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The interview: Grant Shapps, MP

February 03 2008
‚Äö?Ñ??Essentially, the government was claiming the problem had been dealt with‚Äö?Ñ?? ‚Äö?Ñ??Essentially, the government was claiming the problem had been dealt with‚Äö?Ñ??
Mr Shapps is tackling Britain‘s housing problems with the fervour of a geeky teenager. And he is a very keen student After 30 minutes in the company of Grant Shapps, you are struck by the child-like quality of his manner. This is not due to his appearance, although he is a youthful 39-year-old. It is due to his approach: Mr Shapps is tackling Britain's housing problems with the fervour of a geeky teenager. And he is a very keen student. This Christmas, Mr Shapps spent one night on the streets, his own homework set for the cause. "I am aware this will only be a tiny taste of what life is like on the street," he says. "I know I will be in a bed the night afterwards, and I know that having to have the press with me will not make it very authentic, but I do think it will help me to understand what it is like on the streets." But is this just politics, naivety, or a fresh approach to tackling rough sleeping in the UK? "Years ago, before I was a politician, I was struck by the fact that we were not capable of housing our own people," he says. "It was a problem I found hard to ignore, and I find it surprising it has not been tackled in a more conclusive way - it cannot be beyond the weight of humankind?" But although the minister has since learned just how much weight we need to throw behind homelessness, he does not seem intimidated. "When I came into office, I felt no one had talked about homelessness for some time, looked into why and realised, essentially, the government was claiming the problem had been dealt with," explains Mr Shapps. "I know it has not been." He made headlines in early November when he released a report criticising the UK's current counting system. "The government claims there are 498 rough sleepers in the country. We think it is more like 1,300 rough sleepers and, therefore, the resources given at present do not get to the right places." The problem is simple, he claims: local authorities are asked to give bracketed numbers of rough sleepers in their area, between zero and 10, 11 and 20, and so on. But when the number between zero and 10 is given, this is not listed as an average of five, but zero. "The government claims authorities are likely to embellish these figures - that is their justification for rounding them down," he explains. "But I cannot understand why the local authorities would do this. There is no financial gain to be had from having more homeless people in your area." He was curious about The Pavement's ongoing campaign for the truth behind head count rumours and said he has heard similar stories of miscounting. "I have been told that there are areas in the big cities, such as certain parks or districts, where local authorities will not go, because they think it is too dangerous, and this inhibits the counts accuracy," he says. "Surely if this area is dangerous, we should be counting these people so we can help them?" Mr Shapps proposes improving trust between central government and local authorities and charities as the beginning of a solution, as well as a separation of the issues of rough sleeping, and homelessness. "The rough sleepers unit in the government has been wound up into the Communities and Local Government, but I do not believe rough sleeping is the same as homelessness," said Mr Shapps. "Facing a life on the street is not the same as being in sheltered accommodation, and these people should not be lumped together." However, Mr Shapps's studies have not yet found the right formula for eradicating rough sleeping. "When I have asked charities what they would like to see changed, not one group gave the same answer twice," he said. "I know a lot of people end up on the streets because of relationship breakdown, and on this basis I think we need to support the best welfare system there is in this country - the family. "This is not an overnight solution," he adds. "It may take an entire generation to get this message across, but I think it could make a real difference." He also looks to prevention in three main areas: an increase in the number of rehabilitation places so people could gain immediate treatment; a tighter rein on Britain's immigration laws; and better information from prisons and the armed services on where people go after serving their time. "I think some better advice might actually keep people off the streets in the first place," he said, "and knowing where to go to make a huge difference between surviving or not."