The broken politics of Brexit has masked the horror of Britain’s homelessness

  • Charities are left picking up the pieces while artful manoeuvring in the House of Commons grabs the headlines

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Just before parliament broke up for the Christmas recess the political bubble was gripped by talk of motions of no confidence. 

Jeremy Corbyn tabled such a motion in the prime minister and the following day the smaller opposition parties tabled one in the entire government. But would either motion be granted time for debate and voted on, potentially bringing down Theresa May or triggering a general election? No one could be sure. 

In the end nothing happened. It was all rather pointless. The convention in the Commons is that time will only be granted for such a debate and vote if the leader of the opposition puts down a vote of no confidence in the entire government (not only the PM), and the motion can be ignored if tabled by the leaders of the smaller opposition parties.

While this Brexit-induced chaos has been ongoing, our politics seems more broken than ever, and it is emblematic of the way Brexit has distracted from the real problems facing this country. This point was vividly illustrated in the most terrible and tragic way.

Over the past few weeks the route into the parliamentary estate through the tube entrance has seen growing numbers of homeless people who have sought shelter and safety in that area. On 18 December, at 11.30pm, British Transport Police found Gyula Remes dead there, a 43-year-old homeless gentleman from Hungary who had choked on his own vomit. 

The death of Mr Remes was reported but didn’t receive widespread attention, certainly nothing like that of another homeless person, a Portuguese national, who had died in the same area in February.

At Christmas our attention is often turned to those without a roof over their heads, thanks to the excellent campaigning work of charities working with homeless people. The truth is, the homeless should be at the forefront of our minds every week, not only during the festive period. On 20 December, the day parliament shut up shop for the Christmas break, the Office for National Statistics happened to publish its estimates of how many homeless people are dying in Britain today. The figures are shocking. 

The ONS estimated there were 597 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales in 2017, up 24 per cent from 2013. Over the past five years the average age at death of a homeless man was 44 and 42 for women, compared with a national average of 76 and 81 respectively. This elicits a picture of Britain from a bygone age, not 2018.

During the late 1980s homelessness became an increasingly visible problem in my south London constituency. I remember seeing this growing up in Streatham and asking my parents how it could be that this was happening in our thriving capital city. 

Soon after my election I became a patron of Spires, our local charity and centre for the homeless. It has provided a wide range of essential support including a hot meal, clothing and other services since the 1980s, down the road from my family home. Many of those who use the service are from abroad but many are not. Some have had difficult family histories, been in care, fled domestic violence, suffered from mental illness and so on – this is by no means an exhaustive list. 

Their needs are complex and be in no doubt: their plight has been severely compounded by the lack of available social housing over the years, and by centrally driven cuts to the services on which they rely and the cruel benefit changes imposed by the Conservatives since they took office in 2010.

The scale of the problem is shocking, in part, because official data has not been comprehensively produced like this at a national level before. It is only now that we have discovered the true scale of what has been happening. It shames our country, home to the fifth largest economy in the world and to 3.6 million millionaire households.

The ONS pinpoints two principal reasons that it has been so hard to get a handle on the numbers living in destitution on our streets.

First, homelessness has different definitions used by different public sector agencies, ranging from those who sleep rough, to those waiting to be rehoused by their local authorities, to residents of shelters and hostels and people who, as the ONS puts it, “sofa surf” in the houses of friends or family. Second, when a person’s death is officially registered, there is no way of recording that they were homeless at the time. The ONS has got round this in part by using new statistical models and by carrying out a rigorous review of death records.

And what about those who are managing to survive? Whenever I’ve asked for the numbers sleeping rough in our borough of Lambeth, I have been struck by how difficult it was to get accurate figures. 

According to Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, more than 24,000 people spent this Christmas sleeping rough across the UK on public transport or in tents. In England alone, they say the number sleeping rough are more than double what the government tells us it is. This is because ministers produce their estimates by relying on what local authorities give them – this is based on visible rough sleepers on a specific night and does not therefore include those sleeping in hidden locations or in transit, for example.

So, Crisis compiled its data from a number of sources and looked at trends to build a more comprehensive picture. Between 2012 and 2017, the numbers have soared by 120 per cent in England and 63 per cent in Wales.

Shelter, another excellent charity working in this sector, neatly summarises what needs to be done to reduce homelessness in Britain.

In the private rented sector, the message is to improve conditions, put in place better consumer protection, give renters a genuine right to stay and stop landlords discriminating against those on benefits.

We also need to build much more social housing. There are thousands on the waiting list in my constituency – nationally there are 1.2 million, yet just 5,000 new social homes were built last year. We must provide far better services to those who have various and complex needs – charities like Spires, Crisis and Shelter should not have to do what they do and simply cannot meet the demand, which brings us back to our broken politics.

We were told that voting to leave the EU would solve so many of our country’s problems like this when the opposite is true. Instead, on the day Mr Remes died we learned the government had allocated £4bn to prepare the UK to leave the EU with no deal – a very real prospect. Just think how many new social homes could be built with that money and how much more these amazing charities could do for those sleeping rough on our streets with such funding. We cannot go on like this in 2019. Things have to change.