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Speech to the National Children’s Homes “House our Youth 2000” campaign launch, London 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: London

I’m proud to be here today helping NCH Action for Children launch the ‘House our Youth 2000’ Campaign.

In the debate about homelessness, as in other areas of social policy, there is an increasing tendency among politicians to follow the Prime Minister’s instruction a couple of years ago to “condemn a little more, and understand a little less”. I think it is time to understand a little more and condemn a little less.

Because above all, tackling homelessness is about understanding - understanding and acting.

Understanding the nature of homelessness

It amazes me how many people fundamentally misunderstand the nature of homelessness, and the factors which lead people to end up on the streets.

It is this ignorance which leads people - including MPs and even Ministers who ought to know better - to talk about ‘hosing people out of shop doorways’ and to say that people are sleeping on the streets “because they find it more pleasant” than living in a house.

Hustling people off the street and into shelters is never going to work, even if there were enough spaces in shelters to go round.

That is why the Rough Sleepers Initiative, welcome though it is, will never be enough to solve the problem.

It’s like trying to collect up leaves in a gale. The faster you sweep, the faster they gust away again, and all the time more fall around you.

Understanding the causes of homelessness

We cannot begin to really tackle homelessness unless we also understand its causes. The physical forces that lead young people to leave home, or to them being forced to leave.

A lot has been said in recent years about the harmful effects of families breaking up. It has mainly been said by Conservatives, as part of their ill-fated ‘back to basics’ agenda. When it was first launched three years ago it led to the review which, in time, led to the end of all homeless families’ rights to decent long-term accommodation just two weeks ago. It looks like it is being relaunched now, as part of the Conservatives’ increasingly desperate efforts to regain the initiative in the run up to the election.

I deplore the way the so-called ‘family agenda’ has been used as an excuse to cut benefits for lone parents, and to try to impose some kind of state morality on people. This is not only a misguided and illiberal strategy it is, quite honestly, never going to work.

It is nevertheless undeniable that a large proportion of young people who end up on the streets do so, directly or indirectly, as a result of family breakdown. Family break up is increasing - and that is something we should all be worried about. But the idea that you can stop that happening by using tax and benefit disincentives, by bringing back the stigma of divorce or by simply making it harder to divorce is just plain dotty.

Government should concentrate its efforts is on what it can do best: not moralising, but supporting families by helping provide the things that keep them thriving - decent jobs, a pleasant environment, secure homes.

This is what family values ought to mean. Here are three examples.

One. Expand the zero income tax band, taking more people out of tax and breaking down the poverty trap.

Two. Introduce a Benefit Transfer Programme to provide employment and training for the long-term unemployed.

Three. Protect and build on the 1977 Homeless Persons Act, which the Liberal MP Stephen Ross took through Parliament with all party support, rather than taking away homeless families’ security as the Government disgracefully did two weeks ago.

Three practical proposals which, if implemented, really would help families to prosper and stay together.

Over the past decade it has become harder and harder for young people to afford to live away from the parental home. The Government have made no secret of this. It has been a quite deliberate strategy intended to save taxpayers money.

The removal of benefits from 16 and 17 year olds. The Job Seekers Allowance which has not only been harder to get but has meant less money for young people. The Housing Act which will mean thousands of young people thrown out of the family home or evicted from friends’ floors after they have outstayed their welcome will be branded as intentionally homeless and denied any assistance. The tragically botched care in the community programme, honestly conceived, but under-resourced and seen hopelessly in isolation from the start.

The 1989 Children’s Act should have been a breakthrough. It actually says that: “Every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need in their area who has reached the age of 16 and whose welfare that authority considers is likely to be seriously prejudiced if they do not provide him with accommodation.” Fine words. Right words. But unfortunately just words. It simply has not happened in most places.

I have never seen a youngster sleeping rough whose welfare was not being seriously prejudiced as a result of their position.

Understanding the scale of the problem

One more thing we need to understand is the scale of the youth homelessness problem in Britain.

The problem runs far deeper than just street homelessness. Nobody knows exactly how many people there are sleeping rough every night, although the last census found just over two and a half thousand in England.

About a third of rough sleepers are reckoned to be under 25. But for every youngster on the street there are thousands without a decent, secure home. In 1995 Single Homelessness in London estimated around 45,000 single people without a home to call their own in London alone. Some were sleeping rough, others were in hostels, squats, short life housing and Bed and Breakfast.

Across England there are 150,000 households sharing accommodation with another household and a staggering four and a quarter million people live in homes deemed either unfit for human habitation or, at best, below the officially tolerable standard. All these people lack a decent home.

Now you can argue whether these people are homeless or not. But that’s not the point. They are clearly in need. We are failing these people. They need decent homes. They’re not getting them. So the real question is, why?

And that question leads me from analysis, to action.

Acting on homelessness

Homelessness is a fast track to a wasted life.

It is a terrible, tragic waste of young potential.

We must do everything we can to construct a safety net so that young people do not fall out of a home and into the gutter.

That means making it easier for young people to find decent places to rent, with schemes to help with rent deposits, like the self-funding loan schemes already running in places including Yeovil and Cardiff.

It means targeting the horror of repossession by supporting home owners who fall ill or lose their job through a mortgage benefit.

It means expanding job prospects, with imaginative welfare to work packages like the one I mentioned earlier.

It means making care leavers a priority group on council house waiting lists, as my colleague Diana Maddock tried so hard to do during the Housing Act’s passage.

It means restoring the right to full housing benefit and income support for all adults over 16.

So, a safety net to stop young people slipping through the system. But what about those who have already slipped through?

We need to build a ladder out of homelessness - and every rung is just as crucial as the last.

Building a ladder out of homelessness

The first rung of the ladder is the front line. Even before hostels and shelters. It’s soup kitchens. Washing facilities. And access to medical care for those at the very bottom in places like cardboard city.

The second rung - hostel beds and nightshelters to get people off the street. Women’s refuges, and wet shelters where necessary.

The third rung - move on accommodation. Bed and breakfast. Reliable private landlords and others who can provide an element of care where necessary. Because unless we provide this type of accommodation our hostels will just silt up and have to turn people away.

Then the fourth and fifth rungs - a decent secure home, and a decent job.

This is the ladder out of homelessness. It’s far easier to describe than to climb; and it’s far easier for a politician to describe it than to come up with achievable proposals to make it easier. But I’m going to at least try.

At the first rung we - and by we I mean Government, at both national and local level - should be doing more to ensure that homeless people have access to clean water, washing facilities and in particular to a doctor. It must be made easier for people who are homeless to register with a GP. At the moment they are more than 12 times as likely to be unregistered as someone with a home.

The key is to try to preserve self-respect. So long as there is self-respect there must be hope. And hope is the most vital thing anybody needs to climb out of homelessness.

The cost of a proactive programme to encourage this would be small beer compared to the tens of thousands of pounds that are wasted every year because homeless people are having to be treated in hospital Accident and Emergency Departments for illnesses that could and should be being picked up at an earlier stage by GPs.

We need to expand refuge and hostel provision. But not bed and breakfast, if we can help it. It’s expensive and cramped. It’s more suitable for young single people than for families, but it’s still far a from ideal place for anybody to spend any length of time.

Bricks and mortar - the Yeovil Foyer

I will give you an example of the sort of thing I am talking about.

On Friday, I will be opening what is - I understand - the first ever rural foyer project in Britain, in my Yeovil constituency.

For those of you who don’t know, the Foyer movement started in France. It consists of a network of hostels which provide accommodation with training for young people. These are designed to tackle the dual problems of youth unemployment and homelessness, which so often go together, and to give young people a start.

The Yeovil Foyer project was launched four years ago. Over the course of these years the local South Somerset District Council have worked not just with Knightstone Housing Association but also joined with local architects, the CAB, Westland Helicopters, the Somerset Youth Service and even the local church to get the Foyer built. In fact the Foyer has actually been built in a redundant church!

For me the Foyer symbolises two things. Firstly that youth homelessness is not just a big city problem - even in market towns like Yeovil it leaves its mark. And secondly, more optimistically, that if the will is there people working in partnership can actually do something about the problem.

Liberating councils to help meet housing need

And we must untie the hands of local councils who are being forced out of housing provision in a Government project as dogmatic as any they are pursuing. Nobody wants to see a return to the days when councils built rows of huge tower blocks and sprawling municipal estates. But if local authorities are to be able to work as full and equal partners in affordable housing schemes they must be freer to invest in meeting local housing need.

The arcane borrowing rules which tie councils’ hands must change. We need to make a proper distinction between borrowing for investment and borrowing for consumption. That’s what every business does - it ought to apply to the public sector too. The proposals which the Chartered Institute of Housing and others have made for a shift away from the PSBR - and which have been welcomed by many in the City - have the enthusiastic agreement of the Liberal Democrats.

Empty homes

One more common sense thing we need to do is get to grips with the problem of empty homes. There are more than 800,000 in England alone. Many of these are Government-owned, with the MOD a particular culprit.

This represents a huge waste of national resources. The Government’s economists have estimated that we waste £3 million to £10 million annually for every thousand houses left empty.

We need a national crusade against empty homes.

How?

One. Give every council a duty to draw up an empty homes strategy - as some councils have already done - detailing their plans to reduce the number of empty properties in their area, both publicly and privately owned.

Two. Review the level of council tax we charge on empty properties. It’s currently only 50 per cent of the usual rate for most of them.

Three. Increase investment in the Housing Partnership Fund, the scheme which provides funding for projects to bring empty homes and flats over shops into use.

Four. Put more resources into the Empty Homes Agency.

Five. Give local authorities new powers to back up persuasion. They can already deem homes “unfit for human habitation”, obstructive, dangerous, dilapidated, part of a clearance or renewal area, and even compulsorily purchase. Why not powers to require fit, habitable dwellings to be available for occupation when need reaches crisis levels?

Clearly such powers should be tightly drawn.

The Liberal Democrat agenda

Tackling wasted assets. Meeting local needs. Giving homeless people hope.

This is the Liberal Democrat agenda for housing our young people into the next century.

For there is no greater wasted asset than a young person, full of potential, but shut out of opportunity. Shut out of a job. Shut out of a home.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats I strongly welcome this campaign. It is NCH’s campaign. It is our campaign too.

With a national agenda dominated by political flotsam - a yacht, cadet forces, a pop star’s view on drugs - here is an issue that really matters. I am proud to be supporting it. I hope this campaign put it up the political agenda, where it deserves to be, and I hope it stays there right up to election day.

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