James Wild: Ministers need to be clear about what ending rough sleeping will mean in practice.

17 Mar

James Wild is MP for North West Norfolk, and is a member of the Public Accounts Committee.

Putting up a Christmas tree is a simple act that most people take for granted. But as the Purfleet Trust, a charity in my constituency, explained to me, for someone they helped who used to sleep on the streets buying a tree marked the moment when their accommodation turned into a home.

One of the few positive effects of the pandemic was that the “Everyone In” initiative accelerated the Government’s manifesto pledge to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. During my time as an adviser in the Cabinet Office, I was repeatedly told that achieving the previous target of doing this any sooner than by by 2027 was not possible. That owed much to previous Treasury reluctance to fund the plans, so this is an issue the Prime Minister has rightly prioritised.

In the Public Accounts Committee report published today, we recognise the “considerable achievement” of “Everyone In”, which has helped more than 37,000 people into accommodation. Despite not having a specific plan for a pandemic, the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, under Robert Jenrick’s direction, acted “swiftly” in conjunction with local authorities and charities to ensure that people sleeping rough were helped off the streets. It is estimated that action helped avert 20,000 infections and 200 deaths.

Now it is essential to ensure this progress is not lost. Our report calls for the 2018 rough sleeping strategy to be updated as a priority to reflect government’s manifesto commitment. Before the pandemic hit, Baroness Louise Casey had agreed to review the existing strategy, but this was understandably put on hold as she helped lead the Covid response. In her evidence to us, she said that the review was still needed and should be more expansive, considering “wider aspects of homelessness, particularly families in temporary accommodation”.

Clarity on what “ending” rough-sleeping means, how such a target will be measured, and then reported against is now needed. Snapshot data showed 2,688 people sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020, down from 4,266 in the year before the pandemic. However, the “Everyone In” campaign has helped nine times that many people, which shows that the size of the rough sleeping population and those at risk of rough sleeping is far higher than the snapshot data.  While I wasn’t wholly surprised when the MHCLG Permanent Secretary was unable to clarify what the goal meant in practice, an agreed definition is needed urgently.

For the PAC, “ending” implies more than just housing people captured in snapshot data and requires a plan that addresses long-term factors that cause people to start sleeping rough in the first place, including the wider availability of supported and affordable housing.

As well available accommodation, the new strategy needs to reflect the fact that more than 80 per cent of rough sleepers have mental health needs and a significant majority have substance abuse problems. This underlines the importance of wraparound support as per the Housing First model. By bringing forward the Next Steps Accommodation plan to deliver 3,300 houses for people sleeping rough by the end of March, my borough council for instance will be providing six properties which will offer more personalised support for people with complex needs.

Since being elected, I have worked closely with the Purfleet Trust which helps homeless people to build the confidence and skills they need to lead more fulfilling lives. As they tell me, in many ways getting someone into accommodation is the easy part. The challenge is then to keep them there. They are rightly proud of their track record in helping people to move into jobs by developing close relationships with local employers.

One area I believe deserves more attention as the strategy is refreshed is the role of day centres. These are often the first port of call for people on the street. By getting people in for a meal and offering a safe space to sit down and help them to deal with some of the longer-term issues they face, these centres play an important role.

And, of course, a strategy is only valuable insofar as it is funded. £700 million was made available to local authorities in 2020-21 through a combination of spending brought forward and new funding. A further £750 million will be provided to help tackle rough sleeping over the next year. However, both local authorities and the voluntary sector are calling for long-term strategic funding.  We recommend individual funding streams are aligned and that the government addresses the importance of multi-year funding certainty.

A further focus must be on improving resilience in the sector. The toll on those on the frontline who have gone from helping people keep tenancies to dealing with people in chaotic circumstances is immense. These roles are akin to specialist social workers and when funding is short term, charities can only offer limited contracts.  The uncertainty over how long a role will last makes it much harder to find people with the skills to do this vital work. In addition, longer term funding would avoid councils and charities spending time bidding into multiple small pots.

Last month, this site raised again the issues of non-UK nationals who account for a quarter of all those sleeping rough. Under “Everyone In”, the public health priority was helping people whether they were from Bromley or Portugal. Our report highlights that the messaging to local authorities has become more ambiguous as the pandemic has continued. 50% of those put into emergency accommodation in London, for instance, were ineligible for benefits.

This goes to the cross-cutting nature of the problem – solving it will require the Government to address rough-sleeping and immigration issues together and to provide clear guidance to local authorities on what this means for the support they offer this group.

When the pandemic hit, the government rightly prioritised people sleeping rough for urgent support. Local authorities, the voluntary sector, hotel chains, and many more organisations stepped up to meet this goal. To build on this success requires a refreshed plan urgently to provide the clarity, funding, and regular reporting to achieve the objective the government has rightly set to end rough sleeping.

James Wild: A security, defence and foreign policy review is underway. Here’s how we can become a truly Global Britain:

14 Jul

James Wild MP for North West Norfolk was Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence 2014-17

“Smallest Army since Napoleonic war. Save the Marines. Protect our surface fleet. Focus on cyber, not boots on the ground.”

Recent press reports underline that a security, defence and foreign policy review is underway, and special interests are making their case.

In 2015, I advised the Defence Secretary on the Strategic Defence and Security Review. This took place against the backdrop an increasingly aggressive Russia and the appalling shooting down of MH17; Daesh having been close to the gates of Baghdad before the UK as part of the Global Coalition acted against them, and increasing state-backed cyber attacks.

After the 2010 review where painful cuts were required, the 2015 review was an opportunity to reinvest. However, there was something of a bidding war between No 10 and No 11 – with regular incoming missives.

No 10’s priority was doubling our drone fleet and Special Forces equipment and the carriers. The Treasury wanted more F35 jets earlier than planned and the deployment of the Queen Elizabeth accelerated. For the MOD, our priorities were restoring the Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability to respond to increased Russian submarine activity; a step change in offensive cyber capability, and investing in innovation and space.

The ambition was right and everyone pretty much got what they wanted. But to fund these enhancements, the MOD was required to agree to ever greater efficiency targets. These were stretching – and in some cases little more than a wedge against a budget line – but performance to deliver them has been disappointing. That has only added to pressure on the budget today.

The current review presents an opportunity to address the challenges in defence and to provide a coherent Global Britain strategy.

It will consider our multilateral partnerships including the proposed new D-10 group of 10 leading democracies (the G-7, plus India, South Korea, and Australia) and how to reinvigorate NATO. Such alliances will be increasingly important in the face of China’s breaking of international norms and hostile actions.

The work will define how to use the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to promote British interests and values. It can better align military training to take place where it supports our strategic objectives, has a deterrent effect, and is more cost effective.

Given my previous role, it is no surprise that I believe this is not a time to consider cutting the defence budget. The global pandemic we are experiencing could well lead to further instability and increased security and defence risks.

However, we need to be better at making choices. The usual bleeding stumps leaks have begun. These are in my experience partial, misleading, self-serving and will only stop if those responsible are held accountable.

Having said that, it is well documented that the defence budget is stretched. The National Audit Office has repeatedly warned that the MOD equipment and support budget – £180 billion over the next 10 years – is unaffordable. The Mr Micawber approach of hoping that something will turn up, reliance on efficiencies, or the infamous budget “fade” undermines the credibility of the budget.

In the past, decisions have been ducked by delays or deferrals that simply add pressure. Much as we may want to, the UK cannot do everything – the Permanent Secretary has rightly talked about the need to scrap some sacred cows.

It is encouraging that this review will involve a new, younger generation of chiefs. They bring fresh thinking on where the UK can add value, on the size and shape of our forces, and a greater focus on automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

There needs to be a review of the delegated model and the levers to hold front-line commands properly to account for their budgets. In the private sector, constantly over-spending your allocated budget would not be dealt with by a bailout from the finance department but by being shown the door.

The review needs to usher in a new approach to procurement. The MOD has been trying to get procurement right since Samuel Pepys’ time as clerk to the Navy Board.

In March, the National Audit Office found that only five of 32 major projects were probable or highly likely to be delivered on schedule. After joining the MOD, I was constantly told about endless contracts where the taxpayer carried the risk for overruns.

The reforms put in place during that time helped improve results with a move to sharing cost savings or overruns. But we need an agile model where MOD is close to companies that are innovating and designing systems that it can procure at the right time. The old approach of ordering a capability that takes 13 years from business case to full operating capability – such as the Watchkeeper surveillance system – should become a thing of the past.

One element of the budget this review must address head on is the nuclear enterprise. The Public Accounts Committee, which I am a member of, concluded the current funding regime does not work due to uniquely long project timescales and given the impact on the overall defence budget.

Annual budgeting rounds with the Treasury drive additional cost in a long-term programme and the need for in year savings even saw a contractor receiving increased fees when deferred work led to increase costs. There is a strong case for ring-fencing the budget.

An objective of this review must be to create a joint force with a multi-domain model that brings services and agencies together. This will enable what was called “full spectrum effects” and deployed highly effectively in defeating Daesh, and was subsequently rebranded as an apparently new “fusion” doctrine.

It should tackle duplication including: support services such as HR, legal, and admin; the multiple types of helicopters, overlapping ISR capabilities, and other equipment driven by a siloed service approach.

These defence reforms are required to better support the people who serve to keep us safe – everyone in our Armed Forces.

Inevitably speculation is focusing on the size of the regular army. This is the wrong approach – the question for the review is what should the shape and balance be for the challenges we are likely to face?

How can we work better with partners making the most of our respective capabilities? How can we increase the diversity of our Armed Forces with more female and ethnic minority recruits?

Ultimately you can cut your coat to your cloth, or have more cloth. The danger is to avoid making choices and go for an emperor’s new clothes approach.