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Tue 31 March 2020
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If the success of a government is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable in society, our decade-long Conservative Government has utterly failed, says James Melville.

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In the UK, we have a Government that appears not to be ashamed of the poverty which it has created.

According to the Social Metrics Commission, 14.3 million people in the UK are now in poverty and more than four million people are trapped in deep poverty. Seven million people, including 2.3 million children, are affected by what it terms as “persistent poverty”. An estimated 1.5 million people in the UK are in poverty as a result of benefits cuts and high rents.

A decade of austerity has driven the poverty crisis. Since 2010, the Government has cut £40 billion a year from the work and pensions budget through cuts and freezes to tax credits and benefits and this has also created a spike in the baseline definition of poverty: a homelessness crisis in the UK.

An estimated 320,000 people are now homeless in the UK, according to research by Shelter published in November 2018. This equates to one in every 200 people in Britain, an increase of 4% on the previous year. The charity estimates that there are 135,000 children now living in temporary accommodation and that 4-5,000 people sleep on the streets on any given night in the UK – a figure that has almost doubled since 2010.

In addition, there are an uncertain number of ‘hidden homeless’ who are unknown to authorities, staying with relatives or friends, or sleeping in cars or in the countryside – places that official homelessness statistics don’t cover.

An estimated 726 people died while homeless in England and Wales in 2018. This was up 22% on the previous year – the highest year-to-year rise since this data started being collected.

A report by the waste company Biffa, the Open University and the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management has shown that rough sleepers sheltering in bins has spiked in the past five years, with increased homelessness in the UK blamed for a rising number of deaths by crushing and near misses while bin containers are being emptied. At least seven people sleeping in bins are known to have been killed in the past five years, according to the Health and Safety Executive. From April to December 2019, Biffa employees also recorded 109 “near misses” or encounters with people either sleeping in or near its bins.

These appalling statistics are the end product of a Government that for 10 years has failed to understand and rectify the homelessness crisis. Austerity-driven poverty and the breakdown of mental health provision means that homelessness numbers are growing. Mental health trusts in England have suffered budget cuts in real terms of just over 8% year-on-year since 2011. They have lost almost a third of all NHS mental health beds over the past decade and 6,800 (15%) mental health nurse posts have gone.

Cuts to funding for housing benefit, local government funding, mental health budgets, disability allowances, homelessness services and new council and social homes are all directly responsible for the increase in people living and dying on our streets.

The tragedy is that it is entirely within the Government’s power to do something about it. We should make housing a basic human right rather than a roof over someone’s head being conditional on engaging in services for drug use or mental health – especially when such services have been cut. Evidence from countries such as Finland shows that the opposite approach to tackling homelessness is true: that when people are given homes, homelessness is radically reduced.

Ending homelessness is eminently achievable if the Government takes proper action rather than shifting the blame. During the 2019 General Election campaign, the Home Secretary Priti Patel was asked if the Government was responsible for poverty. “Well, it’s not,” she replied. “Because it’s all parts of society and the structures.”

A Government should ultimately be judged on how it supports the most vulnerable in society. Our homelessness crisis shows that, ultimately, the Conservative Government has failed.


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