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Homelessness (a8 Nationals)

January 30, 2007

Homelessness (a8 Nationals)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): There has been an impassioned national debate about the benefits and burdens of the influx of people from eastern Europe since the EU enlargement of May 2004.

Understandably, much of that has focused on the lack of Government preparedness given the unexpectedly large numbers that have arrived, from Poland and Lithuania in particular. The arrival to these shores of hard-working, committed, law-abiding young men and women who are willing and able to contribute to skilled, unskilled and semi-skilled employment in catering, construction, leisure and the hospitality industries, to name but a few, has clearly been a great boost to the United Kingdom’s economy. Indeed, without such an influx, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s frequent boasts about strong and continuous economic growth would be somewhat muted.

There has also been a darker side to the monumental human tide that has come into our country, and it is those problems that I wish to address. In the run-up to EU enlargement almost three years ago, my local authority, Westminster city council, warned repeatedly of the increased dangers of nationals from the new EU accession countries ending up sleeping rough on the streets and adding to instability as well as fuelling crime and antisocial behaviour.

Around the time of enlargement, the leader of Westminster city council, Sir Simon Milton, wrote to the then Home Secretary to warn him of the risks. In addition, I have submitted parliamentary questions over the past year about those who are described as A8 nationals?for those unaware of that term, it refers to people from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia; the other two smaller accession countries from 2004, Malta and Cyprus, are not included in the definition.

Naturally, those concerns have been compounded by the recent accession at the beginning of January of Bulgaria and Romania, the A2 nations, which have a total population of 35 million. Even during this month, we have seen evidence of many starting to arrive, although it is harder to track numbers as the coaches often come in via Germany. Last week some A2 families?not simply young men or women who were seeking work?pitched up at Charing Cross police station demanding accommodation. Although it is difficult to gauge exact numbers, five of the six people arrested recently in the Victoria area for persistent begging were from Romania.

Needless to say it is central London?the most cosmopolitan melting pot in the country?that faces the greatest burden to its social services since the arrival of so many A8 nationals. That is particularly acute in relation to Romanians, for whom, unlike for Poles and Lithuanians, there is no significant settled UK community outside London. I should also stress at this juncture that the substantial increased workload has not lain exclusively on the shoulders of our local councils.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity of speaking at great length with Sister Ellen Flynn, the chief executive of The Passage, which is an institution that proudly proclaims that it has helped homeless people since 1980. That charity in Victoria, which is sponsored predominantly by the Roman Catholic Church, has provided for the less fortunate in our society since the 1860s and is situated close to Victoria street, albeit on the other side of the street from the Minister. The Passage works alongside central Government in trying to give a hand-up to those in need with a view to ensuring that the homeless for whom it cares can return rapidly to a self-sufficient life, reliant neither on the state nor charitable giving. It is an organisation that is only a stone’s throw from Westminster cathedral and only a five-minute walk from Victoria coach station, the preferred destination of many from Poland and Lithuania, and it has been under increasing pressure over the past three years. Naturally, neither The Passage, other charities nor Westminster city council are in a position simply to turn away those vulnerable A8 nationals who arrive in the country unable to support themselves.

Westminster city council has furnished the Home Office with a detailed report of the costs incurred in providing vital pastoral care and services. On several occasions, I have written to Home Office Ministers requesting future funding for additional police resources to tackle the increasing crime and antisocial behaviour related to the influx of A8 nationals. Approximately half of the funding needed has been confirmed and granted by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I understand that at the end of last week the Home Office confirmed in writing that it would match that contribution to cover additional enforcement and repatriation costs incurred at a local level, which I shall describe in more detail later.

Without continued funding at that level, or perhaps even at an enhanced level, Westminster city council will be forced to make cuts in other areas of its work for the indigenous council tax-paying population. Let us remember that those outgoings are not of Westminster council tax payers’ making. To give credit where credit is due, I thank the Minister for the initial financial contribution. However, I have to say that we anticipate a worsening of the situation that I have described with the recent EU expansion and the freedom of movement extended to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): We have similar problems in my constituency. I had a meeting last week with Janie Kidston and Ania Majcherek of the Upper Room at St. Saviour’s church on Cobbold road. They deal with 130 homeless A8 nationals a day, serving them with meals. We have the Broadway centre, which, I was told, on one day alone dealt with 20 new clients who were A8 nationals. Again, that centre deals with homelessness and those with addiction problems. It certainly seems to me, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend would agree, that the Government are starting to get a grip on the problem but that they need to do a lot more and to wake up to the extent of the problems that we in inner London face.

Mr. Field: I endorse every word of my hon. Friend’s comments. I should emphasise that the issue is not merely prevalent in inner London. Although as I mentioned it is inevitable that, as we are the great melting pot of this country, it will be an issue for the local London authorities?not only for Conservative-run authorities, but for those run by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats as well?it is also a national problem. I ask the Minister to keep a close eye on developments and to take on board many of the concerns expressed by voluntary organisations and local authorities, which are able to watch as such things develop. As I have pointed out, one of our biggest concerns about Romanians is that there is no large settled community, as there is for Poles and Lithuanians, outside London, and we are now seeing families, and not just young men and women who wish to work in London, coming here and throwing themselves on the mercy of our social services.

For almost three years, we seen up to 2,000 A8 nationals arriving every week into Victoria coach station. Many?the great majority?have friends and relatives in London, and many come with assured accommodation and with employment sorted out. However, a small and sizeable minority arrive without any means of support. Inevitably, many are from the most vulnerable groups and their personal, physical and mental capacity have a tendency quickly to deteriorate. They sleep on the streets, as they have no income, they tend either to beg or steal, and quickly become engaged in alcohol-fuelled assault and violence. They often seek food from the soup runs in large numbers, which also causes a rapid diminution in the quality of life of the local residential community as a result of aspects of their antisocial behaviour.

Let me put that into context. Westminster city council received £297,000 additional funding from the Home Office in 2005?the last full year for which I have figures?to tackle the problems surrounding the arrival of nationals from the original eight accession countries. That money was used to cover repatriation costs for those who wish to return home?a significant minority?to try to allow those who come here to deal with the reality of what survival in the UK is like and to tackle the increase in crime and antisocial behaviour related to the influx. The funding was, of course, for only a single year. Central Government’s failure to fund local authorities properly and promptly?I suspect that Westminster city council is by no means alone in that regard?threatens such initiatives in future.

As the Minister is aware, the law prevents nationals from A8 accession states from accessing benefits provided by local authorities to residents, as well as state benefits such as income support, shelter and drug treatment services. That has exacerbated the likelihood of A8 nationals descending into street life, as they have no other means of support. I know from my own experience that homelessness agencies are swamped, and the feedback that I receive from them shows that the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions to facilitate access to employment services has worsened the plight of those vulnerable people.

An overview of the current situation makes for depressing reading. Towards the end of 2006, a detailed and comprehensive count of rough sleepers in Westminster revealed that nearly one in two were A8 nationals. That demonstrates an alarming trend in the number of A8 nationals living on our streets.

Again, I give credit to the Government for what they have done?in this context, it is only fair. The recent trend contrasts with a reducing trend in the number of other rough sleepers, a decline that is testament to the effectiveness of public and voluntary sector interventions, including the Government’s work on rough sleepers, which paid great dividends in the streets of central London for most of the first nine years of the Labour party’s time in office. Many of the 300-odd rough sleepers counted in 2006 were Polish males, some of whom had been here for many months with little prospect of securing work and no recourse to public funds or social care assistance. The problem is inevitably reduced during winter months?a significant number go home because it is so cold?but those who stay are acutely vulnerable. They need to be looked after properly.

Voluntary homelessness organisations are at breaking point because they have been inundated with requests for assistance and sustenance, leaving them less able to meet the needs of what might be described as their core client group. Many of those organisations have a range of support issues and they do not receive public funds. Sadly, in preparing for the debate I found that many local homelessness agencies have been forced to withdraw services from new arrivals from the accession states whom they deem to be not vulnerable. Given that the majority of arrivals are fit young men, very few qualify for support.

Westminster city council works incredibly hard to tackle the needs of new arrivals, and over the past year, via funding secured from the Home Office under the invest to save scheme, it has managed to prevent nearly 400 A8 nationals from slipping into long-term rough sleeping. That increased funding allowed a secondee from the Department for Work and Pensions to be employed, who assisted more than 100 individuals in securing work. As a result, additional police community support officers were able to assist the existing police team in reducing the antisocial and criminal activities associated with rough sleeping.

The Minister may be aware that, even when it was not my party’s policy, I have always supported the police community support officers initiative. In that regard, they have done a tremendous job. Again, I thank the Home Office for its support. With 2,000 people arriving every week at Victoria coach station, short-term funding was vital in retaining the extra policing staff and interpreters required to manage the influx. However, a long-term solution needs to be found. In the meantime, I simply ask that the burden of looking after the homeless that arrive in this country does not fall so disproportionately on central London council tax payers.

I take the opportunity to express a more general concern about the availability of housing in the capital. Paradoxically, despite the influx of skilled and semi-skilled workers from across the globe, London has the highest unemployment of any region in the UK. The fact of the matter is that many of those in London without a job are simply unemployable. They often have chaotic lifestyles. The great majority of London’s unemployed lack the skills, the aptitude or the application to hold down a job of any description. However, many of them live in scarce council or social housing, where they benefit from security of tenure. As a result, the growing polarisation between rich and poor, which has been a characteristic of central London life for some years, is rapidly becoming an issue throughout the capital, and even beyond the M25.

The London economy cannot cater for those without the skills and application to play a part in a globally competitive workplace. Our scarce social housing needs to be reserved for those working in the public sector or in relatively low-paid private sector jobs who make a contribution to the community at large. Indeed, many nurses, teachers and police officers who work in my constituency cannot afford to live within the boundaries of Greater London. The time is now right to enable central London’s local authorities to offer council tenants, and potentially others in social housing, financial incentives in return for surrendering security of tenure on such scarce housing stock. Only then might London enjoy the balanced communities that will enable those dedicated people who provide such vital day-to-day services to live near where they work.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing this debate on homelessness among A8 nationals in England, and particularly in his constituency. He and his local council were both keen to raise the subject. As he said, the majority of A8 nationals registered to work in England are doing so. Indeed, Home Office statistics show that 97 per cent. are in full-time employment. That contributes significantly to the UK economy. In general, A8 migrants are young, well educated and often willing to work in lower-skilled jobs. Many perform key tasks in public services, or work on major construction sites or in agriculture or tourism.

Mr. Hands: The Minister is right about the generality of A8 nationals who are coming here, but many homelessness cases involve older men in their 30s or 40s with a limited knowledge of English. Typically, they come from eastern Poland or rural of Lithuania, but they come to Britain under false pretences?not their pretence, but the false advertising and the marketing documents that are sold to them. Not only the young are involved; some of those in real difficult in my constituency are middle aged.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right that it is not only the younger and better skilled who face problems. Many have lower skills or, as he said, have poor English or face other challenges. It is important to ensure that we address both problems. We need to respond to the needs that arise, but we must also to try to discourage people who are not able to support themselves or take up employment from coming here in the first place. That is our clear policy approach.

I shall continue my response to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster. Although the overall impact of migration has been positive for Britain, the focus of today’s debate is the small number who have been unable to access employment to support themselves and who therefore find themselves on the streets. Some may find themselves on the streets temporarily and are swiftly able to get back on their feet, perhaps with a good chance of getting a job. Others should not have come here. Perhaps they are too vulnerable or are for other reasons unable to take advantage of job opportunities in the capital and elsewhere in the country. Instead, they may need help to return to their home countries.

The Government welcome nationals of countries within the European economic area, including the 2004 accession countries, who wish to come here to work or study or who are otherwise self-sufficient. As from 1 January 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, the Government decided to limit access to our labour market for nationals of those countries for a transitional period.

Regulations are in place to ensure that EEA nationals cannot come to the UK who have no intention of supporting themselves, nor will they be able to access the local authority housing and homelessness assistance funded by the UK taxpayer. Those who are working or self-employed, and their family members, are eligible to apply for assistance, but proper safeguards are important to ensure that the programme works as intended.

The Department assesses the impact on homelessness services and on housing overall. Last August, research published by Homeless Link evidenced the issues of A8 nationals when using homelessness services. It suggested that, where there is an impact, it is mainly on London homelessness services rather than at a national level. The vast majority of people using homelessness services were able-bodied young men who were fit for work and who might, as I said earlier, be able to access jobs if they were given the right support. It is important to recognise that many people may not start off as vulnerable, but, if they live for long periods on the streets and face very difficult circumstances, they can become vulnerable and get into particularly difficult circumstances over time. That is an issue that agencies need to respond to.

The most recent rough sleeper counts in Westminster suggest that there are around 30 rough sleepers on the streets from the A8 countries. It is important to look at the scale of the issue that we face. It is clear that Westminster faces many of the greatest pressures associated with homelessness, which is why we provided £6.6 million for next year in homelessness grants to deal with the wider issues. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that huge progress has been made in dealing with rough sleeping, preventing homelessness and helping people off the streets and into proper accommodation.

The investment put in alongside homelessness strategies has made a huge difference and the strength of those strategies has been that they focus on the individual causes of homelessness and on individual needs. Rather than adopting a blanket approach, consideration has been given to the particular circumstances of the individual homeless. That is the key to addressing the problems of people from A8 countries who are homeless.

The Homeless Links research is to be welcomed as it provided important evidence regarding the impact on services. My Department has used that research when
working with the local authorities in central London most affected by homeless A8 nationals. We have also used it to work across Government. The issues are wider than homelessness and include access to employment advice, which is important. The Department has worked with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to look at issues around access to jobcentre services, including Jobcentre Plus facilities. Many people are economic migrants who are looking for work, and help getting them into employment can prevent homelessness.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the invest to save programme set out by the Home Office a few years ago. That provided £257,000 to Westminster city council, spread over a number of years, to implement a package of measures, including working with The Passage, and there was some success in working with that group. Part of that work included supporting people to return to their home country if it was inappropriate for them to provide for themselves or become self-sufficient here.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has given £100,000 in this financial year to continue to support A8s and my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office have just confirmed that they will provide an additional £100,000 for 2007-08. In particular, that will provide interpretation services and dedicated police community support officers to assist and advise vulnerable people from the A8 countries.

We have also announced an additional £140,000 this year to other central London local authorities, including around £20,000 for Hammersmith and Fulham, which was in recognition of the potential impact on homelessness services from A8 nationals. Additional funding this year is, of course, on top of more than £20 million of grant funding from my Department to London boroughs towards the prevention and reduction of homelessness.

A further £8.7 million has gone directly to the voluntary sector in London, in which many people work directly with the street homeless. It is important to recognise that the vast majority of investment that goes into homelessness services is about addressing the needs of those who are most vulnerable and who may have been in the capital for a long time?either long-standing residents or people who have ended up in London after travelling from other parts of the country. The number of A8 nationals who need support is still small in proportion to the number of homeless people being helped across the capital.

On 24 October 2006, the Government announced a package of measures on managing migration to the UK. Last December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government met local government representatives to explore some issues facing the sector in managing migration. Many towns and cities, including Westminster, are keen to work with us on developing best practice and in taking forward the work of the Improvement and Development Agency and the Audit Commission to ensure that residents can work as part of a programme and address the issues raised by migration.

We know that migration can have a hugely positive impact on local economies, and to provide support for local services it is important to ensure that the issue is handled, addressed and managed in a way that can benefit all the community. The newly launched Commission on Integration and Cohesion will look at how local authorities and community organisations can play a greater role in ensuring that new migrants learn English and contribute to our economy.

The hon. Gentleman raised wider issues around housing pressures in his constituency and across the capital in general. He will know that the Government strongly feel that we face housing pressures?not simply in London, but across the country?as a result of the ageing population and the fact that more people are living alone.

There are a series of reasons for the growth in housing demand, and the impact has been to push up house prices. House building across the country has not kept up with rising housing demand, so it is important that we increase the number of new homes built each year. Nationwide, we need to build around 200,000 new homes a year and we should be building more private, shared ownership and social housing. We need all three types of housing, and that is also the case in London.

The hon. Gentleman raised the particular challenges faced by those on middle incomes or those who are public sector workers. They can find themselves pressurised in high-cost parts of the capital where they earn too much to be eligible for social housing, but simply cannot afford the high house prices. That is why we have supported the expansion of shared ownership.

Local authorities should also look at other measures, such as supporting mobility to other parts of the capital and to other areas. It also important to recognise that people from every income group have needs and that we should ensure that we are helping those on lower and middle incomes at the same time. We have asked John Hills to look more widely at the long-term approach to social housing to ensure that we have mixed communities. We need to build more homes of all kinds in the capital and across the country to meet housing needs for the future.