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We should be helping rough sleepers in Westminster - not moving them on

4 min read

While one MP is seeking to put rough sleepers out of his or her sight, the Government appears to also have put them out of mind, writes Neil Coyle

Apparently, the police have been moving rough sleepers out of Westminster tube station after an MP complained. It is deeply offensive and worrying that an MP did this. There are about 5,000 rough sleepers in London and it is inevitable that warmer, safer areas will be sought in desperate circumstances. The entrance to Parliament is one of them. To refuse even this small comfort to people in severe need is simply despicable.

The rational thing to do would be to work out how they got there and how better to help. Not leave them to battle the elements in a potentially even less safe location. I have used the Freedom of Information Act to see if the police will disclose which MP complained. I hope it is forthcoming.

If the MP was genuinely concerned about helping the rough sleepers, perhaps they can share what work they’ve done to ensure access to mental health services given the overlap between mental health conditions and homelessness. I am sure the MP will have a long track record of backing council funding to provide alternative accommodation and hostels. I hope they did not vote for Budgets which axed treatment programmes for drug and alcohol addiction, or for benefit cuts which have left some disabled people at risk of homelessness.

Universal Credit has even contributed to at least two of my constituents being made homeless – despite my constituency housing the JobCentre Plus providing the training for DWP ‘Work Coaches’ up and down the country. It is very worrying that these DWP representatives are still getting Universal Credit so badly wrong, contributing to such dire circumstances.

The power the police use to move on rough sleepers dates back to the years following the Napoleonic Wars. The Vagrancy Act must be abolished and there is a campaign underway on this which Layla Moran MP is leading on. I hope the campaign is successful and it is one which the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ending Homelessness supports.

I think most people would agree that the police have more pressing things to worry about than enforcing a 195-year-old law. When nine in ten crimes go unpunished, and with levels of knife crime and other serious offences rising fast, any MP wasting police time should frankly be ashamed. After nine years of cuts to the police force in London and multiple debates about how they could better use their time, it is not just offensive but an incredible waste of all too limited police resources.

MPs concerned about tackling rough sleepers could all scrutinise the Government’s work in this area more. After annual increases in homelessness and rough sleeping since 2010, Ministers belatedly committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022. In year one, however, the total reduction was just 74. With progress that slow, it would take until 2051 for the Government to reach its target: 29 years behind schedule. Even that would rely on there being no further increase in levels of homelessness, which seems incredibly unlikely. 

To help meet its commitment, the Government also established a Ministerial Taskforce which was launched with great fanfare in February 2018. But Ministers have been very shy to reveal its work, remit, membership or even provide the dates of when it has met.

In my repeated questions to the Homelessness Minister, Heather Wheeler MP, she has refused to share any details and has only confirmed the inaugural meeting date. Whilst one MP is seeking to put rough sleepers out of his or her sight, the Government appears to also have put them out of mind, leaving many in the homelessness sector very sceptical about the chances of halving rough sleeping. 

Neil Coyle is Labour MP for Bermondsey & Old Southward and co-chair of the APPG for Ending Homelessness 


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