One of the many reasons why the Brexit referendum result was and is such a disaster for the country is that it has totally over-shadowed so many other serious issues that desperately need to be addressed.
To take just one example: according to new figures this week from the Office for National Statistics, the number of homeless people who died in England and Wales last year was the highest since figures were first collected in 2013. An estimated seven hundred and twenty-six people, most of them men, and many of them addicted to drugs, died in 2018 – an increase of more than a fifth over 2017.
Ponder those figures as I remind you of one of the most shameful statements ever made by a UK Cabinet minister. (Yes, you’re right: the competition is stiff.) It was nearly five years ago, when the then chancellor, a certain George Osborne, complained bitterly about what he called the BBC’s ‘totally hyperbolic coverage’ of the government’s deep cuts in public spending. ‘Has the world fallen in?’ he asked with a rhetorical flourish. And he provided his own answer: ‘No, it hasn’t.’
Which of course depends on whose world you’re talking about.
Kane Walker’s world had certainly fallen in when he died on the streets of Birmingham last January at the age of 31. (You can read his story, reported in The Guardian, here.)
Jake Humm’s world had also fallen in when he killed himself at the age of 22 just over a year ago in Brighton, which has the country’s second-highest homelessness rate outside London. (His story, also from The Guardian, is here.)
According to the Labour MP and former Cabinet minister Liam Byrne, who is now campaigning for the West Midlands mayoralty: ‘Everyone I’ve met sleeping homeless has been hit, hurt, and knocked down by some sort of twist of fate. But the destruction of Britain’s safety net – what we once called social insurance – means there is now nothing to catch us. The rollback of every public service now means our social security is in systems failure.’
(You might vaguely remember Liam Byrne – he was the minister who ill-advisedly left what he thought was a jokey note for his successor at the Treasury when Labour lost the 2010 general election: ‘Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck.’ It wasn’t very funny then, and it’s a lot less funny now.)
What is most shocking about the deaths of Kane Walker and Jake Humm – and of hundreds more like them – is that they were entirely avoidable. If George Osborne and his colleagues had made different political choices, if they had not embraced ‘austerity’ as if it were some kind of magic wand, a pain-free panacea, Walker and Humm might well still be alive.
Perhaps the number of people needing treatment for mental health problems wouldn’t have risen four times faster than the budgets available to fund effective care. Perhaps the funds available for treating drug and alcohol addiction wouldn’t have fallen by twenty per cent.
But there’s no perhaps about the incontrovertible fact that homelessness and the increasing availability of highly addictive drugs are two of the major scourges of modern Britain. No one who lives in a medium-sized town or major city can fail to have seen the evidence with their own eyes. Shelters and hostels are grotesquely over-stretched; funding for outreach programmes is shamefully inadequate.
So did the words ‘homeless’ or ‘homelessness’ figure anywhere in Boris Johnson’s speech this week to the Conservative party conference in Manchester? Here’s the text: see if you can find them. (Spoiler: they’re not there.) Did the word Brexit? Don’t answer that.
David Cameron chose to call his recently-published memoir ‘For The Record’. So, for the record, Mr Cameron: your decision to launch a deeply-divisive, damaging and unnecessary referendum campaign has diverted the nation’s attention from real suffering, real pain and real distress. And the ‘austerity’ policy for which you and George Osborne were responsible added significantly to that suffering, pain and distress. You should be thoroughly ashamed.
Hundreds of people are dying on the streets of our towns and cities; thousands more are at risk and barely surviving. They are all but invisible: in the words of the former Tory housing minister and baronet Sir George Young, they are ‘the people you step over when you come out of the opera.’
In Birmingham, the number of properties owned by the city council has fallen from 120,000 to 61,000 in the past thirty years. There are estimated to be 20,000 homeless people in the city, and the council receives 600 applications per month from people who fear they are about to become homeless.
Liam Byrne calls it a ‘moral emergency’. His manifesto for the West Midlands mayoralty proposes a doubling of the speed of construction of council housing and a 10-year fund to pay for health, mental health and addiction services and benefits advice.
Thank goodness someone is thinking about something other than Brexit.
And, on an entirely different subject, I strongly urge you to find a few minutes to watch this deeply moving contribution by the Labour MP Rosie Duffield to Wednesday’s debate in the House of Commons on domestic abuse. You won’t regret it.