By Cllr Sam Stopp, LCEH – Chair
The clamour to end homelessness is growing. Yesterday the Guardian published an open letter from the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness calling on the Labour party to commit to ending homelessness. Meanwhile, in Westminster, the communities and local government select committee called on the government to back aHomelessness Reduction Bill.
Soaring homelessness is the most sinister symbol of the crisis of inequality in this country. It is the symptom of a milieu of different social problems – families under strain, inadequate mental health services, unaffordable housing, insecure work and low wages to name a few. So, when we talk about ending homelessness, we are really talking about ending inequality. We call this socialism.
In the face of the growing homelessness crisis, local government is the first – and sometimes the last – line of defence. That is why it is so important that local authorities are properly funded and empowered so that they can re-home homeless people and prevent homelessness from happening in the first place.
I therefore welcome the growing cross-party consensus to act on homelessness. Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, has called Tory member of parliament Bob Blackman’s private member’s bill to improve the support and advice offered to homeless people, ‘unprecedented’. However, I must sound several notes of caution about the Tories’ Damascene conversion to socialism.
First, it is convenient for the Tories in Westminster to point the finger at local government. The reason local government is under so much strain is that the Tories in central government began a savage and needless austerity programme when they returned to power in 2010, hitting Labour-run areas the hardest (I wonder why).
Many councils have had their budgets halved and one of the most heart-wrenching votes the Brent Labour Group of which I am a member had to take in 2014 was on whether we could afford to maintain the rough sleepers grant. In part because this was a Labour council, we voted to keep the grant and to sacrifice other services. Many Tory councils have not done the same.
Second, the real power to end homelessness lies in Westminster. A government serious about ending homelessness would legislate widely to tackle the many causes of homelessness. We need egalitarian reforms to our laws on housing, mental health, rights at work, and wages. This can only come from the top as councils, vital as they are, do not have the power to legislate and can only make the best of the laws that are handed down to them.
Third, a government serious about tackling homelessness would be serious about tackling inequality. In spite of Theresa May’s warm words when she became prime minister, she was home secretary for six years while the Tories embarked on one of the most draconian periods of austerity in British history. I simply fail to believe that the Tories are the people we should trust with putting the homeless first.
All of this makes it clear, once again, that only a Labour government can end homelessness. That is precisely whythe Labour Campaign to End Homelessness focusses its efforts on lobbying the Labour party alone. Only a party that puts equality of outcome – not equality of opportunity – at the heart of its mission will deal with the wide and varied root causes of homelessness before local government has to intervene.
For the Tory mentality is – and always has been – charity, not solidarity. Yet, as Clement Attlee once so famously remarked: ‘Charity is a cold, grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole them out at a whim’. Any attempts at what Aneurin Bevan called ‘ethical or social seduction’ by any Tories, Theresa May or otherwise, to pretend that they are not the cause of rapidly rising homelessness should be met head on by a radical, alternative Labour-government-in-waiting.