HC Deb 26 July 1989 vol 157 cc1005-7
1. Mr. Martlew

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has to deal with homelessness.

4. Mr. Cohen

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any proposals to increase the supply of accommodation for single homeless people in London.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Patten)

I am reviewing the homelessness legislation and hope to announce conclusions soon.

Mr. Martlew

Does the Minister find anything obscene about the contradiction between homelessness doubling in the past two years and the squalid episode of Cabinet Ministers trying to decide which country mansion they should have? I understand that the Leader of the House is satisfied with his home, if not with his job. Will the Minister compare that with the plight of young homeless people that we see day after day in London? Many of them have come from constituencies in the north and in Scotland and Wales. They have taken the Government's advice to come to London for jobs, but they find no hope, no jobs and no future. Now that the Housing Act 1988 has failed, will the Minister take as much interest in the problems of the homeless as the Prime Minister does in the housing problems of her Cabinet?

Mr. Patten

Perhaps I could deal with the serious part of that speech. In our review of homelessness legislation we are looking in particular at three matters. We are looking, first, at scope for greater consistency between authorities, secondly, at the need for improved management, and thirdly, at the need to achieve better use of existing stock by reducing the number of empty properties and cutting relet times. Some housing authorities have improved their performance on those scores, but we want to see all doing as well as the best.

Sir George Young

In the review to which my right hon. Friend has referred, will he ensure that the potential of the tenants' incentive scheme is fully explored? Does he recognise that the quickest and most cost-effective way of tackling homelessness, especially in London, is to use that scheme to persuade existing council tenants to move out, particularly if they have retired and no longer wish to live in the city?

Mr. Patten

That is one of a number of initiatives that we need to examine carefully. I know how much my hon. Friend knows about this issue and I shall, of course, want to consult people such as my hon. Friend before reaching any conclusions.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I apologise because in the excitement I forgot to call Mr. Harry Cohen.

Mr. Cohen

This week several Ministers are moving on, but the single homeless have a more serious problem. Does the Minister recognise that there are more than 50,000 homeless single teenagers in London alone and that the figure is increasing rapidly? The London boroughs' working party on the single homeless has said that there is a shortfall of at least 5,500 places per year, resulting in the hostels silting up with people who want more permanent accommodation. The working party describes it as an acute problem. Will the Minister provide resources and free the local authorities and housing associations to help the single homeless?

Mr. Patten

I refer the hon. Gentleman to our hostels initiative, which has helped to deal with the problems of young people without accommodation. We have provided about 20,000 places under that initiative, and are increasing our grants to voluntary bodies. It is also important to take into account the £74 million that we have provided for the authorities with the most acute problems to get empty property back into use for the homeless. That initiative was rightly welcomed by the Select Committee on the Environment.

Mr. Heddle

Does not homelessness have its foundations in rootlessness? Does my right hon. Friend agree that families, and particularly parents, have a real part to play in this? Will he confirm that the Housing Corporation and the voluntary housing movement also have a real part to play and that the corporation has had an extra £40 million this year and by 1991–92 will provide a further 24,000 homes for those in genuine housing need?

Mr. Patten

There are social reasons for at least part of the homelessness problem, and my hon. Friend was right to draw attention to them. He was also right to point to the importance of the Housing Corporation and housing associations. This year, a quarter of the Housing Corporation's increasing programme for rent is going to schemes designed to help the homeless.

Dr. Cunningham

Will the Secretary of State investigate Westminster city council's so-called "building stable communities" policy? Is he aware that the council's housing department has described the consequences of selling flats in eight key wards in the City of Westminster as resulting in the council being unable to meet its statutory obligations under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that even Conservative councillors such as councillor Patricia Curwen describe the policy as gerrymandering? Is he also aware that Queen's Counsel has given an opinion, on the record, that the policy has an "utterly unlawful purpose"? How much longer can Ministers keep silent in the face of overwhelming evidence of abuse of power right under their noses, in the heart of the capital city? Is it because they want to criticise local government only when it is Labour controlled, but turn a blind eye when councils are Tory controlled?

Mr. Patten

I can give the hon. Gentleman a simple and straightforward answer. The points that he has raised and the allegations that he has made are matters for the council's auditors.