HC Deb 23 July 1986 vol 102 cc331-3
8. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received concerning the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families.

14. Mr. Willie W. Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what initiatives he intends to take to solve the problems of homelessness.

Sir George Young

I refer the hon. Members to the reply that I gave to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on 21 July.

Mr. Dubs

Does the Minister accept that there is a real crisis of homelessness, especially in the London area? According to Shelter figures, which are better than his Department's, there are 4,400 homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in London. That is an increase of 16 per cent. in three months. Over a year the cost to local authorities in London has doubled from £13 million to £26 million. Keeping families with young children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is humiliating and degrading and ought to be brought to an end immediately.

Sir George Young

The Government have made it clear that bed-and-breakfast accommodation should be used only as a last resort and for as short a period as possible until permanent accommodation is secured. This year we have increased by £200 million the provision for housing investment, and we have redistributed it in such a way as to give more benefit to those boroughs that have a homelessness problem. We have asked the boroughs to give specific priority to the homeless when they make their investment decisions. It is interesting to note that many London boroughs, such as Brent, are not taking up the offers under the Greater London mobility scheme that are available to meet the needs of those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, there is a large amount of empty public authority housing stock in London. We are determined to bring that back into use to help the homeless.

Mr. Hamilton

Does the Minister recognise that probably the Government's greatest social crime is that since 1979 housing expenditure has been slashed by very nearly half? At this moment 400,000 building trade workers are unemployed, but hundreds of thousands of people are out searching for a house and cannot find one. It is not only me and my hon. Friends who are objecting to those obscene policies, but the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen herself.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the Minister answers I remind the hon. Member and the House that we never introduce the royal family to support our arguments. We stand on our own.

Sir George Young

The major reduction in public investment in housing took place under a Labour, not a Conservative Government, and the hon. Gentleman's statistics ignore the recovery in the private housebuilding sector, which meets real housing needs.

Mr. Lyell

Might not the way to bring the private rented sector back into operation be to abolish the Rent Acts and institute a limited form of control along the lines of business tenancy controls under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954?

Sir George Young

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), the then Secretary of State for the Environment, said in June last year that we would have no major proposals for rent reform in this Parliament, but that we were interested in proposals after the next election.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Will my hon. Friend say to the House that the way that Labour Members, especially in the way they make references to members of the Royal Family, seek to distort the facts and mislead our nation is shameful? Is it not true that if all the council accommodation in Britain which is currently vacant because of inefficient management, mainly by Socialist local authorities, were put to use, virtually all Britain's homeless could be given a home immediately? Remarks by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton)—

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton

Shut up, you old windbag.

Mr. Winterton

Well, that is the pot calling the kettle black.

Is it not shameful how the hon. Gentleman will seek to use our royal family—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The same rules apply on both sides of the House.

Sir George Young

Arithmetically, my hon. Friend is correct.

Mr. Janner

Is not the real problem for local authorities, not that they have a statutory duty to house the homeless, but that the number of homeless people is growing, that the amount of money available for councils to build, as they want to do, is evaporating—so that, for example, some 30,000 people in Leicester are on the housing list — and councils are then forced to spend revenue instead of capital on housing people temporarily in bed and breakfast accommodation, which is a rotten

Sir George Young

I do not have the figures for Leicester in front of me, but in London it is the case that the number of relets of council housing has gone up since 1978–79, in spite of the right to buy. So it is not the case that there is a decreasing number of local authority flats available to help the homeless. Certainly in most major cities more and more homeless people are being given priority under the Acts and are getting permanent accommodation.

Mr. Rooker

Does the Minister accept, notwithstanding the figures that he used earlier, that in the best year of the national housebuilding programme under this Government there were 50,000 fewer new dwellings than in the worst year under the Labour Government? As next year is the international year of shelter for the homeless, could not the Government take some special measures to talk about the new initiatives, which were implied in one of the questions that he refused to answer, to deal with the misallocation of money that is implied in funding bed-and-breakfast accommodation when there are a vast number of unfit empty dwellings in the public and the private sectors?

Sir George Young

One of the top priorities for any local authority with its HIP allocation should be to bring back into use the empty properties that it has, many of which have been empty for more than a year. I suspect that the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave was just for the public sector.

Mr. Rooker

No, total.

Sir George Young

There has been a recovery in private sector starts. The figures are at the highest level for 10 years, apart from one year. Local authorities of all persuasions are rightly using their allocations to modernise and to bring up to standard properties that they already own rather than embarking on programmes of new build.