§ Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)
I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of homelessness at this stage in this series of today's debates. [Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. I want to hear the hon. Member. Right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber should do so quickly and quietly.
§ Mr. Raynsford
It is right that Parliament should debate homelessness before it adjourns for the summer recess. The extent of homelessness in Britain is a terrible scar on the face of society and a savage indictment of our failure to provide adequately for the housing needs of all our people.
Official figures show that the number of homeless households accepted by local authorities in England has trebled over the past 15 years—from 50,000 to 150,000. Homelessness has continued to increase relentlessly throughout the lifetime of this Government and, sadly, all the signs suggest that it will continue to do so until present Government policies are reversed.
The figures are only the tip of the iceberg, because they exclude all those who apply to local authorities but are refused help—usually because the council does not accept that they are homeless or decides that they have themselves contributed to their misfortune. The statistics exclude also those who have never applied to a local authority—usually because they are not eligible for housing even if they are homeless, including most single and childless homeless people.
It is a sobering comment on the official statistics that they do not include the majority of those who sleep rough on the streets at night. Because they are single and childless, they are unlikely to qualify for local authority help and so have not bothered to apply. Such figures as are available generally come from surveys made by voluntary organisations. Last year, a Salvation Army survey estimated that there were around 75,000 homeless single and childless people in London, including 2,000 literally on the streets—rough sleepers, 18,000 in hostels, 25,000 in cheap lodgings and bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and 30,000 in squats.
Other surveys confirm that homelessness is by no means confined to London and other big cities—even though numerically its incidence is much higher there. In countless rural communities throughout Britain, the problem is manifested as the sons and daughters of long-standing residents discover that they cannot afford or obtain housing in the area, and are forced to leave and to move elsewhere. Many end up in the big cities—some of them homeless and on the streets, and at risk.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
My hon. Friend makes the point that homelessness is no longer a problem associated only with London and other big cities. Changes in benefits have contributed to homelessness becoming a national problem. That is the tragic and disgraceful result of 13 wasted years of Tory rule.
§ Mr. Raynsford
My hon. Friend highlights a point that I hope to raise later. I wholly concur with his view that wider economic and benefits policies also contribute to homelessness nationally.
530 The fundamental reason for homelessness increasing so alarmingly given by anyone who has seriously studied the problem over the past 30 years is the shortage of suitable affordable housing in places where it is needed—and particularly the shortage of rented accommodation. It is hardly surprising that more and more people are at risk of homelessness, when the past years have seen the biggest loss in rented housing in Britain's history.
The combination of the long-term continuing decline of private renting and the recent. dramatic decline in the supply of council accommodation has proved a lethal cocktail. More than 2 million rented homes have been lost from those two sectors.
The one and only growth area in rented housing is the welcome increase in housing association lettings—but it is nowhere near adequate to offset the losses. The appalling human consequences of that loss, which was deliberately fuelled by the Government's attack on local authorities, have been extensively documented over the past 10 years —most recently in the Audit Commission's devastating critique of the inadequacy of Government housing policy. The Government, however, turn a deaf ear to all the calls by experts holding widely diverse political and apolitical views. The most recent came in a new report from Shelter, which argues the need for between 30,000 and 90,000 extra homes a year over the next decade.
Even the Audit Commission's plea that the Government should publish projections of the need for social housing—the obvious starting point if policies are to be devised to respond to those needs—has so far met with no response. All we hear is the oft-repeated statement—I dare say we shall hear it again tonight—that the Government hope that housing associations will achieve a programme of 50,000 homes a year over the next three years. That will be welcome if it is achieved, but, as the commission proves, even if it is and if all possible empty properties in the public sector are brought into use, there will still be a critical shortfall, and the crisis will inevitably worsen.
A shortage of housing is not the only factor that contributes to homelessness. Personal, social, and economic factors are also at work. No one with any experience of working with and on behalf of homeless people denies that sometimes people contribute to their own misfortune. That is not a reason for turning away from their needs. In his classic 1970 study on homelessness in London, Professor John Greve commented:There are chronically inadequate families among the homeless and there are families whose only misfortune is the loss of a home. The former need support: both need a home. Between these extremes is a large number of families who have a variety of disadvantages in addition to the lack of a home. In some ways their difficulties might be resolved or reduced to manageable proportions by adequate housing.Sadly, those wise words have not prompted the response that they deserve.
Among the other factors at work is the evolution of policies towards institutional care. Most right hon. and hon. Members support the concept behind care in the community, but it is impossible to do other than express alarm at the implications of numbers of vulnerable people being pitched out of institutional care without making a success of the care in the community policy. The small supportive hostels and group homes which provide the right environment for the discharged mentally ill or recovering alcoholics are two of the most obvious examples of which there are many others. How sad it is, 531 therefore, to have to report that, when asked last month whether it could estimate the housing costs arising from the community care plans and the implementation of the Children Act 1989 for each of the main groups of people in need, the Department of Health had to reply that it had no such estimates available.
It is only nine months before that policy comes into effect next April. What a comment it is on the lack of preparation for the implementation of a major plank of Government policy when the lead Department cannot provide estimates of the likely financial implications of providing the new smaller supportive accommodation that is required to ensure the success of the care in the community policy. I fear that the outcome will be more distressed and vulnerable people at risk of homelessness or actually on the streets.
When considering the wider economic factors, there is also the crisis of repossessions, of which there were 75,000 last year. According to evidence published by Roof magazine and, most recently, by the Rowntree Trust, the number is likely to continue at a relatively high level for at least two years because of the huge overhang of people in debt. Some 275.000 people are more than six months behind with their payments.
Although there has been a short-term fall in the number of repossessions in the first months of this year, the number of people in long-term debt continues to rise. The consequence is bound to feed through in due course into a further high incidence of abandonments and reposses-sions as borrowers decide that there is no way out, that they cannot cope, that there is no way in which they can rescue their position and that it is better to hand in the keys, or as the lenders decide that they can no longer afford to allow the debt to continue to escalate.
I should be surprised if significantly more than half those 275,000 households more than six months in arrears at the moment manage to get through the next two years without losing their homes, either by handing in the keys or through repossession. That implies a home loss of around 70,000 a year over the next two years as a result of mortgage problems.
The Government's response to that crisis, as to so many other aspects of the housing and homelessness crisis, has been to resort to cheap palliatives to try to cover up the worst public signs of the problem, while doing nothing to attack the underlying causes. Hence the abortive mortgage rescue package, which appears to have attracted only 12 takers to date. It depended on the financial institutions to bail out the Government simply because the Government were not prepared to provide the subsidy necessary to ensure a really effective mortgage rescue scheme.
Similarly, the Government's rough sleepers initiative was designed to sweep the streets of London, but significantly not anywhere else in the country, in advance of the general election. That initiative is now coming to an end, and the signs are that there is no commitment for on-going finance to maintain it in the years ahead.
There is escalating dependency on temporary accom-modation for homeless people, with 62,000 households, the highest number ever recorded, now living in temporary accommodation as at the end of March this year—the latest date for which figures are available. One third of those households are in expensive and unsuitable bed-and-breakfast hotels. That problem is left unresolved because of a shortage of adequate move-on accommoda-tion. As the supply of permanent homes dries up and more 532 and more people are waiting longer in bed and breakfast and other forms of temporary housing, much of which is not just squalid and unsatisfactory but actually more expensive than permanent homes, we must ask why the Government are dithering.
Looking at all those trends—the shortfall of affordable housing, the demand for new homes, the need for care in the community provision, the continuing loss of repossessed homes from the owner-occupier sector, the backlog of people in temporary accommodation—any informed observer can only conclude that the number of homeless people in Britain will continue to rise alarmingly over the next year or two. If the problem is compounded. as some commentators have feared, by further cuts in social security benefits, notably housing benefit and sbenefits for the young unemployed, the escalating crisis will become an unstoppable avalanche, the like of which we have never seen even in the grim history of the past 13 years.
The Government have no policy to deal with the problem. All that Ministers can offer is temporary palliatives which are short-term and limited in their impact. like sticking plaster on gaping wounds. Ministers may speak soothing words while stepping over the homeless on their way to the opera. but they have failed to reverse, or even halt, the escalating crisis. In doing so. they have betrayed a whole generation whose formative experiences too often comprise the seedy lodging house. the squat or the cardboard box on the street.
It is time for a fresh start. It is time for Ministers to recognise that their current policies are leading nowhere but towards ever more of the same human misery of which we have seen far too much in the past 13 years. We urgently need new initiatives which grill attack the causes of homelessness in Britain today, not just tinker with the symptoms
We urgently need an expanded housing programme, using all available resources, including the tragically wasted local authority capital receipts, which would, if released, generate desperately needed move-on accommodation to take some people from temporary accommodation. The rough sleepers initiative should not be discontinued or watered down by the Treasury, as appears likely. It should he expanded to cover areas outside London where there are people sleeping on the streets. It should be expanded also to ensure that there is within London adequate provision of move-on accom-modation as well as the much needed emergency housing into which people on the streets can move first of all.
The problem of mortgage default and repossessions should be attacked seriously with a combination of a mortgage benefit scheme, a properly funded mortgage rescue package and tough new restrictions on financial institutions to prevent them repossessing unless they can demonstrate that all available alternative options have been explored.
§ Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)
The hon. Gentleman has described a number of areas in which we need a large volume increase in housing available for rent and for purchase. That will mean either a big expansion in public spending, as the hon. Gentleman obviously recommends, or, as Conservative Members would prefer. a big expansion in the amount of private sector finance attracted to those types of housing. Is not the problem the fact that, when we go for big expansion, we fail to deliver 533 the quality? Does he not agree that the citizens charter has a big role to play in ensuring that we achieve the quality of housing—
§ Mr. Raynsford
The hon. Gentleman made one good point when he said that a rapid expansion of housing, which has occurred in the past, without concern for quality would be a mistake. However, he failed to make the point that a rapid contraction of provision has resulted in people on the streets and people living in far worse conditions. The bed-and-breakfast hotel is far worse than the worst jerry-built council housing of the 1960s.
I accept that we need the maximum use of all available resources: I made that point. We must attract more private investment by various routes into the provision of housing. We need to encourage housing association programmes, but we also need council programmes to be restored to a reasonable level to provide a mixture of housing options, choice for the customers and an adequate supply. Everyone who examines the issue seriously—I offer the Audit Commission as evidence of that—must reach that conclusion. Housing associations alone cannot deliver enough homes.
In addition to the various items that I have recommended so far, we must also consider benefit entitlement. Benefit entitlement should be restored for 16 and 17-year-olds, and the injustices done to the under-25s should be reversed. The concept of the boarders' premium, advocated very sagely in another place earlier this week, should be explored urgently to assist particularly young single people to allow them to survive without recourse to rough sleeping or squats.
There should also be a co-ordinated programme to ensure that unsuitable and expensive temporary accommodation is discontinued as soon as possible. That should include targets to reduce the number of homeless people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation by 50 per cent. in 12 months and by 75 per cent. within two years. A limited amount of targeted initial finance, which would be needed to achieve that, would of course in turn be more than offset by the long-term savings of getting people out of bed and breakfast into permanent housing, which all the studies show is cheaper for the public purse than bed and breakfast.
When the Secretary of State for Health outlined her White Paper yesterday and announced the new health targets, she failed to mention homelessness until prompted from the Labour Benches. She and her Government colleagues, as well as Conservative Back Benchers, must be aware of the extent to which homelessness and bad housing damage the lives, health and prospects of thousands of our fellow citizens.
It is time for those connections to be recognised. It is time for the Department of the Environment to recognise the need to set targets to tackle the needs of the homeless. I have suggested some targets tonight; hon. Members may be able to suggest others. Above all, it is important for the 534 Government to recognise the alarming crisis. The matter is set to deteriorate further unless urgent remedial action is taken. The spectre of homelessness will cast an ever longer and darker shadow over our society unless those responsible wake up and accept the need for new policies and new energy to tackle and overcome that crisis.
§ Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)
I warmly welcome the opportunity to discuss homelessness. I applied for a debate on it, and although I was unsuccessful in securing it, I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) on his great success and on his speech. The hon. Gentleman returns to the House with quite a reputation as a housing expert. In his moderate speech, he showed that he was prepared to embrace a wide range of options. Unfortunately, he made the same parrot cry that we hear time after time from the Opposition—that the Government should allow local authorities to spend more money building council houses. The hon. Gentleman failed to tackle two of the fundamental problems of homelessness: first, the appalling record of local authorities in the provision of public housing and, secondly, the difficulties that have been experienced by the private rented sector.
Last year, I visited a day centre for homeless people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation just down the road in Westminster. Many of them were mothers with young children. Before I arrived, I expected that they would trot out the standard line about homelessness and attack the Government and their policies. However, I should have known better, because they were ordinary people living in the real world. Almost without exception. they had two common complaints. First, they complained about the way in which local councils treated them as homeless people. They were treated like dirt on the floor. That upset me greatly. Secondly, they would say, "I know of an empty council house just down the road from where I am living right now. Why can't I go there?" I would say. "Yes, indeed, why can't you go there? That is a very good question."
The hon. Member for Greenwich and his colleagues have often suggested that local authorities are the answer to the problems of homelessness. Local authorities are part of the problem. Because of the sheer incompetence of the way in which that housing is managed. the number of council houses that are allowed to lie empty, councils' refusal to co-operate with the private sector, and the political manipulation which drives many of our council housing policies, local authorities are one of the prime causes of today's housing difficulties.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
It is important to have some facts. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on Government figures which show that local authorities have an average void rate of 2.5 per cent., housing associations 3.1 per cent., the private sector 5.9 per cent. and his own Government no less than 16.1 per cent.? As local authorities have the best record of all put together, why does the hon. Gentleman not tell us about that?
§ Mr. Riddick
We hear that comment time after time. The reason why a significant number of Government houses are empty is that they are Ministry of Defence houses. Many of those service people are posted overseas. The hon. Gentleman must accept that. He knows that it is 535 true. Does the hon. Gentleman justify the fact that Liverpool has nearly 6,000 council houses, or 9 per cent. of its housing stock, lying vacant? Does he agree that that is an absolute disgrace? It is shocking that almost 100,000 council houses are standing empty, and it is shameful that local authorities have rent arrears of £430 million. Opposition Members say that local authorities should be allowed to build more houses and manage more of this country's housing stock. I just do not buy that.
I am sorry to say that such problems are not confined to the empires of lunacy based in Liverpool, Manchester or some London boroughs. I have some of those problems in my own back yard. My local council, Kirklees, which is Labour-controlled, has almost 1,000 council houses standing empty. That makes Kirklees council the 23rd worst-performing local housing authority out of 333 authorities. Kirklees also has rent arrears of almost £4 million, which makes it the 33rd worst-performing authority in respect of rent arrears.
I recently learned that, a few years ago, the local private landlords association in Huddersfield raised £25 million of venture capital for low-cost housing in the area. Private landlords offered to buy derelict houses from the council and provide houses for low-income families, but the council refused to co-operate.
For the past four years, investment in housing associations in Kirklees has been extremely low, not because the money for such investment has not been available, but because Kirklees council has been refusing to co-operate with housing associations on purely ideological grounds. The Labour-controlled council does not approve of housing associations. I wonder what the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has to say about that.
My right hon. Friends might know that I raised that issue on the Floor of the House last year. I am pleased to say that, as a result of my exposure of that shocking behaviour by Kirk lees council, that absurd policy has been reversed. The result has been dramatic. Housing association investment in Kirklees for the financial year 1992–93 will rise by almost £6 million to £18 million, which is a massive increase of 46 per cent. The number of homes provided by housing associations is to increase from 275 last year to 409 this year, as a direct result of that increased investment by housing associations and the change of policy by Kirklees council. Housing associations now feel able and willing to invest in our area, but no thanks to Kirklees council. Week after week, local Labour councillors bleat about homelessness in Kirklees and say that it is because the Government refuse to provide enough money for the council, yet the council's own dogma and pigheadedness have helped to bring about the problem.
Many private landlords in Huddersfield refuse to take tenants who are in receipt of housing benefit, not because they have anything against such people but because it takes landlords between three and six months to recoup housing benefit from the local authority. That is just not good enough. I plead with my hon. Friend the Minister not to allow councils to build any more houses.
§ Mr. Riddick
Councils are allowed to build a small number, as we know. Because of their record, they should not be allowed to build any more houses.
536 The Government need to be more radical and move the provision of public rented accommodation out of the hands of local authorities. That could be done by increasing the role of housing associations and contracting out the provision of housing stock to private companies. It might be necessary for local authorities to have a place in co-ordinating the placing of homeless and needy people in appropriate accommodation, but even that is dubious as long as Labour councillors regard public housing as something to be manipulated for their own political ends.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I accept that, for political reasons, the hon. Gentleman may not want to listen to what Opposition Members say, but has he read the Audit Commission's report? Does he accept its view that, even if the Government achieved their full housing association programme and even if local authorities brought all empty properties back into use, there would still he a shortfall and there is a need for a continuing local authority contribution?
§ Mr. Riddick
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point because it moves nicely on to my next point, about the private rented sector. That sector needs to be stimulated.
It is absolute nonsense for anyone to suggest that the Government have done nothing to increase housing provision. Today, there are slightly fewer than 23 million homes; back in 1979, there were slightly fewer than 21 million—an increase of 2 million. That is no mean figure. We should not forget that. One sad and telling fact is that, in the same period, the private rented sector has continued to decline as a direct result of rent controls and rent restrictions. Indeed, as a result of the Rent Act 1974, which extended security of tenure and so-called fair rents to furnished lettings, 400,000 private dwellings ceased to be available between 1974 and 1979. That was Labour's contribution to homelessness.
I am pleased to say that the Labour policy appears to have been arrested by the Government's new policy. At the turn of the century, 90 per cent. of housing was accounted for by the private rented sector. Today, that figure is 8 per cent. In Germany the figure is 45 per cent. and in countries such as Sweden, Switzerland and France, 23 per cent. There is clearly scope to increase the private rented sector in Britain.
There are hundreds of thousands of empty privately owned rooms, fiats and houses. Many are not let because people still believe that they will have difficulty removing the tenants if they wish to do so. The way to improve the conditions in which private tenants live and to keep rents down is not to apply controls which act as disincentives to let but to increase the supply. That is why I welcome all the steps taken by the Government to expand the private rented sector.
Clearly, many people are still not aware of the more free and open situation. They are potential landlords. Their empty properties and rooms are potential homes. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to launch a crusade to turn potential landlords into real landlords and potential homes into real homes. That is the challenge. Let us stimulate the private rented sector. Let us fill those empty council houses. Let us build co-operation between local authorities and the private sector. Let us get politics out of local authority housing.
537 Let us enable housing associations to build more homes. In that way, we could provide for the men sleeping rough in London and for the families in London and, indeed, in my constituency. living in cramped bed-andbreakfast accommodation. We could provide what they want—somewhere warm and comfortable to live, somewhere that they can call home.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
I support many of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). He gave evidence of the increase in homelessness; it is increasing for a variety of reasons.
I looked up some of the figures for my local authority to see what had happened in the past year. I saw an increase of more than 40 per cent. in the number of people who need to be rehoused because they have been evicted by private landlords, whom we have just been told would provide the answer. There was an increase of 157 per cent. in mortgage defaults. Most striking of all, there was an increase over two years of 400 per cent. in the number of single people with a mental illness who had to be rehoused because they had been thrown out of institutions.
Of course, there is a great deal that the statistics do not reveal. Statistics tend to show only the people who are rehoused as priority cases. They do not include all the people who are actually or potentially homeless. Especially, they do not show how many young and single people are homeless. As has already been said, the figures are not available.
Various surveys show that in London at least 100.000 young people live in unsatisfactory accommodation such as squats and bedsits, sleep rough or are homeless at home —living with friends or relatives in precarious circumstances where they cannot expect to stay permanently.
Most of us welcome some of the Government's initiatives such as the sleeping rough initiative and so on. However, they are not enough, they are not long term or permanent and they are not countrywide. Other aspects of Government policy do nothing to address the problems of young single people. People receive less benefit if they are under 25. If they go to a private landlord, the landlord does not reduce the rent because the person is under 25. The benefit is cut, but the rent is not.
There is a further impact on single homeless people. Councils often have to house families in accommodation that could be used for single people. I know what happens in my area. The pressure on housing caused by coping with homelessness puts a great strain on the local authority's housing policy. Homeless families end up going into one-bedroom accommodation because that is all that is available. At first, they are grateful. It is preferable to being on the street or in bed and breakfast. But they quickly realise that they are trapped in accommodation where they will be overcrowded. They are added to the housing transfer list the moment that they arc rehoused. For anyone else seeking a transfer, there is virtually no transfer activity.
People in temporary, bed-and-breakfast accommoda-tion suffer perhaps the most of all. They do not know when they might be moved to other temporary accommodation. In many boroughs no support services arc provided. Such 538 families suffer a complete lack of stability and the consequences for the family and the children's education are terrible.
In newspaper reports today we see another aspect of the impact on people in temporary accommodation. In today's The Guardian there is a report on people who apply to the social fund for grants and loans. The research commissioned by the Department of Social Security shows that the decisions taken on whether to award a grant or loan are completely nonsensical. The researchers said that the only pattern that they could find in the decisions was similar to that which would obtain if awards and refusals occurred completely at random. One is just as likely to be refused a grant or loan as to be awarded one. One's housing conditions are irrelevant. About three quarters of the people who received loans found that the money taken out of their income support made it impossible for them to live.
The most crucial requirement is investment. The private rented sector has been in decline since the first world war —for 80 years.
§ Mr. Gerrard
The hon. Gentleman asks why. The Government have been in power for 13 years and the private rented sector has continued to decline throughout that period because nothing that the Government can do will reinvigorate it. A measure of—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. It is difficult to hear the hon. Member because of seated interventions.
§ Mr. Gerrard
A measure of what has happened in investment in public housing is that the number of starts by local authorities in London in 1990 was 2 per cent. of the number in 1978. The lack of investment seems to be recognised by everyone except the Government.
In 1990, the then Conservative chair of the London Boroughs Association said:A substantial increase in the financing of social housing provision and the release of more council house sales proceeds is urgently required in order to prevent a crisis becoming a catastrophe".None of that has been done.
Last year there was a national inquiry into British housing in which the Duke of Edinburgh was involved. On the renewal of housing, it said:So little housing has been demolished that every new home built today in Britain will have to last 2,700 years if present trends of repair and demolition continue."—[Interruption.] That is not my figure; it comes from the national inquiry. The Audit Commission report said that, depending on the range of projections for the increase in the number of households during the next 10 years—that number is increasing—social housing provision, and not council housing, needs to he in the region of 60,000 to 90,000 per year. In 1990 it was 28,000. Under current plans, whatever happens, if the Government meet every target for housing associations, they will not make up that shortfall.
The Audit Commission clearly said that expenditure was required and that even if local authorities did nothing but maintain existing stock and support the private sector, there would be a shortfall of £1 billion in 1993–94, on present plans. The commission also said that, whatever 539 local authorities did about efficiency, there would still be a large gap between supply and need—not supply and demand.
I was first involved with housing in 1974, when I became the chairman of a London borough housing committee, in Waltham Forest. I inherited a mess. There were many empty properties, about 200 to 300 were squatted and there were long waiting lists. Now it seems like the beginning of the homelessness crisis, although it was bad enough then. The next four or five years were the only period that I can recall from my involvement in housing when it felt like real progress was being made. We did not achieve perfection, or cure all the problems, but there was progress, because there was real investment. At the end of four or five years of investment in that authority there was virtually no squatting, empty properties were being used, or given to housing associations, and people were being rehoused from the waiting list.
The reasons for the improvement were that we had done something about efficiency in management. There is no excuse for inefficiency and for properties standing empty when they could be used. We also used housing associations. I believe, as do many of my hon. Friends, that we should use housing associations, and we have no problem with that. However, councils were also building houses and buying properties on the open market and were able to make up some of the gaps in their provision.
The cuts started in 1978, and it is true to say that they began under a Labour Government. The famous speech by Anthony Crosland—when he said that the party was over in local government—signalled the beginning of cuts in investment in housing and it has never recovered. Until we make simple changes in policies and put real money into public and social housing, homelessness will increase.
§ 8.3 pm
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reflect on the cause of homelessness, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I listened with interest to the comments of the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). In passionate tones, he said that homelessness has caused a savage scare in our society and he feared that it would treble in 15 years.
Putting aside the natural human agony involved, I fear that the hon. Member was suggesting that homelessness was somehow the Government's fault. We must try to put things in perspective. Society has changed enormously. there are now more divorces than ever before, and each time that parents or a couple break up, the husband or wife must move into another home, which creates greater pressures. One family in three breaks up, so there are enormous pressures on local authorities and society to provide for homelessness. Therefore, when we consider homelessness, there is no point in saying that the Government should have done this, that or the other. It is more a question of what we are doing.
There has also been speculation about the number of people who have suffered from mortgage repossessions. I know that that is an agony and I have just had to deal with one such case in Sutton. The hon. Member for Greenwich mentioned that 70,000 families would come into that category, but my research shows that the overall figure makes up about 12 per cent. of people who are made homeless. A sense of proportion is relevant, although it is a tragedy for the families concerned.
540 The hon. Member for Greenwich gave the impression that the rough sleepers initiative was a poor effort by the Government. barely worthy of the enormous funds put into it. You spoke as if they were going to cast it aside, but that is not the case. The Government have committed £96 million to the rough sleepers initiative, to be spent over three years. You are absolutely right—the initiative is largely focused in London, because that is where all the assessors agree that there is the most acute need. However, more money has now been allocated, giving about £300 million to the south-east to renovate properties for the people who most need them.
It has been suggested that 16 and 17-year-olds are not on income support and are therefore tossed out on the streets. Again, we should have a sense of proportion. All 16 and 17-year-olds living at home have the option of going on a youth training scheme, of further education or of getting a job. We accept that some fall through the net, but there is no question of them being thrown into the gutter. Income support is made available for the disabled, for lone parents, for those estranged from their parents and for those who have left care and are living away from home.
§ Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Last week there was a meeting of the all-party group on homelessness in this place to consider the precise issue that the hon. Lady is talking about—single homeless 16 to 18-year-olds. Five young people were present. One had had to leave home because the domestic situation was unbearable and untenable, and three had been in care all their lives until now. Each and every one of them said that they had nowhere to go but the street. They were sleeping on pavements or in doorways. The severe hardship payments which the Government usually produce to explain that those young people are not without any financial support —[Interruption.] It is no use winding your hand in that fashion, hon. Gentlemen. Those young people are sleeping on our streets now. You may find it intensely amusing, but they do not.
If young people present themselves at offices where severe hardship payments are made, they only get the money in their hands if they are assisted by a voluntary worker. They do not know how the system works and no one within the system is helping them.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. I hesitate to interrupt new Members, as I do not want to throw them during their speeches, but it is an appropriate opportunity to remind them that they must not use the word "you" unless addressing the Chair, and that interventions are supposed to be short.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms. Jackson) for her comments, although from my experience there is no reason or excuse for young people to be in the circumstances she described. I should like to meet those young people and to help them, because there is no reason for them to be in such difficulties.
It is interesting to note that the number of people sleeping rough has dropped dramatically. Voluntary organisations in central London estimate that, since the rough sleepers initiative was introduced in January, the 541 number of those sleeping on the street has dropped from 1,000 to about 400. It is expected that that number will fall to nil within a few months.
Another important factor is that, no matter how hard one tries to provide accommodation for those sleeping rough. they do not all want to take it up. When a journalist or someone else conducts an investigation down the Strand and taps people on the shoulder to ask why they have not taken up the accommodation provided, they answer that they do not like the discipline, there is not enough television and entertainment or that they do not like this or that. Some people do not want to be taken care of. Although we have a responsibility to make accommodation available, it is important to point out that people do not always want to take up that option.
I have particular concern, which I raised briefly a few weeks ago, about homeless people who are put into bed-and-breakfast hostels. Last year, I spent a week in a hostel for the homeless in Haringey as part of a television documentarry on the experiences of people in hostels. It was a salutary experience for me. I was put into a hostel despite the fact that Haringey has thousands of empty housing units. For some reason, it seems incapable of matching the homeless to its void properties. The hostel in which I stayed was clean and adequate. My bedroom was perfectly okay, although it just had one single bulb by which it was difficult to read.
During that week, however, I met other homeless people in other hostels, whose conditions were quite different. The communal kitchen was filthy, tiles were coming off the walls. the cookers had never been properly cleaned, the floors were ripped, the bathrooms did not properly function and the lavatory seats were often Missing. The condition of the bedrooms was also intolerable. with broken furniture, cockroaches and so forth.
If it was possible to put me into an adequate. clean hostel, why has Haringey not ensured that all its other hostels are of the same standard? I suspect a lack of control. We should have independent inspectors to ensure that everyone has a decent. clean bed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider setting up an independent inspectorate of those hostels. Certain standards should be insisted upon, and hostels should be subject to a code of practice. People may be homeless. but they are entitled to be treated as dignified human beings. That was not the case for the people I saw suffering in some hostels in north London.
It is also interesting to note how different local authorities handle homeless people. Haringey chucks its homeless into hostels. That may be an easy option. but it is not practical. Although Haringey tries to keep families together in the same building. they arc sometimes separated. It is extraordinary to consider that the cost of putting a family of four into a hostel is about £400 a week. That money could be far more practicalln spent on placing those families in private rented property.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
They certainly can.
My local authority, Sutton and Cheam, has gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that people can live in dignity and at a lower cost to the local authority. That authority has 542 just 19 couples living in bed-and-breakfast hostels, while it has placed 110 families in private rented property, which it has rented for a set lease from the landlords. It has another 147 families living in temporary accommodation in empty council stock, and about 50 families living in housing association property.
Unfortunately. some local authorities display a certain laxity and lack of care about the condition of homeless families. I congratulate my local authority on putting so much effort into caring for the homeless—it is supported in that by the Conservative Government—and for ensuring that families are housed in flats rather than bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
We should make the arrangements governing rented accommodation more flexible, so that better use can be made of it. Part of the problem is that, in the past, landlords were afraid that they would be unable to get tenants out. It is important to remember that there are now 600,000 empty housing units—often flats above shops. I welcome the fact that the Government are now providing a grant to bring those flats back into the rented sector. I also welcome the fact that the Government are making it easier for young homeless people to rent a single room from householders. The householder can now let out a room, tax-free, for £65 a week. Such a system benefits both parties.
Sometimes, a family or a single person who may want to rent a flat cannot afford to pay the deposit in the first place. I was interested to learn that Colchester council helps those who have become homeless either through repossession or who have been discharged from the Army, who have the prospect of a real income but who cannot put the money up front for a deposit. That council has found that it is worth its while to pay the deposit in advance, and it is rare for people to default on their payments. The Government should consider such a scheme.
Thurrock council operates a scheme for those on income support. Sometimes there is a delay before someone receives housing benefit, and that means that that person is often refused rented property because the landlord is concerned about the delay in getting his money. The council has come up with a damage-limitation scheme, which guarantees the money to the landlord right away. It also operates a system for people who agree to have their housing benefit paid directly to the landlord.
I also agree with the call for greater flexibility in the housing market. Concern has already been expressed about the constraints on housing association tenants, who do not currently have the right to buy their homes from those associations.I would welcome a re-examination of that arrangement so that such purchases are possible in the future. That would make a tremendous difference to the housing market.
The important thing is to keep people moving and to get them into homes. Above all, we must ensure that people continue to live in the dignity that they deserve.
§ Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)
I am not sure how to follow that rich mixture of prosperous, suburban, middle-class bigotry, fantasy and insensitivity, so I shall get on with the points that I had intended to make, for time is pressing and many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.
543 It is particularly appropriate that we should be holding this debate in national housing week, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) on the good fortune and persistence which has led to our considering the whole issue.
To native Londoners, homelessness is not just an indication of the decline of this once grand city. Perhaps the finest metaphor for the London of the 1990s is the image of young people sleeping in cardboard boxes in the west end and along some of London's major thoroughfares.
An elderly resident of Sydenham, in my constituency, told me recently, as she recalled life during the war, that the situation was never like it is today. "Why is it like this now?" she asked. The Government have never adequately answered that question.
Homelessness can be defined in a number of ways. We can count the number of people who literally do not have a roof over their heads, but if we include in the definition of homelessness those who are in need of a decent home —of somewhere adequately to meet the needs of themselves and their families—the numbers rocket alarmingly. I shall not this evening trade figures, because my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich did that more than adequately. Nor shall I attempt a detailed analysis of the position. I shall concentrate on one theme— the inadequacy of Conservative policy for the homeless.
The winter weather initiative was part of the rough sleepers initiative. It was a totally inadequate response to a problem that had grown to epidemic proportions. If more care had been taken earlier, the scheme would not have been necessary. The fact that it was necessary was a condemnation of the inactivity of the Conservatives over the years.
I shall tonight draw attention to one scheme—I call it a project—in Lawrie Park road in Sydenham, in my constituency. It is not just a hostel. I call it a project because that is what it has become. It was set up with winter weather initiative money, but it has done far more than simply provide people with a place to keep them off the streets. The project has expanded into counselling and giving advice, and Conservative Members will be interested to hear that it is located in a leafy street close to the boundary with Bromley. A great advantage of that is that it is a long way from the west end and the temptations and influences—in particular for the youngsters for whom the hostel was created—there. It is also a long way from the royal opera house, so Conservative Members are not at risk of tripping over them.
§ Mr. Dowd
It is a damn shame that Government insensitivity is forcing the scheme to close, throwing the youngsters back on to the streets. Perhaps it is suffering that fate because it is in a desirable location. I suspect that if it were located in a draughty church hall and was open for just a few months, with people being taken in to get them out of the weather, it might be treated with more sensitivity.
The project of which I speak was a purpose-built hostel constructed by the NatWest bank for its management trainees while in London, so the standard of accommoda-tion is not just adequate but exemplary for most of the young people who are there. It is designed for youngsters aged 16 to 25, the most vulnerable group among the 544 homeless in London. There is an equal number of young men and young women, and in terms of those most at risk, young women on the streets of London must be at the top of the list.
There are 40 places there, with a capacity for 80. It has never been fully funded to enable it to be used to its full capacity, so the scope for improvement is enormous. Of the 250 young people who have been through the project since 1991, nearly 50 have gone on to obtain permanent or semi-permanent accommodation. In other words, they have found homes and are now permanently removed from the streets of London and have been given a chance to make something of their lives.
The project was funded until the end of March, when the winter weather initiative money ran out. Surprise, surprise—more money was found to enable it to be run until the end of May. I leave hon. Members to conjecture what happened between the end of March and the end of May. Department of the Environment funding ceased, and unless arrangements could be made to enable the project to continue, 40 young people would have been thrown back on to the streets of London.
People need homes in all weathers, not just between December and March. They need permanent, decent homes just as much as we all need them, and Conservative Members have acknowledged that. We approached the Minister informally on a couple of occasions to see whether anything could be done to help the project, but the answer was negative. That is why I have felt compelled to raise the matter this evening, because if the project closes, neither I nor those connected with it will allow it to go with a whimper.
Various organisations are involved, notably the South London family housing association, the Tudor trust, the London housing trust and the London borough of Lewisham. Few of the residents came from Lewisham originally. The local council is trying to find money to keep it open, for it recognises that it has a role to play in providing homes for Londoners and people who come to London.
Those connected with the project have even approached Telethon to see whether money can be obtained from that source to keep the project going. That of itself represents a condemnation of Government policy, with money-raising game shows on television having to be devised to give young people a decent home and a reasonable start in life.
The youngsters came to the House of Commons a few weeks ago with a petition. It was, for many of them, their first visit to this place, and they were confused. I would not say that they were overawed; they simply found the place incomprehensible. As a result of the attitude of the Government over the project, I am forced to share their conclusion. I sent the Minister their petition and received a wholly inadequate response. Not once has the Department offered any assistance or advice on how the project might be kept open. The Government have adopted a Pontius Pilate-like approach and have said, in effect, "That is the end of the matter. You knew when the money was dished out how far it would go. It has now gone and you are on your own."
That happens in many areas of Government spending. Money is provided up front and, its having been provided on a one-off basis, it is left to others, notably local authorities, to go on dealing with recurring problems which are not amenable to one-off solutions. The idiocy 545 and futility of that approach is demonstrated by the fact that come next December, if the winter weather initiative is introduced—there is doubt about whether it will be—it is admitted that the Lawrie Park road hostel will qualify under the scheme. That shows the bankruptcy of Government policy.
I implore the Minister to reconsider the matter, to provide some hope to the project and its residents and, by so doing, to give some hope to every homeless person in this city and throughout the country.
§ Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton)
In view of the pressure on time, I shall not make the measured, well-balanced and reasoned speech that I intended to make. Instead, I shall concentrate on one issue that must be aired as a result of the comments of Opposition Members, who do not come to the debate with clean hands. They come here with hypocrisy and humbug. Why, when we discuss homelessness, will they not tell us about Southwark borough council, which is Labour controlled and which is owed £30 million in uncollected rents? Why will they not tell us of the 8,000 empty properties owned by that borough council? Imagine what it could do, if it collected those rents, to bring those unfit and dilapidated units back into occupation. Labour inefficiency is depriving the people of that borough of decent homes in which to live.
Instead of trying to beat the Government with a big stick, Opposition Members should describe the position in the borough of Newham, which has rent arrears of £11 million—[Interruption.]—and more than 5,500 units unfit for human occupation. If Newham collected those rents, it could renovate those houses and flats and people could move into them.
I speak with some knowledge of the area, for not only have I been to Newham but I worked for Southwark district council. I know what I am talking about. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) might refer to the rent arrears of £13 million in his borough. He should castigate his borough council for not collecting that money and using it to bring unfit units back into public use.
§ Mr. David Shaw (Dover)
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way in the middle of his litany of extremely worrying cases which, as he says, should be brought to the public's attention. Has he considered the fact that it has been reported in Southwark that three of the people with severe rent arrears are Labour councillors?
§ Mr. Streeter
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has reinforced my opening remarks that Opposition Members do not come to the debate with clean hands.
If we are to tackle the problem of homelessness, we must take a radical approach to local authority housing management. We must make local authority landlords far more efficient. To that extent, I welcome the excellent consultation paper "Competing for Quality in Housing". I welcome the Government's radical approach in making local authority landlords contract out and buy in the services that they need, when they need them, at the best prices, to give their tenants the best service. That is the way forward if some of the unfit, unlet, empty units are to be brought back into public service.
546 When my hon. Friend the Minister considers his response to the consultation paper, will he bear in mind that I do not believe that it goes far enough? The consultation document states that the client will remain the local authority housing committee, still steeped in the local authority culture that we so desperately need to get rid of.
Will my hon. Friend consider converting housing committees and departments into semi-detached housing boards or companies, as the Institute of Housing suggested? We should do that, not so that they can build new properties but so that they can better manage the ones that they have. Unless we do that, many Labour-controlled local authorities will seek ways of getting round compulsory competitive tendering by making life impossible for contractors who win tenders or by ensuring that in-house people win them, thus gaining only minimal savings.
If we introduce those radical changes, we shall make great savings in housing management. Local authority landlords will become much more effective and one of the factors causing homelessness will have been diminished.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) says that he knows Newham—I must test him on that some time, but not tonight. I shall tell him something about Newham and the voids that exist there. A large number of them are in the Taylor Woodrow Anglian tower blocks. The hon. Gentleman is probably too young to remember Ronan Point, but people had to be moved out of those tower blocks because they were unsafe. The Minister for Housing and Planning knows about those tower blocks as we went on an inspection together and saw how badly they had been built. They were jerry-built flats. We cannot place people in some of the accommodation units in Newham because the structures are too dangerous.
The hon. Member for Sutton might think it is a good thing for Labour party people to be placed in dangerous structures, but I do not think so. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know why there is a housing crisis in London, he does not have to look around to blame local authorities. It is a cheap and easy shot for Conservative Members to say that the housing crisis is caused by Labour local authorities. It is the crass, narrow-minded, narrow-sighted, stupid, ignorant attitude that I expect from Conservative Members as they know nothing about the subject.
What do Conservative Members know about living in rotten accommodation? How many Conservative Members are homeless? Most of them probably have two or three homes. We do not want lectures from a bunch of well-heeled Tory layabouts telling us what is endured by our constituents. If the hon. Member for Sutton wants to know why there is a housing crisis, I shall tell him.
In 1987–88, the London boroughs started building more than 13,000 new homes. In 1990, London boroughs started to build only 302 homes. The reason for the housing crisis is that the Government have ensured that the boroughs cannot provide accommodation for those who need it. It is absolutely disgraceful that in 1990 only 302 new homes were built—2 per cent. of the 1978 total. Between 1981–82 and 1989–90, the available permanent lettings to new tenants were reduced—a loss of 20,000 units.
547 One does not need a PhD in housing administration to know why there is a housing crisis in London. Some £8 billion is sitting in bank accounts, but no local authorities are allowed to use it to build new homes. The Government conned the House and the rest of the country by saying that if' local authorities sold houses, the money would be available to build new homes—lies. The authorities have not been allowed to use their own money to build homes for their own people.
The reason for the housing crisis sits on the Benches opposite—the nasty, ugly face of Toryism. Until we get rid of that, I am afraid there will be more and more people sleeping on the streets and in the doorways of London. That is a damned disgrace and so is the Minister.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
We have heard the usual emotional speech of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). The real reason for the housing crisis in London is socialism. We have suffered from decades of socialist legislation stating that it was immoral to make money out of renting properties or offices. The reason for the surplus in office accommodation in London today is that office rents have never been controlled.
Why is there a shortage of accommodation to rent? The answer is that for years and years there were rent controls, and today many potential landlords fear that a future Labour Government would reintroduce rent controls. Investing in property is a long-term activity, and no one will invest in property while there is a threat of a future Labour Government reintroducing rent controls. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West would do his constituents' cause much good if he said that a future Labour Government would never reintroduce rent controls, as that is the fear.
The second fear of those who are considering renting out their property is that of long delays if the tenant refuses to leave at the end of the lease. Some constituents told me that they had let out their property to a tenant for a specific period. At the end of the lease, the tenant said that he would not go. It took my constituents five months to get the tenant out and regain control of their home. Such legal delays prevent some people from renting out their property.
The final reason for the shortage of property in London today and why a few hundred people are sleeping rough is that five Labour councils have 8,163 empty houses. Why is it that vacancies in the London borough of Barnet constitute 1.1 per cent. of its housing stock, but in the London borough of Brent, which is Labour controlled, the figure is 5 per cent. and in Hackney the figure is 4.8 per cent.—excluding the illegal tenancies that Hackney council has decided to allow? In Tower Hamlets the figure is 4.5 per cent., in Newham it is 3–8 per cent., in Southwark it is 3.6 per cent. and in Islington it is 2.6 per cent. Those councils are the cause of homelessness in London today.
The Labour party, Labour legislation and Labour threats are the cause of homelessness in London. It is not for the Labour party to talk about homelessness. Labour Members should come to the debate and admit that they are the cause of homelessness.
§ Mr. Marshall
As the hon. Gentleman who speaks from a sedentary position should know, the long-term effect of Labour policies has caused homelessness. There is no shortage of any other commodity in London. If we did not face the threat of rent controls from a future Labour Government, there would be no housing shortage in London tonight.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) on initiating the debate, may I say that he has left me with the difficult task of trying to tell some Conservative Members in about seven minutes why there is such a housing crisis in this country. Two of the Conservative Members have less excuse for not knowing than the other two as they are older. I think that one of them was elected in 1987, and the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) was elected before that. Both have had the advantage of gaining a knowledge of the subject from documents placed before the House, whether by the Environment Select Committee or the Audit Commission, or by reading the Duke of Edinburgh report or questions that I and other hon. Members have tabled.
The two new Members do not have that advantage and can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing all the facts. I reiterate some of the facts that I put to the hon. Member for Colne Valley who tried to avoid them. In percentage terms the Government are the worst owners of empty properties in the country and it is not just the Ministry of Defence which is at fault. But even it has no excuse for keeping properties empty.
I asked a question just before Christmas and was told that 24 good, well-appointed, centrally heated houses in the middle of Swindon were to be sold after remaining empty for two years. I tabled the same question last week and was told that they are still empty. One in five police houses in London was empty just a few years ago hut. marvel of marvels, it is now down to about one in eight. It is disgraceful that houses are being sold when the market is flat. There are 36,000 Government-owned houses and if they are put on the market prices will be depressed. The ownership or management of the houses could be transferred to a local authority or a housing association. That would get people out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and save taxpayers' money.
I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) to say that local authorities could not continue the lease-back scheme because the Government and, sadly, the Minister restricted the extent to which that could be done. When councils such as Haringey and others reached the limit, they were stopped from continuing such schemes unless they were prepared to lose subsidy. It is costing a fortune to keep people in bed and breakfast so as to conform to that bizarre rule. We pay more to keep people in bed and breakfast than it would cost to keep them in the flat or house from which they have been evicted. That is because the Government will not introduce a mortgage rescue scheme of the type that I have been suggesting for more than two years.
We saw the repossession crisis coming. The Duke of Edinburgh report, the second Rowntree report, which is not a Labour party document by any stretch of the imagination, showed that since 1979 we have lost more 549 than 2 million rented sector homes. It was 1.9 million at the time the report was written. One million have been lost from the council sector and about 1 million from the private sector. When Labour left office, the private sector accounted for 14 per cent. of the rented market but it is now down to 7 per cent. That is the extent of the Government's failure.
The hon. Members for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) and for Colne Valley seem to blame the decline in the rented sector on the rent Acts. They should know, because they have heard me say it often enough, that the rented sector has suffered a straight line decline since the turn of the century, about 14 years before the introduction of any rent Act. When the rent Acts were abolished in 1957 the decline became faster, and speeded up when they were abolished again in 1980. When they were removed in Northern Ireland in 1957—and no party ever advocated putting them back—25 per cent. of the rented market there was private. It is now 5 per cent.
The rented sector has collapsed because.in this country, almost uniquely, there is an enormous subsidy for home ownership and no equivalent subsidy for renting. For landlords and tenants alike, it is not worth being in the rented sector. The Government's stance is hideously stupid. They should not worry too much about ownership. I am not too worried about who owns the rented sector, but I am worried about quality of management, affordability and tenants' rights. If the Government can get those three factors right, the local authority sector, the housing associations and the private sector can deliver good housing. The Government concentrate on attacking local authorities, and so ignore the problem that relates to the 2 million properties that I mentioned.
Another component of the problem is the cut in benefits for 16 and 18-year-olds. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam thinks that the problem is caused by the break up of families, but it is not because the rate of homelessness has accelerated faster than family break-ups which have slowed in recent years. The problem has everything to do with social security changes by the Prime Minister when he was a Social Security Minister and by the lack of rented housing.
It is a damning indictment of the Government that they do not have a housing policy. For the first time in 75 years homeless British children are begging on British streets. That is disgraceful and I never thought that I would live to see it in my country. There is no point in the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam saying that it is not the Government's fault. Is nothing the Government's fault —the slump, the health service, education, housing? The Government must be the most ineffectual of all time because apparently they have no effect on anything. They are so worried about winning a propaganda argument that they walk by the homeless thinking, "It is a great pity but we cannot do anything about it." The Government put those people there, it is their fault, and they could do something about it if they took on board the policies that we set out at the last general election. They must concentrate on quality, affordability and tenants rights, and not take them away, as compulsory competitive tendering does. I am in favour of compulsory competitive tendering if the tenants can make it compulsory, but I do not want the sort that the Government are introducing 550 because it is imposed by landlords on tenants and takes away their right to vote on it. Tenants' rights, quality of management, affordability and the building of houses could enable us to live in a civilised society again.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) on introducing this debate, which takes place in national housing week. I always welcome an opportunity to expound the Government's policies on housing. Our clear housing strategy is to ensure that every family has a decent home. Of course, many people wish to make their own provision through owner-occupation. Many people aspire to owner-occupation and we have ensured that the number of people enjoying that has substantially increased. Of course, we are concerned when some people get into difficulties with their mortgage, but that must be kept in perspective.
The latest figures show that of the 10 million home owners with a mortgage, less than 0.4 per cent. were subject to repossession in the second half of last year. We are keen to ensure that mortgage lenders talk to people who may be in difficulty. The message that we need to get across is that people should not simply walk away from the problem but should get in touch with the mortgage lender. As a result of the difficulties that some borrowers have experienced, mortgage lenders are now beginning to appreciate that they will have to take arrears counselling much more seriously and introduce help schemes. They are doing that.
The initiatives taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor seem to have been judged by some people simply on the basis of mortgage-to-rent schemes. That is not the test. The test is how successful they have been in keeping people in their own homes. The mortgage lenders have committed £75 million to mortgage rescue. Only a small proportion of borrowers are in difficulty and a tiny minority face repossession. We must judge the initiatives on the fact that mortgage lenders are determined to do everything possible to ensure that people can stay in their own homes.
Of course, the Government recognise that, for some people, home ownership is not the way forward. There will always be a need for affordable social housing and we arc committed to making sure of investment in such housing. We have a clear commitment to invest £2 billion in the Housing Corporation each year for the next three years. That money will go from the corporation to housing associations. I barely heard Opposition Members mention housing associations. They clearly do not appreciate our intention that new affordable social housing should, by and large, be provided by the housing associations, which are increasing the number of housing units. They are able to do that because they arc increasingly successful in attracting private investment to add to that made available by the Treasury.
The hon. Member for Greenwich waved the Audit Commission report in support of his estimate of the number of houses that will be needed. In the second paragraph of its report, the Audit Commission stated:Considerable uncertainty surrounds projections in this area.551 We are determined to ensure that local authorities, as enablers, work in partnership with housing associations to provide the number of units which is needed.
Of course, the Audit Commission's report was aimed at developing local authority housing strategies. The report set out initiatives that local authorities can take in working in partnership with housing associations to provide more units. Indeed, if local authorities let their properties faster, reducing the length of time that properties are left empty between tenancies to six weeks in London and three weeks in the rest of the country.. which is perfectly possible, the result would he an extra 26,000 lettings in England in a year.
§ Mr. Baldry
No, I shall not give way because I have only one minute to respond to the debate. What we are—