HC Deb 22 February 1989 vol 147 cc980-3
2. Mr. Roy Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the latest available figure for homelessness; and what was the figure in 1979.

10. Mr. Boateng

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make available extra moneys to local authorities, to assist them with any increased housing or advice needs consequent on the rises in mortgage interest rates and the report of the Audit Commission on bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

15. Miss Lestor

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give the latest figures for homelessness in England and Wales.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier)

In the 12 months to September 1988 English authorities accepted responsibility for 116,220 homeless households; in 1979 the figure was 57,200. For Welsh figures I refer the hon. Members to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

We have already made nearly £50 million in additional resources available to authorities in 1988–89 specifically to help the homeless, together with £680,000 to voluntary groups providing advice and assistance. Our review of the homelessness legislation will take account of current trends and the constructive conclusions of the Audit Commission's study.

Mr. Hughes

Does the Minister appreciate that the leading cause of this distressing social problem is repossession due to mortgage arrears? Quite apart from the situation in London, is he aware that in Wales the rate of repossessions due to mortgage arrears is seven times higher than it was in 1979? Is it not time that the Government took active measures to tackle this problem, first by lowering interest rates and secondly through a major public housing drive?

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman must have prepared his supplementary question before he read the report from the Building Societies Association, which was widely covered in this morning's press. I am pleased to note that figures published today by the BSA show that mortgage arrears and possessions in the second half of 1988 continued to decline. The director general of the BSA, commenting on those figures, said: Statistical analysis shows no relationship between interest rates and either possessions or arrears. In general an increase in interest rates, even a substantial one, does not change a good borrower into a potential possession case.

Mr. Boateng

As the plight of those who languish in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is not a matter of party political controversy but is accepted by all, will the Minister assure Members in all parts of the House that he intends to undertake the review recommended by the Audit Commission of the regulations relative to leasing arrangements, which prevent councils such as my own, which the Minister has commended, from entering into arrangements with the private developers to provide other accommodation for people who otherwise languish in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Will he also accept the Audit Commission's recommendation that those boroughs which have a particular problem in relation to people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation should receive a special allocation of resources so that they can deal with the problem? Will the Minister give specific assurances on those matters?

Mr. Trippier

I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman as I believe that policy on bed-and-breakfast accommodation is a matter of political difference both within the House and outside. The latest figures for London show that there are some 23,300 empty council dwellings, which is three times as many the number of homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. There is a direct correlation not only between those figures, but between the number of empty dwellings in London and the number of people registered as homeless. It is hypocritical for the hon. Gentleman to give the Government advice on housing when he should be spending more of his time giving advice to his local authority to improve its housing management as outlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. Until that authority has cleared up the mess in its own backyard, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should try to specialise in an area in which his own local authority is not an embarrassment to him.

Miss Lestor

Has the Minister yet had time to examine the Barnardo's report and to consider the plight of young people coming out of care and joining the ranks of the homeless because they cannot afford to live and to pay rent? Is it not time that the Minister liaised with the Department of Employment about the position of those young people in regard to YTS? They cannot exist on the money provided and they are being treated as though they lived at home when they have come out of local authority care and literally have nowhere to go?

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Lady's specific point is directly a matter for the Department of Social Security, but I have seen the report to which she refers. It certainly contains some messages that we should examine carefully in our current review of homelessness, which is nearing completion and on which we are almost ready to make a statement.

Mr. Heddle

Is it not a national scandal that more than 130,000 council-owned properties were empty last night, of which more than 30,000 have been empty for more than 12 months? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Audit Commission has produced a damning report on the inefficiency of certain local housing authorities? What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that Brent and other Labour-controlled councils apply the efficiency suggested in the Audit Commission report?

Mr. Trippier

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As I said, we found the report by the Audit Commission—and Professor Maclennan's report which was released only this week—helpful in that regard. There is an inescapable correlation between the total number of empty properties in Britain and the number of those registered as homeless, particularly as the figures are almost the same. Until local authorities improve their efficiency in managing public housing stock, the position will not improve.

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend will be aware of substantial investment by his Department in hostels in London which have provided shelter for people who would otherwise be homeless. Will he liaise with his colleagues at the Department of Social Security to see whether relatively minor changes can be made in the income support regulations to safeguard the revenue flow which underpins those hostels?

Mr. Trippier

I know that my hon. Friend has raised that issue in the past and I understand the message that he seeks to convey. I will certainly draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Malins

Does my hon. Friend agree that because of homelessness many families with children in south London live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in quite appalling conditions? Does he agree that we should be moving towards the abolition of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and in the meantime considering legislation to force landlords of those bed-and-breakfast places to improve standards and conditions for families who have to live in them.

Mr. Trippier

I recognise the important contribution that my hon. Friend has made to that subject, both today and in the past. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is incredibly expensive.

Dr. Cunningham

It is inefficient.

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—it is inefficient. We should like more Labour-controlled authorities to use their empty housing stock. Greenwich seems to deal with the matter most satisfactorily, in contrast to more extreme Left-wing authorities which quickly use bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I welcome the joint Association of London Authorities and London Boroughs Association working party report which is providing tighter controls on hotels used by London boroughs.

Mr. Soley

That is a disgraceful response. The Government should be ashamed of their attitude to homelessness. They know that 6 per cent. of Government-owned properties are empty, compared with 3.1 per cent. for housing associations and 2.5 per cent. for local authorities. The Minister knows that the figures that he gave for building societies are misleading because building societies are not the only lenders. One in 10 homeless families are homeless because of mortgage repossession. He also knows that the real reason why homelessness has doubled in Britain and men, women and children have to sleep in cardboard boxes is the lack of low-cost accommodation to rent or for sale. That is what is wrong with the Government's policy.

Mr. Trippier

It is strange that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) should even comment on this issue as his local authority has not used the £27 million that it has drawn in capital receipts to carry out repairs to existing stock although it has a significant number of dwellings awaiting major repairs. [Interruption] It is hypocritical of the hon. Gentleman to suggest, as he has today and on previous occasions, that there should be an increase in money for public housing when in their last three years of office the Labour Government cut public housing expenditure—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let us try to settle down a bit.