§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this matter in the House and to bring to its attention one of the most depressing problems facing my constituency at present. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment for changing his holiday arrangements to be here to reply to the debate.
While in many ways I shall echo much of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) in his Adjournment debate on 29 February this year, when he referred to the effect that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was having on his borough of Wandsworth, and similar complaints of other Members, I wish to emphasise how much the Act is the cause of real difficulties for district councils in areas such as Bournemouth and Dorset which attract many people from elsewhere in the country. With this in mind, I shall refer to some constructive suggestions which have already been submitted by Bournemouth to the Secretary of State as part of his review of the workings of the Act.
My first complaint is the length of time that that review is taking. In reply to my question in April last year, my hon. Friend's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), said that he had invited local authority associations to let him have their views on the operation of the Act. That had been the position since he gave a similar reply the previous February. 1012 Shortly after, my borough council wrote to me about the effects of the Act and referred to the results of that review which were still awaited.
Sixteen months later, in his most recent reply, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that the review had still not been completed. This is a very long time, particularly in view of the distress that the Act has been causing. I hope that in his reply today my hon. Friend will give a firm indication of when he plans to complete his review, when we can expect the statement of his intentions resulting from that review and whether amendments are being contemplated in the light of representations made to him and of the experience of the Act. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), who is in his place today, and his hon. Friends who sponsored the Bill did so with the best of intentions. But I wonder whether they contemplated the sort of problems that the Bill has created in many areas and the consequences that have proved disastrous to so many families.
I wish to emphasise that Bournemouth, along with other seaside resorts, immediately appreciated the adverse effects that the Bill would create for them because of their special position. They warned against the Act from the start and have remained consistently opposed to its basic provisions. That is not to say that Bournemouth is an unhelpful authority or unsympathetic towards the homeless. Its record shows that the borough has always been ready and willing to act in cases of genuine homelessness. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that, during the 12 months preceding the implementation of the Act in December 1977, 109 cases of families facing homelessness in Bournemouth received the attention of the housing department, 80 of which were provided with accommodation.
Because of the discretion then enjoyed by housing authorities, it was possible to deal only with genuine cases. It became quickly known throughout the area that only the genuine need apply. The provisions of the new Act quickly became known in a similar way. The previous modest total of homeless families jumped within the first year of the Act's operation to 414 applications, of which about 200 had to be provided with permanent accommodation.
1013 It was especially galling for the ratepayers of Bournemouth to read in their daily papers in March last year—and I quote from The Daily Telegraph of 10 March 1979—the headlineHomeless Fraud Family Got Free Seaside Holiday.The article stated:A Birmingham council house tenant obtained a free holiday for more than three weeks on the rates with sea-front accommodation at Bournemouth for himself, his wife and their three children, a court heard yesterday. The case is believed to be the first prosecution under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act which imposes a duty on local authorities to house people who are homeless or threatened with eviction.Mr. X was charged with falsely representing that he and his family were homeless and had a priority need and not disclosing that he was the lawful tenant of a three-bedroomed maisonette.Mr. Royston Griffey, prosecuting, told the court: The Act is new and in some circumstances it could have the effect of jumping the housing queue, so there are stringent safeguards.It is the effect of jumping the housing queue which is of most concern to my constituents. Many of the applications that Bournemouth housing department is having to satisfy have little, if any, substantial connection with the borough or the area. It must be unjust that people from outside the area, having lived for only a limited period in Bournemouth, should be offered accommodation at the expense of those who have lived locally for many years—in many cases over the heads of those who have had their names on the local housing list for many years. During that time they waited patiently, often in inadequate accommodation, for their turn to come. The effect has been to cause the greatest possible distress for many deserving local people, especially young couples and elderly people in need, who have had their hopes continually dashed as outsiders are given greater priority when homes become available.
Two months ago the chairman of the Bournemouth housing committee reported that, because of its obligations under the Act, families joining Bournemouth's housing waiting list would have to wait up to nine years for a vacancy. Those in the worst category included the elderly retired with no medical need. I cannot believe that it was the intention of the Act to produce that position.
1014 I wish to refer briefly to four cases that are fairly typical of the constituents who have written to me, often in desperation, asking for my help to obtain better accommodation. One constituent who wrote to me in March said:I am writing to you to ask you if you could help me. I am an old-age pensioner, disabled, confined to a wheelchair and unable to walk. I am in an upstairs flat. I have lived here for 37 years. I am trying to get a downstairs flat from the corporation. I am not successful. I have been indoors since September. My doctor has suggested that I should write to you. I want to keep in this area because my son and friends live here. I do hope that you can help.I received another letter earlier this year which began:As you are our local Member of Parliament we hope that you might be in a position to help us because so far we feel we are banging our heads against brick walls. My wife and I and small son of 10 months have been living in rented accommodation for the past 2 ½ years. We have had our names down on the council housing list for 2 ½ years. Although we appreciate that there are a lot of people to help house, for example, refugees, it would be nice to know that this country could look after its own first. Our flat is a ground floor one but we consider the conditions we live in are disgusting. We have rising damp on every wall including interior walls. We have white mould on our bedroom carpet which runs alongside our bed …All we want is just a comfortable dry house that we can bring our son up in safely without the fear of him catching pneumonia because of the damp conditions. He is only 10 months old and has already suffered bronchitis. Our GP has also written a letter to the council concerning our son. The last time we telephoned we were told that we were a hardship case but we still have to wait some time before we are rehoused.Another constituent wrote:I know that you have sympathy with the elderly and ailing. I want to ask you if you are aware of the position of housing priorities reported at present in Bournemouth. I understand that 100 may be rehoused in Bournemouth this year out of 11,600 on various council housing lists in Bournemouth. In other towns newly arrived couples or families from other areas are temporarily housed until their turn becomes a practical possibility on the local list. It seems in Bournemouth priority does exist first for them and then the others are kept waiting. As reported in the local paper the Bournemouth Echo on June 4th 1980, nine years is not unknown as a waiting time.My final reference is to a letter which said:In reference to the enclosed cutting from the Bournemouth Echo I would like to inform you of the case of my husband and myself 1015 that seems pretty hopeless. Although our application was placed on the priority list over a year ago for reasons of health, supported by my doctor, my husband who retired two years ago and is now 67 years old suffers from angina, but still has to climb 60 stairs to our third floor flat every time he has gone out at great risk to himself each time. Unfortunately I am a sufferer from bronchial asthma which means placing extra strain on my husband when I am incapacitated during an attack.The newspaper report referred to in the letter is headed "Johnnies Come Lately Get Homes Under This Act So Locals Wait". It states:Only 9 per cent. of the casual vacancies in Bournemouth's housing stock last year could be used for local people on the town's lengthy waiting list, because the other 91 per cent. had to be used for so called homeless persons, many of them with no real ties with the town at all.That is the tenor of a bitter complaint that Bournemouth council is making about the Act.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I shall not give way. I have a great deal to say on behalf of my constituents. I realise that the hon. Gentleman wishes to comment, but this is a timed debate and I must continue.
There is a limit to what one can reasonably tell constituents in that sort of position by way of explanation as to why they should wait longer than those who do not, or did not, live in Bournemouth.
The position in Bournemouth and other seaside resorts is exacerbated by the large number of holiday flatlets which are let subject to short-term winter letting agreements expiring in the spring. That creates an intolerable burden. People from outside the area have taken such lettings knowing at the very outset that they will be subject to eviction on the expiry of the agreement and expecting immediate priority for housing.
I know that the problem is appreciated by the holiday flat owners. Their constant worry is that tenants staying for the winter will refuse to leave at the end of their contracted period, in order to be evicted and rehoused by the council in accordance with the Act. The Bournemouth holiday flats association has suggested to me that tenants would think twice if the courts made them pay the loss that the flat owner has to accept 1016 when he is successful in winning his case in the county court.
The local authority is faced with two courses of action, having regard to the Act's code of guidance. If a family is declared unintentionally homeless, it has to be housed at the expense of those on the waiting list. If the family is intentionally homeless, the authority has to provide temporary accommodation and give advice and assistance. That is done at the expense of the local ratepayers.
The voluntary code of conduct between local authorities on the procedure for referrals has been improved with the length of residence requirement being extended from six months to eight months without security of tenure before a local connection has been established for responsibility for rehousing to be accepted. However, considerable problems remain, although I am not arguing in this debate that exclusion from security of tenure of those who live in out-of-season accommodation should be altered, because of the many other side issues that that would raise.
Another area of considerable difficulty arising out of the Act concerns local authorities with ports and airports in their area. That has been highlighted recently by the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) to amend the Act in relation to persons without a local connection. Such local authorities have to accept applications for accommodation from families who arrive from abroad, often with only the flimsiest of local connections, and it is normally difficult, if not impossible, for the local authority to make meaningful checks on their reason for leaving Australia, South Africa, the Middle East or wherever.
Hurn airport is partly owned and managed by the borough of Bournemouth, though it is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), and there is a fear that housing authorities in the Bournemouth area will face further burdens as a result of the recent judgment of the Court of Appeal in the Hillingdon council case.
A further exasperation being felt by housing authorities is the reduction in housing investment programme allocations for this year, in accordance with 1017 the Government's policy of reducing local government expenditure. I agree with that policy, in view of the national economic situation, but the reduction has not been accompanied by a corresponding reduction in the statutory duties on housing authorities, particularly the duties imposed under the 1977 Act.
Bournemouth council's new house building programme has been cut back in line with the reduced allocation, at a time when the number of applications on the housing waiting list is not decreasing. That list remains relatively unchanged, because about half of all the properties available for letting have been allocated to persons with a priority need under the Act. Last year, 91 per cent. of all casual vacancies in Bournemouth were allocated to homeless persons, so it is the normal applicants on the housing list who will suffer from the reductions in expenditure.
Particularly in view of the reduction in housing expenditure imposed on them, it is with particular urgency that hard-pressed district councils such as Bournemouth request the Government to afford them some relief from the burden of their responsibilities for homeless persons. Earlier this year, the leader of Bournemouth council, Councillor Roy Thomason, who is also chairman of the Dorset county branch of the Association of District Councils, wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about the effects of the Act on Bournemouth. He suggested that if the Act were not to be repealed, which he would prefer, a fairer balance between competing deserving interests should be arrived at.
Councillor Thomason made a number of suggestions. The first was that the onus of proof of homelessness and priority need should be placed on the person claiming to be homeless and not, as at present, on the local housing authority. That would also have the advantage of saving staff time and, therefore, expenditure in making the extensive appropriate inquiries that are now required, at considerable expense.
Secondly, the priority needs category under section 2 should apply only to persons resident within the United Kingdom for at least the preceding 12 months. Thirdly, local authorities should be relieved of the duty under section 4 to 1018 give continuing advice and assistance to persons adjudged intentionally homeless or those not within priority need.
Fourthly, local authorities should be relieved of the duty to secure accommodation for persons in priority need who are being rendered homeless from fixed-term lettings of 12 months or less, which were subject to the signing of a written agreement at the commencement of the tenancy. Finally, the code of guidance that accompanies the Act should be redrafted so that, in general, the bias in cases of doubt is not weighted so heavily in favour of the applicant.
I end by emphasising that the problems that I have referred to as being experienced by Bournemouth and other South Coast resorts as a result of the Act arise particularly because of their specially attractive situation. That may not always be appreciated by other members of the ADC or sufficiently reflected in its representations as part of the Government review.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will indicate that he accepts that and will aim to amend the Act to recognise that local people have as much right as others, if not more, to local housing.
§ 12.7 pm
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) for initiating the debate and providing another opportunity for discussion of the Act, this time of its effects on Bournemouth.
I feel that the implications of the Act for any one area, however significant they may be, cannot be considered in isolation. It is important not to lose sight of the wider perspective. It is particularly helpful for me to have received a broad range of opinions on many aspects of the implementation of the Act.
As the House is aware, the Government have for some time been engaged in a comprehensive review of the operation of the Act. My hon. Friend referred to answers given to him by my predecessor. I have not had the benefit of seeing the advice tendered to him and, therefore. I can accept responsibility only for the review that has taken place since we took office.
1019 We are looking at the operation of the Act and its associated code of guidance and we are nearing the point when we hope to be able to announce our conclusions. In the course of the review, we have had helpful contributions from a wide variety of sources, not least Bournemouth council.
The local authority associations, as well as the principal voluntary organisations most closely concerned with the practical effects of the Act, were invited to submit views and they have provided a valuable range of comments. I am grateful, too, for the opinions received from a number of individual authorities. All those views, together with the points made by my hon. Friend, will be given careful consideration as we reach our conclusions on the review.
I hope that I shall not disappoint my hon. Friend when I say that I must repeat the point that I made in the Adjournment debate on the Act in February of this year. Although I will try to respond as fully as possible to the comments that have been made today, my hon. Friend will, I am sure, appreciate that it would be quite wrong for me to prejudge the outcome of the review while we are still deliberating and before our conclusions are formally announced. I must therefore refrain from commenting on whether or in what form the Act or code may need amending. If, however, I am unable to deal today with any point in the detail it deserves, I give my assurance that it will receive the most careful attention before we take decisions arising from the review.
There are, however, a number of comments that I ought perhaps to make to put in perspective some of those issues that have been raised today. I think it would be helpful if I began by reminding the House briefly of the broad extent of the main duties placed upon local authorities by the Act as it now stands.
The Act is designed, first of all, specifically to help people whom local authorities are satisfied from their inquiries are genuinely homeless or threatened with homelessness. Secondly, it identifies the categories of homeless people who should be regarded as having a priority need for accommodation. The priority categories include, for example, 1020 those who have dependent children and those who are vulnerable because of old age, physical disability or mental handicap. Any requirement on local authorities to secure that accommodation becomes available is accordingly limited to homeless people in these categories.
Lastly, where authorities are satisfied that homelessness is intentional, that obligation is itself limited to securing accommodation only for such period as an authority considers will allow those concerned a reasonable opportunity to find accommodation themselves.
It is also important to remember that, where a duty to secure accommodation arises, there are a number of ways in which it may be fulfilled: in particular, there is no obligation to provide council accommodation in every case.
It is important to have in mind the broad provisions of the Act and the discretion given to authorities when considering the allegations of queue jumping by the homeless, so that these allegations can be seen in proper perspective. I can, of course, readily appreciate the feeling that many people have that it is unfair that homeless persons should be allocated accommodation in advance of those who have been on a council's waiting list, sometimes for quite a long period. As a constituency Member who has practical experience of this expression of feeling, I understand the sincerity with which my hon. Friend raises this matter. But I have indicated before in the House that waiting lists do not always necessarily provide a reliable indication of housing need.
It is not uncommon for some of those on waiting lists to refuse one or more offer of accommodation, which itself suggests that their need would not fall to be regarded as being as acute as of those who have nowhere to go. Moreover, it is sometimes the case that the very properties that have proved consistently difficult to let in the normal way to those on waiting lists are the ones allocated to homeless families.
I well realise that those who complain about queue jumping usually intend their complaint to refer to unscrupulous people who, they allege, are deliberately making themselves homeless in order to obtain council accommodation more rapidly than they could otherwise expect. This allegation is most commonly made 1021 in cases of homelessness arising from alleged disputes with families or friends with whom the applicants have been living.
This is one of the questions that we are examining in detail in the review, and the House will, I am sure, understand that for that reason I cannot discuss the issue today as thoroughly as I would wish. But I will emphasise two factors that are in my view important to remember in this context.
First, genuine homelessness is a distressing condition, and its relief is what the Act sets out to achieve. I have not heard from my hon. Friend or from anyone else that we should not regard genuine homelessness as other than distressing. Secondly, as I have already said, authorities have discretion to reach a reasonable decision in the light of their inquiries. If, as a result of those inquiries, an authority is not satisfied that homelessness genuinely exists, applicants are owed no further obligation under the Act.
I am not always convinced that authorities that are worried by the operation of the Act are using the powers of discretion that fall to them. In many cases, as I have told deputations, I do not believe that they are using their powers of discretion to the full.
Where, however, people are in genuine and acute housing need, it is not unreasonable to look to local authorities to attach appropriate weight—I use the phrase advisedly—to these factors when considering the claims of homeless people for their accommodation against those of others.
My hon. Friend has referred to concern where people become homeless on being required to leave "winter let" accommodation. The Government have indeed received representations by or on behalf of a number of resort authorities on this subject and, as I have said, these are being considered in the context of the review.
The fear in seaside resorts—and also in other areas—that homeless people would suddenly arrive from elsewhere was, of course, considered while the Bill was in Parliament. The general view on this, however, was that homeless people should not be denied help and that it was reasonable to expect an auth- 1022 ority to accept responsibility in respect of those with a local connection with its area. The Act, indeed, contains provision for transferring a responsibility to secure accommodation in respect of those who have a local connection elsewhere and none with the area of the authority approached.
I should make it clear that this provision does not apply in cases where the authority is satisfied that those concerned have become homeless intentionally. In these cases, as I have said, any obligation on an authority to secure accommodation is already clearly limited by the Act.
I should like to make a number of points on the general issue of winter lets and people who may become homeless on leaving them. First, it is sometimes suggested that those concerned are "outsiders"—that is, people who have little or no connection with the resort areas. This claim, however, does not always stand up to close scrutiny. It is clear from statistics that my Department collects from local authorities and which have been published that the great majority of homeless people for whom authorities accept a responsibility to secure accommodation have been living in the area of that authority at least a year before becoming homeless. In the case of Bournemouth, for example, I understand that in the first six months of 1979 a substantial percentage of all those accepted had a local connection of some kind with the area. That information does not seem to tally with the information that my hon. Friend gave, which obviously was supplied to him by the local authority. If he cares to talk to my Department, or to ask Bournemouth council officials to do so, I will try to reconcile what, on the face of it, seems to be a wide margin of discrepancy between the two sets of figures.
§ Mr. Finsberg
There are, indeed, indications that people evicted from winter lets who subsequently seek help from the local authority are frequently local people.
Secondly, it has been suggested that many people who move to resort areas such as Bournemouth and take a winter let do so only to take advantage of the 1023 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. This may well be so in a minority of cases, but it seems to overlook both the provision in the Act regarding those whose homelessness is intentional and the fact that in many instances people may well wish to move to resort areas for perfectly genuine reasons, such as to obtain employment. There are indications that, irrespective of how long they have been in the area, many people who seek help from the local authority when they are required to leave winter let accommodation were obliged to take such accommodation in the first place simply because there was no alternative open to them.
If the authority is satisfied that someone who has left adequate accommodation and taken a winter let has really done so only with the intention of "working the system", it may, by a reasonable process, come to the view that he is intentionally homeless.
A recent ruling in the Court of Appeal on the case of Dyson v. Kerrier district council is relevant in this respect. In that case, the lady concerned left a council tenancy in Huntingdon, took a winter let in Kerrier, in Cornwall, and, when this was no longer available to her, applied to the council as homeless. The Court of Appeal decided that because it would have been reasonable for the lady and her child to have continued to occupy the council accommodation they already had in Huntingdon, there were no grounds for overturning Kerrier council's decision that this lady's homelessness was intentional.
That, is not, of course, to say that all people who become homeless on leaving winter let accommodation are intentionally homeless. It does seem, however, that the Act contains safeguards to deal with the alleged abuse to which my hon. Friend referred. The ruling clarifies the position that authorities are entitled to take into account in their inquiries all the relevant circumstances in each case and on that basis to reach a reasonable decision on them.
The final point that I should like to make on the question of those who become homeless from winter lets is that I note that my hon. Friend appeared to assume that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 requires authorities to pro- 1024 vide council accommodation in each case where a duty to secure accommodation arises. As I stated earlier, the Act itself makes it clear that there are a variety of ways in which such an obligation may be fulfilled, and, as I have said, it also provides that the duty may be transferred to another housing authority in certain cases where those concerned have no local connection.
As the House knows, the local authority associations have an agreement on procedures for referrals of homeless people. I understand that, following representations from resort authorities, they have already revised this in respect of those whose sole connection with an area is a few months in a winter let. Any further changes to the agreement, which I suspect some authorities would like to see, are, of course, a matter for the associations themselves. As they have pointed out, however, to make it too difficult for people to establish a local connection may ultimately be counter-productive.
I think that my hon. Friend will realise from what I have said that the issue of those becoming homeless on leaving winter let accommodation is by no means simple. Neither is the related issue of help to people from overseas who become homeless on, or shortly after, arrival in this country.
I must emphasise straight away that all the available evidence suggests that only a very small proportion of the people accepted by authorities as homeless were living abroad one month before and that, once legally admitted to this country, people are entitled under the law to be treated on the same basis as any other member of the community. Discrimination in housing and other matters on grounds of race or nationality would, of course, be unlawful.
We must, however, avoid the temptation to consider that such issues are amendable in a simple manner. The interaction between the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 and European Community legislation dealing with freedom of movement to seek and take up employment and the Race Relations Act 1976 is extremely complex. There is also the question of interaction between the 1977 Act and related legislation on social services. We have also to look carefully 1025 at the implications of recent rulings in the Court of Appeal, to one of which have already referred.
It has also been represented by my hon. Friend and others that additional resources are necessary to enable authorities to meet the costs of operating the Act. I am certainly prepared to look at any suggestion, based on factual information, that the Act is placing an unfair burden on individual authorities. I widen that offer to include Bournemouth. It should be borne in mind, however, that the Act was intended to enable local authorities to integrate help for homeless people into the main stream of their housing activities.
As I have said, authorities have considerable discretion as to how they discharge their duties towards homeless people. Housing investment allocations for 1980–81 were made in a single block to give local authorities greater freedom to decide how to meet local housing needs in the light of available resources. But I must make it clear that all the resources available for housing investment for 1980–81 have been distributed and I see no prospect of any additional allocations being made available. We shall, of course, consider Bournemouth's claims, along with those of other authorities, when we make the allocations for 1981–82.
I hope that these remarks will be helpful in enabling a balanced view to be achieved. It is clear that no useful purpose will be served by any hasty or ill-considered judgments on issues that are not only sensitive but highly complex. I am grateful to my hon. Friend not merely for the points that he raised today but for the calm and reasoned matter in which he raised them. I can assure him that they will all be considered in the review, and if the meeting between Bournemouth and my officials can be arranged swiftly enough the points raised then can also be considered.
I am answering at the end of my speech the question asked by my hon. Friend at the beginning of his. I hope that our considerations will be completed fairly soon and that we shall be in a position to announce our conclusions as soon as possible after the House returns. I am sure that this will not be the last time the 1026 House has to debate the Housing (Home-less Persons) Act 1977, but I hope that it will not have to be debated again without the results of the review to which I have referred.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
Since the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) has five more minutes of his allocation to run, and as the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) has no objection, as the promoter of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 I would like to thank the Minister for a moderate and sensible reply.
I remind the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East that the Act is based on circular 1874, published by a previous Conservative Administration. On the reorganisation of local government it was appreciated that too great a burden had fallen on county councils—Dorset in particular—for dealing with homeless persons. Those authorities did not have the bricks and mortar to provide homes, and it was costing an enormous amount of money to take children into care. We surely do not wish that situation to recur. Therefore, a circular was sent to county councils and borough councils requesting the transfer of responsibility from the counties to the boroughs.
Most authorities in England and Wales complied with that request. I am sorry to say that Bournemouth did not, and a number of authorities in Hampshire followed suit. Pressure consequently built up to provide legislation to ensure that the authorities that were not playing along with the Government's request should be brought into line because an unfair burden was falling upon the authorities which had complied.
Representing the Isle of Wight, whose population has shot up in recent years, I appreciate what the problems are. When I went there in 1953 the population was about 91,000 and going down. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East has lived on the island and will appreciate what I mean. Now, the population is almost 120,000 and is increasing at the rate of 1,000 a year. That is because we have acquired modern industries and because the island is a good place to which to retire. More and more people are coming from the North and the Midlands to the South Coast and the Isle of Wight.
1027 That influx has put an enormous burden on our local authorities, which, on the whole, have a much lower percentage of local authority housing than authorities in other parts of the country. I cannot speak for Bournemouth, but on the Isle of Wight it is between 12 per cent. and 13 per cent. The huge increase in house prices—the hon. Gentleman knows about that and might have referred to it—is compelling more people to look to local authorities or housing associations, because they have been priced out of the market.
Under the Act, most of the cases quoted by the hon. Gentleman would qualify for priority. I accept that local authorities have had to tell such people that because they already had a roof over their heads—even though they lived on the third storey—there were more pressing cases to which first priority had to be given.
We are moving into a dreadful situation in the South. Housing allocation on the South Coast, and particularly in the West of England, has not kept up with demand as it should have done. There are many parts of Britain where housing is in surplus. That surplus will be found chiefly in the North-West and the North-East. The houses may not be of great quality, but they are available to let. My daughter lives in Newcastle upon Tyne and has managed to rent a house on three different occasions. That indicates that this problem is one for local authorities.
In considering the view, I am reassured by what the Minister said. The Act is working reasonably well. Of course there are hiccups, and of course there is the problem of winter lets. The local authorities have probably got over that problem, but something may need to be written into the Act in that context and the matter left to local authorities.
I hope that we shall not change the system whereby we give limited priority to people who suffer the most distress. That priority should surely go to young families, to pregnant women and the elderly, who may be in distress of one sort or another. I hope that we retain the principle that whatever happens that system will not be disturbed.