodation at all when the snow and temperatures fall.
So the next Labour Government will make emergency accommodation available for every rough sleeper in every area whenever the weather’s set to fall below freezing. This new national scheme will be funded with a new £100million Rough Sleepers Cold Weather Fund, and paid for by part of the funds raised from the levy on second homes used as holiday homes that I announced last year. It can only be fair that those who have done well from the housing market with such second homes pay a bit more to help those with no home at all.
Alongside this new emergency response, the Government could back other parts of Labour’s wider plans: 8,000 homes reserved for those with a history of rough sleeping when they’re ready to get their lives back together, an end to the freeze on benefits and new protections against eviction for private renters, which is now the biggest single cause of homelessness.
In a country as decent and well-off as ours, this is a matter of basic humanity. These are all steps which could enjoy cross-party support and show the public that tackling high and rising homelessness is a bigger moral cause beyond our party politics. The division, dysfunction and distraction of Brexit cannot be an alibi for Government sitting on its hands on rough sleeping. What it’s doing isn’t working, and it’s time for a new plan and action from Theresa May.
John Healey is the shadow housing secretary and Labour MP for Wentworth and The Dearne