HC Deb 13 April 1984 vol 58 cc644-54 10.15 am
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I wish to raise the pressing and desperate problem of homelessness in London. The debate this morning starts and ends with housing needs, with families who are living in appalling conditions in seedy, sordid bed-and-breakfast hotels, people who are sleeping rough on the streets of London, people who form the tidewrack of Thatcher's prosperous Britain of the 1980s. It is not putting too fine a point on it to say that homelessness, particularly in inner London, is probably the most pressing scandal that we face. I hope that this all too brief debate will shake some of us, and particularly the Government, out of the complacency that has affected us.

I shall start by describing briefly some of the conditions which homeless families, who have either been referred by their local authority or have referred themselves, are having to endure in bed-and-breakfast hotels in London. There are clusters of these hotels, some in Finsbury park, and now a growing number, at the moment about 50, in the Bayswater area.

The description that a journalist in The Guardian of 5 March 1984 gave of one of these Bayswater hotels needs no embellishment from me. She said: This one housed 500 homeless people, most of them families with children. The old stain-sodden carpet gave off a sour smell. The bannisters were broken in places, leaving lethal gaping drops for small children. The partitioning of rooms made the place a warren of corridors and cramped winding staircases—a death trap from which few residents could hope to escape in a fire. The bathrooms were squalid and shared by five or more families. There were no cooking facilities at all—though most families had an illegal electric ring in their room, another perpetual danger to their children. That scene is all too familiar to thousands of families in London.

Articles appeared in the Daily Mirror two weeks ago by John Pilger, who accurately described the appalling conditions in Princes Lodge hostel in Commercial road. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) will be able to catch your eye in due course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to raise the particular problems of this hostel. John Pilger said of the hostel: I have not seen worse … in the blitzed shadows of New York or Detroit. It is on a par with a similar 'hostel' I once inspected in Calcutta. This is supposed to be a civilised and prosperous society, yet we have families with children facing insanitary conditions in bed-and-breakfast hotels, with no recreation or play facilities and with access even to television sets limited, with no cooking facilities, growing problems of malnutrition, health standards that would make any hon. Member blanch, schooling being denied to many children because of the problems faced by their families and often, because many families come from the ethnic minority communities, severe language problems and difficulty communicating with the relevant authorities. Those problems are the subject of the debate.

We must remember that it is not only demeaning and depressing for the families concerned to live in such accommodation, but that it is an atrocious waste of money for the Treasury and local authorities to house them in such places. Many local authorities in London spend millions of pounds a year to keep families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

I asked the Secretary of State for Social Services about the cost to the public purse of keeping people in the Princes Lodge hostel, which is only one of many such hostels in London. I was told that at the end of March benefit was being paid by the taxpayer in respect of 203 claims at the hostel, of which 134 were claims from single people and couples and 69 were claims from families with children.

Vast sums of public money are being spent to keep people in insanitary, unsatisfactory and demeaning conditions, while the people who run these hostels and hotels are making substantial profits out of the public purse and the conditions in which they are keeping the families that are supposedly in their care.

We should recognise that we are facing not merely a continuing problem which has been with us for a long time, but a growing problem. Any London Member, particularly Labour Members for inner London constituencies, will know that the problems of homelessness and bad housing are growing at an alarming rate, particularly in inner London. The figures show that an increasing number of families are reporting to local authorities as homeless each year and are having to be accepted by those authorities as a statutory responsibility for rehousing. That does not include the numbers who have to find their own accommodation because they do not qualify as vulnerable or in housing need under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

We should also realise that London has a far bigger problem than the rest of the country. A recent study showed that nearly 3,000 families are living in temporary accommodation in London at any one time and that 6.5 per thousand households in inner London, compared with 2.2 per thousand in England—nearly three times as many—are living in temporary accommodation. That does not include homeless single people and couples who do not qualify as vulnerable.

Major problems face some London boroughs. The most obvious example is the London borough of Brent, where 500 families have to be accommodated in bed-and-breakfast hotels, simply because the council has no where else to lodge them.

My borough of Islington, having struggled admirably for the past 18 months to keep homeless families out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, is being forced occassionally—fortunately, it is only occasionally at the moment—to place them in such accommodation. The strains on its housing stock will be such that I doubt whether it will be able to hold out for much longer.

The problem is especially severe in London. It is much more severe here than in the rest of the country and it is especially severe, and growing, in inner London.

The impact on families from ethnic minority communities and, particularly, on women, especially single women with children, is extremely severe. They have to cope with dreadful conditions while trying to bring up families and preserve some sort of family life, which I thought the Prime Minister was concerned to preserve. These women have to try to preserve decency and dignity for their families in appalling conditions.

Two other problems will make the difficulties faced by such families even worse in the next few years. The first is the Government's proposed abolition of the Greater London council, which is the only body that looks sensibly at the problems of the single homeless throughout London —the difficulties faced by those with nowhere else to turn and who end up either under the arches at Charing Cross or in appalling conditions at Camberwell or the Rowton hotels.

The aid given by the GLC to some of the voluntary agencies which attempt to deal with these problems is the only source of support from the public purse for many of them. I do not believe that the borough councils will pick up the tab. Even if they want and try to do so, they will be rate-capped by the Secretary of State for the Environment and told that they are spending too much money. The problems for single homeless people in particular will get worse.

The other difficulty is the proposed closure of the Camberwell reception centre and the valiant attempts by a number of local authorities to deal with the problem posed by the Rowton hotels. The Government have not provided sufficient resources to allow proper and decent replacements for that accommodation. If they think that the housing associations' programme of small hostel replacements for Camberwell is going far or fast enough, they are deluding themselves. I shall not dwell on the problems of the Princes Lodge hostel, because I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar will be able to do so. However, not only are there appalling conditions at that hostel, but we have witnessed recently the spectacle of three families being evicted for daring to complain about conditions there.

I hope that the Government will consider the problems of that hostel which is so notorious that—thank goodness—no London borough is referring families to it. I hope, in particular, that the Government will look sympathetically at the proposal of the London borough of Tower Hamlets to put a closing order on the hostel and follow it up, if necessary, with a compulsory purchase order. It would be a major step if the Government would give us an assurance that they will look sympathetically and with concern at any such proposal.

What can we, and in particular the Government, do in the light of these dreadful circumstances? Part of the responsibility must lie with the local authorities. The way in which they operate planning constraints on places which seek to operate as hotels, and the way in which they implement environmental health regulations, is important and much can and should be done by the local authorities.

There are, however, two steps which the Government should take to try to alleviate the situation. First, they should consider ways by which those who are at present not covered by the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act can be helped. That Act does not go far enough. Consider, for example, the way in which people are denied statutory rehousing by local authorities, either because they do not qualify as vulnerable under the Act or because they are declared to be intentionally homeless; and the operation of intentionality by some local authorities is practically an outrage. The way in which those loopholes are used is a scandal, and that should be dealt with by the Government.

Secondly, and more important, for those who really suffer at the raw end of this deal—families with children who are referred by local authorities to bed-and-breakfast accommodation because there is nowhere else to house them—the Government should show some responsibility. On behalf of those people I make a major and desperate plea to the Government to make more resources available to local authorities to help them to provide the alternative accommodation that is needed.

It is not good enough for the Prime Minister to say, as she said in answer to a question from me two weeks ago, that the problem would be solved if only local authorities would fill the empty flats available to them. That denies the reality of the situation, which is that many empty flats are not fillable because work on them is in progress or is about to start, because they are on estates which are being decanted of occupants so that work can take place or because they are in such an appalling condition that they are almost worse then the bed-and-breakfast conditions in which families are living.

Some local authorities, whatever their political control, are not good enough at filling their empty flats. It is not, however, the answer simply to say that the use of that accommodation could provide the solution. It could not, and one need only consider the situation in the borough of Brent to appreciate that. That borough has one of the best records in London in filling empty properties, yet its 500 homeless families must be referred to bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

We must also recognise the appalling difficulties faced by local authorities in trying to judge between the competing demands of their transfer lists, waiting lists, and the homeless families who report to them. No local authority in inner London has sufficient housing stock to meet those competing demands with ease of satisfaction.

Nor is it good enough to say—as I suspect the Minister will say in reply—that local authorities are at present underspending their capital allocations. Some are, but others, including my local authority, have a proud record in this respect. The way in which local authorities are able to plan forward, with proper programmes of construction and renovation, is crucial and cannot be dealt with by lurches from year to year such as we have experienced in the last three or four years.

My local authority has found that, in real terms, its housing investment programme allocation has been halved in the last four years. That halving of the amount of money available to create the necessary accommodation for all the demands that are placed on local authorities is the real reason why so many, and an increasing number of, families are having to end up in such appalling conditions—in Bayswater, Finsbury park, Princes Lodge and so on—and in seedy and horrible bed-and-breakfast circumstances.

I hope that the Government will not brush aside the pleas that are being made, with talk about the necessity to get value for money, about public spending cuts and about the resources that they have made available to local authorities. That will not wash. We appeal to the Government's remaining shreds of concern, compassion and conscience. Families with children, the future of Britain, are living in such insanitary and unsatisfactory conditions that the Government must recognise that deep social problems of this kind are an outrage and a scandal in the 1980s and cannot be brushed aside.

They require the taking of emergency action and concerted steps by local authorities and the Government, with immediate meetings to be arranged between the local authorities concerned and the Department of the Environment to map out a programme of action to tackle the problem.

More than that, they demand a recognition by the Government that families cannot and should not be subjected to conditions of this kind in this supposedly prosperous country. It is not just scandalous, but frightening, that this problem is not only with us, is not only being assiduously ignored by the Government, but is growing at an alarming rate. I hope that the Government will sit up, take notice and take desperately needed action.

10.37 am
Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bow and Poplar)

In the few minutes available to me I shall fill in some details about Princes Lodge, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) referred, and which is undoubtedly and by far the worst of the many scandals connected with homelessness in London.

Princes Lodge is owned by a company called Namecourt Ltd. We all thought that the hideous scourge of Rachmanism was a thing of the past. Namecourt is proudly bearing the banner of Rachmanism in the 1980s.

In Princes Lodge there are nearly 350 people, including many children, living in conditions which would have been a disgrace in Dickensian times. They are a double disgrace in the latter years of the 20th century. They are living in conditions of overcrowding, squalor, hideous pollution, filth, cold, damp, deplorable lack of hygiene and, perhaps worst of all, of children at risk. As my hon. Friend said, it is so bad that the boroughs, desperate though they are, will no longer put homeless people into Princes Lodge.

An independent survey was carried out into the building last February by an expert environmental health group, and I will relate its four principal conclusions. The first was that in the building there were massive infringements of the standards laid down for houses in multiple occupation. The second was that there was gross statutory overcrowding. The third was that there was in the building a statutory nuisance contravening the Public Health Act. The fourth and most conclusive was that the building was unfit for human habitation.

For years Namecourt has made a bomb out of this building. It has made huge profits and at the same time has been promising the borough council's officers that it would carry out a programme of improvements. It has been stringing the officers along, and I do not believe for a moment that it ever intended, or that it now intends, to carry out any of the improvements. It is not a trustworthy company. It still has not filed with the registrar its accounts for 1982, despite the fact that the Department of Trade and Industry has given it a pretty sharp reminder.

When I was quoted as having made a comment about the company a week or two ago I received a letter from its solicitors saying that representatives of the company would like to meet me either in its solicitors' office—I am always rather suspicious of companies that never write to one but get their solicitors to write, even on matters not connected with the law—or in this place. I replied to the letter and said that I would like to meet them and that the best place to talk to them would be Princes Lodge. At that stage the invitation was hurriedly withdrawn. That tells us something about the company.

The company is entirely untrustworthy, but, unfortunately, it has succeeded in pulling a confidence trick on the officers of the borough council. I am sorry to have to say that the officers have not been bright enough to see through it. However, there is some movement now. Because of the threat of statutory action the devil a monk he'd be. A meeting took place yesterday at which the Namecourt representatives were rather more forthcoming. They have adopted this approach because they want to hold the council off and persuade it not to go for a control order. If the company succeeds, it will revert immediately to its "do nothing" attitude.

I believe that a control order is essential and that it should be obtained now before some awful disaster takes place. I have nightmares about Princes Lodge. When I switch on my radio to listen to the 8 o'clock news I am always frightened that I shall hear that some poor woman in Princes Lodge, driven out of her mind by the foul conditions and the inability to get out of them, has committed suicide and orphaned her children, that 100 people have been rushed from Princes Lodge into the London hospital with dysentery or some other pollution-induced epidemic disease, or that there has been a fire, with massive casualties. Any of these things could happen, and I am not being alarmist. I do not want us to wait for them to happen before ensuring that a control order is obtained. I expect to see full support from the Minister's Department for the council if it moves in that direction, as I think it should.

A peculiar role is being played by the DHSS. Namecourt increased its charges a few weeks ago by about 60 per cent. I have calculated that that will involve the DHSS in additional annual expenditure of £350,000. The DHSS will send a snooper round to a woman who it thinks is cheating it of a few bob a week, but it has taken this extra subvention to this rotten company right on the chin without doing anything about it. There is not time for me to go into that in detail today, but I shall seek another opportunity of doing so. In the meantime, I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend. I trust that the Minister will have something positive and constructive to contribute to the debate.

10.44 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) on introducing a highly important and topical debate. It has been of considerable media interest recently and the subject of a debate in another place. There is no complacency on the Government's part, and it is certainly not a subject which we have ignored, as the hon. Gentleman implied in his closing remarks. I shall outline some of the initiatives that we have taken recently to try to tackle the serious problems that remain.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the GLC and its proposed abolition. The £3 million which the GLC is currently spending on propaganda might be used more effectively to tackle some of the problems which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Anyone who is a Member of Parliament representing a London constituency will be under no illusion about the sheer misery that is associated with homelessness. Those of us who have regular advice bureaux in inner London constituencies are confronted with the problem regularly. It is not an easy decision for anyone to approach the council for help with no idea what the future holds in store for him. Any period that is spent in temporary accommodation is demoralising.

The hon. Gentleman outlined the problems that arise when there is not enough to do and not enough space for children to play. In some establishments the person who has been given temporary accommodation is encouraged to go out and to stay out for most of the day. In these circumstances, there is difficulty in planning ahead. However, I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to imply that all bed-and-breakfast establishments are like the ones that he described. Many of them are decently run establishments, and I do not accept his implied criticism in all instances and his contention that there is no role for the private sector to play in meeting the needs of the homeless. The answer must be satisfactory permanent accommodation as soon as possible, and on that I think there is no disagreement between us.

The legislative framework which enables help to be given to the homeless is clear. Responsibility for meeting local housing needs and helping homeless people rests with the locally elected housing authorities. Under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 authorities have a duty to make appropriate inquiries when someone applies to them as homeless. If, as a result of those inquiries, the authority is satisfied that the person is homeless, has a priority need—here we are talking mainly of families with dependent children or people who are vulnerable through age or physical or mental disability—and is not homeless intentionally, the authority has a duty to ensure that accomodation is made available.

We reviewed the 1977 Act thoroughly less than two years ago. One issue was whether the categories of priority need laid down in the Act needed to be extended. The problems of the single homeless were recognised during the review, as were the housing difficulties of those at the top of the local authority housing waiting lists, whose needs must not be forgotten. Any widening of the priority categories under the 1977 Act would, in effect, have been at the expense of those at the head of the normal waiting lists. There are difficulties of equity in proceeding too far down that path.

We were also under pressure to make the Act more stringent, but we concluded that the present provisions represented a reasonable balance. We agreed to issue a revised code of guidance to local authorities about the exercise of their functions under the Act. The revised code was issued in July 1983, after extensive consultation.

The legislative position is clear: primary responsibility rests on local authorities. But that is not to say that central Government, having introduced the legislation, stand back and do nothing. Government action on homelessness and on housing generally is aimed at providing a framework, removing obstacles and increasing the range of options open so that authorities can use their resources most efficiently to meet the housing needs in their area. We have taken a wide range of initiatives to help, either directly, or by producing capital receipts, which can in turn be applied to improve or increase stock.

We have greatly stimulated improvement work in the private sector. The number of grants paid rose from 70,000 in 1981–82 to 130,000 in 1982–83. The total should approach 250,000 in 1983–84. Spending has increased from about £90 million in 1979 to about £800 million in 1983–84. We have introduced the priority estates project to improve the management of public sector estates. These measures should give a new lease of life to property which would otherwise, in time, become inhabitable.

We have stimulated the letting of empty property in the private sector by introducing shortholds and making it easier for residential landlords to regain possession. We have introduced the assured tenancy scheme to encourage the building of new homes for renting at market rents outside the provisions of the Rent Acts. The tenants charter which we introduced in the 1980 Housing Act helps council tenants to use spare accommodation more effectively by allowing them to take in lodgers without the need for prior approval and, subject to the local authority's consent, to sub-let part of their dwellings. We have much increased home ownership with the right to buy and shared ownership, which has enabled local authorities to generate receipts for reinvestment. Private sector starts in London increased from 3,084 in 1980 to 7,196 last year.

All these initiatives can benefit the homeless directly or indirectly by, for example, encouraging those local authority tenants and those on the waiting list who want to and can afford to do so to buy their homes, thus reducing pressures on the waiting list and generating receipts for more work to be undertaken.

Mr. Chris Smith

If the Minister is so proud of all the Government's initiatives, will he answer two questions? Does he really expect that homeless people will benefit directly from shared ownership schemes by the ability to purchase property? If all these initiatives have benefited local authorities and made more accommodation available, why is there less than half the accommodation available in any particular week for letting by the borough in which my constituency falls than there was three years ago? That is the reality, whatever fine words are used, of what is available for letting to people when they are homeless or on the waiting or transfer lists.

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman has added some more questions to those that he has already posed, through which I was quietly ploughing. If he had listened to what I had said he would have heard that I did not say that they had all directly helped the homeless. I specifically said that some had indirectly helped the homeless. A number of the measures that we have taken have increased the supply of rented and other accommodation in London. By increasing the overall supply the homeless indirectly benefit, because many people move out of local authority accommodation into, for example, some of the new private sector homes being built in London under the low-cost home ownership scheme. That action enables a local authority to make more rapid progress.

We have encouraged local authorities to dispose of land, on which they are sitting with no prospect of developing, to the private sector in return for the private sector nominating the first buyers from people on the waiting lists or existing council tenants. Such initiatives have enabled the local authorities to get relets at no cost to themselves. One must look at the overall picture of supply and demand for housing in London if one is to arrive at a solution which helps those who are right at the bottom of the pile—the homeless.

The housing investment programme allocations made to London authorities for 1984–85 amount to £545 million, which can, of course, be supplemented by the use of capital receipts. Those allocations are substantial sums of money. I hope that where authorities see the need for additional expenditure to meet the needs of the homeless—for example, in response to the cases made by the hon. Members for Islington, South and Finsbury and for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo)—they can give the work the necessary priority within the available resources.

It is worth pointing out, because the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury mentioned Brent, that the allocation for Brent for 1984–85 represents an increase of 6 per cent. over that for 1983–84. That was the second highest proportional increase among the London boroughs and shows that we can and do give special recognition to authorities facing particular problems.

The voluntary housing movement is vigorous in London, complementing the work of the statutory authorities. We make grants under section 13 of the 1977 Act to voluntary organisations concerned with homelessness. In 1983–84 we made grants of £300,000, compared with £168,000 in 1979–80. In the main, grants are made to national bodies, but, in recognition of London's particular problems, two London organisations are grant-aided, and between them they account for more than half the overall grant total. The London boroughs give a number of grants, as does the GLC, to which the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury referred.

Worry has been expressed about how those bodies funded by the GLC will fare after abolition. The day before yesterday, the House was told by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that the abolition Bill would provide a statutory basis for collective grant giving by London boroughs.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury referred to bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which has attracted considerable publicity recently. Bed and breakfast is an expensive and unsatisfactory way of meeting the needs of homeless persons. The advice that we have given in the code of guidance is that that accommodation should be used only as a last resort. Some authorities manage to avoid using bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but it is for the authorities to decide when that is appropriate, in the light of local circumstances. Sometimes, there may be a need for short-term accommodation, with no suitable alternative available to making use of a bed-and-breakfast establishment.

The use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation has fluctuated remarkably. In 1982 less use was made of that accommodation in London than in 1979. The figures for the end of 1983 are not yet available, but the usage at the end of June suggests that 1983 will show some increase over 1982.

Recently, many allegations have been made of unsatisfactory standards in bed-and-breakfast establishments. That must be a matter for local authorities. They have adequate powers to prevent overcrowding and to ensure that proper facilities are provided.

The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar referred to the high cost of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I have seen the exchange of correspondence between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security. It is up to the local authorities to negotiate the best terms. They are empowered to make reasonable charges to the families concerned, but, understandably, there is often a substantial gap. The basic message must be, "Do not use it unless you absolutely must."

The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar referred to the Princes Lodge hostel in Tower Hamlets. About 70 families are in residence, as well as a large number of single people and couples. I understand that conditions at the hostel are unsatisfactory and that discussions have been held between the London borough of Tower Hamlets and the owners about the works needed to bring the hostel up to an acceptable standard. Some works have already been carried out or are about to start. I am advised that yesterday there was a further meeting at which the company presented to the council its plans for further work.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, local authorities have wide powers available in respect of houses in multiple occupation. The London borough of Tower Hamlets can, if it considers it necessary, serve a control order under the provisions of the Housing Act 1964. It needs no consent from Ministers. This is an initiative which the council can take if it wishes.

In response to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, I point out that my Department has had no application from Tower Hamlets to do anything. If the Department receives an application it will, of course, consider the application promptly, but at this stage the initiative rests with Tower Hamlets. The council has powers at its disposal to take action if it wishes.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury mentioned void properties. It would be too simplistic a view to suggest that if local authorities brought all their empty dwellings into use the homelessness problem would be solved. Clearly, at any one date there will be a significant number of empty properties which have recently been vacated, where the new tenants have not yet arrived, and dwellings undergoing repairs, which have involved decanting. One cannot reduce the number of empty dwellings to nil, but I honestly believe that more vigorous efforts to reduce the numbers of empty dwellings could help to alleviate the homelessness problem as well as have other advantages, such as reducing vandalism and increasing rental income.

It is especially worrying to note the number of dwellings that have been empty for more than a year. On 1 April 1983, more than 10,000 local authority-owned dwellings in London had been standing empty and unused for more than 12 months. One borough alone reported 1,700 dwellings in that category. Those empty dwellings represent a substantial waste of assets and a neglected opportunity. I shall put that figure in perspective—10,000 empty dwellings unused for more than 12 months compared with the accepted number of homeless in London of 21,000 in 1982. I believe that there is scope for more activity in that direction.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury referred to the single homeless and touched on the problems arising from the closure of the Camberwell reception centre, the threatened closure of the three Rowton hostels in London and major operations to other hostels, such as Bruce House, which are current issues. He did not mention the Government's hostels initiative, which we launched in the House in September 1980. That initiative was to improve standards in existing hostels and to provide new hostel bed spaces.

Funding is being channelled through the Housing Corporation to housing associations, many of which work in co-operation with other voluntary bodies. For the first time we have made a specific allocation for that purpose. In 1981–82 the allocation was £12 million, in 1982–83 it had risen to £18 million, and last year it was £31 million. We shall shortly announce the allocation for 1984–85. That initiative puts a slightly different complexion on the allegations of complacency and inaction, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Under the present Government the Housing Corporation had, to the end of last month, approved accommodation for more than 9,600 bed spaces in shared housing, including hostels. That includes newly built and rehabilitated accommodation. The accommodation approved under the Camberwell reception centre replacement programme is included in that number. More than two thirds of those 9,600 bed spaces are for single homeless people. The number of hostel bed spaces approved in 1983–84 was considerably greater than the figure in 1978–79.

A great deal of useful work has been done by a variety of other agencies which are trying to tackle the problem of homelessness. We want a more pragmatic and less dogmatic response from some London boroughs. When public expenditure is inevitably constrained, it is only sensible to involve private sector expertise and finance as extensively as possible.

House purchase by those who can afford it releases accommodation and funds for those who cannot. When the supply of accommodation is constrained, it is only sensible to take measures to bring empty property back into use, even if it means sale to the private sector or reviewing allocation policies.

We shall continue to monitor the framework within which local authorities operate and give them discretion as to how best to provide for the housing needs of their residents. We are not complacent. We have done much to help and we hope to make further progress.

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