Iain Wright MP

 Iain Wright MP

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State

Rough sleeping in London

Date of speech 11 December 2008
Location The Old Museum Guildhall, London
Event summary City of London Rough Sleeping Conference

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.

I would like to start this morning with a brief tribute to Bob Lawrence. Many of you will know Bob not only as an advisor to government, but also because of his long-standing involvement with Crisis.

Bob was an incredibly passionate advocate - and was one of those people who genuinely made a difference. He will be sadly missed.

As many of you know, I recently launched a national strategy to end rough sleeping by 2012 - with the personal backing of the Prime Minister.

There are those critics who say that it can't be done. That rough sleeping is just one of those things, an inevitable product of modern society. Yes it's sad, but there's not much we can do about it.

To be honest, we've heard all this before. Back in 1998, when we committed to cutting rough sleeping by two thirds, people just didn't believe that it could be done.

In London, the concentrations of rough sleepers at places like Lincoln's Inn Fields, Waterloo or Victoria seemed to be as much a part of the London landscape as Big Ben.

But look at what's been achieved since then. Not only did we reach that target within four years, but numbers have remained low ever since.

Here in London, the notorious cardboard cities have been replaced with secure places of change, like Connections St Martins and Endell Street Hostel. Places which genuinely help to turn people's lives around.

The 600 people out on the streets every night is now under 250.

It's a really incredible achievement - thanks to a combination of political leadership, unprecedented spending, but most of all - passionate local commitment. People like you, always prepared to go the extra mile.

Investment is incredibly important of course, but its individuals - like you - who really make the difference.

It's because we've come so far that I am confident that we can make this final push.

I am under no illusions about how difficult this may be, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Having come so far, we have a responsibility to finish the job.

To be frank, what happens in London will more or less make or break the nationwide strategy.

Half of all rough sleepers are right here in London. Westminster and the City of London alone accounts for around a third of the national total.

The approach that we've set out for the country as a whole - with a focus on prevention, partnership working, and personalised comprehensive solutions - is especially relevant to London.

Indeed, your experiences over the past ten years, the knowledge that you have built up about what works, has been instrumental in informing the overall approach.

Perhaps more than any other city, London knows its rough sleepers. The excellent data collection helps to underpin your understanding of how best to help them.

London is also extremely good at helping people quickly - getting people off the streets and finding them a bed for the night.

But of course, London also faces some specific and really tough challenges.

Not least the sheer scale of the problem.

More than any other city in England, you are working at the sharp end - doing your best for a huge variety of people, with an incredibly complex range of needs.

The really hard to reach - the hard core of 150 or so who have been out on the streets for years - maybe decades. Migrants from central and eastern Europe. Vulnerable groups who fear danger and exploitation and are more difficult to find and reach out to.

We also have to be honest about the areas for improvement.

While London is great at getting people off the streets; it could get better at keeping them off the streets.

As you'll know, there are concerns about the "revolving door" of rough sleeping; people who go back and forth between streets and shelter, without ever getting themselves on a firm footing.

So we need to improve our focus on long-term solutions; building on the success of the places of change programme.

London also needs to get better at prevention.

Because despite the progress that's been made in terms of getting people off the streets, numbers aren't falling at the rate they should. That's because of a constant stream of new people coming on to the streets.

Stopping rough sleeping in the first place is going to mean doing things differently.

It means working with family, friends and the wider community to make sure the right support in place. It means being alert and aware of the trigger points - such as when people leave care, hospital, or prison without anywhere to go. It means getting other joining up properly with wider housing services.

And it is extremely positive to see many boroughs already developing the solutions.

Like the work that's going on in Merton, by the New Directions Team, to support adults with chaotic lives, often because of poor mental health or substance abuse problems. Making sure that they have got comprehensive support before their lives spiral out of control and they end up homeless.

We want to promote more personalised services, including testing individual budgets to increase the control people have over the services they need. This is something that the City are keen to pilot with people sleeping rough and this looks an interesting approach.

And it's great to see the depth of shared commitment - not just between the different boroughs but also among the different services and organisations working in the capital.

A couple of weeks ago, I was out with Thamesreach in nearby Tower Hamlets and met a roofer called Robbie. He was sleeping behind a bookies with a few friends. A couple of police officers stopped by and I was struck by the respect and kindness that they showed Robbie.

He clearly wasn't seen as a nuisance or a problem - and they wanted to make sure he was as safe as possible. I'm sure it wouldn't have been the same story a few years ago. There's now a real sense of collective responsibility, which will only help drive further improvements.

So the foundations of future success are already being laid. What is absolutely critical, therefore, is that individual boroughs continue to work with, and learn from each other. This will make more difference than any new initiative that I could invent.

But it is clear that the specific challenges in the capital do demand particular attention - and we've outlined the response in the national strategy.

First, there will be a renewed focus on "move-on" accommodation, so that people can get out of temporary housing.

Too often, what was planned to be a quick fix ends up as a long-term solution, because of a lack of alternatives.

We need to help more people get out of this uncertain limbo, faster - giving them a stable and secure platform to rebuild these lives. There will be funding for more places, but we will also need to look at making better use of the private rented sector.

Second, we'll need to step up our efforts to address rough sleeping among migrants.

We already have a joint action plan with Homeless Link to reduce rough sleeping among Eastern European migrants. And I know that several boroughs are already working with BARKA to help migrants in difficulties return home. We'll also be working with the UK Border Agency to minimise the risks of migrants ending up on the streets in the first place.

Finally, we are setting up a London Delivery Board, with all the key players involved. Rough sleepers don't care about bureaucratic boundaries or borough borders, they just care about having the right support at the right time. With this more strategic approach, we can make sure they get it.

They will be developing an action plan to get services working more effectively.

This will include more effective commissioning, closer involvement of NHS London and the prison service, and reducing the numbers of rough sleepers coming to central London, helping to lessen the pressure on services.

The Mayor of course will be an absolutely critical partner in realising these goals.

I know he is whole-heartedly committed to ending rough sleeping - his recent housing strategy makes this absolutely clear. I am looking forward to working with him to make this happen, and to come up with the creative new approaches needed.

I want to finish today by thanking you very much for your efforts over the past ten years. In many ways, you are victims of your own success. With each achievement, our expectations get even higher.

It's no exaggeration to say that what you have done has helped make London the envy of capital cities around the world.

And it's because we have already come so far, that I believe we can go even further. Thank you very much.

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