HC Deb 20 December 1985 vol 89 cc700-8

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

Mr. Speaker

We now return to the Adjournment debate. I say to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that the best thing would be for him to continue his Adjournment debate until just before noon, which will enable the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) to have one minute extra.

11.29 am
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I hear what you say, Mr. Speaker. The exchanges that we have just heard are very important. However, it is regrettable that the Government did not choose to find a somewhat more convenient time to make that statement, more convenient for Back-Bench Members who have matters to raise and for Scottish Members, many of whom will already have returned to their constituencies.

At least the Minister whom the Government have chosen to make their apologies for the homelessness in London is in the form of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, rather than the chairman of the Conservative party, the Chingford boot boy who unfortunately reduced to the level of the gutter what should have been a good debate last Wednesday on the problems of the inner cities.

In a supposedly civilised society, it should be unacceptable that anyone who so desires should be without a roof over his or her head, but within a few yards of the House may be found hundreds of people—men and women, young and old—who are sleeping rough on the streets. The Greater London council has just received an interim report by Professor John Greve of Leeds university on homelessness in London. He previously reported in 1970 and he now finds that the level of reported homelessness in London is up by 700 per cent. since then. Professor Greve's report, with others that came from the Duke of Edinburgh and the Archbishop of Canterbury's commission, show that there is incontrovertible proof of the social crisis that is facing inner cities.

Instead of approaching this problem with the same urgency that sent a task force steaming towards the Falklands, the Government have sought to rubbish all the evidence. If we believe the Government, the Duke of Edinburgh has become a Marxist, the Church of England has become the Kremlin at prayer and recent inner city riots are just isolated incidents of hooliganism. Perhaps the Government think that they can contain the growing problem by recruiting more policemen and giving them plastic bullets, clubs and water cannon. Such a response would simply add blind stupidity to the criminal negligence of which the Government are already guilty in their policies towards inner cities.

London this year has reached the depressing record of more than 27,000 households accepted by the boroughs as being homeless. That is only part of the problem. There are also over 20,000 single homeless in unsatisfactory accommodation or sleeping rough.

Hon. Members will shortly be departing for Christmas, no doubt a merry one. However, I hope that they will spend some time during the season of good will and festivity thinking of the poverty and degradation facing so many of our citizens in London and elsewhere. The lucky ones will go to bed and breakfast or temporary accommodation, where two thirds of the homeless accepted by councils end up. However, I doubt whether any Member of Parliament would consider himself or herself to be lucky in such accommodation. Conditions in bed and breakfast accommodation for the most part are squalid and overcrowded. Fire regulations are often flouted and many mothers and children suffer from ill health and severe social stress brought on by living in such appalling circumstances. The stable in Bethlehem would have offered more pleasant accommodation than many mothers and children will enjoy this Christmas.

The cost to the state of bed and breakfast accommodation is formidable. In his interim report, Professor Greve concluded that, far from representing an economical way to deal with the problem, the use of bed and breakfast hotels for homeless families is financial and economic madness. In London, the GLC figures show that the financial cost to local authorities alone of subsidising this type of accommodation for the homeless exceeded £12–5 million in 1984–85. It is estimated that this could rise to £16 million in the present financial year. However, this expenditure represents only a fraction of the financial cost to the state imposed by the use of this type of accommodation. In addition to local authority spending, huge costs are borne by central Government. Through DHSS board and lodging allowances the Government are acting on that not by building more council houses or providing more accommodation but by harassing the homeless in bed and breakfast accommodation.

In his report, Professor Greve compares the cost of housing families in bed and breakfast hotels with that of building new homes and flats for the families concerned. Taking into account only the estimated DHSS board and lodging costs, he shows that the average annual cost of keeping a couple with two children in bed and breakfast accommodation is over £13,000 compared with only £7,600 for building the family concerned a suitably sized council flat or house. That is how ludicrous the situation is becoming. If one takes into account the other costs, to the local authority and to the families themselves, Professor Greve concludes that these reinforce the financial case for giving priority to housing as against bed and breakfast accommodation … the social case for doing so is overwhelming. It might be overwhelming to all sensible people, but that excludes the Government. Their economic and social policies are taking the country towards the status of a banana republic, or, as Prince Charles pointed out, a fourth-rate country. Perhaps the Government think that he too has been recruited into the Militant Tendency.

Yesterday, in a written parliamentary answer, the Secretary of State for the Environment announced the housing capital allocation for 1986–87. I have not had a chance to study it in great depth, but as far as I can see, far from increasing the allocation to reduce homelessness, the national housing improvement figure is cut by 13 per cent. in real terms over 1985–86. The London HIP allocation for 1986–87 is £430 million, a heavy cut from the £483 million allocated in 1985–86. When the Conservative Government came into office in 1979, the HIP allocation for London was £1,563 million, but next year it will be only £430 million. That is a reduction of 72 per cent. I know that the Government's philosophy is that problems are not solved by throwing money at them, but I should like the Minister to explain how one solves London's housing crisis by a 72 per cent. reduction in HIP allowances since the Government were elected.

The Minister may say that local authorities have lots of vacant property that they could use to house the homeless. However, in London most vacancies come about because the dwelling is not fit to live in and is undergoing repair or improvement. One of the boroughs with the most empty property is the borough that the Government like to praise as a fine example. In Wandsworth, 2,000 council houses are being kept empty because the authority is trying to sell them off. The Minister may say that authorities have capital receipts, but in inner London the capital receipts are simply not there. They are accumulating in outer London areas where the problem of homelessness is not so desperate. The Government should recognise this in the HIP allocation.

The Minister cannot deny that homelessness has increased dramatically throughout the Government's period of office. I am happy to give way if the Minister wishes to deny that, but he cannot and he remains in his place. On this occasion, I do not blame him. Throughout their term of office, the Government have enforced repeated and vicious cuts on local authority housebuilding and repairing programmes. Since 1979, the amount that councils are allowed to spend on housing has been cut by over 60 per cent. Largely as a result of this policy, the Government have also presided over an increase in recorded homelessness of 70 per cent. in London and nearly 50 per cent. nationally.

The social cuts should be obvious to even the nastiest of Tory Members—I accept that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary does not fall into that category. Perhaps the economic argument is not so apparent. The Government say that it costs £6,500 to keep each unemployed person on the dole, in terms of benefits paid and revenue lost. There are 400,000 unemployed construction workers on the dole, which shows that a major housebuilding programme to tackle the housing crisis would save £2,600 million. That money is at present going down the drain to keep 400,000 construction workers on the dole. What is it, apart from an ideological hatred of the public sector, which prevents the Government from ending what is essentially a man-made scandal—homelessness?

The Minister knows my borough of Newham fairly well. He has visited it several times. We are obliged to him for that. I even offered him accommodation in one of our 110 tower blocks, but he has not taken up the offer yet. I would like to think that, when he replies, he will give the Christmas message that I would like to take back to Newham, which is that we can look forward to partnership status in 1986.

In Newham, the number of priority need clients seen by the homeless persons unit increased from 972 in 1982 to an estimated 1,680 in 1985, and Newham is by no means the worst of the London boroughs for homelessness. Those figures exlude all of the non-priority groups, most of whom are people over pensionable age, single people and childless couples. I can give a dramatic demonstration of how bad things have become in Newham. In 1981, the average nightly placement in bed and breakfast was just 1.6 people but it is estimated to have increased to 71.4 a night in 1985. The cost of bed and breakfast to the borough of Newham during the same period has risen from £9,000 in 1981–82 to an estimated £550,000 in 1985–86.

The Minster knows the borough, but how does he think that we can manage with such problems, which are also mirrored in the adjoining boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney? Those three represent the first, second and third most deprived local authority areas in England on the basis of the Department of the Environment's statistics. That is a terrible treble which the East End can well do without.

I can imagine Tory Members asking why people do not go into the private sector and buy a home. I must tell them that 75 per cent. of Newham's priority applicants for housing are on supplementary benefit. This year, we have for the first time exceeded 40,000 people in the borough on supplementary benefit. I find it peculiarly obscene that the same Prime Minister whose economic and social policies keep so many of my constituents homeless or on the dole can afford to spend £400,000 on a neo-Georgian bunker in Dulwich.

The scandal of London's homeless is getting worse and is directly attributable to Government cuts in housing investment. As the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) said in a flash of inspiration, the poor are poor because they lack money. It can equally be said that the homeless have nowhere to live because there are not enough decent homes to go around at prices which the people who need them can afford. The homeless cannot rely on the private sector because their incomes are too low.

What will the Government do to stem the rising tide of homelessness? Why have they decided not to amend the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 to give all homeless people the right to a home? How will the Government change their methods of distributing housing capital allocations to take more account of the plight of the homeless in the inner city? Who will take on the role of co-ordinating provision for the single homeless in London when the GLC has gone, given that the boroughs' grant scheme at Richmond will deal essentially with the financial business of distributing grants? Do the Government contest the assertion of many that it is cheaper to build a new council house than to keep a homeless family in unsatisfactory bed and breakfast hotels? If not, why do they not act with more financial prudence and protect the ratepayer by allowing councils to spend more on housing investment?

The Government have failed in many areas of social policy, but nowhere has the failure been more profound than in the provision of housing for the homeless. Why has homelessness in London and elsewhere increased so dramatically during the Government's two terms of office? Does the Minister know? More important for the homeless, does he care?

In view of the plight of the homeless in London and the poverty and degradation that we see around us in the inner cities, no member of the Government deserves to have a happy Christmas this year. You do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I cannot wish the Minister the same.

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

The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) for giving us this opportunity to debate the increase in homelessness. He started by saying that last week's debate on the inner cities ended in chaos because of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), the Chairman of the Conservative party. If he had been allowed to make his speech, the House would have been a lot wiser than it was.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the numbers of homeless people are increasing. I think that he will find that they went up under Labour as well. From July 1984 to June 1985, the London boroughs accepted 25,900 households as homeless as compared with 24,280 during the previous year. However, nearly two thirds of them were accommodated in permanent lettings, and others were accommodated in hostels and short-life accommodation. At any one time, there were 2,500 households in bed and breakfast accommodation.

Of course we are worried by the numbers being put in such accommodation as it is unsatisfactory and expensive, especially for families. We have made it quite clear that it should be used only as a last resort. I was pleased to see that my own borough of Ealing has managed to reduce the number of people that it has placed in bed and breakfast accommodation. I do not find the economic argument anything like as powerful as the argument that such accommodation is unacceptable for families. We have made it quite clear to local authorities in our code of practice that such accommodation should be used only as a last resort.

The hon. Gentleman was a little carried away when he said that the increase was "directly attributable' to the Government. If we are honest, we will admit that the rise in homelessness has something to do with some significant social changes, such as the greater incidence of marital breakdown. The figures show that 20 per cent. of those who are accepted as homeless in England became homeless simply because of problems arising from marital breakdown. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will blame the Government for that, but I think that he would be pushing his case a little too far to try. There are other social reasons. For example, young people are leaving home far earlier and in far greater numbers than they used to. That is social change independent of Government and one of the factors responsible for the increase.

It is also legitimate to consider the other side of the equation—the role of local authorities in coping. Between 1980 and 1985, local authorities in London let homes to about 50,000 homeless families. The number of lettings to homeless families has increased under this Government from 12,700 in 1980 to just over 16,000 in 1985. The Government already allocate a substantial borrowing power to local authorities to enable them to make the necessary adjustments to their housing stock, and we allow them to supplement that with capital receipts.. The figures of allocations that the hon. Gentleman quoted conveniently excluded the capital receipts available to local authorities.

Mr. Banks


Sir George Young

I shall not give way, partly because I know what the hon. Gentleman will say and partly because time will not permit me.

Local authorities can compliment their allocations by 20 per cent. of the capital receipts that have accumulated during the past few years. Next year, the London boroughs will be permitted to borrow £430 million for capital expenditure on housing.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we were doing about homelessness when allocating resources. Of course, homelessness is one factor and we have recently given it increased weight. For next year we have changed the basis of the homeless indicator from lettings to the homeless to households accepted as homeless. That widening of the indicator means that the number of people placed in bed and breakfast accommodation will have a greater influence on authorities' allocations.

Between 1979 and 1984, local authorities and housing associations in London produced nearly 72,000 new homes, and the private sector nearly 29,000—giving a total of 101,000 new homes. At the same time, the population of London declined by about 100,000, so the overall supply and demand equation is, on the face of it, improving.

The hon. Gentleman dismissed rather peremptorily the fact that in London there are some 30,000 empty public sector dwellings, of which 10,000 have been empty for more than a year. Quite frankly, that is an affront to the homeless. In times of necessary financial constraint, we must try very hard to make the best possible use of existing resources, and returning those vacant dwellings to use must be a top priority.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

If the Minister gave the comparable figures for empty property in the private sector in London, including property that has been empty for more than a year, he would realise that the figure was considerably greater than for public sector property.

Sir George Young

The figures are available, although I think that they go back some time because there has not been a recent survey. It is public knowledge, but I do not have the figure in my folder. The public sector, both central and local government, have a responsibility because the assets are provided by the taxpayer. We do not have a comparable responsibility for assets in private ownership.

On July 10 we issued a circular to all authorities setting out ways in which better management could reduce the number of empty dwellings and recommending a greater use of short-life schemes and temporary lettings. We have also relaxed the housing association grant regime and have established an urban housing renewal unit that is already active in promoting a number of measures to use empty properties and to revitalise some of the run-down estates.

The problem of rent arrears has a role. At the end of the financial year 1984–85, the GLC and the London boroughs between them were owed rent arrears approaching £92 million. That is deplorable and means the loss of valuable resources that could otherwise be devoted to easing the problems of homelessness.

On the question of mobility, some local authorities have difficulties because they have insufficient accommodation in their own boroughs. We attach great importance to mobility schemes to iron out those imbalances. Those schemes enable the local authorities to respond more flexibly to the accommodation needs of the homeless. However, some boroughs do not take up all the lettings afforded to them. We have established the Greater London mobility scheme, but it is not fully subscribed despite a reduction in quotas this year.

The Government have also put £3 million to one side for the London borough of Camden for the purpose of funding housing association developments in the north-west boroughs to help those boroughs in that part of London which do not have housing stock of their own. All the nomination rights for that go to the inter-borough nomination scheme.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the single homeless. We must have a sense of priority here, and that must mean that families rather than single people should come at the top of the list. That said, we have been trying to help the single homeless in special need. We are funding the provision of small modern hostels and other forms of shared housing. Most of those are for the single homeless, including the elderly, but other groups with special needs merit that also, including ex-offenders, former psychiatric patients, the mentally handicapped, ex-alcoholics, battered wives and the disabled.

Since May 1979, the Housing Corporation has approved schemes nationally for more than 13,000 people in that type of accommodation. We want to help the voluntary sector, and in 1986–87 we shall increase to £500,000 grants to voluntary bodies concerned with homelessness. That is intended to assist the provision of advice that helps to make better use of existing accommodation, to reduce evictions for rent arrears and to ensure that homeless people receive their rights under the Act. Under those provisions, I have today approved a grant to the Bayswater Hotel Homelessness Project, which is doing valuable work advising homeless families in that part of London on their housing problems and, in many cases, helping them to find a solution. I hope to meet members of the organising group in the spring to hear more about their work.

My Department produces a wide range of leaflets giving guidance to the public on various aspects of housing. It is generally accepted that spreading knowledge of people's rights in that way is useful. In August, we issued an expanded version of our booklet aimed at helping one-parent families with their housing problems, including homelessness. I am now looking sympathetically at the possibility of producing a general leaflet on homelessness.

At the beginning of my speech, I expressed concern about the increase in the numbers of homeless people placed in bed and breakfast accommodation by local authorities. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that standards in some of that accommodation were most unsatisfactory. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is consulting local authorities and other interested bodies about a draft circular memorandum that will draw the attention of local authorities to the already wide-ranging powers that they have for securing improved conditions in bed and breakfast hotels and other houses in multiple occupation. —[Interruption.] The hon Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is muttering continuously throughout my remarks.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)


Sir George Young

In the spirit of Christmas I give way to the hon. Gentleman, in the hope that that will keep him quiet for the remaining few minutes in which I have to speak.

Mr. Dobson

Why have the Government consistently resisted all measures to strengthen the law to improve safety conditions for people living in houses in multiple occupation?

Sir George Young

If the hon. Gentleman examines the record, he will find that that is not the case. We have taken a number of measures to improve safety standards for those living in HMOs—houses in multiple occupation—and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman what will have to be a long letter outlining the steps that we have taken. He might prefer to confine his interventions to the field for which he has shadow ministerial responsibility.

Mr. Tony Banks


Sir George Young

I am hoping to answer some of the questions that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West put to me towards the end of his remarks. I promise to give way to him later if there is time.

He asked what the reasons were for homelessness and why the numbers were increasing. That was a relevant question because the underlying reasons are complicated. We are pressing ahead with a substantial programme of research into various aspects of homelessness costing about £600,000. That will shed light on factors influencing homelessness, on the standards in houses in multiple occupation and on the way in which local authorities operate the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, including their use of bed and breakfast accommodation.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West also asked if we were contemplating any other measures. We have had discussions with SHACK, CHAR and other interested bodies and we are considering a number of measures which might help to relieve the problem of homelessness. They cover, among other things, further ways of improving the utilisation of the existing public and private sector stock; possible improvements in the ways in which homelessness is reflected in the arrangements for allocating housing resources; and further steps to encourage local authorities to concentrate their provision on those who are in greatest need. Those results will emerge in due course.

Mr. Tony Banks

I am interested to learn that there is to be another study of the problem. Does the Minister accept that the report by Professor Greve, which is due out early next year, will provide an excellent basis for the Department's investigations? The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the report is being paid for by the GLC.

As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out, there is a great deal of vacant accommodation in the private sector. Why will his Department not allow local authorities to move in with compulsory purchase orders to take up some of that accommodation? In my borough of Newham we are desperately short of four-bedroom accommodation, although a large amount of it is available in empty private sector stock. We should like to be able to take that up by way of compulsory purchase Can the hon. Gentlman offer any help?

Sir George Young

There is scope for the private sector to do more. We have tried to encourage private householders to let their properties by the introduction in the Housing Act 1980 of shorthold provisions which guarantee them repossession at the end of a fixed term; we have given local authority tenants the right to sublet; and, as I explained, the initiatives that we are considering include a further look at the private sector. My Department welcomes any research that sheds light on this problem and indicates the way ahead, and we shall consider the final conclusions of the Greve report when it is available.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West asked why in yesterday's announcement there was an apparent reduction in resources available to London. The reason is simple. In setting the allocation total, we had to take account, first, of the need to bring expenditure into line with provision. The headroom built in in previous years had not been enough, with the result that there had been a substantial overspend. Secondly, and more importantly, local authorities can use their capital receipts, which have gone up in the last year. Simply holding the percentage constant to 20 per cent. gives them access to increased spending power from those receipts. Local authorities are getting access to other opportunities for capital expenditure.

The hon. Gentleman poured scorn on what Wandsworth is doing, when it is making faster progress in tackling its housing problems by being prepared to have a partnership with the private sector. It is turning round difficult-to-let estates that many council tenants would not accept. It is converting the aptly named Livingstone estate in Wandsworth in partnership with the private sector. In the main, the purchasers of the flats are Wandsworth tenants or those on the waiting lists. It is making real progress in tackling its problems by this partnership. Far from deploring it, Labour Members should be welcoming it with open arms and persuading their local authorities to do even more in this direction.

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