HC Deb 12 December 1990 vol 182 cc947-8
16. Mr. O'Hara

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many people are currently listed as being homeless.

Sir George Young

Accommodation was found for 37,460 households accepted as homeless by local authorities in England in the third quarter of this year.

Mr. O'Hara

Is the Minister aware that, under the Government, the number of homeless people has more than doubled and is well on the way to being trebled, that nearly 3 million people have suffered the tragedy of homelessness and that this can be attributed to factors that are directly influenced by the Government's policies, such as the decline in the number of units in the public and private sectors, the inadequate number of new builds for purchase in the private sector and a tragic increase in mortgage defaults which, at 120,000, have nearly quintupled under the Government and are accelerating?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool that the provision of adequate housing is not only a duty of Government but a moral imperative? Does he agree with the Catholic bishops' conference that the crisis of homelessness under the Government is not only a fact but a scandal?

Sir George Young

I have read the report produced yesterday by the Catholic bishops. They recognise that the problems of homelessness date from some time before the Conservative party came to Government. They pay tribute to a number of initiatives that the Government have introduced to tackle homelessness. Of course, they recognise, as I do, that more needs to be done.

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, a £300 million initiative is under way to get people out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Some £96 million is being spent in London to deal with the problems of those sleeping rough. I suspect that the 3 million people to whom the hon. Gentleman referred are those who have been rehoused by local authorities. Most would never have been homeless but would have moved directly from where they were living, often in satisfactory conditions, straight into local authority accommodation. Although they score as homeless households, at no stage were the vast majority of them homeless.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

Does my hon. Friend agree that one tragedy for the homeless is that there are more empty units of accommodation than there are people seeking homes? There are more than 10,000 empty council houses in five Labour London boroughs and there is much empty property in the private sector. Some empty property—not a great deal—is owned by the Government. Will my hon. Friend look at this problem sector by sector so that we can bring these valuable units of accommodation back into use?

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend makes some constructive suggestions. The Audit Commission published a study showing that three quarters of authorities using bed-and-breakfast accommodation could end its use altogether simply by using better alternatives locally and by having better management of their housing stock. About 600,000 units in the private sector are empty and it would be helpful if there was a consensus on the recently introduced regime for assured tenancies so that private landlords had confidence that the rules would not be changed in the short term. The Treasury has issued fresh instructions to all Government Departments to reduce to a minimum the volume of empty stock. Much of that stock is owned by the Ministry of Defence and, when our troops return from the middle east, they may need the accommodation.

Mr. George Howarth

I, too, welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. Has he had the opportunity today, and if not, will he take it, to read the front and inside pages of the Daily Mirror? The headline is, Shame on the Tories' Doorstep and refers precisely to our crisis of homelessness. Is the Minister aware of the growing body of concern among sources as diverse as the Prince of Wales, charities and local authority associations about our homelessness crisis, particularly at this time of year? Does he agree that the one simple, direct step that would eliminate the problem quickly and effectively would be to agree with local authorities that they can enter into private sector leasing agreements? That would take many thousands of people off the streets and resolve some of the problems that have been created by his Government.

Sir George Young

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. In addition to recycling disused material, my Department is now recycling Ministers. The hon. Gentleman described the housing situation in emotive terms, but I draw his attention to the report by Professor Maclennan to Rowntree. It states: Britain is a well housed country and it is misleading to suggest that there is a general housing crisis in Britain. Consultation on private sector leasing ended on 3 December and I hope to announce my conclusions soon.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Is not one of the causes of homelessness the tying-up of housing resources to the tune of £75 million in uncollected rents by five Labour London boroughs?

Sir George Young

If local authorities could collect more in rents, they would have more resources to apply to the maintenance and management of their estate and to bring back into use some of the properties that are unlettable.

Mr. O'Hara

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I asked a specific question——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask leave to raise the matter on the Adjournment. Did he wish to do that?

Mr. O'Hara