Death at Westminster shames world's fifth biggest economy '“ Christine Jardine

The failure of Government to tackle the problems of homelessness and rough sleeping in the world's fifth largest economy constitutes a dereliction of duty, writes Christine Jardine.
Dawn Hodgson, 45, sits beside a shrine to her friend Gyula Remes at Westminster tube station (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty)Dawn Hodgson, 45, sits beside a shrine to her friend Gyula Remes at Westminster tube station (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty)
Dawn Hodgson, 45, sits beside a shrine to her friend Gyula Remes at Westminster tube station (Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty)

Be warned, I feel a rant coming on.

Not the usual, carefully crafted, coherently argued (I hope) conversation but a full-blown, voice-raised, pointy-finger festive rant.

Last week, less than 10 days before Christmas, a man, Gyula Remes, died at the entrance to my place of work. It was where he slept. The underpass from Westminster tube station to the House of Commons. The centre of power in the world’s fifth largest economy and a man died, destitute, in its doorway.

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I have gone in that door most mornings, and often walked past where he, and others, would be just stirring from a cold night’s sleep.

Every single time, it reminds me of a song that was popular when I was a teenager. Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London” painted a dismal picture of life for those left out of the city’s undoubted wealth.

For many of my generation, it voiced a frustration we felt with our then broken society, even hundreds of miles away in Scotland.

Here I am 40 years later, face to face with the same dismal picture, same broken society.

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And it doesn’t just happen in London. We are well acquainted with the problem in Edinburgh, indeed everywhere in Scotland.

Ironically, on the very day that man died on our doorstep at parliament the Prime Minister was challenged, just a few hundred yards away in the warmth of the chamber, over our national homelessness figures.

An unaware Theresa May argued that the MP who asked was confusing the issues of homelessness and rough sleeping.

“No-one,” she said “should have to sleep rough on the streets of this country, which is why we are taking action against it.”

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Homelessness, on the other hand, she described as a “wider issue”.

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I won’t use the word I’m thinking, it’s what you might term unparliamentary language. Let’s just leave it at I am disappointed.

Yes, there are often social, medical or family issues responsible for people sleeping rough, and most people who are homeless are not on the street. I also agree that we need to tackle those issues in very different and specific ways.

Building more houses will not help those who need social care, perhaps because they got into a spiral of drug or alcohol addiction and were treated like criminals rather than being looked after.

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By the same token, more social care will not help those for whom decent housing is simply not available because a previous government decided to sell off the council housing stock almost four decades ago, and they have never been replaced.

And then there are the issues surrounding benefits and the now infamously inept system of Universal Credit. All of that adds up to a horrifying tally of despair.

In Scotland 43,000 people, including children, became homeless in 2017. That’s more than the joint capacity of Easter Road and Tynecastle stadiums, and equates to one household every 18 minutes losing the roof over their heads.

At the same time, Shelter calculates that there are more than 39,000 homes lying empty in Scotland. Surely someone in government can do the maths? Take the empty properties and turn them into homes.

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I’m proud of the fact that at the last Scottish elections my party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, proposed doing exactly that: invest in turning those empty houses, many of which are now derelict, and provide accommodation.

Failure by governments at both Holyrood and Westminster to do that is nothing short of a dereliction of duty.

For one, this is where I agree with Theresa May’s comments last week in parliament when she criticised successive governments for their failure to act. Let’s hope she takes her own advice.

North of the border, the Scottish Government has consistently failed to meet its house-building targets.

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It’s not enough to promise more houses will be built. They actually have to appear on the landscape.

And yes, there are proposals for thousands of new houses in my constituency alone. But how many of those 43,000 homeless will be able to buy them? Too often both politicians and developers speak proudly of plans for “affordable housing”. Those who know me, know that is a term I detest. All housing should be affordable and what we need is more social housing, specifically aimed at those on low income.

The big question of course is: Where will the money come from?

One thing we could do is stop spending billions of pounds on preparing for an eventuality which economists predict could devastate our economy. Not only might that ‘no deal’ Brexit never happen, those of us in parliament could make sure it doesn’t and free up those funds.

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The Conservative Government could also have put a penny on the pound in income tax and ring fenced it to provide solutions for those threatened with homelessness. As could the Scttish Government. Or Westminster could legalise, regulate and tax the sale of cannabis which would generate billions that the Exchequer could use to support rather than criminalise those who currently end up sleeping rough.

Imagine those were the presents which the Government chose to put under our virtual Christmas Tree tonight.