HC Deb 12 December 1991 vol 200 cc1090-110 10.15 pm
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

The time is 10.15 pm, and all over the United Kingdom people are getting ready for bed—not all in the comfort of their own homes, and certainly not in two, three, or four-star hotels, but in shop doorways, on park benches, and in derelict buildings.

The homeless of the United Kingdom—our country—are men and women of all ages. This evening they are sleeping rough, as they do on many nights, on the streets of this country. That is the United Kingdom of December 1991—be it in the cities of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, or Bristol. The list is endless.

Those are some of the principal cities of our country, but a survey undertaken in February shows that, even in small towns, people are sleeping rough tonight, as they were at the beginning of the year. The survey revealed that the number of people sleeping rough in Andover was 50; in Cambridge, 60; in Luton, 50, and in Blackburn, 25. Not half a mile from this building—the mother of Parliaments—hundreds of people are sleeping rough tonight.

Early-day motion 304, "Homeless people sleeping rough in severe weather outside London", was signed by more than 70 right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. I have over a long period tabled questions on that issue. I did so in June 1990, February 1991, and November 1991. As long ago as December 1989, I put this written question to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher): To ask the Prime Minister if she will visit the Crisis at Christmas centre in London during Christmas. She replied: I have at present no plans to do so."—[Official Report, 19 December 1989; Vol.164, c.122.] And she did not.

That is the background to the homelessness that stretches throughout the country, but there are other aspects. Official estimates suggest that some 40,000 homeless households in London are in temporary accommodation. Many of those families include young children. The figure for homeless households in the whole of the United Kingdom is estimated at 145,000.

We all know what such accommodation offers: a roof over one's head, but very little more. People must live in a single room with all their belongings. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House have visited such accommodation, and seen suitcases and plastic bags piled high on wardrobes or cupboards. There is nowhere for youngsters to play, and what facilities there are—bathroom, toilet and kitchen—are shared. Often, the accommodation is some distance from where the occupants have been living, and the move involves a major upheaval.

As I have said, there are 40,000 homeless households in London. In 1979, there were 2,750. Both figures reflect a pattern that is repeated throughout the country.

Why do such conditions exist in 1991? There can be no doubt that the position has worsened every year since the Government came to power in 1979. Since then, however, the country has gained enormous wealth through North sea oil and the sale of state assets. Where have those vast sums gone? How much of the money has been spent on trying to tackle the tragedy of homelessness, which many would describe as not only a tragedy but a national scandal?

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

The point about privatisation is important. We should bear in mind the fact that the assets resulting from the sale of council houses total more than £23 billion—more than the assets from all the other privatisations put together—while investment in housing has been cut from £11 billion to £6 billion. That is a measure of the extent to which resources have been wasted.

Mr. Cox

My hon. Friend has considerable experience of all aspects of housing, and, as always, he has made a telling point. I intend to develop it further, and, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, my hon. Friend will no doubt do so as well.

New elements have entered the problem of homelessness. It has been estimated that, in the first half of this year, well over 36,000 properties were repossessed. We know the reasons for that: high interest rates and ever-increasing unemployment have caused the break-up of marriages and families, and have introduced tensions.

According to official figures, so far this year 162,000 people have incurred mortgage arrears of between six and 12 months, with over 59,000 being more than 12 months in arrears. There can be no doubt that the position is worsening month by month. I had a letter earlier this week from the all-party group on homelessness. It is dated 10 December, and gives notice of a meeting in the House next week on the subject of mortgage arrears and how to prevent homelessness arising from repossesions.

In The Observer last Sunday there was a major article about repossessions headed: "'Homes catastrophe brewing' as losses soar". The report gave harrowing details about what happens when people lose their homes, not because they are idle or could not care less but simply because they have lost their jobs and cannot get others, so they cannot keep up the payments that they were making before the loss of the man's job, or that of his wife.

Housing experts estimate that there will be between 80,000 and 90,000 repossessions this year. I have here a Public Accounts Committee report on homelessness which was published in May. As I expect hon. Members know, the PAC is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). On the extent and causes of homelessness, the report says: We are gravely concerned that homelessness has more than doubled over the last decade … and is continuing to rise at a higher rate than before. Our concern is underlined by the fact that the official statistics may well significantly understate the true scale of homelessness, since they are confined to those applying as homeless and accepted as having a priority need". Under the heading "On Department of the Environment action", the report says: We note the improvements being made in the Department's arrangements for allocating resources to local authorities for general housing purposes"— I am trying to make my comments as fair as possible— and we support the aim of targeting resources increasingly on authorities with the worst housing problems, including homelessness … We regard it as unsatisfactory, however, that the Department have not set clear, quantified targets for the extra homes these substantial expenditure programmes are expected to provide and the impact on the numbers who are homeless … We expect the Department to review their homelessness programmes accordingly, with a view to setting appropriate targets and timescales… We are very concerned about the extensive use of bed and breakfast accommodation which is often very expensive and unsuitable for families". I described earlier the kind of accommodation that people who become homeless are offered. The report continues: a cost of £15,000 per family a year is bad value for money. I think that all of us would agree. As well as being bad value for money, such accommodation provides bad conditions for the families who, sadly, find themselves put there.

Let us consider the views of organisations that have enormous experience in all aspects of housing. Even Ministers would not sneer at Shelter's comments and, if they did, they would be unwise.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury)

Who said that they sneered?

Mr. Cox

I merely made a comment, which I have a right to do.

Shelter, in a letter dated 14 November 1991, says: People sleeping rough in severe weather … Despite the enormous publicity of the plight of thousands of homeless people, the Government took no action outside Central London. In May 1991, Shelter published a booklet called "Left Out—Sleeping Rough in Severe Weather". It followed a survey by Shelter in February 1991, when, as we are now, we went through a period of severe weather. Shelter made some damning indictments of the Government and their policy on helping homeless people. Shelter says: Outside central London (where the Government contributed to a basic—and highly publicised—relief operation) 7,000 'roofless' people were almost entirely dependent on the charity of volunteers. Government and most local authorities refused to accept any responsibility for these people's survival. I will quote some of the authorities which had to pick up the pieces in February 1991—and which will no doubt have to do the same this December. Cambridge city council says: Local authorities were left in an ad hoc and pretty much accidental situation. It was pure luck that ad hoc arrangements actually worked. We would expect the Government to provide funding for what the voluntary sector do over and above normal arrangements. They cannot be expected to do it with no money. The Shelter housing advice centre in Manchester says: Voluntary groups…can point to a need but don't have the resources to begin to fulfil it. The Bishop of Chelmsford said on 18 February 1991: Voluntary agencies, including the Church are therefore doing all they can to alleviate the problem but it is vital that in the short term the Government acts quickly in collaboration with local authorities to meet the needs of the homeless in these critical circumstances and in the long term that the underlying causes of homelessness are addressed. Those comments were made in February 1991. All the evidence shows clearly that, within hundreds of yards of Parliament—in Victoria, for example—people are sleeping in cardboard boxes tonight. Indeed, that is true of others throughout the country. As I have said, that is what happened in February 1991, and it is happening again this winter. More people are sleeping rough and becoming homeless. More pressure is being placed on organisations like Shelter, the Churches and local authorities.

I received a letter from the Association of London Authorities and the London Boroughs Association. They represent Labour and Conservative-controlled authorities in London. The letter was sent on 2 December and it states: It is an understatement to say that the growing problem of the backlog of homeless families in temporary accommodation is causing the homeless working party major concern. This is reinforced by recent research by the London Housing Unit on behalf of the homeless working party which shows that unless there are some significant changes in Government housing policy the gap between the supply of permanent homes and demand from homeless families will widen even further. It was signed by the directors of the London boroughs of Haringey and Kensington and Chelsea. Those boroughs are under different political control, but they both make the same damning indictment of the Government's lack of action in respect of a problem that sadly has been with us for far too long.

When the Minister replies, it would be interesting if he would comment on a letter that I received today which questions the future of the resettlement agency. Do the Government propose to close next March four Government-run homeless units? Many people would like to know the answer to that. It would also be very interesting to hear from the Minister exactly what contact the agency has with those who work with the homeless.

What I have said about London as a London Member can, I am sure, be said by hon. Members irrespective of the part of the country they represent. As I have said, the problem gets worse every year. We must ask why it worsens year by year. I have referred to the reasonably new tragedy of repossession of property. That problem ranges across the board in respect of the professional backgrounds of the people who are losing their homes.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us about the Government's involvement with the banks and building societies to help people when they have difficulty repaying their mortgages. What discussions have the Government had with the banks and building societies about impressing on them the urgent need to keep families together and to keep people living in their homes instead of repossessing homes which causes people to become homeless?

Within the past month, I heard of the case of someone who had a mortgage with Nationwide Anglia. I took up the matter with the director of that building society. To his credit, he expressed deep concern at the way in which my constituent had been treated. The behaviour of many banks and building societies is an utter disgrace. They should hang their heads in shame at the pressure and harassment that they inflict on decent, honest, law-abiding citizens who sadly have lost their jobs and find themselves in the great dilemma of how to pay their mortgage.

Banks and building societies have much to answer for. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister just what meaningful discussions—not just, "You really should know better, gentlemen"—have taken place. I have mentioned the estimated number of repossessions that will take place not only during what is left of this year but well into next year.

Our great housing problem is that there is not enough affordable housing for people to buy, if possible, or to rent. There has been a massive decline in council house building. The Government have encouraged councils not to build properties.

Let me quote one or two figures to show the enormous decline that has occurred over recent years. In 1974, 120,000 council properties were being built. In 1979, 56,000 council properties were being built. In 1989, the figure went down to 14,000. In 1990 the figure went down further to 7,500. The figure for the first half of this year is 2,412. Since the Government have been in office, 56,000 properties have been built. I am being generous, as the Government would have inherited properties that were in the development pipeline. The figure this year will be even lower. About 130,000 council properties have been sold. Those properties have moved out of the affordable market.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman, because I think that he is having difficulty in reading his script. In fact, 1.3 million houses, not 130,000, have been sold under the right to buy. The hon. Gentleman may have left a nought off the end.

More important for the purposes of the debate, the hon. Gentleman has completely overlooked the large and growing contribution made to affordable housing by the housing association movement, into which the Government are pouring huge, ever-increasing amounts of taxpayers' money, and delivering value for money and attractive accommodation with which tenants show themselves highly satisfied.

Mr. Cox

That sounds attractive, but it is not borne out by the facts or by what is said by the various people whom I quoted earlier, who work in all areas of housing and not only in connection with the homeless. They are not saying what the Minister is saying, so I shall not be swayed by him.

Mr. Soley

To put the record straight, the housing associations are only just getting back to the number of housing units that they were providing in the mid-1970s.

Mr. Cox

My hon. Friend makes the point more forcefully than me.

This Government have given people every encouragement to buy their own home. That may be commendable and may help those who can afford to buy. Some can, but many cannot. Who helps them? The Minister will say, "I've just told you who helps them," but why is there such an enormous need for housing in this country if what we are told is true and various organisations—not local authorities—are now providing housing?

Like many other hon. Members, I believe that now is the time for a massive house-building programme. We all know from the letters and documents that we receive that our construction industry is on its knees. Thousands of highly qualified building workers are on the dole—not only for a week or two when the weather is bad, but for month after month. What has happened to some of the big building consortiums? We have seen how their profits have slumped, but why is that happening when we all know that new properties should be built?

A valid criticism to make against the Government is that vacant land throughout the country is being sold—not for affordable housing, but for supermarkets and up-market property—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister will have his conversation with his hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) privately—

Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)

Oh, do let us get on with it.

Mr. Cox

The hon. Gentleman says, "Let's get on with it." Some of my comments are undoubtedly embarrassing for the hon. Gentleman, who is an outer-London Member of Parliament and must have problems similar to those that many other hon. Members are encountering, irrespective of constituency. Perhaps it is expecting a little much of the hon. Gentleman to ask him to consider the plight of people who are looking for somewhere to sleep or for somewhere they can be with their families this Christmas.

Given what the Minister has said, I ask him where people without large incomes can find affordable housing either to rent or to buy. What discussions are held with the local authorities and hospitals that have a lot of land? The London borough of Wandsworth, for which I am one of the Members of Parliament, contains classic examples. Tooting Bec hospital is now nearly closed and there is demand for a massive supermarket to be built on the site. There is demand for a golf course at Springfield hospital, which also has a great deal of land.

In inner London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith will know, old Greater London council and Inner London education authority properties and lands are being sold off, not for local needs, but for the most money that can be obtained. One has to ask—this goes back to the point that the Minister made a moment ago—what is the Government's policy to encourage private house building along with local authority, housing association and Housing Corporation building?

When will the constraints on local authority capital spending to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith referred be relaxed? Many authorities have substantial capital receipts. When will they be allowed to spend them? It would be interesting to hear from the Minister when local authorities will be allowed to spend that money, the existence of which no one disputes.

If one sadly—[Interruption.] I am delighted that the Minister thinks that is so hilarious. I do not know whether the Ministers or other hon. Members were present for the previous debate. I know that you were, Mr. Speaker, but I realise that you are not in a position to comment. The Minister who replied to that debate made the most enormous play of the fact that there were no Labour Members on the Opposition Benches to debate that great issue and what a scandal it was.

But this is a scandal. Conservative Members are laughing their little heads off because they think that is so funny. I hope that when the debate, or possibly a debate in which they are involved, is over, they will take a walk to Victoria and tread over the people. I am aware of the comments made by the Minister for Housing and Planning a little while ago. They have not been forgotten. I will not be unkind and remind him. He knows what I am talking about.

Mr. Yeo

That is a disgraceful slur on my hon. Friend, who is known by people in all parts of the political spectrum as one of the most committed Members of Parliament, with a determination to see an improvement in the housing condition of the country. For the hon. Gentleman to drag that comment in, even by the appalling standards that he has set in the past 37 minutes, is nothing short of disgraceful. I hope that he will withdraw that slur.

Mr. Cox

I did not make the slur. The Minister for Housing and Planning knows the comments that were attributed to him. The Minister should understand a little about the procedures of the House. I did not cast any slur on the Minister. I referred to a comment that had massive coverage. I suggest that the Minister should not pursue it.

Whatever may have happened in this debate, outside the House throughout Britain many people have nowhere to live and are sleeping rough. They have done so for many years. It will be interesting in the time that is left—there is still quite a bit of time left—to hear from the Government exactly what they propose to do. I have quoted the criticisms of the Government made repeatedly by reputable organisations. If they are untrue, let the Government say that they are untrue. Let them challenge the quotes that I have given. I named where they came from. Let them dispute them in the debate tonight.

10.55 pm
Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)

I shall find it difficult to comment on many of the points made by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), for although I tried to concentrate on the thrust of his speech, it took quite an effort. I was impressed with one aspect of it, however, and that was his ability to err in his facts by a factor of 10.

Having misrepresented the number of council houses sold in Britain by over a million, when he was corrected about that, the hon. Gentleman continued with a glissando that was breathtaking and completed his remarks without any recognition of the fact that he might have been pursuing Aneurin Bevan's adage that one should never let a good speech be confused by the facts, and following it rather more literally than might have been advisable.

The hon. Gentleman has only one good point in his favour. That is that he has raised a serious subject of interest to hon. Members in all parts of the House. There is a different dimension to the whole question of housing and the homeless. As we have seen in the past decade, there are a number of issues on which it is appropriate to pay a fulsome tribute to the Minister, his hon. Friends and their predecessors. Less remembered than it should be is the fact that, under Conservative rule, we have attempted to free into the housing market hundreds of thousands of units of accommodation in the private rented sector. Due to no doubt well-meaning but, in the event, totally misguided rent legislation, that accommodation was prevented from being available for tenants to occupy.

Every hon. Member has had experience of elderly owners with available accommodation to let who would have been satisfied with a modest return but who were prevented from letting by the law as it stood and the experience of their peers who had been involved in letting with disastrous consequences. It was extraordinary to hear the hon. Member for Tooting present a picture of housing and homelessness in Britain without recognising the huge impact of the release of property into the private rented sector.

The irony of the work done in that sphere is the possibility that still deters many from embarking on letting property—the vestigial possibility of a change of Government. The prospect of a return to the bad old days under Labour denies the availability of hundreds of thousands of units of accommodation to people who desperately need it from people who are more than happy to provide it.

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman is digging himself into an ever deeper hole. He criticised my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for not being concerned with facts, when my hon. Friend made more of a conventional slip than the sort of fundamental error that the hon. Gentleman just made. When the Conservatives came to power, 14 per cent. of the rented market was in the private sector. The decline continued and has accelerated, to the point where it is now only 7 per cent. There has never been any such suggestion from the Opposition. Indeed, the position has been made clear by me and my hon. Friends—there will be no retrospective legislation, and everybody knows it.

Mr. Norris

The hon. Gentleman is tacitly accepting that our reforms in the rented sector have been in the right direction, and I am grateful for his pledge that retrospection will not be in the mind of a future Labour Government. I am pleased that he accepts that our reforms are appreciated, not just in the inner cities, where they are of particular advantage, but in urban and suburban areas.

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman does not appreciate that the legislation of 1980 reduced rent controls dramatically. Indeed, in Northern Ireland they were abolished in 1956. But in all cases the decline in the rented sector accelerated. The hon. Gentleman will take the figures from the Duke of Edinburgh's report, if he will not take them from me.

Mr. Norris

The hon. Gentleman misses my point, which is two-edged. There is the potential impact of the private rented sector and the extent to which Labour attitudes—as evidenced by their actions when in government and their statements during the last decade—have been a huge disincentive to the release on to the market of many affordable units of accommodation which could be derived from existing single units and which are currently denied to people who have no accommodation.

At the risk of bogging the hon. Gentleman down in argument when I am sure that he will make his own speech, which I look forward to hearing, I suggest that the other great area in which the Government deserve congratulation is the introduction into the housing market of infinitely more creative financing than has been available hitherto.

Again, the hon. Member for Tooting, who has just given us the benefit of his views on housing for 40 minutes, seemed to neglect the marvellous impact that the housing asociation movement has had on housing in Great Britain. Housing associations have been able to offer shared equity schemes, link equities, rent mortgage schemes, and so on, which have all been of tremendous benefit to tenants in all parts of the country, many of whom are keen to convert tenancies into ownership and who, without the creative financing available through the housing association movement, would never be able to do so.

In addition, the more creative financing which is now available has led to the most desirable schemes for those with special needs—those with handicaps, single parents who would otherwise find it difficult to obtain accommodation, and so on. We all have examples in our constituencies. There has been a very heartening development of this sector and the housing associations and housing corporations continue to make a very significant contribution to meeting the needs in this area.

One thing that is underrated is the extent to which, over the last decade, there has been an attempt to involve tenants a great deal more in the management of their own property. That, again, is something that I very much welcome. The Government inherited the most appalling nannyish tendency to assume that tenants were the last people who should ever be consulted on the way in which their properties were managed.

I look forward to the next Parliament, when I hope that my hon. Friends may both have moved on to higher and even more rewarding pastures. Perhaps the Whip on duty, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) will be with us; some good things in life are ever with us and we look forward to his continued presence on the Treasury Bench. I hope that those who will take on our housing policies into the 1990s will continue the very welcome trend of putting more power into the hands of tenants—not just local authority tenants, but housing association tenants and private tenants as well, all of whom deserve to have this extra power in their hands.

This debate is not simply about the benefits that we have derived from housing policy over the last decade. It is also to some extent about the specific issue of homelessness, which the hon. Member for Tooting mentioned. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Minister in placing on record what I believe to be the incontrovertible record in this field of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), the Minister for Housing and Planning.

No one who has taken the slightest interest in the problems of the homeless in London could ignore the beneficial impact of my hon. Friend on this problem, and it is extraordinarily churlish to suggest that he has had anything other than the greatest commitment to this unfortunate group of people, which he has discharged with immense distinction. I place on record the warmest congratulations of Conservative Members and, I suspect, of the vast majority of Opposition Members on the work that he has done.

It is still, however, an immensely disturbing proposition to me and, I am sure, to the hon. Member for Tooting, to his hon. Friends and to mine, that there should be, as he says, as we drive along the Strand or in Victoria, anyone forced to use a shop or office doorway as accommodation on a bitter winter night such as this. That is not something that any sane Member would deny exists, and the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to point out that it does. The remedy, however, is perhaps more complex than that suggested by the hon. Member for Tooting. It has always seemed to derive from two phenomena, both of which call for attention and of neither of which I fully understand the ramifications.

The first is the extent to which London is still regarded as a magnet by many young people who do not have stable home conditions in their towns and villages, or even in the outer suburbs of their cities. They look to London for excitement, employment opportunity, money or whatever, and so often are sadly, tragically, disappointed and misled when they arrive. There has been a welcome increase in the services available to them. Those services are offered by all the agencies concerned, from the police through the voluntary sector, the social services, and so on.

There is no merit whatever in allowing people to stay in doorways in those circumstances, simply because it may seem a more convenient solution; quick intervention is needed. I say that against the background of the knowledge that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning made available extra hostel accommodation, and that in many cases the problem in central London is not technically the availability of beds, but rather a question whether the various agencies have chosen to intervene, and on what basis.

My simple observation is that it is in everyone's interest to intervene sooner rather than later. It would be better if the young people could be caught on the first day away without a stable roof over their heads, and returned to their homes. I appreciate that it is not always possible to return them, so if they could be counselled about how to find their feet independently, that would be in everyone's interest.

I do not want to enunciate a philosophy that people who live in doorways are making the place look untidy and should be removed for the sake of it. Most of us would have more charity in our hearts, particularly when the weather is so cold, but we have to recognise that if a young person is allowed to develop the habit of seeking refuge in that way, it is a desperately difficult habit to break. Early intervention, despite the fact that it might be thought by some to be heavy-handed, is therefore important.

The second obvious source of homelessness in London is even more tragic, because its origins are in schizophrenia and other mental illness. Such people find it hard to accept the confines of institutional housing, and are very difficult individuals with whom to deal. My heart goes out to all who have to deal with them. I pay tribute to their work and to the commitment of volunteers, as well as people in the national health service and social services, to those who are mentally disordered and whose behaviour patterns occasionally cause the most disturbing incidents. We have to deal with those people at a slower pace than in the past.

None of what I say is new to my hon. Friend. I merely state it because it is the most important element in the debate about homelessness. Surely we are now in a position to deal with the consequences of our enthusiasm to decant people from the large, long-stay institutions, as part of our genuine commitment to a community care policy which had all-party approval when it was introduced.

It is as clear now to the Secretary of State as to the whole House that there was clinical over-enthusiasm to decant from long-stay institutions people for whom there was not adequate personal planning. It left such people with a tenuous link to social services and to those who had a medical input into their conditions. I urge those with competence in such matters to think again about the extent of decanting, although it may not be a matter for my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning.

I appreciate the desire to achieve a large capital receipt from the closure of a long-stay institution. Incidentally, having been involved, together with the health authority, in Borocourt, an institution for the mentally handicapped just outside Reading—I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State know that institution—I shall never regard it as desirable to keep such places a day longer than is necessary, but there may be a day on which it is necessary. However wrong it may have been for a person to be incarcerated in such an institution 30 years ago, it may be better for a person to be retained there, with care, warmth and at least some sort of regime of supervision, before he or she embarks on a life outside where there will need to be adequate support services.

I say in all good humour that we have often listened to the hon. Member for Tooting with interest and he makes a conscientious point. However, it is not sensible to describe the entire private sector market as littered with repossessions and tragedies. It is extraordinarily sad that some young people bought their houses at the top of a market which has declined and that they are now experiencing difficulty. I welcome the fact that the Government have considered creative ways of avoiding repossessions wherever possible. Nevertheless, 99 per cent. of mortgages are still being paid and kept current. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) may have queried my statistic, but I assure him that it is accurate.

In the context of the worst recession in many years—that is not even a matter for debate—and substantial reductions in house prices, that statistic is a tribute to the flexibility of the system and to the way in which many building societies have already recognised that their long-term interests lie in trying, wherever possible, in helping home owners to stay in possession of their dwellings, even if it means a slight elongation of the repayment period.

I commend the efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that an increasing number of people who find it difficult to pay their mortgages are allowed a scheme of, for example, temporary rental or contributions from their local authority. It is desperately sad and pointless to make a family homeless because they cannot afford to keep up payments on their house, especially when they can pay something, in order then to have to find far less satisfactory homeless accommodation for them at public cost. If families can be kept in their own homes, so much the better.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. It has given me a chance to correct an understandable bias in the remarks of the hon. Member for Tooting and to suggest that, even now, when the housing market generally has never been more difficult, my hon. Friend the Minister and his Department have much to be proud of.

11.13 pm
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) on choosing this subject for debate tonight, when the cold weather is with us again and the misery of the homeless increases.

About three weeks ago, I was told by a voluntary worker for the homeless how she had found a 15-year-old girl, five months pregnant, sleeping on the concrete steps of a doorway in Charing Cross. She did not even have a blanket, she had no money for food, and no idea of where to go for help. She had been sleeping on the same step for three nights.

Despite all the publicity that the homeless receive and the many organisations set up to help them, there are still desperate people who do not know how to get help. There are many people who suffer due to lack of affordable housing to rent and inability to cope with mortgage repayments.

However, as the bitter winter weather approaches, I should like to concentrate my speech on the basic problem of enabling people to find shelter so that hon. Members do not again have to face the awful reality of stepping around people huddled under snow-covered tarpaulins, lying in shop doorways in the streets of our city. The Minister announced the setting up of a helpline for the homeless. What use is that if people have no money to telephone? If they are fortunate to have enough money, where are they to find out that that helpline exists and obtain the numbers?

Mr. Yeo

It is important for the House to know that the telephone line is free to the users.

Mr. Golding

I repeat: where do people find out that the helpline exists and obtain the number?

I understand that the Minister is talking to London Transport about advertising the campaign, but it needs much more than that. The Government have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on imaginative advertising for selling off the country's nationalised industries. I am sure that they did not consider just talking to London Transport about that. Many of our people have become homeless as the result of the Government's policies. Is it too much to ask the Government to spend some of the money raised by privatisation on giving much more help to homeless people throughout the country, not just in London?

The homeless are suffering just as much in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme and other districts throughout the country, as in London. Why cannot money be spent on advertising the help available in places where the homeless gather? Could there not be in every tube station, railway station and bus station, and on bus shelters—especially in rural regions—specially prepared posters with information to tell people where day and night shelters exist for the homeless?

I know that the organisations that help the homeless would be more than willing to co-operate with the Minister to help to identify the many places throughout the country where posters would be of greatest benefit to the homeless. I know that the Government have not found it in their hearts to extend the cold-weather provision for shelters for the homeless outside London and the many districts of need throughout the country. That is no reason not to provide an advertising campaign to cover the whole of the country.

Will the Minister put himself in the place of that 15-year-old girl, too frightened to ask anyone for help, alone, desperate and penniless? Will he please help her and others like her to come in out of the cold?

11.17 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) on their speeches. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting displayed the facts well, and it was perverse of Conservative Members to pick him up for a slip of the tongue when he gave an incorrect figure, which it is relatively easy to do. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), although well intentioned, made many mistakes. If he had read the Duke of Edinburgh's report or the reports of the Conservative-controlled London Boroughs Association and Association of District Councils he would know that some of his arguments were invalid—I put it no stronger than that. I believe that he cares, and I beg him to read those reports and read his speech.

My charge against the Government and most of the Conservative Back Bench Members is that the majority of them do not care, and those who do—I include the Minister for Housing and Planning—are too wedded to, too unable to break away from, the principles of the Government who during the past 12 years, have created the crisis. Consequently, they are still driving the figures up. They are not my arguments—they are based on the Government's own figures. The Government yesterday released figures showing a 30 per cent. increase in the number of homeless.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Sir George Young)


Mr. Soley

Yes they did, or they appeared in that light in the newspapers. Perhaps the Minister should issue a correction.

Sir George Young

As the hon. Gentleman has accused my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) of making a mistake, he should not make one himself. The figure of 30 per cent. was not an increase in the number of homelessness acceptances. It was the increase in the number of those in temporary accommodation. Even in London, the numbers in bed and breakfast fell. The figures published yesterday did not show a 30 per cent. increase in the number of the homeless.

Mr. Soley

I am happy to refine that, and say that the figures revealed a 30 per cent. increase in the number of those in temporary accommodation, but is the Minister suggesting that they are not homeless? If not, is he saying that there has been a decline in other forms of homelessness? He knows that, in his borough of Ealing, the figures for acceptances have dropped by 25 per cent. because the council has taken a very hard line on the interpretation of legislation and is turning people away. Even more important, the number of those on the street is going up.

The money that the Minister has provided has been recycled more times than I can count—although he talks about it as if it were new money—and it will run out in April, but there is still no commitment to replace it.

The figure of 30 per cent. to which I referred was an overestimate compared to the figure that I suggested, which was based on the same information. I rang a sample of local authorities, but, because I prefer not to err on the side of scaremongering, I gave a figure of 20 to 25 per cent. In fact, the Government's figures were 5 per cent. higher than mine, and they got those figures from a much wider survey based on all council returns.

The figures alone are not enough. The hon. Member for Epping Forest must take on board the fact that the case to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyne referred—that of the 15-year-old girl—is all too common. I have said hundreds of times—in the House and outside—that, in 1979, that girl would not have been homeless. The big turnaround came in the mid-1980s. Never since the first world war have we had homeless teenage children begging in the streets.

Mr. Norris


Mr. Soley

Before the hon. Gentleman gets up, let me say that I worked as a probation officer in the King's Cross area, which was one of the most difficult areas for homelessness in the 1970s. Homeless people got off trains at Euston, King's Cross and Paddington and came to that area. At that time, I could have got that girl a bed straight away in a decent place—I am not talking about a mattress on a floor. She would have been eligible for and would have got local authority accommodation.

That has changed precisely because of the figure of which the Government were boasting—the 1.3 million sales of council houses which were not replaced. The right to buy with a duty to replace is a good housing policy, but the right to buy without a duty to replace is a housing disaster. We have lost 2 million homes from the rented sector. [Interruption.] Ministers should argue the figures with the Duke of Edinburgh—I am quoting figures from the Rowntree report.

Mr. Yeo

They cannot bear it.

Mr. Soley

The Minister says that they cannot bear it, but perhaps the Duke of Edinburgh has more feeling. I was using a figure of 1.5 million homes, but his figure is 1.9 million, half of which have gone from the council sector and the other half from the Government's much-loved private rented sector. The hon. Member for Epping Forest should take enough interest to consider the arguments about the decline in the private rented sector, which started before the Rent Acts were invented.

When the Rent Acts were abolished in Northern Ireland in 1957, 25 per cent. of the rented market was private. No party even hinted at reintroducing the Acts, and that sector is now 5 per cent. of the market. There has been a slight increase recently due to the depression in house prices and, to a limited extent, to the 1988 legislation.

When house prices begin to rise again, all the assured shorthold tenancies in properties whose prices have risen will suddenly look unattractive. People who sell will want to sell with vacant possession, and that means asking people to leave. The hon. Member for Epping Forest does not understand that. The argument is about housing finance. As long as we go on subsidising house purchase to make buying and selling so enormously profitable, and to make renting unprofitable for landlords and for tenants, so long will the rented sector continue to decline.

Mr. Norris

There is an argument about whether 2 million homes have disappeared or are still there, occupied, thus contributing to the housing stock. But when the hon. Gentleman referred to the constituent of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), he was, I agree, referring to a new phenomenon of which he has personal experience. That problem is not a function only of Government or their housing policy—it is much more deep-seated and complex than that. It is a function of family breakdown, which takes place over generations and whose consequences the Government will have to tackle. We are only beginning to come to terms with it.

Mr. Soley

Conservative Members desperately want to believe that family breakdown is the cause, but the increase in family breakdowns is much smaller than the dramatic increase in homelessness. By removing 2 million homes from the rented sector at a time when families are becoming smaller, the Government have left young people with nowhere to go. Local authorities that could have taken them before cannot now do so.

As a Social Security Minister, the Prime Minister devastatingly took away from young people the right to income support. That was removed from 16 to 18-year-olds who were not on a Government course or in full-time education. They are the people begging in our streets. Almost overnight, they arrived in our streets. That is a function of Government, not of family breakdown. Families were breaking down when I was a probation officer in King's Cross, but then I could get these kids rent money for private accommodation up front. I would not be able to do that now. They are turned away from River Point and Centre Point—by 7 pm or 8 pm, they are closed or full up.

There are beds in warehouses, but many young people will not use them because they do not want to sleep next to someone who is mentally ill or loused up or alcoholic. It is no good the hon. Member for Epping Forest showing concern if he does not understand this, because it will be empty concern. When he expressed anxiety about people who cannot pay their mortgages, he sounded like the Walrus and the Carpenter—weeping tears as he ate the oysters.

There is an answer to the mortgage problem. The Government should never have used high interest rates alone. For a long time, I have been advocating a mortgage rescue scheme that would allow people to stay on in their properties on a short let tenancy. One in eight mortgage payers are in arrears because the Government have launched a drive towards home ownership so powerful that mobility of labour has suffered. They are screwing up the whole economy, not just housing.

I have often spelt out the long-term answer. We need to invest in housing, to set up a national housing bank, to use all sectors. When we go out into the freezing temperatures tonight, we know that we should be doing something. Capital receipts are important, but they are not enough. Local authorities must be allowed to buy selectively in the private sector. We must relax or remove some of the rules on private sector leasing.

We must change the income support rules for 16 to 18-year-olds and under-25-year-olds. The Government must discontinue their stupid propaganda about empty properties and do something about them. I shall say it again: local authority stock is 2.5 per cent. void; 3 per cent. of housing association stock is empty; 5 or 6 per cent. is empty in the private sector—and 16 per cent. of Government properties are empty.

Today in Swindon, I saw 24 houses in a main street—they were attractive properties—all of which had been empty for 20 years. I correct that. Some of them have been empty for the 20 years since they were built, others have been empty for just a few years. There are 35,000 empty houses, not just those in Swindon. One in five police houses in London are still empty. The Wormwood Scrubs prison houses are still empty after 10 or 12 years—I have lost count.

I challenged the Minister to pick up the telephone and ask the Secretary of State for Defence to say that those houses in Naylor road, Swindon, must now be transferred to the ownership or management of a housing association or the local authority. Families who would otherwise spend Christmas in bed-and-breakfast accommodation would then have a house to live in. That is what I call housing the homeless.

11.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

If the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and his Labour colleagues around the country, who control far more houses than the Government, showed even a tiny percentage of the indignation that he is now attempting to express about empty houses in Swindon in relation to the 5,000 empty houses in Labour-controlled Liverpool, the 2,800 in Labour-controlled Salford, the 2,000 in Labour-controlled Newham, the 5,500 in Labour-controlled Manchester, the 2,000 in Labour-controlled Newcastle, the 1,000 in Labour-controlled Knowsley, and so on——

Mrs. Llin Golding

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Yeo

No. Conservative Members have had only a fraction of the time in this debate.

If the hon. Gentleman had showed even a tiny amount of the indignation that he expresses about empty houses in Swindon in relation to all those in areas under Labour control, there would be scarcely any problems of homelessness in Britain.

I regret to say that this has been a breathtakingly disappointing debate, even by the standards of those initiated by Labour Members, redeemed only by an excellent constructive contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), who made an outstanding speech.

The debate began with a 40-minute speech from the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) which was nothing but a litany of unsupported assertions. In a spirit of friendship across the Floor of the House, I have to say that if the hon. Gentleman really thinks that he advances the cause of housing by denigrating my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, he displays an ignorance that is staggering even by Labour party standards. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Hammersmith in effect repudiate his disgraceful slurs against my hon. Friend.

Mr. Cox

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the record, I make it clear that I cast no smear or slur on the Minister for Housing and Planning, I simply commented on what has been widely publicised. If the Minister is saying that hon. Members are not allowed to do that without running the risk of being accused of slurs, he is abusing parliamentary procedure.

Mr. Yeo

When it comes to abusing parliamentary procedure, I fail to see what point of order the hon. Gentleman was seeking to make. But I am glad that I provoked him into an unqualified withdrawal of his disgraceful unjustified comments. They will have done him no good in the housing movement, which recognises that my hon. Friend stands for a real commitment, typical of this Government, to the needs of homeless people.

I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman did not just stoop to the gutter in terms of smearing my hon. Friend: he used a series of inaccurate figures. To my surprise, many of them were echoed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith.

We have had several exchanges in the House in the past year or so on the number of people sleeping rough. I remember arguments at the beginning of 1991 about the precise number. But we knew, because we were closely in touch with the voluntary organisations which are in the front line, of the efforts that we were making to tackle the problem of rough sleepers. I pay the warmest possible tribute to those organisations, which have made a magnificent contribution. At the beginning of this year, they estimated that the number of rough sleepers was in the order of 1,000. That was borne out by the census that was taken in April, in rather warmer weather.

I am glad, but not surprised, that, after another 10 or 11 months of Government efforts to provide suitable hostels and move-on accommodation for rough sleepers, the voluntary organisations now estimate that the number sleeping rough as of this month is down to about 430.

The hon. Member for Tooting was as wrong about the number of homeless as he was about the number of rough sleepers. He said that there are 40,000 homeless in London. If he had troubled to study figures published a couple of days ago, he would know that was wrong. More importantly, the hon. Gentleman tried to imply that a substantial proportion of homeless are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, whereas the number is only 7,900—which in London represents a decrease of 5 per cent. over the previous quarter. The number in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in London is falling. That is a result of the Government's £300 million special homeless initiative in London and the south-east last year and this year.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, who usually knows better, tried to suggest that there had been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of homeless. Again, the statistics published this week—not by the Department of the Environment, but based on figures provided by local authorities throughout the country—show that the figure is not 30 per cent. but 2 per cent. The hon. Member for Hammersmith can flick through his papers, but I have those statistics before me, and they present a very different picture.

Of course the Government are not satisfied with that, but at least it is clear that our efforts are having an impact and are bringing to an end the unsatisfactory increase in the number of homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation—which is falling in London, and is virtually stable across the rest of the country. The Government are keen to have a constructive debate on housing policy when they can, but it is a pity when it cannot be based on proper acknowledgement of the facts.

Reference was made to the need for affordable housing. I was deeply disappointed that neither the hon. Member for Tooting, in a 40-minute speech, nor the hon. Member for Hammersmith, except in an intervention, found it possible to acknowledge the contribution made by housing associations. That is, by any standards, a profound insult to the housing association movement, which is supported by people of all political persuasions.

Next year, such associations will house more than 20,000 homeless families, but the hon. Member for Tooting chose totally to ignore that in his lengthy speech. He ignored also the growing contribution made by the private sector, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest rightly drew attention. I was glad that, his skilful speech, he teased out of the Opposition an admission that the Government's policies on the private rented sector are right.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith was at pains to point out, in an intervention in my hon. Friend's speech, how much he supports the Government's policy. Of course I welcome that, but it is a belated conversion. If a similar statement of support for the Government's deregulation of the private sector had been made in 1979, there would have been no decline—but there was, because that sector continued to feel under threat from the Opposition.

Even today, private landlords within a mile of this building would say that they are nervous of letting their properties to homeless families because, and only because, of the whiff—albeit faint—of the risk of a Labour Government. If, in 1979, the then Labour Minister responsible for housing had given the assurance offered this evening by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, the decline in private rented accommodation might have been arrested.

As a result of the Housing Act 1988 and the introduction of shorthold tenancies, we are witnessing rapid growth in the number of shorthold and assured tenancies being let by private landlords—so much so, that at last they are taking up the slack created by the number of secure tenancies. That is welcome news, and I look forward to further endorsements from the Opposition.

The Opposition bitterly opposed the right to buy council houses when it was first introduced; now they are in favour of it—or, perhaps, not quite in favour, for they become very cross when I point out what a huge success it has been. The hon. Member for Tooting was not reading his brief properly; not 130,000 but 1.3 million houses and flats have been sold under the arrangement. The Opposition do not like to draw attention to that, but the Government are very proud of having created so many new owner-occupiers.

Opposition Members are also changing their minds about housing action trusts. In a Committee debate, they have completely reversed their previous position. No doubt, in due course they will completely reverse their position on the private rented sector, large-scale voluntary transfers and a raft of other Government initiatives. The only speech that mentioned the enormous opportunities that we now offer tenants for participation in management systems was that of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest. He was the only speaker who thought it worthy of mention.

The Government have doubled the resources available to housing associations, from just over £1 billion last year to more than £2 billion in 1993–94. That amount is topped up by a substantial contribution from the private sector in the form of loans. Under today's construction industry conditions, those resources will buy a much-increased level of output.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for Hammersmith tried to suggest that housing association output had not increased greatly since the 1970s. He will be surprised—I fear that he may even be disappointed—by the figures that we shall announce next week, which specify the output that we expect from housing associations in 1992–93. They are able to combine increased contributions from the taxpayer with an element of private sector funding to take advantage of the exceptionally keen prices now being quoted by the construction industry for new output.

We have two private sector initiatives. We are now operating pilot schemes in five different places, allowing owners of empty property which we wish to be returned to productive use to let that property to homeless families, using a housing association as an intermediary or managing agent. That will give the landlord a degree of confidence about his ability to regain his property when he wants it; it will also give the homeless family a degree of confidence about the quality of their landlord.

We are optimistic about the prospects of the scheme, and I hope that, in due course, the hon. Member for Hammersmith will be able to bring himself to give it an unqualified endorsement. It is difficult to see how even the Labour party, with all its promises to the trade unions and others, can find any possible ground for objection to such a scheme.

Our other private sector initiative involves flats over shops. We believe that there are nearly 100,000 empty flats over shops, and we have therefore embarked on a three-year campaign to try to change attitudes in the commercial sector. We have made £25 million available to local authorities for schemes involving housing associations and private owners; we believe that they have considerable potential in regard to dealing with homelessness.

Even Roof magazine—not a magazine normally associated with the Tory party—has acknowledged that the Government's £96 million three-year initiative to deal with rough sleeping is the most determined and comprehensive programme ever introduced to tackle the problem. It is making substantial progress in reducing the number of people sleeping rough in London, and we are optimistic about its continued progress. More places are being made available all the time: last night, a 25-bed hostel was opened in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tooting, to be run by the English Churches Housing Group.

Mrs. Golding

Places are closing.

Mr. Yeo

In view of the continuing cold weather, we have asked Single Homeless in London to see whether other emergency hostels can be opened at short notice. Moreover, despite what the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) has said from a sedentary position, there is no question of places closing.

Since the rough sleepers initiative began, 900 places have been made available in houses and flats, 400 of which are permanent, and 700 more places have been made available in hostels and shelters. There is an important distinction between the shelter to which the hon. Member for Tooting referred and the rather higher quality provision in hostels and in permanent accommodation. Almost 200 places, in addition to those in shelters which I have mentioned, have opened this month, and we expect a further 120 places in winter shelters to open very shortly. All that is on top of the emergency accommodation to which I have just referred and about which we are talking to Single Homeless in London.

The hon. Member for Tooting spoke about mortgage repossessions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest pointed out, 39 mortgage payers out of 40 are not in arrears with their mortgages, and that is after a period of unprecedented expansion of owner-occupation. There have been 7 million first-time buyers since 1979. Even after a period when interest rates were higher than we would have liked, 39 mortgage payers are still up to date. That is the measure of the success story of the Government's expansion of owner-occupation.

There are other success stories. We have a range of initiatives which are designed to promote owner-occupation and to widen choice for tenants. All we have from the Opposition is unsupported assertions, uncosted commitments and empty rhetoric. Their policy is confined to giving more money to local authorities—the one group who have proved unable to discharge an adequate housing policy.