§ Order for Second Reading read.4.29 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I hope that the whole House will agree that losing one's home, and the security that goes with it, is one of the most harrowing experiences that anyone can face, and that the possibility of homelessness is often related to other life problems. Frailty brought about by old age, the breakdown of a marriage, drugs and mental health problems simply compound people's anguish.
Earlier today, I spent some time at the Passage day centre in Victoria, and I should like to pay tribute to the remarkable work of Sister Ellen and her team of staff and volunteers. They not only provide the basics of food and clothing to homeless people but help them to find jobs, rediscover their self-confidence and their families and tackle their addiction to drugs and alcohol. If ever there was a justification for righting past wrongs—which the Bill seeks to do—I heard it from some of the people whom I met this morning.
I met many people for whom the changes to be brought about by the Bill will make a genuine difference to their lives; those changes cannot come soon enough. I spoke to an ex-service man who, because he did not get the help that he needed when he left the forces, has been homeless ever since. I met someone else who, as a child, was in care; for him, the help given by the Passage, although welcome and essential, was too late. He needed help when he first had difficulties to prevent him from needing help now and from wasting years of his life.
The principal aim of any decent society should be to support those in need in practical ways and when the need arises. Local authorities fulfil that role when they carry out their homeless duties. Every week, authorities, social landlords and voluntary bodies demonstrate practical compassion in helping individuals and families to manage the trauma of being without somewhere that they can call their own home.
Members on both sides of the House know that the present system is far from perfect; the Government are determined to improve its operation. A demonstration of that commitment is the fact that the Bill—the first one to be introduced after the election—will offer hope and protection to some of the most vulnerable groups in society.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new position. He referred briefly to mental health. Does he accept that a high proportion of people who are out on the streets are suffering from mental health problems and that that has something to do with the policy, followed by successive Governments, of closing institutions where people with mental health problems could find refuge? Has he consulted his colleagues in the Department of Health about whether joint work by the two Departments can help people in that situation?
§ Mr. Byers
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations on my appointment. Perhaps for the first 34 and last time in this Parliament, I agree with the points that he made. The record of care in the community and the way in which we dealt with people with mental illness do not do credit to previous Administrations of both political persuasions. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the need for joint working between housing authorities, local authorities and authorities that have specific responsibilities for people with mental illness. I shall talk a little bit about joint working arrangements later, but I certainly endorse the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
The Bill will enable local authorities to offer stronger protection to vulnerable families and individuals who find themselves homeless. It will lead to more effective strategies and services, both to help homeless people and, crucially, to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. It will help to ensure that everyone has the opportunity and choice of a decent home. The measure should not be seen in isolation. It is not a one-off, but part of a wider housing strategy set out in our housing Green Paper and in last year's policy statement entitled "The Way Forward for Housing".
Our homelessness measures are complemented by a massive increase in investment, which will be crucial. The investment includes doubling the Housing Corporation's budget for new affordable housing, which will amount to an extra £872 million being made available for that purpose; a target of 100,000 new or improved homes for low-cost rent or ownership over the next three years; doubling the programme of affordable housing in small rural settlements; and increasing resources for local authority investment from £750 million in 1997–98 to £2.5 billion by 2003–04.
§ Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I congratulate him on his appointment. He referred to affordable housing and the sum that would be given to the Housing Corporation to increase the stock of affordable housing available. What does he think affordable housing is, and what should it cost? One of the biggest problems is deciding what affordable housing means. I would grateful if, as a new Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman could give the House his view.
§ Mr. Byers
The hon. Gentleman will agree, I think, that the worst thing would he for us from the centre in London to impose a blanket view for the whole country on what constitutes affordable housing. We need flexibility, allowing local areas to respond to local need and local rents. That is the approach that I want to adopt, to ensure that people are not priced out of good accommodation because of the amount that they can afford to pay. That will involve a range of new initiatives that need to be taken. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have been examining housing benefit in particular and the role that it plays. A range of levers need to be pulled to make sure that people have a genuine choice. A little later in my opening remarks, I shall say something about that.
§ Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being appointed Secretary of State. 35 On choice, may I ask him to reflect for a moment on the situation in London, where the very high prices of houses and of land mean that there is little development to create affordable rented housing? Will he look again at the planning guidelines under section 106 agreements to ensure that, in all sites of whatever size, at least half the properties are developed for affordable rent, either by housing associations or by the local authority, in order to provide poorer and average-income Londoners with some chance of being able to stay in their city?
§ Mr. Byers
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words on my appointment. I understand the difficulty that is particularly felt in London, although similar pressures exist in other parts of the country. They come about because of a lack of investment over a number of years. We are beginning to put that right, with the investment that will be made over the next two to three years. There are, I believe, opportunities to use the planning process with far greater imagination than in the past, and I am conscious of the debate that is going on in London and elsewhere about the need for some gain from planning along the lines that my hon. Friend describes.
I have reservations about putting a specific figure on the amount that needs to be achieved, but we must work closely with the relevant authorities to expand and extend the amount of affordable homes for rent or other types of tenure that are available in London and other parts of the country.
I give way now to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter).
§ Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment, and on mentioning the fact that problems exist not only in London but in areas such as Weston-super-Mare. I shall write to him with information about our particular problems. Having seen the right hon. Gentleman operating in the Department of Trade and Industry, I am very hopeful that he will be able to tackle those problems. Specifically, has he taken on board the very severe problem across the country of the number of, and the difficulty in releasing, empty properties?
§ Mr. Byers
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. From my reading of the brief so far, I think that various steps will have to be taken to ensure that empty properties, of which there are a staggering number, are made available for those who are in great need. I shall say something a little later about what we can do specifically about private landlords, with whom there is a particular problem in some parts of the country. There may also be a specific problem in seaside towns that will have to be dealt with. One of the lessons that I have learned is that it is wrong to take the view that one size fits all. We have to build a system with local flexibility. Consequently, the role of local authorities, which are the bodies with housing responsibilities, will be particularly important.
A major part of the £2.5 billion that we are making available will be used for major repairs to the council house stock, making more council properties available for use. Taken together, our proposals and the investment that we shall put in place will bring all social housing up to a 36 decent standard by 2010, improve the supply of affordable housing in areas where need is greatest and promote sustainable home ownership and a healthy private rented sector. We believe, however, that we need statutory measures in addition to that investment. That is why we are debating this Bill today.
The Bill will particularly help families with dependent children and individuals who become homeless or face the threat of homelessness through no fault of their own. Our proposals will strengthen the homelessness safety net, promote a more strategic approach by local authorities to preventing and managing homelessness and encourage local authorities to offer more choice to people applying for social housing. In doing that, the Bill will achieve the following objectives: first, it will protect the most vulnerable in our society; secondly, it will promote greater housing choice; thirdly, it will help to create sustainable communities; and, fourthly, it will tackle social exclusion.
One of the most important changes that we want to accomplish with the Bill is to channel much greater effort into preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. That is our key priority. Our proposals will require local authorities to adopt a more strategic approach to tackling the causes of all forms of homelessness and to preventing its occurrence.
The Bill's first three clauses will require local housing authorities to review the position of the homeless in their area and to create a comprehensive strategy, involving all the key bodies, to prevent people from becoming homeless and to ensure that adequate resources are available to those who might become homeless. There will have to be close co-operation between housing authorities, social service authorities and, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, health authorities.
The housing authority will have to consult widely. It will be expected to talk to registered social landlords and to other voluntary and statutory agencies that have a key role in tackling the position of the homeless. All the key players will be encouraged to work together to assess the extent and the causes of homelessness, to identify the most effective solutions and to ensure that adequate accommodation, advice and support are available to those who need them.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new role and on taking the first Bill through this Parliament. Does he agree that one of the key problems in rural areas is hidden homelessness—people being driven out of rural areas because of a lack of accommodation? Can we ensure that the other layers of local government—especially parish and town councils, which have a vested interest in keeping younger people in their communities—are engaged in the process, as they will be so important in allowing us to overcome hidden homelessness?
§ Mr. Byers
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I thank him for his kind words on my appointment. He is right that the needs of rural areas are often hidden and are not exposed or publicised to the same extent as some of the derelict areas in our conurbations. That is why it is particularly important for those of us in responsible positions to ensure that their needs are not overlooked.
The measures that we are proposing to increase the amount of housing in rural settlements will begin to make a difference, but I take the point made by my hon. Friend 37 the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). If we are talking about genuine partnership and about people working together, housing authorities and district councils must consult parish councils to make sure that the specific housing needs of rural communities are not ignored. He is also right to stress that in ensuring that a community can thrive and develop, the provision of housing to the younger generation to ensure that they are not forced to leave rural communities will become increasingly important in the months and years ahead.
The Bill also strengthens the existing safety net by providing a number of amendments to and repeals of the provisions of the Housing Act 1996. The Bill will ensure that all applicants who are unintentionally homeless and have a priority need are secured suitable accommodation for as long as is necessary until a settled home becomes available for them. This is an important change and one that will bring real benefits. To achieve this, the Bill will remove the current rule that prevents an authority from doing more than provide advice and assistance if other accommodation is available locally in the private sector.
Clause 6 will remove the current two-year limit on the main homelessness duty to secure suitable accommodation. The 1996 Act gives authorities the discretion to continue to accommodate beyond two years, but their statutory obligation to provide assistance ends at that point. That gives homeless households cause for great uncertainty about their future and about whether they will continue to have a home. That needs to go; under this Bill, it will.
The Bill will also remove the restriction that prevents authorities from using their own housing stock to discharge their statutory obligations and to provide short-term accommodation for homeless people for more than two years in three. This is unhelpful and bureaucratic, and it limits local authorities' flexibility to secure adequate short-term accommodation. As the law stands, when a local authority decides to exercise discretion to continue to accommodate beyond two years a household that has been accommodated in local authority housing, the authority must secure alternative accommodation from another landlord—at a cost—uprooting the household in the process. This is red tape and bureaucracy and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will be pleased that we are cutting it. The measure, which we will do away with, creates delay, is costly and is disruptive. Under the Bill, it will come to an end.
The Bill will make an number of important changes to the current legislation to strengthen the protection available to homeless people. Clause 10 will provide stronger protection for those at risk of violence. It will make clear that applicants who would be at risk of violence or who would face serious threats of violence if they remained in their current home must be treated as homeless by the local authority. At present, it is at the discretion of individual authorities to decide whether a threat of violence means that it would not be reasonable for someone to continue to live in that same property.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. My cup runneth over at the thought that one so great as he should be willing to draw on my advice. It would be very helpful if he would flesh out the way in which statutory teeth will be given to the Government's welcome intentions towards the victims 38 of domestic violence. Will he confirm that people will not only not be obliged to return to the homes in which the violence was committed or threatened but will not be obliged to return to the area where they are at risk?
§ Mr. Byers
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words on my appointment. I am pleased that his cup runneth over—although I know that it is a very small cup—and I shall try even harder, because I am pleased to confirm that his broad point is covered in the Bill.
Many of us will have come across exactly this problem in our constituencies. An example was given to me by Shelter, which I am pleased is warmly supporting the provisions in the Bill. Shelter recently assisted a pregnant young woman living in a small privately rented flat who had suffered persistent racial harassment by a neighbour, culminating in her being physically assaulted and the police being called.
Despite evidence from the woman's GP of the distress that the harassment was causing her, and its potential impact on her pregnancy, the local housing authority insisted that it was reasonable for her to continue to live where she was, and would not accept that she was homeless. The Bill will ensure that that could not happen again and that others suffering such violent harassment will, in future, be dealt with as homeless.
§ Mr. Hancock
When we discussed this element of the Bill in the previous Parliament, in which it failed to get through all its stages, the issue of violence was raised. We never got a satisfactory answer on who was to arbitrate on whether a case was genuinely one of violence. On large council estates, there are often allegations of threats of violence, but the local authority says that it cannot accept them as true until there is proof—that is, until someone has been assaulted or the police have become involved. If we are placing that responsibility on local authorities, we have to have a clear definition of what proof would be needed to justify someone's being moved on grounds of violence.
§ Mr. Byers
First, let me stress that local authority decisions can be reviewed. This will be a fruitful matter for discussion in Committee. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government intend to issue guidance to cover all such matters, on which we will want to consult. I know that guidance has been discussed at some length, and I am waiting for the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who I understand is a real anorak on this issue, to intervene.
§ Mr. Byers
There is a great danger of my agreeing with the hon. Gentleman yet again.
Clause 8 will make it clear that applicants can ask the housing authority to review the suitability of accommodation that is offered to them without having to take a risk that the homelessness duty might be brought to an end as a consequence. That is important, as it will correct a serious weakness in the provisions of the Housing Act 1996, compounded by a recent judgment in the Court of Appeal in the case of Alghile v. City of Westminster, which seriously undermined the position of 39 homeless applicants. As the law now stands, following the Alghile judgment, applicants cannot both accept an offer of accommodation and ask for a review of suitability. If they want a review, they must refuse the offer. The 1996 Act provides that the duty to assist them as homeless comes to an end if they refuse that offer. So homeless applicants have to take a serious gamble if they wish to ask for a review of the suitability of the property that they have been offered.
The Bill will put that right, and we intend clause 8 to come into force as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. Applicants will also be better placed when they wish to appeal to the county court against a decision on homelessness. The Bill will give the court the power to extend the 21-day period for making an application where there is a good reason for doing so.
The court will also have the power to require an authority to continue to accommodate an applicant pending such an appeal, where that is necessary to ensure that the individual concerned can continue to pursue the appeal. It is obviously right for the greatest protection to be available to families and other vulnerable groups with priority need, but the Bill also strengthens the duty to provide advice and assistance for those who become homeless unintentionally but do not have a priority need. Authorities will have greater flexibility to assist that group, through a new power to secure suitable accommodation for them.
As I have said, the Bill will ensure that local authorities offer everyone in priority need who is unintentionally homeless somewhere suitable to live until they obtain a settled home.
§ Tony Baldry (Banbury)
I am not clear what new duties local authorities are being given to provide accommodation in the private sector. Local authorities have a finite amount of their own housing stock and housing association stock. Is the Secretary of State saying that local authorities will now have a duty to help people find suitable accommodation in the private rented sector? Will he flesh out a little further what new obligations local authorities will have? There is a danger that the Bill will raise applicants' expectations, but that those expectations will be unfulfilled.
§ Mr. Byers
I want the local housing authority to work in partnership with the private rented sector. There are now some good examples of that happening, and it is benefiting individual tenants, but I am also mindful of the fact that in some parts of the country that partnership is not operating. We need to send out a clear message from Government that we expect people to work together with a real sense of partnership—and some of the investment to be made available will benefit the privately rented sector as well as the local authority sector.
We shall not solve all the problems overnight. As hon. Members know, the number of people who are homeless or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has increased, so there are real problems that we have to tackle. I believe that the Bill, combined with the additional investment that is coming through, will begin to make a real difference—but that will not happen overnight, or even in a matter of months; it will take years to remedy the problems. 40 However, improvements are taking place, and if people can work together—in particular, if local authorities can work with the private sector—we shall begin to see real improvements.
The private rented sector has responsibilities as well, and must recognise that it has a role to play. Increasingly, housing difficulties are resulting from problems being caused in certain parts of the country by landlords who fail to discharge their responsibilities. I am thinking in particular of those who receive housing benefit directly from social security offices, but do not pay proper attention to the condition of the buildings for which they are responsible.
§ Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)
As ever, my right hon. Friend has my good wishes. On that point, will he recognise that there is nothing in the Bill to reinforce good practice in the private rented sector by, for example, introducing at last the licensing of houses in multiple occupation, or including the proposals for registering all private landlords in defined areas, which were in the housing Green Paper?
§ Mr. Byers
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words on my appointment. He makes an important point about houses in multiple occupation and he is right to say that we have clear commitments in that area. During the lifetime of this Parliament, I am confident that measures will be introduced through this House. However, we can take some steps now, and we will do so by improving the provisions that are currently available.
My hon. Friend raises a second point about houses in multiple occupation that goes beyond the powers we currently have. We had a welcome opportunity to discuss that point on Friday, when he drew my attention to the need to consider the introduction of licensing schemes for private landlords generally, which will tackle some of the issues that have arisen in various parts of the country.
I had the opportunity to consider the point over the weekend, and I can inform my hon. Friend that later this year my Department will issue a consultation document on proposals to give local authorities in such areas powers to introduce licensing schemes for private landlords generally. I hope that that will tackle some of the issues about which my hon. Friend is especially concerned. I hope that when that consultation document is published we can have a debate on the right way forward and reach a solution for which we can legislate, if necessary, to tackle a growing problem that is affecting far too many areas.
The Bill includes measures to give improved rights to new applicants for local authority housing and existing tenants in the social sector who are seeking a transfer. It is, however, vital to ensure that the measures we introduce cannot be abused by those who would seek to disrupt communities through antisocial behaviour. People who are unsuitable to be tenants because of a history of unacceptable behaviour will not benefit from the provisions of the Bill. Clearly, someone who has a history of causing deliberate and serious nuisance to neighbours, and who has refused to reform in any way, would be regarded as unsuitable to be a tenant.
41 The Bill will also encourage local authorities to introduce letting schemes that give new applicants—and existing tenants who wish to transfer to another property—more say in choosing where they live.
§ Jeremy Corbyn
On the question of disruptive and antisocial tenants, it is a given that nobody wants antisocial, disruptive or racist tenants living next to them, but the problem is that by removing any option of housing from such people, their children end up with foster parents or in care. One could be creating a greater social problem in the future in order to deal with a more immediate problem. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a strategy of more intensive support and intervention might be more useful than his approach?
§ Mr. Byers
My hon. Friend is right to point out that we need an integrated approach, and we must always take into account the needs of children in particular. As on most issues, it is a question of striking the right balance. Most hon. Members will understand the need to protect a community from the disruptive and antisocial tenant, to keep communities together. I have seen in my own constituency communities being blown apart because of the actions of just one or two people. Communities that have lived together for years have been wrecked by the conduct of one or two people, and I am not prepared to put at risk those solid and sound communities by looking after the needs of one individual when the needs of the whole community should be taken into account. Early intervention may be able to assist an individual to reform and change the way in which they conduct themselves. I agree wholeheartedly that that should be the emphasis of many projects from my Department and across Government.
§ Mr. Hancock
The Secretary of State referred to giving greater choice to people in existing properties who wanted to transfer. I am fascinated by the concept of choice being offered by authorities such as mine, given that the options available for transfer in Portsmouth, a densely populated urban centre, are at present limited. How will such a choice be offered?
§ Mr. Byers
I hope that in a few years' time, if I am answering on housing matters from this Dispatch Box, we will have changed the situation, with more investment in housing resulting in such choice being available. I am the first to accept that in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, probably like mine, there is currently no such choice. However, in this area above all, the status quo will not be an option. Great problems are being created and we have to move change through.
The Bill is about looking forward, not looking back. It looks forward to the housing needs that require to be met, and to investment. I want people to have a real choice. I accept that it is not available at the moment—we have to build to ensure that it will be.
Most of us in the Chamber would not accept simply being told where to live. We will not provide all the choices that everyone will want, but providing a choice will make a real difference to the whole debate. We should not reduce our ambitions or our vision. The Government are taking actions that make a real difference.
When I was at the Passage this morning, I talked to people who had benefited from the work undertaken by the rough sleepers unit. The number of people sleeping 42 rough has fallen by more than a third. In 1998, almost 2,000 people slept rough. Last year, that number had fallen to just over 1,000, and we are well on the way to meeting our target of only 620 people sleeping rough by 2002, which will be a real improvement.
One of the most disturbing things that I saw when I took over this brief was that the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation had increased dramatically. The bed-and-breakfast unit was established by the Minister for Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), when he was responsible for housing. It came into being in May this year. Its remit is to reduce within two years the number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, particularly those with families and young children.
§ Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)
My right hon. Friend must be getting a bit weary of all these congratulations, but I should nevertheless like to congratulate him on his post. I also thank the Minister for Local Government, who answered the Adjournment debate that I secured on bed-and-breakfast accommodation when he was responsible for housing matters. Will the taskforce be looking at the introduction of targets and at reducing the numbers of young children who are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with people who have severe mental health problems and alcohol and drug dependency problems?
§ Mr. Byers
It does not last very long, as the hon. Gentleman says.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One way to judge genuine progress is by tangible improvements. It is probably right for the taskforce to come forward with targets once it has looked at the situation. I will draw its attention to my hon. Friend's points.
There is a real challenge to be addressed. Those of us who have seen at first hand the often appalling conditions in which young people in bed-and-breakfast provision are having to grow up regard that as simply not acceptable in the United Kingdom of 2001. We can do far better. Now that the unit is set up, we will be expecting it to do great things and give real dignity to mothers, fathers and children who live in frankly unacceptable accommodation.
§ Mr. Waterson
I was saving those for later, but if the right hon. Gentleman is so desperate for congratulations, let me congratulate him. I shall not congratulate him, however, on the explosion of the number of people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. He did not quote the figures, but they have gone up from 4,000 to nearly 11,000. Does he agree with Shelter, which says that the current crisis-driven approach to homelessness is 43 not working? That sounds like coded language for setting up another unit, another taskforce, and crowning another tsar or tsarina.
§ Mr. Byers
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations on my appointment.
I am not a great one for tsars or tsarinas, but the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. I do not regard the present situation as acceptable, as regards either the number of people who are homeless or the number who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That situation has come about owing to a lack of investment for several years for which both parties carry responsibility, but we are beginning to see a difference.
I have outlined a twin-track approach: investment is going in, backed up by the provisions in the Bill. That will make a real difference. I accept the criticism; none of us can take pride in the current situation—we must move together. The Bill will be important in beginning to ensure that we can tackle the difficulties.
Before I conclude, I want to refer to one more important group: those former members of the armed forces who find themselves homeless at the end of their service. The Government have set up a veterans taskforce to tackle the issues facing those people, who include the most vulnerable—those who are homeless, sleeping rough or in ill health. In 1998, the social exclusion unit report on rough sleeping found that between a fifth and a quarter of all rough sleepers had served in the armed forces. In response, the rough sleepers unit has been working with the Ministry of Defence, the armed forces and the ex-service benevolent sector to ensure that the best advice, practical assistance and support are given to the people who leave our armed forces and end up sleeping rough.
The work of the taskforce will continue during coming months. We aim to report by the end of this year and we look to the taskforce to propose measures to complement the RSU's effective strategy to reduce rough sleeping to as near zero as possible. I hope that all Members will agree that people who have given service in our armed forces deserve that support, advice and assistance.
Taken together with the Government's sound economic policies, our substantial increases in capital investment in housing and the wider policies that we are pursuing following last year's housing Green Paper, we can make a real difference for the people of this country. The Bill will make a real difference to tackling homelessness. It will provide protection for the most vulnerable, dignity for the distressed and the security that comes from having somewhere that people can call home. For those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)
I begin properly by welcoming the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to his new position. I also welcome the new Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and pay a passing tribute to the Minister for Local Government. The right hon. Gentleman has finally been unchained from the housing oar in the Government galley; I hope that he will enjoy his time in local government.
44 Speaking for myself and, I hope, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), we shall try to make the. Committee stage as little like the film "Groundhog Day" as possible and find some new things to say. The Opposition broadly welcome the Bill; indeed we did so in its previous incarnation as the second part of the Homes Bill during the previous Parliament. The measure will of course receive proper scrutiny in Committee—as is right—but we wish it a fair wind. We are not alone in wanting to discuss several detailed points in Committee; organisations such as Shelter and the Local Government Association have also flagged up some issues that will need debate.
It is a remarkable U-turn that this monumental—if we are to believe the Secretary of State—measure was not even mentioned in the Queen's Speech but is the first Bill of the Parliament. We welcome that. It must be a real testament to the right hon. Gentleman's power and influence in the higher echelons of the Government.
§ Ms Oona King
I take the hon. Gentleman's mention of remarkable U-turns as a declaration of his acceptance of compassionate conservatism. Does he agree, therefore, that the then Conservative Government's decision to remove the protections that we are now reintroducing was indeed as pernicious as it turned out to be?
§ Mr. Waterson
We believe in housing policy that actually works—whether it is called "compassionate" is neither here nor there.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State took the trouble to mention that the measure could have been put on the statute book before the general election when he was hobnobbing with Sister Ellen et al this morning. The reasons for not enacting it are clear. First, there was the Government's insistence on linking in the same Bill such measures and compulsory seller's packs—issues that had no natural connection at all. We made it clear in the previous Parliament that we opposed that measure and that we did not broadly oppose these provisions. Secondly, the Government did not allow enough time for the measure to be debated in the House of Lords before Dissolution.
Let us be clear that it is entirely the Government's fault if we have to re-run such debates in the Chamber and in Committee, and that it is also entirely their fault if people are being disadvantaged in housing terms by the fact that the measures are not already on the statute book because of the Government's arrogant insistence on continuing with the measures on compulsory seller's packs.
I should like the Under-Secretary to confirm in her reply whether the Government have now abandoned the policy of introducing compulsory seller's packs, and that we shall certainly hear no more about them in this Parliament.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but in the last hour I have received a parliamentary answer in which I am assured that the Government appear to have every intention of pressing ahead with seller's packs. Does the hon. Gentleman share my dismay that it appears that the Government still intend to attach criminal sanctions to them, which would be disastrous?
§ Mr. Waterson
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that extremely informative intervention. In that case, 45 I have my answer, and it is very depressing not just for those who buy and sell houses, but for those involved in surveying and the legal aspects of buying and selling houses. However, it is certainly true, as the hon. Gentleman will remember, that we spent more time in Committee considering seller's packs under part I of the Homes Bill than we did discussing the issues in this Bill. No matter; I must move on, having made it abundantly clear that if the proposals on compulsory seller's packs reappear in any guise, we will continue to oppose them as ferociously as possible.
I join Shelter, the Local Government Association and several others in broadly welcoming the proposals in the present Bill. We welcome the emphasis on prevention, rather than cure, in housing problems; the wish to achieve greater flexibility and more strategic approaches by local authorities, which many of them welcome; and the move towards choice-based housing allocations where workable and appropriate. I think it fair to say that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock)—who is leaving the Chamber, but may be coming back—touched on a useful point. It is almost possible to draw a line across the country: in some areas there is an over-supply of social housing, and in others—my constituency is a good example—people still have to wait a long time, on average, for housing to be allocated. I am pleased to say that because of my oiling up to the Minister for Local Government, who then had responsibility for such issues, my constituency has been included in the pilot scheme for what the aficionados call the choice-based Delft system of housing allocation.
§ Mr. Waterson
I understand that Bath was included, too. That was obviously a technical oversight. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party is not in coalition with the Government, but it is none the less nice to be included without having to give anything in return. We shall see how things turn out on the ground, and it is important that the proposal is considered on a pilot basis. I do not know whether Portsmouth has been included, and now we may never know, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South seems to have made his final exit from our proceedings.
Partly as a result of previous debates, there are some good measures in the Bill, including the provisions for the right of review of decisions on eligibility and priority for housing. The Bill also contains provision for the strengthening of the duty on local authorities to provide advice and assistance to non-priority homeless people. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee considering the previous Bill were concerned about that, and I am glad that it is being considered again. Perhaps it is a good illustration of why Bills should come round more than once. As the Secretary of State mentioned in his opening remarks, the Bill also provides for greater recognition of the special needs of those fleeing racial or other forms of violence.
It is right but hardly surprising that the Bill has the strong support of the Local Government Association. In its excellent briefing, it points out that its report "No Place Like Home", which was published in December 1999, 46 contained 37 recommendations. A number of them have surfaced in the Bill. The association is a strong supporter of the idea that authorities should have amore strategic multi-agency approach to preventing homelessness, and rehousing homeless applicants".It is in favour of strengthening the safety net but, above all, the important issue for local authorities is to have flexibility in approaching such issues.
The Bill seeks to abolish the duty to maintain a housing register. Members of Parliament know the extent to which artificialities have crept in to the administration of housing registers. Well-informed applicants know how to build the right number of points to get towards the top of the list.
The Secretary of State touched on an issue to which we shall have to return in Committee. The problem of antisocial neighbours—the so-called neighbours from hell—united members of the Committee considering the Homes Bill. Antisocial neighbours cause intractable problems of the kind about which we learn from our mailbags and in our constituency advice surgeries. Wherever they are housed, some families and individuals will always create problems; whether by their simple failure to pay rent, by their behaviour towards neighbours or by their simple unwillingness to maintain their home and keep it in good order.
That issue has been flagged up by the Local Government Association, which says thatit is important that local authorities retain an element of discretion over the use of their own stock … It would be perverse if an applicant who is evicted for anti-social behaviour or racial harassment then has a right to be offered other council accommodation".It points out that, during the Committee stage of the Homes Bill, the Government said that they were willing to amend that Bill to give authorities the right to refuse to allocate accommodation on the ground of unacceptable behaviour.
We all shared the concern about having the policy of blanket refusals that some authorities operate, but the Local Government Association adds:The definition of unacceptable behaviour as that which would enable a local authority to obtain a possession order is fair.The association refers to the matter of review, which was another matter of concern in Committee.
Different views are taken on the issue of neighbours from hell. In its most recent briefing, Shelter repeats a point that it made during the Committee stage of the previous Bill. It is concerned thatsome local authorities may use the framework set out in the Bill to deny people in need access to social housing in unjustifiable circumstances.The Green Paper made it clear that that should occur only in exceptional circumstances, but there is a potential problem if local authorities operate a harsh or unbending policy in their areas. Shelter also commends the changes that have been made to this Bill on the issue of review, but it flags up its wish to return to some of the technical issues involved. I am sure that it will have the opportunity to do that.
A separate but important problem arose in Committee. It became clear that some authorities allow homeless applicants as little as 24 hours to make up their minds about a final offer of accommodation. I do not think that 47 that happens in my area, but it strikes me as a rigorous policy to enforce. Shelter is flagging up the need for homeless people to have a minimum of three days to consider such an offer, and I shall table an amendment suggesting four. On a practical level, it is unreasonable to expect people to have so little time in which to make a decision that will affect their happiness and comfort for a long time.
I agree with the Secretary of State on one thing: the Bill should be seen not in isolation but against its proper background. The general election proved several things, including the fact that only one in four of the electorate thought it worth while to support the Government, who have rightly sought to play down any triumphalism about that victory. However, the Government have a second chance to deliver on their promises on a range of public services and social issues, not least, on housing and homelessness, on which they have a truly dismal record.
We do not draw any comfort from the appointment as Minister for Housing and Planning of Lord Falconer, fresh from his success with the dome, and whose only direct experience of the housing market was probably when he shared a flat with the Prime Minister. We look forward to his contributions to our debates on housing in the next few years. However, it was the Prime Minister who, in an interview with The Big Issue a few weeks ago on 3 June, said:We have to do better … I accept we need to do more"—and that after four years of a Labour Government who did little, if anything, to tackle the issues. No wonder Shelter commented:During the election, a lot of attention was given to improving education and health services. We hear much less about the thousands of families stuck in grotty B&Bs …The current crisis-driven approach to homelessness is not working.In 1996, the Prime Minister also promised that Labour woulddo everything in our power to end the scandal of homelessness, to tackle the spectacle of people sleeping rough on the streets and to end the waste of families sleeping in bed and breakfast accommodation.However, the Government's figures show that homelessness in England soared by 8,000 in the past three years. The latest figures, contained in a Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions press release of 15 June, show that homelessness priority acceptances in England rose from 102,410 in 1997 to 110,790—nearly 111,000—by the end of 2000. In addition, the number of homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has risen from just over 4,000 households in the first quarter of 1997 to nearly 11,000 in the first quarter of 2001.
The Secretary of State was fair and right to be defensive and embarrassed about those figures and to say that no one would defend them, but the Government have had four years to tackle those problems. As those statistics have risen inexorably, the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1997. Figures show that 100,000 more 48 children and 700,000 more people are living in poverty than in 1997. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation had this to say:since its election, the Government has introduced over a hundred policies designed, at least in part, to tackle problems related to poverty and social exclusion. But as our report shows, the problems continue unabated.
§ Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Joseph Rowntree report and many of the reports on poverty and inequality that have been published in the past year are based on statistics that are two years out of date and predate almost all the significant anti-poverty initiatives such as the working families tax credit, this year's children's tax credit and many other measures? He paints a deeply misleading picture by implying that those figures reflect current circumstances.
§ Mr. Waterson
I am fascinated by that intervention. Those are the only figures by which we can work. I would be interested to know whether the hon. Lady genuinely feels as a result of her experience of looking after her constituents—which I am sure she does well—that things are getting better rather than worse. That is certainly not my impression from my constituency. However, I am happy to bow to her if she believes that things are getting better.
§ Mr. Bercow
Given that the Secretary of State reiterated the need for a healthy private rented sector but that the 85 changes to the housing benefit regulations since 1997 have consistently militated against that and have stifled the growth of the sector, does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State needs urgently to speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to ensure that the housing benefit rules are clear, simple and intelligible and work in the interest of landlords, tenants and taxpayers?
§ Mr. Waterson
As usual, my hon. Friend makes a penetrating point. Housing benefit regulations are almost impossible to understand, whether one is a claimant or a landlord. How many landlords in the private sector have been put off by delays, or have ended up out of pocket because of those delays or because of bureaucracy and the often inefficient administration of the housing benefit system?
We heard a lot about empty housing from Labour in opposition. However, under this Government the amount of empty council housing in England has risen by 7 per cent., from more than 81,000 empty dwellings in April 1997 to more than 87,000 by April 2000. That development would not be so worrying if it were not taking place against the background of an enormous fall in the amount of social housing being constructed under this Government, which has plummeted compared with the amount built under the Conservative Government. Between 1993 and 1996, more than 150,000 new dwellings were built by local authorities and registered social landlords. Between 1997 and 2000, only 95,500 were constructed. The amount of new social housing built under this Government has already fallen by 37 per cent. Yet organisations such as Shelter estimate that we need 100,000 new units of affordable homes a year over each of the next 10 years.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Shelter several times. He must be 49 aware of its research showing that 26 per cent. of English authorities that transferred their stock found it less easy to house homeless people after the transfer. I asked him a question during the Committee proceedings on the Homes Bill, and I did not receive an answer. It is groundhog day, so I ask it again. Is it still Conservative policy to transfer all council housing as quickly as possible? It is important to receive an answer to that question this evening, as council tenants are rather nervous about the Conservatives' proposals.
§ Mr. Waterson
I apologise profusely if the hon. Gentleman feels that I did not answer his question in Committee. One of the wonders of the Government's legislative programme is that such opportunities come round time and again. If I do not answer his question to his total satisfaction now, I am sure that he will be placed on the Standing Committee and we can do it all over again.
The hon. Gentleman must have peeked at my notes, because I was about to discuss large-scale voluntary transfers. Not only are large-scale transfers still our policy—in due course, we would transfer all council accommodation, with consent—but it is worth reminding him, although I am sure that he does not need reminding, that they were a Conservative policy in the first place. It is fascinating that, although the Government have failed in all sorts of respects, their flagship housing policy has been to adopt and put into high gear the Tory policy of large-scale transfers. Indeed, the figure had reached about 500,000 units by the time of the election.
Like me, the hon. Gentleman might have stumbled across the written answer on the subject the other day from the new Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Northampton, North. In response to a question from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Under-Secretary announced the names of 27 local authorities that will proceed with 32 transfers of all or part of their housing stock. She went on to say thatthe programme will involve over 328.000 dwellings in large scale voluntary transfers over two years, generating capital receipts of over £1.1 billion for the authorities." —[Official Report, 22 June 2001: Vol. 370, c. 10W.]
§ Mr. Waterson
I will of course give way, although I hope that the hon. Gentleman will answer my question in intervening. Does he commend the adoption and success of a Tory policy, or is he against what his own Government are doing?
§ Dr. Iddon
There is a difference. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would answer a second question. At least we give the tenants the right to vote on the proposals. It is my understanding that, were Conservative policy to be adopted, council housing would be transferred not only as quickly as possible but without tenants being given the right to vote. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us the real situation?
§ Mr. Waterson
I thought that I made it clear in Committee, but I shall do so again on the Floor of the House: we do not believe in taking away the need for the consent of tenants, but want to encourage, if anything, a quickening of the pace of the programme. I am sure that 50 the hon. Gentleman has grasped the fact that if, on top of what happened over the past four years, the policy continues under the present Government, there will be hardly any council housing left by the next election. When the Conservatives storm to inevitable victory in four years' time, or earlier if this Government collapse under the weight of their own rhetoric, the problem or challenge or opportunity will no longer exist.
§ Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
Does not the difficulty for the Conservative party reside in its definition of tenants' consent? On the introduction of the policy in the dim, dark recesses of Conservative government, it then averred that tenants who did not vote were automatically voting yes.
§ Mr. Waterson
I would still love to know whether the hon. Lady, like the hon. Gentleman, agrees with her party's policy of speeding up large-scale transfers.
§ Mr. Waterson
She must take that up with the current Minister responsible for housing. Even if she thinks that such Conservative policy is flawed in some details, it is going full steam ahead under this Government. We commend them for that; we support it. They will not receive any criticism from us for carrying on with it. Our only criticism would be that it would be nice if they occasionally found some of their own policies in this field.
I should like to touch on another issue that was debated in Committee: the effect on social accommodation of housing asylum seekers, which seems particularly to be a problem in London. We discussed in Committee the comments of the Association of London Government's housing panel, which pointed to the increase in asylum seekers as a "significant contributory factor" in rising homelessness. The London Research Centre took a similar view. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister in reply whether the Government are taking that into account, particularly in the London context, in their policies on homelessness.
The Minister touched on the issue of houses in multiple occupation and the licensing system. It is as well that he did, because not only did that feature in the Labour party's 1997 election manifesto but the most recent manifesto repeated the pledge to do something about it. However, this Government have not introduced any such legislation on the matter, and this Bill does nothing to address it. There has been a chorus of disappointment and criticism from bodies such as Shelter, asking why on earth the Government are not tackling the issue. If I understood the Secretary of State correctly—I hope that I am not misreporting him—there will be a consultation document later this year. That sounds as though it is some way off and that any legislation is even further off.
It is important to make it clear that we as a party will continue to support effective action on rough sleeping. The initiative relating to people discharged from the forces is extremely important. Anyone who knows anything about homelessness has known for years that a very high percentage of those discharged from the forces cannot, for various reasons, cope with running their own lives outside a structured environment. I am sure that that important initiative is bearing and will bear a great deal of fruit.
51 Will the Minister who replies to the debate confirm that it is still the Government's policy to wind up the rough sleepers unit when it has met its targets and to devolve its responsibilities, powers and funding to local housing authorities?
In their first term, the Government fell far short of meeting the expectations of those involved in social housing and homelessness; they have even fallen short of their own promises and rhetoric. The time for delivery is now. The Bill is a start, but it is only a start.
§ Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on their new appointments. Assiduously arguing the importance of housing and of preventing homelessness has clearly ensured that the Bill is the first that the House considers after the long debate on the Queen's Speech. When I was campaigning in the general election, I found that homelessness was an issue of particular importance here in London. At this point, I should declare an interest: I am a member of the Mayor of London's cabinet and his adviser on homelessness.
One point that the Bill brings to the fore is that the prevention of homelessness is not exclusively a question of bricks and mortar. The multi-strategy approach inherent in the Bill will prove vital in tackling homelessness, which is particularly prevalent in London. It will also ensure that rough sleepers who can be persuaded to come in off the street are kept off the street. I pay tribute to the Government for funding the rough sleepers unit initiative and to the work that that initiative has done in London. It is entirely possible that the unit will reach its target of reducing the number of people who have nowhere to sleep other than the pavements and shop doorways of this great capital city by two thirds by 2002.
In the London context at least, the number of rough sleepers pales into insignificance when compared with the number of those who are deemed to be "hidden homeless". The most recent assessment puts the number of hidden homeless as high as 160,000. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), mentioned the number of people in temporary housing and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The most recent figures for London show almost 48,000 families in temporary housing and almost 8,000 people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
The issue is clearly of enormous importance, but there is little point in any Government—certainly not a radical, reforming Government such as ours—attempting to tackle homelessness unless they also tackle the other basic problems that deny the citizens of this country equal opportunities: poverty, ill health and the inadequacies of our education system. I should point out to the Conservatives that it was they who left us to tackle those problems. I found it incomprehensible that the hon. Member for Eastbourne should ask why the Government had not solved the problem of homelessness in their first four years. He neatly side-stepped the real issue, for which he should have been apologising in spades. Conservative Governments, after almost two decades, left us with appalling problems, not least in social housing.
52 When the Conservative Government came to office in 1979, London boroughs were building affordable social housing at the rate, on average, of 15,000 units a year. When Labour came into office in 1997, I believe that only one property had been built in the Greater London area by a local authority. That was the direct result of Conservative Government policies. There was no mention of the number of families who became homeless because of Conservative party economic policies when they lost their houses because they could no longer keep up with the mortgage payments.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Bill looks to the future, not the past. It behoves us as a radical and reforming Government, with a clear commitment to the idea of affordable social housing, to learn from the disastrous mistakes of disastrous Conservative Governments and place, as the Bill clearly does, housing at the top of the agendas of local authorities and the Government.
Poor housing creates ill health. It reduces the ability of young children to learn. It can affect the ability of people to re-skill themselves and therefore to earn for themselves and their families a decent living wage. Housing is essential in delivering on other major strands of social reform, which is the Government's clear commitment.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made the salient point that many people who are homeless are suffering from mental illness. The point was accepted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in terms of the multi-agency approach to tackling and preventing homelessness.
When local authorities begin to set in train their homelessness strategies, I sincerely hope that they will not regard the approach as being limited either to the housing officer or to the director of social services. There must be links with health departments, and in many instances they should go much broader than the remit of a local authority. There should be links with basic education, with further and higher education and with the many programmes that are already being put in place by the voluntary sector that relate to affording homeless people meaningful occupations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred this morning to his visit to the Passage and to Sister Ellen and her remarkable band of volunteers. Their work is extraordinarily valuable. I feel confident that he would not wish to say that the Passage was the only place in London where sterling work is being done.
Only this morning, I visited one of the hostels run by St. Mungo's, which is situated in Kingsway. Programmes at that hostel are designed to help many young people to develop skills. They were not given the necessary encouragement or the straightforward training to develop skills when they were at school. Of course, they were at school under a Conservative regime. It is hardly to be wondered at that they left school with so few skills to enable them to create a life for themselves in the wider world.
By taking a multi-agency approach, we can begin to tackle a problem that no nation as rich as ours in the 21st century should have to face. However, we do have to face it, and the multi-agency approach is right. The clear commitment given by the Government and the vast amounts of money being poured into the creation of social housing are the way forward. We will not be able to 53 transform the situation overnight and no single agency can tackle the issue. However, if we accept that all the agencies must work together, with a clearly defined goal to eradicate for ever poor housing and, certainly, homelessness, much can be achieved.
That will be achieved only by central and local government working together, by the public and private sectors working together and by the statutory and voluntary sectors working together. Again, in the London context, we hope that local authorities will be able to involve the private rented sector in a continuing relationship that will ensure that families are taken out of appalling bed-and-breakfast accommodation. No child should have to sleep next door to someone who is severely mentally damaged or suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, where the only division between them is not even a lath and plaster wall but often something that a violent fist could easily come through. It is no use pretending that that can be achieved and that affordable housing for all can be provided unless there are careful partnerships, and careful understanding by those who decide where people will live. There must be genuine consideration of who the neighbours are.
We have heard much about neighbours from hell. Every hon. Member could cite a constituency case involving a neighbour from hell—[Interruption.] Not everybody lives next door to a Member of Parliament; hon. Members should not be quite so quick to castigate themselves. The issue can certainly be complicated. For example, what does a local authority do when people who own their own property object to people who are moved in next door because they have been harassed on the ground that they do not like the colour of the incomers' skin? The local authorities with which I have dealt are clear that they will not tolerate or indulge that kind of malice by neighbours.
There are other cases in which, for example, a woman has to move from her home because of domestic violence. However, that means that her children have to move from their local school and she has to move away from the supportive circle of friends and family. Quite often, she has to move a considerable distance. In one case, which I have mentioned in the Chamber before, the perpetrator of domestic violence was prevented from going within a certain distance of his partner and her family. However, his brothers took over the job and decided that it was their duty to harass and even physically attack my constituent. The issue involves many complex matters.
§ Tony Baldry
One thing that concerns me—and I declare an interest as a lawyer—is that it is now practically impossible for many of our constituents to get access to the courts. In the case to which the hon. Lady referred, it would be possible, as it was in the past, to get an injunction at the county court to restrain individuals themselves, their agents or servants that would have prevented the brothers from taking such action. If suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House, who see constituents at their surgeries, find increasingly that vulnerable, inarticulate people are obliged to represent themselves in the county court in eviction and other proceedings and, not surprisingly, find it difficult.
§ Glenda Jackson
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but I can look only at the example of my own local authority; no such individual would be without some form of advocacy if he or she were in that situation, as there 54 is close working between the authority's relevant bodies. However, I do not claim that all local authorities are such shining examples.
I am a believer in short, sharp speeches in the Chamber, and the hon. Gentleman has brought me neatly to my final point: we must not lose sight of the fact that the most vulnerable people in our society can be some of the most unpleasant, difficult and, in some instances, the most violent and hardest to reach. They can be the most obdurate and they dislike and fear authority in any shape or form; they are not the easiest people to deal with. However, it is surely our responsibility as a civilised society to ensure that, in any strategy proposed by a local authority or consortium of local authorities, the needs of those people will be considered and, in future, adequately met. Otherwise, there will simply be a revolving door of people being taken off the streets, put in the wrong kind of situation, denied the right kind of social interchange and going back on the streets.
I shall end where I began by welcoming the commitment that is symbolised by the Bill being the first of the Session to be debated on the Floor of the House; I wish it well in its passage.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
I join a large number of hon. Members who have already congratulated the Secretary of State in the knowledge that he will bring a certain flair to his post. It was clear from his speech that he has a genuine interest in this issue. I also welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble); I hope that she enjoys her new brief.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). Interestingly, the Secretary of State began his contribution by referring to his visit this morning to the Passage and the work of Sister Ellen in helping homeless people. In doing so, he drew attention to the very point highlighted by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate: the Bill, by itself, will not solve all the problems of homelessness. It is important to recognise that homeless people rarely need only a roof over their heads; they need a wide range of support, often for problems related to unemployment, marriage breakdown and, as others have said, mental health difficulties and drug and alcohol abuse. It is vital that we continue work that will ensure the development of the inter-agency activities to which the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate referred.
The Secretary of State was right to draw attention to a number of issues that need to be addressed if we are to begin to tackle the serious problem of homelessness that we still have in this country. I was delighted that he referred to the urgent need to increase the amount of social or affordable housing; at least he recognises that that there is a continuing problem concerning the need to tackle the significant number of empty houses in this country. It is a disgrace that there are more than 100,000 homeless households, yet a staggering 750,000 empty properties in this country. I welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that he will look at measures to address that. I am also delighted that he will start to look, albeit rather belatedly, at the promise in the 1997 Labour manifesto to develop measures for licensing schemes for houses in multiple occupation.
55 Those measures are all welcome, but the Bill does not seek to deal with them. It is important to recognise that we must not only address other measures but look at those that will impinge directly on the Bill. In particular, we must consider the Bill alongside the proposal to extend the categories of homeless people who, in future, have to be supported by local authorities. As we know, that package is likely to include 16 and 17-year-olds, care leavers and people who are vulnerable as a result of violence, harassment or an institutionalised background, including, as has been said, ex-service men and women.
I note that a consultation document on those new categories was published at the end of last week, with a consultation end-date of 21 September. I hope that when the Minister replies she will assure me that copies of that document will be made available in the Library. Perhaps she will also tell us when she expects the new categories to come into force. That will be an important measure, which we welcome, and we hope that it will be introduced as soon as possible.
I am delighted by the Bill. Like other hon. Members, I am pleased that it is the first Bill in the new Session. Perhaps that is a sign that housing will have higher priority in the work of this Parliament than it has had in recent years.
I was somewhat surprised by the frequent references of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) to the work of Shelter. He rightly praised to the skies the work that Shelter has been doing for years, but I remind him that one of Shelter's long-standing concerns is the fact that the previous Conservative Government's Housing Act 1996 repealed measures introduced by my late hon. Friend the Liberal Member of Parliament, Stephen Ross, in his Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. Nevertheless, if there has been a U-turn—a conversion—that is welcome.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said that on topics such as housing Liberal Democrats sometimes tend to be anorak-like. On this occasion, I am afraid, I may prove him right. Having said that there is much in the Bill that I welcome, I acknowledge that there is still scope for improvement. In the measure's first outing, in its earlier guise of part II of the Homes Bill, a number of Liberal Democrat amendments were accepted in Committee. I am delighted—indeed, my cup runneth over—that the Government saw fit to incorporate in the Bill several elements that we proposed last time round, but which they rejected at that time. Nevertheless, further work is necessary in some areas.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Given that he is now a self-proclaimed anorak, and notwithstanding the importance of the availability of public finance for good housing, will he tell the House what assessment he has made of the effect of the change in the rules on the use of capital receipts from the sale of council houses on the size of interest repayments on local authority debt?
§ Mr. Foster
To save the House time, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave about three months ago to an identical question.
The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) referred to widespread concern about the impact of the rather large number of stock transfers that are taking 56 place. Reference was made to the Minister's recent announcement that 328,000 properties are to form part of the second wave, bringing to 580,000 the total number of properties that will have been transferred. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt well aware that with a number of large metropolitan areas such as Birmingham and Sheffield planning to go down that route, it is likely that by 2004 registered social landlords will be the main owners of social housing.
My concern, which I expressed in Committee when we discussed part II of the Homes Bill, is that in the proposed legislation there is not a strong enough relationship between local authorities, which have responsibility for homelessness strategies, and registered social landlords, which will have the majority of the properties. As the Minister knows, the Government made it clear in the housing Green Paper that they intended to impose further requirements on RSLs and their relationship with local authorities; the Government spoke of a mechanism to ensure that.
During the passage of the previous Bill, I moved an amendment to try to improve that relationship. The Government assured me that that was not necessary, as the Housing Corporation would have more teeth. On the strength of that assurance, I was prepared to drop the argument. I followed up with a series of parliamentary questions about the Government's promise that the Housing Corporation would be able to ensure that registered social landlords worked constructively with local authorities. The answers left me somewhat disappointed.
I had hoped to receive confirmation that the Housing Corporation would strengthen its statutory housing management guidance. I was told that a new draft would be available in May, but so far that has not happened. However, in the draft that has been produced, there is considerable cause for concern.
The draft refers directly to the responsibility of registered social landlords to work with local authorities, but I can tell the Minister that that reference is very low down on the list of priorities, and that there is no sign of a performance indicator to monitor the circumstances in which RSLs refuse to accommodate households nominated by local authorities.
The Secretary of State mentioned my concern about guidance, and I certainly am concerned when guidance is weak. I prefer the legislative framework to be used, rather than guidance. If the guidance before us is the only guidance that there will be, I do not believe that it is strong enough to ensure that vital relationship, as more and more local authorities go down the stock transfer route.
The Minister may be able to persuade me not to introduce amendments to the Bill if she can assure me, first, that the Housing Corporation will give further consideration to increasing the priority attached to working with local authorities; secondly, that she will consider persuading the Housing Corporation to introduce a performance indicator in the code of practice; and, thirdly, that she will guarantee that there will be wide consultation before the guidance is approved.
There is another aspect of the Bill in which the guidance may be too weak. We have heard much about neighbours from hell, and it is right that that should be discussed. The hon. Member for Eastbourne pointed to 57 the tension inherent in the issue. We want to ensure that local authorities do everything they can to assist homeless individuals and households, but we want them to retain the right to refuse to assist people who have consistently failed to maintain good standards of behaviour or to pay rent on time. There is a huge tension between the two objectives.
§ Glenda Jackson
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that rent is not being paid on time in some London boroughs because the housing benefit system is in such an appalling mess? That is one area in which there should be multi-agency working. Ministers in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions should be speaking to their counterparts in the Department of Work and Pensions to get the problem sorted.
§ Mr. Foster
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the nature of the mess, and some of us have long waited for the Government to propose reforms of the housing benefits system. There is, however, an additional problem. Some local authorities have "out-sourced"—privatised—their work to address the issue. In just the past week, one local authority became so fed up with a privatised organisation's way of addressing the issue that it had to bring the service back in-house. As the hon. Lady said, it is so difficult to address the issue because it encompasses so many other aspects of local authorities' and other agencies' work. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it is possible to address the issue in isolation or to out-source it.
§ Jeremy Corbyn
I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's comments on housing benefit and the need to bring it in-house to enable a multi-agency approach. Will he therefore contact Liberal Democrat-controlled Islington council and advise it to discontinue the contract with ITNET that it wrongly signed rather than extend it for another four years?
§ Mr. Foster
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am already in discussions on that very point with various authorities of all political parties that have taken that route and are increasingly encountering difficulties with the contracts that they have signed. I shall continue that dialogue.
§ Glenda Jackson
May I strongly recommend that the hon. Gentleman recommend that those local authorities contact the London borough of Camden, which has received two citizens charter awards for the efficiency of its housing benefits system?
§ Mr. Foster
I shall certainly bear that point in mind.
We must ask whether the Bill properly addresses the difficult issue of the conflict between ensuring help for the maximum number of people with homelessness needs and trying to ensure that local authorities have some discretion about who they help. Ministers plan to address the issue primarily in guidance, but I do not believe that guidance alone will work. Perhaps the less-emotive issue of the suspension of people with rent arrears can best illustrate why I believe that.
The guidance says that the exception of such people should be the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, the Government's own research has demonstrated that 29 per cent. of authorities that disqualify housing register 58 or transfer list applicants because of arrears have absolutely no documented rules specifying the circumstances or debt level that should trigger exclusion or suspension. Moreover, 63 per cent. of authorities that have such policies regard any debt level as sufficient grounds for exclusion or suspension, so, although such a policy is not within the spirit of the Government's own Green Paper or guidance, one is being operated. If Ministers wish to persist in using guidance as the only tool to tackle the problem, that guidance will have to be considerably strengthened.
I should like, finally, to mention three or four small matters where I believe that further change is necessary.
§ Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that people with arrears should be eligible for transfer? As he said, local authorities tend to try to persuade people to balance their books.
§ Mr. Foster
I have some difficulty with that intervention. I think that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that an authority should be able to decide not to provide support to some tenants, such as in some cases of anti-social behaviour or persistent rent arrears, but such a decision should be taken only in extreme cases. The Government's own research has shown that, in many cases, some local authorities have used any rent arrears, even a single instance of rent arrears, as a justification not to house. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Secretary of State that other means of providing support to such individuals or households should come first and that the prime concern should be to meet the housing need of that family, not least for the sake of any children.
There have been welcome changes in the review process for those who are concerned about a local authority's allocation decision, but as a result of the various changes that have been introduced there is an inconsistency in the process. A review may be based on two aspects of the process: the determination on eligibility for support, and the priority given to individuals who are deemed to be eligible.
The procedure at the eligibility stage—dealt with in clause 13 in proposed subsections (9) to (11) of new section 160A—places the onus on the local authority to notify the applicant of his or her right to a review. Rather bizarrely, however, clause 15(4), which deals with the priority point, turns the process on its head by placing responsibility on the applicant to request information from the authority on his or her review. Given the nature of those whom we are seeking to assist, it seems sensible that the same procedure should apply to both parts of the review process by placing the onus on the local authority to notify the applicant.
§ Mr. Hancock
Is there not another aspect of the review process? Although a property may have been allocated, a local authority will not have discharged its responsibilities until the applicant has been informed of his or her right to a review of the suitability of accommodation. That is a new provision. Does my hon. Friend believe that local authorities will be able to cope if the right of suitability is exercised in all cases?
§ Mr. Foster
As the Secretary of State admitted earlier, given the shortage of high-quality temporary 59 accommodation, that is clearly going to be very difficult. Currently, 75,000 people are in temporary accommodation. I would love the legislation to include provisions on the suitability of temporary accommodation and requiring local authorities to continue to provide accommodation in the review period. If a person does not have access to accommodation, it would be very difficult for him to exercise fully his right to ensure that the review had been conducted appropriately.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly raised the issue of the minimum period allowed when a final offer is made. In the previous Parliament, when the Committee was considering the Homes Bill, I gave various examples of local authorities that had given people less than 24 hours to accept a final offer. Although all the Committee members accepted that that was unacceptable, the Government were unwilling to accept an amendment proposing to allow applicants a minimum of three days to reflect on whether to accept a final offer. I very much hope that the Government are prepared to think again on that issue.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to discuss particular aspects of the Bill, but the most important point is that the Bill has the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, all organisations working in the homelessness sector and the local government associations. It is therefore incumbent on us to give the Bill a speedy passage, to ensure that it can begin to provide the additional help that homeless people desperately deserve.
§ Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in such an important debate, and I add my congratulations to my right hon. and hon. Friends on their appointments.
It is a great honour to represent the people of Alyn and Deeside in this House and, equally, to follow such an excellent Member of Parliament as Barry Jones. Barry represented the seat for 31 years and was the very model of a good constituency Member of Parliament: dedicated, hard working and always available to the people of Alyn and Deeside.
During the election campaign, I was struck by the number of people whom Barry had helped personally. It was not just what Barry had done for Alyn and Deeside, but what Barry had done for them. I am sure that if it had not been for Labour's years in opposition, Barry would have achieved high office in this country. I am sure also that the House will join me in wishing Barry well as his service to the people of Wales and the rest of Britain continues in the other place. I have been told on many occasions that Barry will be a hard act to follow.
As a new Member of Parliament, I recognise that the political institutions of Wales have changed and that the Assembly now plays an important role, particularly in respect of education and health. I look forward to working with our AM, Tom Middlehurst, on these issues.
In preparation for this speech, I took the opportunity of using the resources of the Library and found out what my predecessors, Barry Jones and Eirene White, had said in their maiden speeches. I also found that Barry was 60 followed in his maiden speech by another new Member—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who has just left the Chamber, probably because he has other more important issues on his mind.
Both Barry and Eirene talked at length about a constituency dominated by the steel industry at Shotton, then our largest employer and with the whole community reliant upon it for its livelihood. It is with great sadness that I cannot talk in such terms today. Only last week, we had further job losses at Shotton and yet another part of this once great industry fell to the vagaries of the marketplace. For those who remain, we recognise that there is a long fight ahead. Above all else, we now have to ask the company to look to the long term and not to react to short-term market movements.
The industry's employees have shown their commitment with improved productivity and flexibility. We now need a similar commitment from Corus. However, I welcome the ISERBS package, which will help redundant steelworkers to train for the future. It is not just industry that suffers, but whole communities in Shotton and Connah's Quay: the shops and other businesses that are supported by the steel community. This is too often forgotten.
The debate today is about homelessness and housing need. We need adequate social housing but, equally, we need stable communities, jobs and security. In 1980, Alyn and Deeside suffered terrible job losses in steel production and there were few opportunities for the men and women who lost their jobs. Thankfully, we are no longer reliant on just one industry for our livelihoods.
The British Aerospace facility at Broughton is a shining example of what can be achieved, and is now recognised as a world leader in aircraft wing production. With the building of the new large aircraft, the A380, Broughton will employ more than 6,000 people. It is a matter of great credit and vision that it was this Government who supported the venture, which I am confident will go on to have great success. Airbus is competing in a difficult market, but Airbus is winning through. My predecessor campaigned long and hard for Airbus, as he did for Raytheon when it looked as if that company would shift production to America. I am pleased to say that that factory is now doing well and plays an important role in the community.
There are many other successful businesses in Alyn and Deeside, including Toyota, which has recently expanded production of engines at its plant. My constituency also contains a fanning community, which, although spared foot and mouth, finds itself struggling, as does the industry as a whole.
The House may have noticed that my accent is not one of a native of north Wales. As a new candidate and Member of Parliament, however, I could not have asked for a warmer welcome for me and my family from the people of Alyn and Deeside. I must make special mention of Ivor Roberts MBE, who has worked tirelessly as a county councillor for Buckley and as agent for Barry Jones and me.
My confidence during the campaign was put to the test, surprisingly, after the result. On Friday, I bought a copy of The Chronicle election special and was somewhat alarmed by the headline "Tory triumph". Had it been a dream? Was this now the nightmare? Thankfully—although not for the people of Cheshire—the headline was 61 referring to the Cheshire county council elections. Underneath, in much smaller writing, there was something about another Labour landslide. I breathed a sigh of relief.
While my constituency is doing well and continuing to increase its industry and employment, there are still areas of social deprivation and great need. It is often in constituencies such as mine that those problems go unnoticed, particularly by those outside the community.
I am always concerned when I see empty properties. They are not only wasteful, but they bring down an area, sap morale and deter people from moving into the community. It is important to note, however, that these properties are not necessarily council owned, and that shop properties in particular are owned in the private sector. We must get such properties back into the system as quickly as possible. If we do not, it will be very difficult to reverse the trend.
I believe that, in the main, if people have access to decent housing, they will respond accordingly, taking pride in their property and the community around them. Like all hon. Members, I receive many letters from constituents regarding housing issues, but that is a positive thing. It is when people cease to care that we have a problem. It is our task to ensure that councils and housing associations have the resources to meet the aspirations of the people.
§ Tony Baldry (Banbury)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on his commendable maiden speech. As he said, his predecessor Barry Jones was much liked in all parts of the House. I suspect that we would all agree that had Labour not been in opposition for 18 years, Barry would almost certainly have served on the Treasury Bench at some point. He was a good friend and it is good news that he is now in the other place, or soon will be. It is always a mystery how people are spirited there. They are gazetted, and are given such wondrous names that one has to catch up with who they are.
The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside's speech was a model of a maiden speech and I look forward to hearing from him in the future. He will discover that he and other colleagues will get ragged incessantly by English Members of Parliament who are concerned that Wales, and indeed Scotland, seem to get a disproportionate amount of the UK cake, notwithstanding the fact of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. However, all that is for another day.
I am conscious that today is a day on which one should not make long speeches, because I see many hon. Friends who wish to make their maiden speeches. Many of them are as knowledgable as—if not far more knowledgable than—me on the subject of housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) —who I hope will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—was a special adviser to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and me when we were Environment Ministers.
For a long time, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) was a special adviser to the Conservative group on Oxfordshire county council. There is considerable expertise on the Conservative Benches and it is significant that so many of my hon. Friends wish to make their maiden speeches on this subject. That 62 demonstrates the commitment that the Conservatives have had to housing since the time of Disraeli, and our belief in one nation.
This is obviously a very worthy Bill, but it is difficult to work out what will be different in housing policy once the Bill is enacted.
Clauses 1 to 3, which are the main thrust of the Bill, require local authorities to develop a positive, proactive homelessness strategy, but I suspect that most local authorities already do that. Certainly, Conservative-controlled Cherwell district council in my area has long had such a strategy. Its initiatives include a "move on" policy, to allow the—mainly young—people living in supported housing who have demonstrated an ability to live independently to move into permanent social housing.
The council participates in a countrywide scheme with the drugs action team and other statutory and voluntary organisations to provide housing for individuals who have successfully tackled their drugs misuse, facilitating their rejection of drugs and possibly an offending life style. A registered social landlord, with the council's support, has sought funding from the Housing Corporation for the development of emergency accommodation for single homeless people, with day care provision.
We are setting up a women's refuge in Banbury. The council, working with the community mental health trust, is providing some flats in the new social housing in Bicester for people with a mental health problem, and a similar scheme is being developed for new social housing development in Banbury.
I am sure that the Government would welcome all those initiatives. We have had a large-scale voluntary transfer in Cherwell, where people were given a choice of staying with the district council or going to a housing association, Banbury Homes. As part of the strategy, Banbury Homes, too, has some excellent initiatives. It has a scheme whereby 19 young people aged 16 to 25 reside in a foyer in central Banbury. To qualify for one of the eight bedsits or 11 flats, they have to agree to some form of education and training.
The foyer scheme has led to many young people not only finding decent housing but taking up educational opportunities that they would otherwise have missed. One youngster said:If I hadn't come to the Foyer I wouldn't even have known about the Prince's Trust … I wouldn't have got the encouragement and support I've been given. They don't just stick you in a flat and say 'get on with it'. They're with you every step of the way … The Foyer has opened windows and doors of opportunity that I never imagined were possible.Banbury Homes provides a safe and secure environment at Cotefield house, where vulnerable families are given the support and encouragement that they need to rebuild broken lives. It is of especial benefit for people fleeing domestic violence.
Banbury Homes also runs a north Oxfordshire tenancy support project, helping both its own and Cherwell district council's tenants to deal with financial and social problems that are making it difficult for them to maintain their tenancies. There are about 650 tenants in Cherwell with significant rent arrears, and the project is designed to help them, because, as Banbury Homes says, those arrears are often just a symptom of other underlying problems. It tries to link them to the various support services to help tackle the root causes.
63 Banbury Homes runs a rent deposit guarantee scheme, which has helped about 600 people to find accommodation in the private rented sector by guaranteeing a deposit. The tenant benefits and the landlord is given some security.
Housing authorities such as Cherwell district council are, quite properly, doing everything that the Government want them to do. What more is to be required of them? Is it intended that the Bill should seem to be doing more than it actually does? Clause 5 covers theProvision of accommodation for persons not in priority need who are not homeless intentionally".It is designed to get away from a points system. Cherwell district council is already away from a points system and into bands.
The reality is that it is very difficult to get council accommodation in Cherwell—I suspect that this is true everywhere—unless someone is a high-priority case. Cherwell has about 2,000 families on the housing waiting list, and about 200 vacancies a year in social housing. For the vast majority of families who apply to the council, the only route is into private rented accommodation, with the support of housing benefit. Those people are concerned that they are then deemed to be adequately housed and cease to be anything approaching a high-priority case.
I welcome clause 11, which makes it easier to appeal to the county court, because it was ridiculous for tenants or those concerned about their housing to have to appeal to the High Court, especially as it is increasingly difficult to get legal aid. That put access to justice beyond many people's reach. Clause 8 was introduced on similar grounds. I welcome all those worthwhile tidying-up provisions, but it is unclear how the Bill will make it easier for people to have access to affordable social housing.
What does the Bill do that responsible authorities such as Cherwell district council, in conjunction with housing associations such as Banbury Homes, are not already doing? Is not the danger that the Bill will give the impression that the Government are seeking to do something on which they cannot deliver, and that it will raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled?
I do not make this as a party political point. Recent research carried out by Cambridge university suggests that 80,000 to 85,000 new affordable homes are needed each year to meet extra demand, and that we are currently providing only about half that number. Providing such homes is an incredibly expensive exercise, not least at a time when it is increasingly difficult to find land on which local authorities or, more realistically, housing associations can build.
By the judicious demolition of five pairs of postwar prefabs in the centre of Banbury, Banbury Homes is creating 16 new two and three-bedroom homes. Such an initiative requires the most enormous amount of delicate negotiation with existing tenants, planning authorities and the Housing Corporation, which provides the funding.
I ask the Minister, in her wind-up, to make clearer to the House, in a couple of sentences, what the Bill will do that responsible local authorities and social landlords are not already doing. How will it improve people's ability to move into social accommodation, and what real changes will it make to people's lives? If the Bill does not make real improvements, although it may give the impression of doing something, it will not deliver very much.
§ Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)
I congratulate the new ministerial team on their appointment and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on his maiden speech, which demonstrated a powerful commitment to his constituency. He also paid a moving tribute to his predecessor, and in particular to the efficacy of his efforts with his casework. I wonder whether, now that he no longer has a constituency of his own, my former hon. Friend might be interested in a little outsourcing; I am sure that I could come to an arrangement with him.
We have heard contributions from both sides that have shown a clear consensus about the underlying principles of the Bill, especially the requirement for local authorities to develop homelessness strategies alongside their housing strategies, the emphasis on prevention and the development of choice-based lettings.
I also welcome the ending of the arbitrary requirement for local authorities to provide accommodation for two years only. Although that rule was more often breached than practised, it none the less sent out an unwelcome message to homeless people and others in housing need that the Government were not prepared to put their housing needs centre-stage, or to recognise the vulnerability that accompanies homelessness.
It is a great credit to the Government that they have reintroduced the Bill into the House so quickly, and I hope that we will be able to give it a swift passage. However, the sky over the Liberal Democrat Benches seems to be darkening with anoraks, and I think I hear the sound of distant thunder—so I shall be relieved when we have been able to see the Bill through and put it into action.
The election campaign was a sobering experience for me in that it revealed housing need. In the four previous years, housing issues were by far the most frequent and serious of all the casework problems that I experienced, but in the campaign I found to my surprise that in dealing with the people who had found their way to my surgery, I had not necessarily been dealing with the worst housing problems. Behind almost every third door that I knocked on—certainly in the needier parts of my constituency—I found yet more cases of housing need.
I therefore welcome the opportunity to set the Bill in the context of the issues of housing supply that have to be addressed. Over a number of years, and under different Governments, there has been an unsustainable fall in the supply of affordable and social housing. In places such as London and the south-east, and in some other parts of the country as well, we are reaching a crisis point in the provision of social housing. Something must be done to tackle that problem.
Of course, I welcome and appreciate the fact that there has been a dramatic increase in housing investment through the comprehensive spending review. That is working its way through. Unlike the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), I do not look back on the past four years of the Labour Government as a dismal record. The money has been increasing, and housing has moved up the ladder of political importance, with the targets being set—within the framework for ending child poverty—for reducing the number of children being brought up in substandard housing.
Particular emphasis has also been put on improving the condition of the housing stock. That is welcome, but that emphasis addresses the needs of some parts of the country 65 more than those of others. There is no doubt that some parts of the country have a real problem with the chronic substandard quality of their accommodation. However, the problem that areas of low demand, often in the north, are experiencing are not the same as those that face London and the south-east. It is now time to shift—or rather, to balance—the emphasis towards addressing those needs.
Between 1995 and last year, the number of new lettings by councils and housing associations fell from 51,650 to 36,100. Therein lies the problem: until we reverse that decline in letting we shall go on having to deal with all the problems of unmet housing need outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson).
Unfortunately, and in parallel to that, the provision of private rented accommodation for families on low incomes has been halved. There are several reasons for that, and they all have to be dealt with. One reason is the absolute chaos that faces people in private rented accommodation when they make a claim for housing benefit. There is no doubt about that, and it has been mentioned before.
My local authority of Westminster privatised its housing benefit service using Capita, and the system went into free fall a little over a year and a half ago. Although the volume of cases in arrears has now fallen substantially, scarcely a day goes by when I do not find yet another case of someone receiving a notice seeking possession, or even being evicted, because of non-payment of housing benefit. Private landlords, unlike registered social landlords, simply will not stand for that.
That is definitely one of the reasons, but it is not the only reason—another reason is London's economic success. Landlords who five to eight years ago, during the slump in the housing market in the mid-1990s, were renting to families on lower incomes and housing benefit, no longer need to do so. They can rent their property at the higher end of the market and receive a substantial private rent. The whole nature of the private rented accommodation market has changed.
In addition, property that was being used as hostels for homeless families and others in need is now being converted to backpackers' hostels, and used for other purposes connected with the tourist trade. The supply of that form of accommodation has now almost dried up. One of the great challenges that we face, alongside that of increasing the supply, is making good that shortfall in private rented accommodation and giving people an alternative, particularly those who move in and out of London on a short-term basis for work and other reasons.
The drop in such provision is unsustainable, and is doing vast damage to our communities and incredible damage to the individuals who, as a result, have to go through the hell of living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate discussed some of the conditions in which people are living.
Two years ago, the Dixon inquiry into the conditions that led a severely mentally ill man to kill a young policewoman in east London, revealed what pressure cookers the bed-and-breakfast hostels and hotels are turning into. Families with young children are living next door to people with severe and enduring mental health 66 difficulties, and the pressure under which they live leads to further mental stress, emotional breakdown, the breakdown of relationships and many related problems.
§ Geraint Davies
As the chair of the London boroughs housing committee in a former life, I know that, as my hon. Friend is saying, bed and breakfast is not only completely socially unacceptable but economically ignorant. Obviously, the cost of keeping people in bed and breakfast is much higher than sustaining them in affordable housing. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the Bill provides extra rights for homeless people and gives extra duties to government to provide more affordable housing, which is desperately needed in London today?
§ Ms Buck
I agree with my hon. Friend, particularly about the economic illiteracy of bed-and-breakfast accommodation; it is now estimated that we spend £150 million in London alone on it. That is mad. It is not only bed and breakfast that is economically illiterate, but temporary accommodation, too—although I do not say for a second that we shall be able to deal with all that overnight. We are now housing about 50,000 families in London in temporary accommodation, in some cases leasing back former council flats for which tenants would have been paying £80 or £90 a week in rent, whose rent is now £1,000 a month.
Housing benefit frequently picks up the bill, and although families would like to be able to be free of benefit and go to work, they cannot do so because the cost of their rent traps them in welfare dependency. If we are to consider temporary accommodation instead of bed and breakfast as a medium-to-longer term solution to housing need, we will need a new deal that is specially targeted at families in temporary accommodation to enable them to overcome that benefit barrier to work.
The term "temporary accommodation" has become something of a misnomer, because we are talking about interim accommodation. People in temporary accommodation such as a leased flat stay for five or eight years—as long as many people would expect to stay in a social tenancy.
The Government can and should do much to tackle the problems that I have mentioned, but local authorities must not be let off the hook. We need a multilayered approach to the problem of homelessness. The two local authorities that my constituency covers—Kensington and Westminster—have, at best, a chequered record in securing affordable housing from partnerships with the private sector under section 106. Better-performing councils, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, have been able to secure more than 50 per cent. of development on private land for affordable housing, and that is considerably to their credit.
In south Westminster, we recently had to look to an intervention from the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone; fortunately, he managed to raise the contribution from the developer from £850,000 to £2.5 million. That goes to show what can be achieved when the clear political will exists. Westminster has made progress—I congratulate the council—because instead of requiring 25 per cent. of new development to be affordable housing, it now requires 25 per cent. plus a further 5 per cent. to be made available to key workers. However, that welcome change has 67 required some pressure from the Mayor. I support the Mayor's initiatives on housing and, as a member of his housing commission last autumn, I welcome the strategies to boost the supply of accommodation set out in its paper, which were advanced in the spatial development strategy.
When we discussed the Homes Bill in the previous Parliament, I tabled a probing amendment, which was not reached because of lack of time, to set targets for a reduction in the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In response to a parliamentary question that I tabled, we had the announcement of the establishment of the bed-and-breakfast unit, which is a great step forward. It is the single most pleasing action the Government have taken on the issue of housing recently, because the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation has no place in the 21st century. We cannot allow families with young children, and other vulnerable people, to spend more than the shortest period, in emergencies, in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It damages their health and relationships and severely disrupts children's educational performance. Strategies aimed at tackling social exclusion cannot work effectively so long as thousands of families can expect to spend months, and sometimes years, living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
With so many strategies, one substitutes a focus on a particular problem—in this case, bed and breakfast, but it also happened with rough sleepers—for an eye on the bigger picture. In this case, that is housing supply. Overcrowding and the loss of privacy in hostel and hotel accommodation is a critical problem, but it is no worse than the loss of privacy and overcrowding that an increasing number of households experience under existing social and registered social landlord tenancies. In the weeks before the election as I went around my constituency, I met hundreds of families—some already known to me—living in levels of chronic overcrowding that are nothing short of a scandal.
Unfortunately, although the Housing Act 1996 expected local authorities to give due preference to overcrowded households, the legislation on which that definition is based is now 70 years out of date. There is an urgent need to bring up to date the framework of overcrowding legislation to enable local authorities properly to reflect the duties they owe to all households seeking accommodation, especially larger family units, which do not get the priority they need.
One family I met—I could easily have chosen 99 others—living on an estate in Westminster, had seven people, ranging in age from two to 35, sharing a small two-bedroomed flat that the council has, technically correctly, assessed as not overcrowded until the nine-year-old turns 10, when, with the charm that characterises so much of our legislation, he ceases to be half a person. We cannot be serious about a system that allows a family of seven living in a small two-bedroomed flat to be defined as not overcrowded. However, the statutory overcrowding legislation, based on the conditions that prevailed in the 1930s, gives no incentive to local authorities to give due priority to larger households.
One problem that arises, as we increasingly shift our housing stock from council-owned to registered social landlord accommodation—whether through supply or transfers—is that larger family units cannot be moved out 68 of their present accommodation into an alternative that is technically not large enough for their requirements. So, my family of seven, who would technically require four or five-bedroom accommodation, cannot be moved to a housing association property with three bedrooms, even though that would significantly relieve their housing pressure, because the rules do not allow that. The extent of that problem is now so great and so entrenched across London that there is a real risk that tens of thousands of overcrowded families will be trapped in local authority accommodation with no prospects of moving. That is unacceptable.
I warmly congratulate the Government on bringing back the Bill, on all the action that has been taken and on the investment that has been made to tackle housing issues. However, there is much more to do, and I would welcome an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the Government have fully accepted the need for two housing policies, and not just one.
The needs of large areas of this country, especially Birmingham and further north, which have poor-quality estates where nobody wants to live, are completely different from the needs of areas of high demand. On some estates—I know that there are exceptions—we might need to tear down unwanted housing and investigate social and economic regeneration strategies. So long as we have a single housing policy mindset, as I fear still exists at official level, we will not satisfy the needs of communities in low-demand areas or the desperate bottled-up housing needs of communities such as those in my constituency. We expect a consultation paper soon on housing capital allocations, which will be an opportunity to demonstrate that those different needs are being addressed and balanced. I assure my hon. Friend that we will watch developments closely.
I wish the Bill good speed. It is welcome for homeless families, but we now face the huge challenge of delivering for those hundreds of thousands of families, especially in London and the south-east, for whom overcrowding is a daily nightmare.
§ Mr. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on his excellent maiden speech, and wish him well during his time in the House. It is a great privilege to be called to make my maiden speech in this important debate on homelessness, a subject very close to my heart.
I speak as the first new Member of Parliament for South-West Bedfordshire since 1970. It is with great humility that I take the place so honourably occupied in this House by Sir David Madel for the past 31 years. David was respected and liked by hon. Members on both sides of the House for his constructive and courteous contributions in the Chamber. He is a true gentleman, in the finest meaning of that word. He embodies, for me, so much of what is best about conservatism. He is kind, conscientious and compassionate, and his heart is in the communities that he has so faithfully served for the past 31 years. He and his wife Susan have been unfailingly helpful to my wife and me since my selection. No tribute to David would be complete without mention of his faithful secretary, Jill Burge, who so loyally supported him throughout his time in Parliament.
69 All elections are full of drama, passion and intense debate, but they also have their lighter moments. There was the time when my intrepid mother-in-law, canvassing hard for our county council candidate and me in Houghton Regis, passed through the security gates of a house only to find them locking behind her. The picture the press missed of her rescue by a fire engine would no doubt have graced several local front pages. Rumours of my collusion with the householder are wholly without foundation.
Just after the election, my speech at my first branch event was rudely interrupted by my five-year-old daughter falling in the goldfish pond during the finale. I was under the illusion that it was new Members of Parliament who were supposed to make a splash in their constituencies.
South-West Bedfordshire is a varied, interesting, dynamic and beautiful constituency. It includes the three towns of Leighton Buzzard, adjoined with Linslade, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, 17 villages, the renowned Whipsnade wild animal park and the London gliding club. The majestic Dunstable downs, with the massive lion carved deep into the chalk, dominate the southern skyline. Much of our countryside is stunningly beautiful. I encourage right hon. and hon. Members to come to South-West Bedfordshire to enjoy our historic towns and attractive villages as well as our tourist attractions.
I would also encourage any entrepreneurs to come to south-west Bedfordshire to expand or locate their business. We have huge advantages in that we are only 40 miles north of London with excellent transport links from Euston and King's Cross, and the M1 and Luton airport are close by. Our towns have preserved their historic character and we can offer a wonderful quality of life in our surrounding countryside.
I wish to raise several matters of concern to my constituents. Leighton Buzzard and Linslade have a significant number of commuters and it is vital that Silverlink retains access to the fast line to London. I also trust that it will not be too long before a new police station, with sufficient officers to man it and with its own cells, is provided for the town. That would mean that police officers would no longer be taken off the streets as they transport those arrested to the cells in Dunstable.
I shall be pressing Ministers to provide a minor injuries clinic in Leighton Buzzard. I shall also be watching teacher numbers very closely at Vandyke and Cedars upper schools to ensure that the pupils in those two fine schools receive the education they deserve.
Dunstable and Houghton Regis need two bypasses very urgently. A full north-south bypass for Dunstable is the first priority, so that the A5 no longer goes through the middle of the town and so that residents, as well as the children in the 11 schools close by, can have an improved quality of life. The extension of the Leighton Buzzard southern bypass from the Thom turn to the M1 is also urgently needed to relieve congestion on roads not built for the traffic volumes that they are experiencing. I will also be looking to ensure that there is more visible policing in Houghton Regis, and that the town has a bank of its own as a matter of urgency.
I would like to see the reopening of the Luton to Dunstable railway, which the people of Dunstable have requested in poll after poll. In time, I would like the line to run all the way from Luton Airport Parkway to Leighton Buzzard, thus linking Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable with Milton Keynes and Birmingham all the way through 70 to the airport. I firmly believe that, if reopened, many of the branch lines axed by Dr. Beeching would be huge assets to the community they served.
Dunstable and Houghton Regis supply car components to many companies. I am sure that I am not alone in the House in wanting Ministers to be driven in British-made cars. I was somewhat surprised recently to see a Minister arrive in New Palace Yard in a large Mercedes. Could he not find a British-made car? I can recommend several excellent Vauxhall models made by some of my constituents. Indeed, why do not our police and other public bodies just buy British-made cars? When was the last time we saw the French police drive anything other than French cars? The same applies to the German police. Let us back our workers with the public purse in the same manner.
I am delighted that my constituents can enjoy cheap air travel from Luton airport, but serious issues of accountability to local people, over whose homes aircraft fly, need to be addressed. Aircraft are frequently "vectored off' the agreed flight paths to fly over the homes of many of my constituents. In motoring terms, that is the equivalent of a bus cutting across the village green to save a few minutes' journey time. I find it unacceptable, as it causes repeated aircraft noise over my constituents' homes that could and should be avoided.
The siting of mobile phone masts close to people's homes is also causing anxiety to many of my constituents. Although I welcome the usefulness of mobile phones and the jobs that the industry creates, I feel strongly that we should not enjoy this technology at the cost of causing distress to those whose homes, hospitals and schools are next to the masts.
I have already spoken of our beautiful countryside, maintained by the farmers who are the custodians of so much of our rural landscape. I am, however, horrified at the amount of fly tipping that spoils our roads and lanes. This has got worse since businesses were charged for using municipal tips. We must make the disposal of waste convenient, accessible and free so that we eradicate this eyesore. There should be far higher fines for offenders, and rigorous enforcement of the law by the police to deter people from engaging in this dangerous and unsightly practice.
My motivation for aspiring to become a Member of this House is my Christian faith. It is my wish to see the Conservative party become the party for the poor and disadvantaged. My inspiration hails from those great giants, William Wilberforce, and the poor man's earl, Lord Shaftesbury. We need to draw deeply on their example of perseverance to put right the ills of the present day. Chief among those, in my view, are the pain and suffering caused by family breakdown. Juvenile delinquency, educational under-achievement and homelessness are so often the direct results.
Over the past few years, it has been my privilege to help raise funds for homeless charities, not least the Passage, which the Secretary of State mentioned in his opening remarks. I have raised funds by collecting sponsorship for sleeping rough myself, and I intend to continue doing so. There is a great need for money for charities helping the homeless, as homeless advice centres run by First Place Housing in Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard closed last July as they failed in their bid for further lottery funding. Surely charities helping the 71 homeless are among the most worthy recipients of lottery funding. They should not have been denied resources in that way. Lottery funding priorities need to be reviewed to ensure continuing support for such causes.
Many homeless people come from an institutional background, be it local authority care homes, prison or the armed services. Although all homeless people are equally deserving of support, I feel strongly, as a former soldier, that those who have been prepared to die to protect their fellow countrymen and women deserve special recognition. Surplus Ministry of Defence accommodation should be used for ex-service personnel as they reorientate themselves to civilian life. I applaud the first steps taken along those lines by the Government last year, but much more needs to be done. It was encouraging, however, to hear the Secretary of State talk about the veterans taskforce.
One of the major causes of homelessness is young people leaving home when their parents split up and they are made to feel unwelcome by new spouses or partners. The "Cost of Family Breakdown" report produced last year for the all-party family and child protection group estimated the cost at about £15 billion. The total could he double if indirect costs are included. Expenditure on marriage preparation and enrichment is money well spent from the public purse if it saves public expenditure later on.
In Italy, a nation which has significantly higher unemployment than the UK and regional variations as pronounced as any in Europe and where a third of couples divorce within five years of marriage, homelessness is almost unknown—be it in Milan, Rome or Naples. The Italian sense of family solidarity means that 50 per cent. of 25 to 29-year-olds live at home, whereas the average age of leaving home in the UK is 22. Italians are also more willing to let children return home when times are hard. Any moves to encourage similarly accommodating British social attitudes would be most welcome.
It is the greatest honour ever bestowed on me to be an advocate for my home constituency and to be able to contribute to debate that will shape our nation's future. In particular, I look forward to following the progress of this important Bill, which my party is pleased to support.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
I congratulate both the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on making their maiden speeches in this auspicious debate. I hope that their interest in housing will continue throughout their time as Members.
Labour Members who have an interest in housing waited a long time for housing Bills to appear on the agenda of the previous Parliament. When they finally did appear, one never escaped the other place and the other got shot down there. In his comments earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) blamed Labour Members for the demise of the Homes Bill, but if the Conservatives had wanted the Bill to come back from the House of Lords and the homelessness agenda to become law, they could have achieved that. I blame them for delaying the measure in the other place.
I was not called to speak on Second Reading on the Homes Bill so it is a great privilege to be called to speak in this debate. I have been in politics long enough to 72 remember the impact of a television documentary that is frozen in the mind of people of my generation—"Cathy Come Home". That programme spurred on the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). Those of us involved in housing at the time were extremely proud of that legislation, which for the first time placed a duty on local housing authorities to secure permanent accommodation for unintentionally homeless people in priority need.
After 18 years of successive Tory Governments, however, the provisions of the 1977 Act had been significantly watered down by various pieces of legislation. We have to remind Opposition Members that, during those years of Tory government and caused by their housing policies, the number of homeless people doubled to an astonishing 139,000 in 1992. Admittedly, even under the Tory Government, the number fell from that high figure, but even under the Labour Government, the current figure is more than 100,000. Ministers have accepted that that is still far too high.
I was a member of the housing committee in Bolton for 21 years and its chairman for 10 years—from 1986 to 1996. It was my passion for housing that made me seek election to this place at the last-but-one general election. When I became chairman of the housing committee, I made a commitment that we would put homelessness at the top of the housing agenda of the Labour group, and we did so.
At that time, there was little provision in Bolton. An ancient former children's home was used as a hostel for families and there was a newly built Salvation Army hostel. Women's refuges were becoming important: women suffering domestic violence could escape to Fort Alice. Since the early 1970s, Bolton has had an excellent housing advice centre—currently in a different, much improved location in the town centre. The staff work closely with everyone involved in housing, including the best of the private landlords in Bolton who have particularly helped to rehouse non-priority homeless people.
Hon. Members have already referred to a difficulty that deters private landlords from accepting homeless people who are in receipt of benefits—the significant delay in the payment of housing benefit. That is caused not only by such things as the implementation of the housing benefit verification framework, but by a collision of that policy with best-value policy.
The number of priority cases accepted as homeless in Bolton averaged about 1,000 during the 1970s and 1980s. The number has fallen to about 800 cases at present—although of course that remains too high.
There have been changes. More single people present as homeless in Bolton, although fortunately the number of families—especially those with children—presenting as homeless has fallen significantly. That is probably because Bolton is not short of accommodation; the problem we face is one of quality rather than quantity. Our need is for increased investment in regeneration, especially in the private sector.
Significantly, the complexity of the accepted cases has increased. That is an important point. It is not uncommon for officers to deal with cases that include issues not only of domestic violence but of drug or alcohol misuse and child protection. As a result, the amount of multi-agency work required at present is much greater than it was in 73 the past. For example, Bolton has a borough-wide multi-agency strategy to deal with domestic violence. The council has produced an excellent directory of services, which is readily available throughout the borough.
The importance of dealing with the causes of homelessness as well as homelessness itself cannot be stressed too highly. Bolton has adopted a homelessness strategy that involves not only all the statutory agencies but all the voluntary sector agencies. The Catholic Children's Rescue Society and the Manchester Methodist housing association have set up mother and baby units in various parts of the town. Irwell Valley housing association runs a short-stay hostel for women—Fleet house.
In addition to the Salvation Army hostel, Manchester Methodist housing association runs a hostel for men. The Carr-Gomm Society provides accommodation in flats in a large house for vulnerable people with special problems. MIND manages a small number of flats for people who have experienced serious mental illness.
When I became chairman of Bolton's housing committee, I discovered that bed blocking had become a real problem in our short-stay hostels. Consequently, we established a special needs and resettlement team, which finds permanent accommodation for the homeless and supports vulnerable tenants in that accommodation. Many of the homeless have previously been in the armed forces or come from backgrounds in care of one sort or another—prisons or local authority placements.
Another problem faced by homeless people is the provision of furniture. Sad to say, the Benefits Agency is not always helpful to homeless people, so Bolton Community Transport picks up unwanted furniture, refurbishes it and makes it available, at modest cost, in a showroom in the town centre. The Salvation Army performs a complementary role.
Many private landlords require an up-front payment not only for the rent due but as a breakage deposit if the accommodation is furnished. One of my proudest achievements as chairman of the housing committee was setting up Bolton Bond Board, which helps homeless people into such accommodation. It will be 10 years old shortly, and I recommend those local authorities that have not implemented a bond board in their area to do so.
Bolton council has researched the provision of a French-style foyer scheme, but after consulting potential users it has decided to adopt the dispersed-foyer concept instead. The Bolton accommodation, support and education project—BASE—manages 22 properties for 43 people from a prominent location to the north of the town centre. It is an innovative partnership between the local authority, various voluntary sector organisations and the North British and Portico housing associations. As the name implies, it is a housing-plus scheme, offering advice across the board, as well as accommodation.
The Bolton young persons accommodation support scheme—BYPASS—also has a shop-frontage presence, but to the south of the town centre. That innovative scheme not only provides help and advice on accommodation and other issues at a drop-in centre, but offers a creche, a coffee bar, a clothing exchange scheme and laundry and bathing facilities for those without a permanent home of their own. For many years, it has also provided an advocacy service for scores of young people who have left the local authority's care.
74 The most difficult group to deal with are the single young males, many of whom are often involved in alcohol or drug misuse, and whose lives are usually chaotic. In addition, some of them are mentally ill. After talking to many of those people in the centre of Bolton, I became convinced that we must deal with one of the commonest causes of sustained homelessness—substance misuse—in a holistic way.
I have to tell the Government that the way in which the cases of Ruth Wyner and John Brock have been dealt with—especially the aftermath of those cases in which section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was strengthened—has made it much more difficult to include that group of people socially, and I implore the Government to talk again to the professionals and to think again.
Ironically, drugs are also available in our prisons, but we make no attempt to close them down or to take any action against the management of those institutions for allowing drugs to be used on those premises. Why, then, should even housing associations, often involved in some of the housing-plus schemes that I have referred to, now be afraid of providing housing and opportunities for some of our previously socially excluded citizens? We must be prepared to go the extra mile to rehabilitate drug addicts back into society, and we should applaud those people who work with them in a voluntary or a paid capacity; we certainly should not persecute them.
I welcome all the commitments to dealing with homelessness that the Government made during the previous Parliament, as well as those that they are making in the Bill—for example, the inclusion in the priority need group of 16 and 17-year-olds and those leaving care, prison or the armed forces. I welcome the clause that will prevent a local authority's duty towards the homeless from being discharged through the use of assured shorthold tenancies in the private sector.
I welcome the requirement for all local authorities to provide adequate housing advice not only to those homeless people in priority need but to all those who do not have a home. I welcome, too, the recognition that those suffering from racial harassment or domestic violence are also in priority need.
I was very pleased that the housing Green Paper referred to regional difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has already referred to the fact that there are great differences between the north and the south. In fact, differences exist in each region. My hon. Friend is right to ask the Government to consider localised housing policies, rather than having a national housing policy. Certainly, that is the way in which the Government are moving.
I realise that what I am about to say is not politically correct, but it makes no sense to continue to operate the right-to-buy policy in areas of greatest demand—Greater London and rural villages. I know how popular that policy has been, and I have never criticised those who have exercised their rights, but that does not make the policy right, especially in the light of this debate. Is it any wonder that public sector workers are difficult to employ in London and that so many people have to spend so long in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, when former council properties are still being sold at discounted prices 75 then re-sold at unbelievable prices? I implore the Government to review the right-to-buy policy in those extremely high-demand areas.
The clause that will provide a new duty to allocate temporary accommodation for unintentionally homeless people that is brought to an end only when the applicants have been provided with settled accommodation will have little impact in towns such as Bolton, but it will have a great impact in areas of high demand. The clause will end the insecurity faced by many homeless people and restore the recognition that homeless people need long-term solutions.
Many local authorities will welcome the greater flexibility offered under the Bill to develop their allocations polices. I am very pleased that my local authority is one of the 27 that the Government have chosen to try initiatives such as the Delft proposal, and I look forward to the outcome of the pilot scheme.
I am happy to recommend the Bill to the House. Its enactment will meet another of our 1997 manifesto commitments: local authorities will provide unintentionally homeless people in priority need with temporary accommodation until they are provided with settled housing. I hope that housing will remain high on the Government's agenda throughout this Parliament.
§ Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this debate. I, too, should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) on their maiden speeches.
To have been elected to represent the constituency of Huntingdon is a great privilege; it has an ancient and famous history, to which I shall return. I feel honoured to have been chosen by my constituents to follow such a distinguished predecessor as Mr. John Major, whom very many Members will remember with respect and affection.
John Major served the House and his constituents for some 22 years, and his party for very much longer than that. In government, he achieved an outstanding, hardly matched record of public service, having been, in succession, a Government Whip, a Social Security Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister.
John Major is a perfect gentleman—a man of immense charm and warmth who is kind and dedicated to public service. As Prime Minister, he proved himself a true statesman: on one hand, showing courage and determination in his conduct of the Iraqi conflict and, on the other, displaying his qualities as a peacemaker in his relentless pursuit of a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland. He was also a hard-working constituency Member who, despite his national responsibilities, dealt with his constituents' concerns with great efficiency and the minimum of fuss and self-advertisement.
In Huntingdonshire, John Major is regarded with the very highest respect and admiration. His standards of public service, integrity and decency will be a tough act for me to follow, but I believe that they present the best 76 example to all new Members. Indeed, I shall be very satisfied if, after 22 years of service, I have the same relationship with my constituents as John had with his.
The Huntingdon constituency—with its four market towns of Huntingdon, Godmanchester, St. Ives and St. Neots, with their connecting artery, the Great Ouse river, together with some 40 related villages—has a distinguished and ancient past, not least in being the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, who was elected as Member for Huntingdon in 1628. That Parliament was perhaps the most crucial in moulding the British system of parliamentary democracy that we have today. It was a time when the champions of civil rights and parliamentary liberties addressed how the law could be on the side of individual liberty as much as on the side of authority. Of course, it was the Parliament in which Members physically held down the Speaker to assert the right of the House to control its own Adjournment. I do not think that that could happen today, but one can only wonder what the reaction of the 1628 Parliament would have been to such things as the Government's proposal to restrict the ancient right against double jeopardy.
As to Cromwell's contribution to the 1628 Parliament, I managed to find his rather unimpressive maiden speech—indeed, his only speech in that Parliament—in which he attacked a bishop for popery at St. Paul's Cross. Clearly, inclusiveness was not on the agenda in 1628.
The Huntingdon constituency is a place of immense variety of business sectors and living environments. There is the established agricultural sector. Although it has so far been spared the horrors of foot and mouth disease, it has none the less suffered all the decline in income and the unemployment that has blighted that sector of our economy in recent years. Defence, too, is an important local employer. With four air bases and many thousands of British and American service personnel living in the area, issues relating to the proper funding of our armed forces are frequently mentioned to me.
Huntingdonshire, as part of the Cambridgeshire administrative area, has one of the highest numbers of self-employed people and small businesses in the country. That includes manufacturing but it increasingly includes self-employed consultants and new economy start-ups drawn to establishing their businesses in the so-called silicon fen. Larger technology-related companies are also basing themselves in the constituency and the healthy and welcoming business environment that we have is something that I shall continue very much to encourage.
Also important to the local economy and local quality of life are the shops and pubs of the villages as well as the retaillers and markets of the market towns. I mention them in particular because all too often they are overlooked, with the result that, over the past 30 years, business and retail policy has prioritised cities or out-of-city retail sites very much to the cost of our market towns. It seems to be increasingly the case that market towns are targeted for new housing and, in the towns of Huntingdonshire, there is barely a cul-de-sac that has not been opened up for new development in recent years. That creates the risk of towns being turned into dormitories for people to sleep in and then leave to work in the surrounding cities.
Market towns were developed to be destinations, not dormitories—destinations for townspeople and surrounding villagers to work in and to sell their produce 77 and buy goods. To lose sight of that and to believe that market towns can just keep building houses with no ill effects would be a grave error. Indeed, it would be as great an error as was made by planning policies over the years that led to the depopulation of many of our nation's inner cities, with the subsequent disastrous impact on businesses and balanced social environments that ultimately resulted in displacement and homelessness.
Furthermore, such an error would cause us to ignore the reality of changing life styles in this country. Indeed, one of the most striking events of the general election campaign in 2001, compared with 1997, was the physical presence of people in their homes during the working day. In 1997, I mainly found retired people or housewives at home during working hours but this year, in home after home, I came across employees and the self-employed working from home.
I believe that that trend will dramatically increase in coming years and it will involve a return to a village and town-based life rather than a commuting life. To that extent, it is vital that we proactively maintain and improve local shops and public services in our towns and villages so as to avoid the essentially reactive measures that have been and are still required in many of our inner cities.
What is needed is a balance. Growing areas need more housing, of course, but, at the same time, that housing needs to be fairly dispersed around the country—not just dumped in the south of England. Cambridgeshire has been ordered to build 4,000 new homes each year for the next 15 years, and that is about three times more building than the county has had in the past 10 years. The impact of that will be abundantly clear to anyone who lives in Huntingdonshire: more concrete, fewer green fields and, importantly, even more pressure on public services.
When we talk about a balanced approach to new housing, it is also vital to bring public services into the picture. Hinchingbrooke hospital in Huntingdon is well loved and admired for its quality of service and yet—mainly due to the increase in population and the resulting increase in health demands—its waiting lists have grown in each of the past three years.
Again, although our local schools provide an excellent education service to our children, the fact remains that local secondary schools, particularly in the St. Neots area, are bursting at the seams, but Cambridgeshire has still not been taken into the area cost adjustment. That means that our pupils receive up to a third less funding than children in surrounding counties. Again, the increase in population has meant that we have fewer police per head of population than anywhere else in England.
Huntingdonshire has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. Indeed, when David, now Lord, Renton was last elected as its Member in 1974, the constituency had roughly the same number of people as now but it was double the geographic size. It prospered greatly during the time of John Major and that happened because a balance was maintained. For all the new housing, public services were expanded, businesses flourished, roads were built and school places were increased.
I speak for the Huntingdon constituency, but I am sure that my concerns will be shared by many Members with rural or market town constituencies. Of course we need housing, and more affordable housing, not only to deal 78 with homelessness but to assist local areas to keep their local workers and to give their children the chance of living close to their families.
Somehow, however, I do not see a balanced and integrated approach coming from the Government and from this Bill. Reducing homelessness is a sound objective, but it cannot be an isolated one. It needs to be considered in the context of the effects of displacement and the maintenance of stable communities. It needs to have regard to the maintenance of public services, the need to increase business opportunities and jobs in the affected areas and the need to address local people's sensitivities. It needs to allow local authorities to have a strong input rather than simply be dictated to from Whitehall.
To deal effectively with homelessness will require even more than examining the impact of building thousands of new homes in the south. It will also require a much more careful assessment of why homelessness happens in the first place. Why are people moving en masse from the north of our country to the south? Why has the number of homeless people increased to 110,000 and the number of homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation from more than 4,000 in 1997 to almost 11,000 now, while, at the same time, the number of empty council properties now stands at 130,000 properties, of which 90,000 are in the midlands and the north?
The Bill aims to require local housing authorities to put together a strategy for tackling homelessness in their districts, and the Government describe that as solving the problem at its roots. Of course, that assumes that the homeless in any one area originate from that area. However, as any London social services department will say, hardly any of the homeless come from the borough concerned. They are mainly from out of town or asylum seekers.
To that extent, I suggest that although the Bill will certainly deal with some of the problems involved with homelessness, it fails to address the key strategic issues at national level. Surely, before mandating yet more thousands of homes in Huntingdonshire and the rest of the south of England, we should address inner-city deprivation and the need to fill up empty council houses, not only on a local basis as envisaged by this Bill, but through a system of co-ordinated national allocation. Indeed, the Government accepted this principle for asylum seekers and I would be interested to hear from the Minister why that approach should not be adopted for the homeless.
Additionally, we need to appreciate that there are 620,000 empty properties in the private sector. If some of those homes could be brought back into use, the problem of homelessness could quickly be solved. The Bill will require housing authorities to assess the problems of empty homes but it will not solve the problem—to do that will again require action from the top.
In particular, there should be tax incentives for residential letting and developers should be encouraged to redevelop existing sites rather than build on more green fields. At the moment, developers pay zero VAT to build on green fields but they pay VAT to refurbish in an inner city. The position needs to be equalised. Furthermore, it needs to be appreciated that the red tape and regulations involved in refurbishing for letting purposes has stifled the affordable homes end of the private lettings market. The regulations require a thorough review.
79 The Bill will go some way to clarifying the position of the homeless at a local level but what it will not do is solve the national problem.
§ Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
I congratulate the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on three outstanding maiden speeches. They were excellent.
It is a great honour and privilege to speak in the House, representing Strathkelvin and Bearsden. The constituency is the gateway to the Campsie hills north of Glasgow and a large part of it follows the Forth and Clyde canal. It is an area of difference and diversity in which traditional industries, especially engineering and mining, have been in decline. It would be convenient to relate that to the period 1979 to 1997, but it would be untrue because the decline has been occurring for much longer than that.
Like other maiden speakers, I pay tribute to my predecessor. Sam Galbraith served in the House from 1987 to his election to the Scottish Parliament. He served with distinction and was held in the highest esteem and affection by fellow MPs and staff. He entered the House after a brilliant career as a neurosurgeon. His hard work and commitment has been costly to his health and well-being. I am certain that hon. Members will join me in wishing him well.
Over the years, Strathkelvin and Bearsden has continually changed in size and shape. Many Members of Parliament have had responsibility for various parts of the constituency. Hugh McCartney, Margaret Bain, Norman Hogg, Dennis Canavan and Sir Michael Hirst all served with distinction and are held with the highest regard in the area. Indeed, I was driven to distraction by people in one village who delighted in telling me, rather pointedly, that no one could match my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke). He had served them 10 years earlier, but they thought that no one could replace him and still had fond memories of a good MP.
My right hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that the most famous MP was Tom Johnston, a leading member of the Independent Labour party and an MP for periods in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. He was born and educated in Kirkintilloch at the heart of the constituency. He was chairman of the first municipal bank, a gifted writer and went on to change the face of post-war Scotland.
Every MP who has represented the constituency will respect and honour the memory of Thomas Muir of Huntershill. As a parliamentary reformer, he supported the French revolution, which was not a popular cause, and was inspired by Thomas Paine's "The Rights of Man", published in 1791. When charged with making seditious speeches and circulating "The Rights of Man", he conducted his own defence. Muir, who was an advocate, said:I am accused of sedition and yet can prove by thousands of witnesses that I warned the people of that crime, exhorted them to adopt none but measures which were constitutional, and entreated them to connect liberty with knowledge and both with morality.Thomas Muir was sentenced to 14 years and transported to Australia. After 14 months in Sydney, he was rescued by the United States of America and later died in France 80 in 1798 at the ripe old age of 33. Today, Thomas Muir of Huntershill is a familiar name to thousands in the communities of Strathkelvin and Bearsden and throughout Scotland. Indeed, there is a thriving Muir society of lawyers and advocates.
Strathkelvin and Bearsden values its past, but looks forward to a prosperous future. We accept that diversity is a way of life, and are interested in looking to the past and future. Unemployment is falling monthly. Before the general election, there was a 38 per cent. reduction over the previous four years. Today, there are plans in Kirkintilloch for a new health centre, supermarket, swimming pool and town hall. We hope that 1,000 new jobs will be created in that £39 million development.
The Forth and Clyde canal flows through the constituency and has received major investment. I hope that those millions of pounds will attract new boats and visitors to the canal and new cyclists to its towpaths, allowing them to enjoy the beautiful countryside. Our small and medium-sized companies are striving to become more successful with the assistance of their hard-working employees. The community is well served by a strong local press, which always ensures that there is a distinct local voice to challenge all politicians when necessary.
The printed word plays a central role in Strathkelvin and Bearsden. We boast of having HarperCollins publishing, which distributes books to cities, towns and villages not just across the United Kingdom, but all over the world. We are also proud of Omnia Printing, which takes J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter from Bishopbriggs in the constituency to Boston and Brisbane. It introduces Hogwart's school of witchcraft and wizardry to millions of children—and, dare. I say it, adults—and helps those children to rediscover the joy of reading, which cannot he a bad thing.
The diversity that we strive for is a familiar story. We want a blend of tourism and enterprise, and to build a strong local economy. We want everyone in our constituency to share in any improvement that might come along, and we want social inclusion to be a reality for all constituents, which means tackling homelessness. In Strathkelvin and Bearsden, a correct and proper emphasis has been placed on dealing with homelessness at its early stages when young people are thinking about making themselves homeless, perhaps because of family circumstances. Project 101 offers advice to young people about the seriousness of homelessness and the problems that they would face. We want to continue that work.
As a new Member, I have interests in international development, employment rights, transport and, of course, homelessness. My constituency has active churches, all of which are interested in third-world issues of debt relief and international development, which are close to my heart. During the general election, I canvassed one voter who, hearing of my interest in Africa and similar issues, said, "Do you not think it would be a good idea to go and feel at first hand what it's like in these countries?" I said that it certainly would and that I would be prepared to go for a few days to which she said, "I was thinking more of four or five years." I put her down as undecided.
On a serious note, I welcome our leading role in reducing debt and encouraging development. It is a tremendous honour to be in the House and I shall try to engage with all constituents.
§ Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)
It is a relief to be called now because it allows me to speak in the Welsh Grand Committee tomorrow and to address several issues that relate to my constituency.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on his maiden speech. His obvious knowledge of and affection for his constituency will stand him in good stead. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) on their maiden speeches.
When I stood for selection as a candidate and for election as a Member of Parliament, I made it clear that my affection was for one constituency only. It is a bit like proposing marriage, the main difference being that marriage needs a unanimous decision whereas a majority decision will do for election. The good people of Brecon and Radnorshire rarely elect Members with a large majority: we come on probation. My majority, which is in the hundreds, is the second largest in that constituency in the past 20 years. I understand the temporary nature of the contract, but I give notice that I will apply for an extension.
The people of Brecon and Radnorshire have always elected good constituency MPs. The one that I first remember is Tudor Watkins, a traditional Labour Member of Parliament. He was as well-respected in the hill farms of Radnorshire as he was in the industrialised Swansea valley that was his home. He fought hard to get electricity into those farms. Every year he was given the work programme of the South Wales electricity board, which listed those farms that would get electricity next year. He would then travel to the farms and tell the people how hard he was working to get them electricity, and when they got it he was doubly rewarded by their support. He was a very good constituency MP and a man of high principles.
Tudor Watkins was succeeded by Caerwyn Roderick, who had a deep well of generosity and humanity that allowed him to respond to constituents' problems with great magnanimity. He, too, was a very good constituency MP, and a dear friend of mine.
Before the boundaries of the constituency were changed, which made it less favourable for the Labour party, it was won by a Conservative, Tom Hooson. He was one of the Hooson tribe in mid-Wales who were all political, but of different persuasions. John, a friend of mine, was Labour; Emlyn, whom many hon. Members will know, was the Member for Montgomeryshire for many years, and Tom was the Tory. He was a gentleman and a gentle person, and he is remembered with enormous affection in the constituency. Tragically, he died while in office, halfway through his second term. That, of course, led to a by-election. The Liberal Democrats fought it with all the fury that rises in them at by-elections, and Richard Livsey was elected. He held the seat at the next general election.
Richard Livsey, to whom I shall return in a moment, lost the seat in 1992 to another Conservative, Jonathan Evans, a very able Member of Parliament and a liberal, progressive Conservative. He still holds true to policies that some of the present members of the Conservative parliamentary party find difficult. He has gone on to sunnier and more exotic climes in the European 82 Parliament. It is interesting to note that at one time I was Jonathan Evans's landlord. He was an excellent tenant, but he had one complaint about me as a landlord, which was that I went round the constituency delivering leaflets that said that he did not live in the constituency. As I said, he was an excellent tenant, but he very rarely occupied the premises, and I still stand by the leaflets.
In 1997, Jonathan Evans lost the seat to Richard Livsey, who was my immediate predecessor. The constituency is the largest in England and Wales, but he managed to fill it completely. He was known in every street in every town and village, and he was well-respected and highly regarded. His loss is enormous. Many new Members have said that they have a huge gap to fill, and I can say the same.
The constituency extends from the coal measures in the south, through the limestone escarpments, to the massive red sandstone blocks of the Beacons and the Black mountains, which comprise the Brecon Beacons national park. That is, of course, the most beautiful, wonderful national park in England and Wales, and I say that without any bias whatsoever. I see Labour Members present who represent other areas of that park. The hidden jewels in my constituency, and indeed in Wales, are the northern parts of Breconshire and Radnorshire, which not many people see. All new Members have been advising people to take holidays in their constituency, and I have told our tourist operators to write to every Member of Parliament, asking them to come to the constituency, because it is so big that even if they all came at once they would not stand a chance of bumping into one another.
The general election was fought against the background of unprecedented social and economic doom in the constituency. Several years of decline in manufacturing because of cheap imports and difficulties in exporting had led to job losses from Ystradgynlais to Knighton, Llandrindod Wells, Rhayader and Presteigne. Those jobs will be difficult to replace, and on top of that we have been affected by the foot and mouth outbreak. As a fanner, I know the stress of getting up in the morning and not knowing what one will find.
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) recently experienced the tragic circumstances of the coroner presiding over three inquests in which it was found that farmers had committed suicide because of the stress that they were under. A worker on my farm, who has been with me for 30 years, recently suffered a stroke, partly due, I am sure, to stress and to not knowing what would happen next. My thoughts go out to all the farmers in the constituency who have suffered culls, whether their animals had the foot and mouth virus or whether the cull was contiguous. I think also of other farmers who, because of the restrictions on them, cannot move or trade in livestock and find themselves in financial difficulties. Being continuously strapped for cash puts huge pressure on them.
On top of that, tourism, which is a major employer in our area and one of the largest businesses, is being completely run down. I took the time this weekend to meet two groups of tourist operators, who said that unless a package is made available shortly to tide people over the lean winter months many existing businesses will not be there in the spring to make use of all the promotion that will occur in future. It is a sad time when so many businesses, in which people have worked so hard and invested all their money and time, see that they have no 83 future, not because of mismanagement or bad investment but because of something that happened out of the blue and for which no one could plan.
Homelessness is not just an urban issue, and I am pleased that many of the Bill's clauses address the problem in rural areas. Homelessness occurs for many reasons. One of the key issues for farming and other small businesses is that, sadly, when a business is lost, often a home is lost too because it has been put up as a guarantee for the bank. As a Member of Parliament and a councillor, I have often dealt with those situations.
We must tackle the need for affordable housing in rural areas. Somebody asked for a definition of affordable housing. Many people in rural areas aspire not only to be tenants but to be property owners. Properties in national parks and other designated sites are very attractive to people who live outside the area. We must find a way, through the planning system or another means, to ensure that property is available not only for rent but for ownership.
Members come to the House bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with lots of enthusiasm and many ideas for improving the lives of their constituents and people throughout the nation. I recently read the maiden speech of a farmer who came from mid-Wales, Geraint Howells, in which he said he sought reform of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that the interests of farmers and consumers would be better looked after. I hope that new Members will achieve their aims more quickly than Geraint Howells did—he made that speech in 1974.
§ Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)
Maiden speeches are coming thick and fast, and they have made this debate even more pleasurable than it would otherwise have been. I congratulate all those who have made their maiden speeches tonight. I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). There was a nice vein of gentle humour in it, but he also dealt responsibly with serious issues such as debts in farming and the present crisis caused by foot and mouth disease.
I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman paid such a generous tribute to his immediate predecessor. Richard Livsey was not so quick on his feet by the end of his time here, and he and I had offices over at Millbank. Many times, I enjoyed a good conversation with him while walking between the offices and the House. The hon. Gentleman said that the electors of Brecon and Radnorshire have enjoyed a long line of good, hard-working constituency MPs, and in him they have the makings of another.
I should like to declare a non-pecuniary interest as honorary president of a voluntary sector charity, the Bethany project, which provides accommodation for homeless people in Stafford.
It is a pleasure to be able to take part in this debate and to welcome this measure to help homeless people. It will be the first Bill to be given a Second Reading in this Parliament. It is a slight oddity that it was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech, but I put that down to the 84 dexterity and skill of my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State. Like others, I welcome him to his post and congratulate him on it.
What I like about this Bill is the way in which it restores the value of dignity to this area of public policy—restoring to people the dignity of a shelter, of a home of their own. As many Members have said, the Bill keeps a manifesto promise from not just a few weeks ago but 1997. In the same two manifestos also came the promise to license houses in multiple occupation. I look forward to an early start by the Government on keeping that promise, too.
I am particularly pleased that the amended Bill—it represents part II of the previous Homes Bill—contains a new duty on local authorities to adopt a strategic approach to dealing with homelessness. It is an excellent idea, but requires resources. Many have mentioned the resource of other agencies—registered social landlords, some private sector landlords, social services departments, health authorities and, particularly, the voluntary sector—but local authorities will need the ability to spend money to meet their strategic aims and to borrow enough money to invest in housing stock.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the scourge of empty homes. It is a sad fact that, in England every year, about seven homes stand empty for every one household recognised by councils as homeless. I commend to hon. Members the ten-minute Bill that I introduced in the previous Parliament, the Empty Homes Bill, which attempted to deal with the problem. Sadly, my Bill never saw the light of day as an Act of Parliament, but this Homelessness Bill offers the opportunity to take up some of its measures. For example, my Bill suggested that local authorities should be under a duty to adopt a strategy to deal with empty homes, and that fits nicely with the requirement in this Bill for local authorities to adopt a strategy to help people to avoid homelessness or to meet need when people are homeless.
I would like the Government to explore the ideas in my Bill of giving local authorities more financial instruments—principally, the ability to deal more creatively with council tax charged on empty properties. It is vital that the Government give local authorities greater powers of compulsory purchase to be able to deal with the regeneration of areas where properties are standing empty. That would help to meet the need of homeless people by filling empty properties.
Another strategic issue of which it is important the Government do not lose sight as they consider this Bill is the interaction of housing benefit and homelessness. Several hon. Members have commented on the matter already. Some have commented on the inability of some local authorities or the private companies to which they have passed the duty to administer housing benefit; others have commented on the difficulties of detecting fraud and the requirements placed on local authorities to investigate and verify claims before they can make payments. Throughout that time, people are under the risk of losing their homes for non-payment of rent.
The parts of the Bill that I welcome include the long-term approach to meeting the needs of homeless people, and especially the emphasis on the prevention of homelessness. I also like the suggestion that there can be more support for homeless people of lower priority, such as single people. I should like local authorities to be 85 encouraged to develop the offer of housing-focused interviews, in the same way as we now have work-focused interviews for those who are seeking to claim benefit. I also like the emphasis in the Bill on quality of service.
I want help to get through to all those who are in need of housing owing to homelessness or the threat of it. For those who are hard to reach, I hope that local authorities will have full regard in their strategies for the help that can be given by social partners who are doing the work already. For those who are hard to help—those who are unable to speak for themselves or put their case effectively—I hope that all authorities are able to develop a systematic approach to offering advocacy services.
I also agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, about the involvement of registered social landlords in developing a homelessness strategy. They will not merely be major providers of accommodation for homeless people. They have a wealth of experience, alongside that of local authorities, in tackling day-to-day housing issues, and they have much to offer local authorities in developing strategies for dealing with homelessness.
I want to emphasise that, as other hon. Members have said, none of the fine words in the Bill and the strategies that will follow will be of much use if there is not an adequate supply of affordable housing in which people can live. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned Cambridge university research suggesting that there is a need for 80,000 to 85,000 new units of affordable housing a year. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) mentioned the Shelter figure of 100,000 units of affordable housing every year for the next 10 years.
Those figures have meaning to most people around the country because they see people waiting in overcrowded circumstances, bed and breakfast, temporary homes—or no home at all—for homes to be provided for them. Hard though local authorities work to meet that need, they simply do not have an adequate amount of housing. Tackling such problems will take a determined effort over the next few years, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear at the beginning of the debate. I look forward to watching that determined effort take shape and to delivering the fruit of it as a home and the dignity of a shelter for every citizen of this country.
§ 8.7 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)
I should like to start by complimenting the hon. Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) on their maiden speeches. I must also, of course, compliment the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), who mentioned that his constituency had continually changed in size and shape. My constituency seldom changes in size or shape. Indeed, I do not believe that it has done so since the early 19th century, although it is getting a little further from France every year.
I am not the sort of Conservative who is known for wearing his compassion on his sleeve, but I am passionate about public service—or, should I say, the better delivery of essential services?—including education, health and housing. I greatly value my experience of working with 86 Governments of both political parties. I worked with the former Conservative Government on the improved delivery of health and social security and with both Conservative and Labour Governments on education, most recently in helping the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) to deliver his policies in the London borough of Southwark, a failing local education authority, which was required to privatise the management of the education service. That was a great privilege.
Today, I am here not to talk about myself, but to say a few words about my constituency, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in the country. Today, London is only a little overcast, but even when the rest of Britain is battered by gales, our island basks in the sunshine. Its charms are well known to yachtsmen, walkers and cyclists. I occasionally say that it never rains on the Isle of Wight, but that is a slight exaggeration. In fact, it seldom rains on the Isle of Wight.
The island is famed for Osborne house, Cowes week and Parkhurst and other prisons. Incidentally, I should like to compliment the island's prisons and, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), put on record the fact that they are driving down drug abuse within their walls. Some aspects of the island are less well known: for example, it is one of Britain's biggest producers of garlic—indeed, we export garlic to France. There is a garlic festival each year, which I commend to hon. Members. There, one can sample not only garlic bread and garlic mushrooms, but garlic beer, garlic honey and garlic ice cream. I strongly recommend them.
We also have Britain's biggest collection of dinosaur remains, as illustrated by the recent BBC programme "Dinosaur Island", but the best collection of dinosaurs on the island are the former Liberal Democrat councillors who now run the island from county hall. They have stopped using the name Liberal Democrat—perhaps as a result of certain setbacks earlier this month—and now call themselves something else. They frequently call for less Government intervention and direction in the way in which local authorities are asked to deliver their services, so it was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) ask for far more detailed intervention and guidance, as well as for that guidance to appear on the face of the Bill. They speak with forked tongue, those Liberal Democrats.
We are fortunate to have our own highly successful and effective media on the Isle of Wight. I must be the only Member of Parliament to have his own local newspaper, radio station and television station. The most recent addition is Angel Radio, which boasts that it never broadcasts news or timechecks, but only music first recorded before 1959.
It is appropriate that I should speak on the Homelessness Bill, because the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was piloted through the House by my distinguished predecessor but two, Lord Ross of Newport. The Act caused local authorities nightmares, but provided a lifeline for many people in need. Local authorities have learned to live with the Act, and the improvements and changes made to it since it became law, to provide a far better service for homeless persons. Lord Ross's successor was Barry Field: it was a great loss to the island when he was forced to retire on grounds of ill health shortly before the 1997 general election.
87 My immediate predecessor was Peter Brand—a general practitioner and local councillor for many years before his election to Parliament. He fought the 1997 election on the slogan "Put a doctor in the House" and this year's election with "Keep a doctor in the House". It is a testimony to his qualities as a general practitioner that islanders preferred to put a doctor in the surgery. I thank him for the care he gave the island in his four years as its Member of Parliament. I am grateful.
I also thank Etty McKinley of the island organisation People Off the Streets. She drew the Homes Bill to my attention at a public meeting during the general election campaign and asked whether I would support it if it were reintroduced. I had to reply that it would depend on which parts were reintroduced, so I am glad that the Government have dropped the more controversial elements—at least from the current version of the Bill—and that the Opposition will have the opportunity to support most of the proposals. I also congratulate Etty on her effective work when undertaking the homeless persons count on the island at the time of the recent census. It is most important that we have accurate figures on homelessness which, as many hon. Members have mentioned, is not confined to large cities.
Solving the problem of homelessness does not require a massive housebuilding programme—my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon has already made that specific point. The Deputy Prime Minister's proposals for 8,000 new homes, half of them on greenfield sites, were deeply unpopular on the island. Housebuilding is not the right cure for homelessness. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, we must work to prevent homelessness, especially by supporting family structures, because most youth homelessness is a result of broken families.
When dealing with homelessness, we must have proper priorities for the allocation of housing. The system must be seen to be fair to those who already live in a particular area. The genuine local connection rule should be sustained and, if possible, strengthened. It is not a genuine local connection with the Isle of Wight to have been on the island for a few months picking tomatoes. It should be a requirement that people claiming that they are homeless—or, for that matter, those claiming jobseeker's allowance—demonstrate that they have not moved from an area of low unemployment to one of high unemployment, such as my constituency. I welcome the commitment to flexibility that the Secretary of State made in his introductory remarks. I hope that that commitment extends to enabling local authorities to arrange the genuine local connection rules so that they suit local circumstances.
Let me flag up a few of the issues that I intend to raise on behalf of my constituents in future weeks and months. The Isle of Wight is an area of high unemployment where average income is less than three quarters the national average. It suffers from being separated from the mainland by sea and not receiving proper recognition from the Government in terms of funding. The island suffers because of the failure of the recently introduced police control centre at Netley to pass messages on to police stations on the island; I want something done about that.
88 I also want more work to be done on the cost for individuals of crossing the Solent and on the use by Wightlink of Wootton Creek. Wightlink is one of the ferry companies; it is the major user of Wootton Creek as well as the harbour authority, which must give rise to a unique conflict of interest. I want clarity about the future of Osborne house: the closure of the King Edward VII convalescent home at Osborne was greatly and deeply regretted on the island. I want there to be clarity about the future use of that wonderful resource. I want the Government to fund the rebuilding of the main road from Ventnor to West Wight through the St. Laurence Undercliff, which slumped seriously following recent rains.
All those are objectives that I intend to follow up on behalf of my constituents during my time as a Member of Parliament. I am proud to represent Isle of Wight and thank the House for this opportunity to speak.
§ Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on making his maiden speech, and all those who have made their maiden speeches this evening. We have shared the trepidation of sitting here, waiting to do them. I have gained some insight into the Isle of Wight: I knew nothing about its garlic fields. However, I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) intends to take his holiday on the island, so perhaps, as one islander to another, he will be able to help with some of the transport difficulties that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight described.
I am pleased to be called to make my maiden speech during a debate that deals with social housing, on a Bill that will introduce measures to strengthen local democracy, require agencies and stakeholders to work together and reinforce the recognition of the link between housing, health and social exclusion. In Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, about 8,300 households are in council housing, 1,400 in registered social landlord accommodation and 20,000 in private housing. The condition of housing is often worse in Wales than in any other part of the United Kingdom, so housing is one of the most important issues facing our communities as we struggle with the problems of deprivation left to us by years of underfunding and neglect. More recently, we still struggle with the effects of nearly two decades of the near economic war that was waged on our communities. That is something that we do not forget and will not forgive.
We do not need lessons or crocodile tears from across the Floor about these social issues. However, we are determined to move on and to move our communities on. It is in that spirit of change that I see my election as the first Labour Member of Labour's second century in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.
In taking up that mantle, I am humbled by and pleased to pay tribute to my predecessors. I do so not only to Ted Rowlands, whom I have recently succeeded, but to Keir Hardie, the first Labour Member to be elected in what was then the constituency of Merthyr and Aberdare, and the first leader of the Labour party. I pay tribute also to S. 0. Davies and the other Labour leaders from Wales, on whose shoulders I hope to stand and in whose tradition I hope to follow.
Like Keir Hardie, I am a socialist and a trade unionist—a trade union official. I recognise the power of the links between organised labour and the party that we have 89 helped to form. These are links that some would pervert, some would like to destroy and some to usurp. Keir Hardie stood for a minimum wage, the enfranchisement of women, minorities and oppressed people, reform of the House of Lords and devolved government. He was an internationalist. He was a man with a faith in and a concern for a civilised and humane society. After 100 years we have just begun to realise some of these aspirations. We still have a long way to go, and I am pleased to continue my part in that work.
In preparing my maiden speech, I was fortunate enough to discuss some of the shared history that I have with Mr. Speaker. I knew that Keir Hardie had two half-brothers. I did not know that both of them later became Labour Members. David Hardie became the Member for Rutherglen; and George, or Georgie, Hardie became the Member to represent Mr. Speaker's constituency of Springbum in Glasgow, later to be followed by his wife, Agnes, another trade union activist, who remained a Member until 1945, an important year for the Labour party.
It was in 1945 that Keir Hardie is said to have reappeared in Abercynon. It was part of a seance. As well as being a christian socialist and a temperance campaigner, he had been active in spiritualism. He is said to have reappeared in July 1945 to give his benediction to the then new Labour Government. I have no reports of anything similar from Nos. 10 or 11, but it is early days yet.
The serious message is clear. The work started and continued by the Hardie family informed then, and still does today, the work of the Labour party and of all people of good will. I do not claim to follow Hardie's spiritualism, and I certainly cannot claim to follow his temperance, but my maternal grandfather did.
Like my predecessors, I am influenced by both the ideas and the organisational responses of Keir Hardie, and he remains a touchstone for us. The Merthyr Pioneer summed up the position when it said on the death of Keir Hardie thatthe member for humanity had resigned his seat.It is that tribute that brings me to pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Ted Rowlands. He was a Member first in 1966 for the seat of Cardiff, North. He became the Member for Merthyr in 1972, and remained as the sitting Member when the seat was extended to include Rhymney.
Ted Rowlands and his wife, Janice, have served our community for nearly 30 years. He also made a significant contribution to the work of this place in that time. As an historian, he has recently written about his view of what was and could be possible by means of educated government intervention. In our local community, we credit him with many acts, not least on a world stage. Contributions that are perhaps not properly recognised are his actions in international affairs and peace, including the avoidance of conflict in the Falklands in the 1970s.
I suspect that when most local people think of Ted Rowlands there are echoes of those words of the Merthyr Pioneer that were said of Keir Hardie in 1915. They would give a similar but extended tribute to him by recording that their Member for humanity has resigned his seat but continues to work with us for our shared goals.
I have already set out the traditions that I hope to follow. They are those of socialists of independent thought giving constructive representation. I come from a 90 family of miners and steelworkers, and I know the problems of a household affected by industrial disease, disability and caring. I already have my own small contribution in terms of Labour history in my constituency, because I am the first Labour Member elected this century and the first to have been born and brought up in the constituency that I now represent.
It is a constituency with a history of invention and production that was the crucible of Welsh politics in the past two centuries. Our cultural contribution is known now through sportsmen, musicians, actors, dress designers and writers, who influence others on a world stage. About one fifth of the land mass of the constituency is in the Brecon Beacons national park. We are the gateway to that park and the surrounding country.
We are starting to change from the industries of the past, and unemployment is falling. We are starting to attract and develop the new industries of biotechnology, computing peripherals and support industries, as well as retaining some modern manufacturing and small-scale production companies, along with food preparation and manufacturing and growing tourism. Some of the benefits of relocation and land reclamation, stimulated by government and European Union funding, are starting to change the years of economic malevolence that I have mentioned.
We still, however, have some of the most deprived communities in Europe in terms of health and other social considerations. We are making significant strides in relation to crime and we are improving education standards, but it is clear that poverty is the monster that we must slay. That will be done only by increasing and supporting opportunities for work and social investment.
As a Member elected in a post-devolution environment, I have to comment on how we can make the change that we want. Many of the opportunities that I have outlined require me to work closely with the Welsh Assembly Member who shares my constituency, Huw Lewis, and my neighbouring Labour Members. The opportunities given to us by the massive injection of European funding and matched investment in Wales, together with the other investments controlled at Westminster, give us an opportunity to work together to produce the change that we want.
We know that the strength of our constituencies is that of our people, which lies in both their ingenuity and their spirit. We know also that they are strong communities because they are made from a collective experience and an international brew. They range from Italians "in the rain" through Spanish steelworkers and Irish and Polish people. The list goes on, but they are all Welsh. It is because we represent such an internationalist tradition that we reject doctrines of narrow nationalism, which offer nothing.
I thank particularly my agent, Mervyn Ryall, for his work in helping to get me elected, and my local Labour party for selecting me in our centenary year to continue the history of Labour representation in our valleys. Most of all, I thank the people of the Merthyr. Rhymney, Cwm Bargoed and Darren valleys, whom I shall try my best to represent. We have our shared political and cultural history, but also the cholera and typhoid cemeteries that remind us of the need for measures such as social housing, which we are discussing this evening. There is also the need for investment that can help us to break the cycle of ill health and deprivation.
91 Diolch yn fawr i chi a diolch yn fawr iawn, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope to catch your eye again.
§ Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I congratulate those who have already made theirs, especially the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), who made such an interesting comparison with what I have heard from the Government Front Bench so far during my time in this place.
I have the honour of having been returned for the Caernarfon constituency, which was previously held by Dafydd Wigley. It is a historic constituency: as Caernarfon Boroughs, it was held by David Lloyd George for 50 years between 1890 and 1945. I can add little to what has already been said about Lloyd George's enduring standing as a statesman of world significance, except to say that my understanding is still developing. He was succeeded by the legal scholar Dewi Seaborn Davies, who was a native of my own home town of Pwllheli and a Member of Parliament for five months only. He was followed by Goronwy Roberts, who won the new post-war Caernarfon seat for Labour in 1945, and went on to serve in the Welsh Office and in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In 1974, the seat was won dramatically for Plaid Cymru by a young Dafydd Wigley, who went on to hold it for the next 27 years.
David Lloyd George was, of course, a Liberal, but at the start of his political career he was leader of Cymru Fydd, a nationalist movement that was a precursor of my own party of Plaid Cymru. Indeed, in that early part of his career, Lloyd George was known in the House as a Welsh nationalist with a small n. Goronwy Roberts was a Labour Member but, early in his career, he was a supporter of the Gwerin movement in Labour, which had both republican and nationalist tendencies—again with a small r and small n. I appreciate that those terms may be foreign to some Government Members.
Lloyd George was later made Earl of Dwyfor, and Goronwy Roberts was later made Lord Goronwy Roberts. Whatever their views, neither had the opportunity afforded to my immediate predecessor Dafydd Wigley, who is now a democratically elected Member for Caernarfon in our National Assembly in Cardiff. I am happy to tell his many friends in Parliament that Dafydd Wigley is well, retains his voracious appetite for work and is prominent in the proceedings of the Assembly. It is an honour and an enormous challenge to follow in his distinguished footsteps.
The Caernarfon constituency is a place of supreme natural beauty. Within its bounds are the many mountains of Eryri, within which is Yr Wyddfa, known to some in the House as "Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales"—very much, I suppose, as Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in England and France. My constituency extends from Y Felinheli in the north-east through to the one-time slate quarrying areas of Rhiwlas, Deiniolen, Dinorwig, Llanberis and Dyffryn Nantlle. It stretches from Beddgelert in the mountains to Porthmadog, with its narrow-gauge railway, which is one of the links between 92 my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) who, in terms of our debate, is not a neighbour from hell.
My constituency extends from the historic towns of Cricieth, Pwllheli and Nefyn to Aberdaron at the tip of gwlad Llyn, the western peninsula beyond the mountains, and on to Ynys Enlli, the island which, for centuries, was a place of pilgrimage where 10,000 saints are said to be buried. Returning east through Llithfaen, where the National Language Centre is located at Nant Gwrtheyrn, back past Trefor and Clynnog, we come to Caernarfon itself, where we have the fort of Segontiwm, which was built by some of our early visitors—the Romans—and left by them when they packed their bags in 383. Our castle is a massive and impressive fortress that was built 1,000 years later by some of our other visitors, and is now a world heritage site.
We have a wealth of architecture—contemporary, Victorian, Georgian and earlier—and a commercial and administrative centre that was once thriving, but, more recently, has been in decline. We hope that it is now on the cusp of a revival. But, more than that, we have the living and self-aware community of Caernarfon people, who are resourceful and open-minded, with a ready and engaging wit and an ability to survive. They are known as the Cofis, or rather, we are known as the Cofis, for I have the joy of being a recent recruit.
As is obvious from my remarks, my constituency is one of the heartlands of the Welsh language, which is a living language—not a relic of past—spoken by some 85 per cent. of my electors and 95 per of their children. The Welsh language is alive in Caernarfon; it is under pressure, but fighting back. It is not going to disappear; we are determined that it will not.
As I said, my constituency is an area of astonishing natural beauty; but, as the sayng goes, "You can't eat the scenery." We have suffered the historic decline of our extraction industries of slate and granite, and manufacturing is under pressure. It is a particularly sad fact that we have a long-running dispute at Dynamex Friction in Caernarfon, which, I hope, will be resolved soon. Farming is in crisis, despite the unrivalled excellence of our agricultural products—beef and lamb. The majority of farmers are approaching retirement age and farm incomes are low and uncertain. Ironically, those farmers who ventured out and diversified into tourism have been struck again by the crisis in that industry. Tourism is a hugely important industry in my constituency, although too often unrecognised as such; it has been a struck cruel blow by the foot and mouth crisis.
Our long-term economic problems have led to a sustained out-migration of our young men and women, bleeding our communities of our most enterprising people. The rural and the urban parts of my constituency are beset by housing problems. Indeed, the worst housing in Wales, as measured by the National Assembly's index of multiple deprivation, is to be found in the communities in my constituency. Three of the 10 wards with the worst housing in Wales—the first, the third and the ninth—are in my constituency.
Eight per cent. of the Welsh housing stock is unfit—100,000 houses for 250,000 people. We have plenty of houses. We have social housing, but it is the wrong type and in the wrong place. Although we welcome the commitment in the Bill to afford tenants a choice from a 93 variety of housing, the ability of local authorities and social landlords to offer that choice has been severely curtailed by years of selling off, and by restrictions on new building and on the power of social landlords to acquire existing houses. As I said, we have plenty of houses in my constituency—good but expensive houses that stand empty, while private tenants endure the worst of bad housing.
We have homelessness—both homelessness recognised and homelessness masked by out-migration. The young people of my constituency have as much right to live, work and prosper in their home areas as have the young people of any other constituency, and that right is not conditional on language or some imagined racial category. I welcome the duties on local authorities to undertake reviews and to prepare strategies to combat homelessness.
On the day of my election, I visited all 84 polling stations in my constituency, though I assure hon. Members that I voted only once. When I arrived mid-morning in the mountain village of Rhyd Ddu, the boyhood home of that fine poet, T. H. Parry Williams, I was welcomed with enthusiasm by the polling officers, who said, "Eleven per cent. have already voted—seven people." Now, those seven voters and all the other electors in my constituency have expectations of the Government, but those expectations are more than tinged with scepticism. There is a growing consensus in Wales, and it is becoming an all-party consensus, that a strengthening of the powers of the National Assembly is essential.
Our aims here as Plaid Cymru Members are—yes—to foster economic development and the prosperity of our constituencies, to improve public services and to press for decent housing for all our people, but also to promote proper powers for our National Assembly, if only for the sake of coherence and efficiency in government. But for us in Plaid Cymru and for the people of Wales, much, much more is at stake. I am proud to commit myself here again today to that aim.
§ Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough)
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution to the important debate on the Homelessness Bill. I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) for a truly first-class maiden speech—we have heard several of them today.
During the recent election, I, like many other candidates, held public meetings almost every night in my constituency, and I debated with my opposing candidates on four separate occasions. On one of those occasions, at the instigation of Churches Together, the questions that we were asked included whether we would back the immediate re-introduction of the Homes Bill. I am happy to record that all four candidates said that they would welcome the re-introduction of that Bill. I am privileged to be the one candidate of those four who is able to fulfil that undertaking today—no longer the Member of Parliament with the lowest Labour majority, but the Member of Parliament with the 36th highest Labour vote.
Homelessness is an evil that has no place in modern society, yet like all hon. Members I have seen sights in this country, and especially in this city, that shame all of us. Although there seems to be unanimity among the parties that that is a scourge and a cancer that we must tackle with all the weaponry that we can bring to bear, it was not always thus.
94 Although I am now a Member of Parliament for a Northamptonshire seat, I cut my political teeth in inner London. I became a Camden councillor in 1990, at a time when, across the border in Conservative Westminster, certain councillors were talking of being cruel and nasty to the homeless—and homeless there were, many of them.
I lived at that time in Arlington road, just down the road from Arlington House, which was then and perhaps still is the biggest homeless persons' hostel in Europe. For one year I served on the board of management of that hostel. My council ward was the Brunswick ward, host to the architecturally celebrated Brunswick centre. Above ground at the centre was a shopping centre, a cinema, a club and flats housing several hundred people. Below ground, however, there was a carpark housing dozens of homeless people. After a surgery one Friday evening, representatives of the local residents association took me into that carpark to see for myself that subterranean housing estate. It was a site viewing that lasted only five minutes, made physically unbearable by the stench of urine. Residents had to park their cars there, and the homeless had to sleep there.
Down the road from my ward was Lincoln's Inn Fields, next door to the Inn of Court where I had dined with Law Lords to be called as a barrister a few years earlier. It was also home to dozens if not hundreds of homeless people. If they were not in Lincoln's Inn, they were underneath the arches of Waterloo, littering every doorway in the Strand or hanging around hopefully outside amusement arcades in Leicester square, hoping just for a punter for their prostitution.
Some of them were the hardened homeless, on the road for years; some may have even been exercising a freedom of choice to live that way; but many were the victims of the then Tory Government. Some were indirectly caught by the side wind of disastrous economic policies—the booms, the recessions, the mass unemployment, the negative equity, the repossessions and the widening gulf between north and south.
The then Government's influence on the homelessness of others, especially youngsters, was even more direct. The Tories closed down short-stay accommodation in, for example, Covent Garden, but they never replaced it. They also withdrew benefits from 16 to 18-year-olds except for those in the most exceptional and extremely vulnerable circumstances, so that even youngsters fleeing from abusive homes or abusive parents could find themselves unaided and forced into homelessness by the very Government to whom they should have been looking for protection.
The result of all of that was that, at the tail end of the Thatcher Administration, 140,000 people were homeless―140,000 scars on the modern history of this nation. The homelessness figure peaked in 1990, since when there have been steady decreases, but the decreases have been nowhere near fast enough. Moreover, the decreases seem only very rarely to have been due to concerted Government action to tackle homelessness as a key political priority.
During the Major Administration, when numbers fell to 116,000, the decrease was due to external factors, not to deliberate Government action. Indeed, the principal initiative of the then Government moved in entirely the wrong direction if the objective was to rid the nation of homelessness. With their Housing Act 1996, the Tories 95 voted not to limit but to extend the definition of those considered to be intentionally homeless, to whom lesser housing duties were therefore owed. That made it more difficult for them to be rehoused, not easier.
With the same Act, the Tories legislated to reduce to the giving of mere advice the assistance to which even the unintentionally homeless in priority need were entitled if there was deemed to be suitable accommodation in their area. That, too, made it more difficult for them to be rehoused.
With the same Act, the Tories legislated to reduce, where it still remained, the duty to secure accommodation to a duty to secure it for just two years. Once again, the Administration made it more difficult, not easier, for the homeless to find the permanent home that they needed. However, even that was not enough. Having already presided over the general withdrawal of benefits from under-18s in the late 1980s, in 1996 the then Government further restricted housing benefit for under-25s to the average rent for shared accommodation, to single-room rent, so that no under-25s were entitled to independent accommodation, however vulnerable their circumstances. All would have to share with strangers.
So when the Labour Government came to power in 1997, we inherited not only 116,000 or so homeless people but a legislative regime and a benefits system that were designed to make things tough for the homeless. It is that regime which the Homelessness Bill—and, before the general election, the Homes Bill—is attempting to address. The Bill is a belated but welcome response to that regime.
The Bill is a belated response. Although it has been introduced early in this Parliament, it was introduced so late in the previous one that, despite the size of our majority, we could not pass it. That delay was unfortunate because the scale of the homelessness problem was huge when we assumed power and remained huge throughout the entirety of our first term. The number of households accepted as homeless and in priority need still stands at about 110,000.
The problem is particularly acute in London. I described earlier the manifestations of homelessness as of the 1990s, but little has changed. The same manifestations are here now; the beggars and the bedraggled are still with us, on the streets, in shop doorways and in London Underground access tunnels. It is not just the rough sleepers who are still with us, or those without a roof over their head, but those whose roof is not their own, but a friend's; those whose roof is not of a flat or house, but of a car; those whose roof may be of a house or flat, but one that is substandard, overcrowded or unfit for occupation.
In one outer-London borough of which I have some knowledge, the supply of affordable housing to meet housing demand is so inadequate that even if no one else applied for housing in that borough for the foreseeable future, it would take three years to make one offer of housing to every registered homeless family in temporary accommodation and four years to make one offer of housing to every tenant in housing need—and that is if nobody new came on to the housing register. That borough receives 300 homelessness applications every month and nearly 200 more applications a month to join 96 the housing register. As matters stand, many of those applicants have no realistic prospect of ever receiving an offer of a suitable home.
Although the problem is clearly focused on London and the other cities, it exists elsewhere. In my constituency—leafy, middle England, and a rural area with 17 villages and 70 farms—I frequently see at my surgery those who present themselves as homeless: the lorry driver from Rushden whose relationship collapsed and who was sleeping in the cab of his lorry and had been doing so for months; the youngster on a programme for the Prince's Trust who was looking forward to his stay at the residential home for the disabled where he was to be a helper because it meant that he, too, had a bed to sleep in; the family who had been forced to waste their last pennies on hotel rooms as different local authorities passed them on, one to the other, until they had no money left; and several couples with children, evicted because of arrears, who could not then obtain either a reference or a deposit to live somewhere else.
That amounts to a reservoir of housing need in this city and throughout the country with which we now must deal. We are doing so, but later than we should. The Bill is a belated response; it could have come earlier, but it is none the less welcome. It is welcome because it deals with some of the obvious errors of the past decade and, in particular, the Housing Act 1996.
I particularly welcome four features of the Bill. First, it requires authorities to take a strategic multi-agency approach to the prevention of homelessness and the rehousing of homeless households. That is clearly right. Secondly, the Bill abolishes the current two-year period during which authorities are subject to the main homelessness duty. Again, that must be right. Thirdly, the Bill gives authorities a new power to secure accommodation for homeless applicants who are not in priority need, especially single people. That, too, must be right. Fourthly, I welcome the proposals to improve the right of appeal for housing applicants. Far too many have in the past been faced with the awful decision either to accept a property that they consider wholly unsuitable to meet their needs or to refuse that offer and lose the prospect of being housed altogether.
All those measures are welcome, and are welcomed not only by me but by all the major political parties, the local government associations and the charities. However, our enthusiasm, although real, must still be muted by our understanding that this Bill is a start, but not a solution. Much, much more needs to be done if we are truly to address a problem on the scale that I have described. That is why the Bill calls for the drawing up by local authorities of homelessness reviews and strategies. It is through such bigger, broader multi-agency strategies that most will be done.
Legislation alone can never be enough. We do not house the homeless by passing a Bill and making it an Act. We do so by bringing into being more supported temporary accommodation and by building more permanent homes. When we have those beds and those homes, we need not pious words and statutes but practical solutions on the ground if we are better to enable access to them by those currently excluded, whether through poverty, mental problems, addiction or any of the myriad problems that can make one homeless. All that requires proper co-ordination between different Government Departments and local government; between 97 the public, the private and the voluntary sectors; between those with responsibility not just for housing, but for planning, health, social services, social security and social exclusion.
How better to bring back into use the 760,000 homes that currently stand empty than by listening to the Empty Homes Agency, whether on VAT or council tax? How better to convert into sustainable homes the spaces that the institutions own above the shops in our high streets than by listening to those who have devised legal instruments that meet their concerns about being landlords?
How better to ensure that when new homes are built they are built for the poor as well as the rich than by revising policy planning guidance 3? Yes, the Labour Government revised PPG3—they were right to do so—and sought to extract from all appropriate private housing developments an element of affordable housing. That was a step in the right direction; but developers still argue, and all too often successfully, that their site is not an appropriate one, that it is too small to accommodate different types of tenure, that the economics of provision do not stack up, and that compliance would mean that the development was not a successful one, even if it was viable. PPG3 must be revised again, and soon, if the targets for affordable homes throughout the country are to be met.
How better to sustain in their homes those who are unused to managing themselves, let alone their budgets, than by providing social and health care and, above all, benefits to meet their needs? Let us tackle the single-room rent now, and signal our intent to do better by youngsters, not worse.
The Bill is a belated and partial response to a desperate problem. It is a very welcome start, but it is a start down a very tricky road. I urge Ministers to keep going on that journey, and I wish them very well on it.
§ Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous), for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on their maiden speeches, and I thank the hon. Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) and for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) for continuing my Cook's tour of the country.
I pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Mrs. Jackie Ballard, the first woman to represent Taunton and a conscientious and hard-working Member of Parliament who quickly established an enviable reputation both within and without the constituency. I also want to mention David Nicholson, her predecessor. He never shouted loudly about all the hard work that he did, and I pay tribute to the full 10 years that he served in the House.
Taunton really is a beautiful constituency, encompassing the fertile Vale of Taunton, overlooked by the Blackdowns, the Brendons and the Quantocks, as well as half of Exmoor. Its mainstay in those parts is agriculture, and especially dairy and livestock—for those who do not know, it rains quite a lot there.
98 The past few months have been torturous for the farming and hill communities and all those in the rural villages. Foot and mouth disease has plagued us, although infection has played a relatively small part. We have all been affected. Wiveliscombe and Dulverton, two of the smaller towns, have both struggled. There has been a great impact on tourism, and especially sporting pursuits tourism, because Taunton has eight hunts, as my predecessor used constantly to say. The voluntary cessation of hunting in February added to the destruction of tourism in the constituency. That is especially bad news for all the farm businesses that had taken the Government's advice and diversified.
There are other rural businesses alongside farming, many of them situated in villages with wonderful names such as Hatch Beauchamp, Stoke St. Gregory, Stoke St. Mary, Bishops Lydeard and Sampford Arundel. Then we have Ashbrittle and Appley to the west of Wellington, and Huish Champflower and Brompton Regis up on the Brendons.
Agriculture has been affected recently, but in his maiden speech, no less, Sir Edward du Cann said thatfor all the support which the farming industry is receiving at the moment from the taxpayer, small farmers and hill farmers particularly eke out a not very satisfactory living."—[Official Report, 23 April 1956; Vol. 551, c. 1486.]It is regrettable that, in the 45 years since he made that speech, we do not seem to have travelled very far.
If I have one long-term aim as a Member of Parliament it is to help the rural and urban elements of my constituency to understand that they rely heavily on each other. There is no better example of that than the livestock market in the centre of Taunton, which Mrs. Ballard described in 1997 as "thriving". I have to say that it is not thriving at all at the moment; it, too, has been closed because of foot and mouth disease.
There is no better testimony to the importance of agriculture than the mutual dependence that exists between the countryside and the towns: local shops have less money spent in them because the farmers do not make their twice-weekly visits to the livestock market. Farming and tourism do bring lots of money to the area—but not at the moment.
Another town, Wellington, has also been affected, but less so, because it is seven miles to the east of Taunton, and has been helped by the growth in the markets that the firms Relyon and Swallowfield both supply.
Nobody—even those with an urban disposition, such as Labour Members—wants to see our agriculture collapse, as farming has created and moulded our beautiful landscape, and that provides the backdrop to this country's tourism.
The Taunton constituency centres on the county town of the same name, which sits astride the river Tone. The Tone has taken to flooding at various points in the past couple of years, and we need to think seriously about how to combat flooding in the whole of Somerset in the next few years.
Taunton is the home of the county council and of Taunton Deane borough council. More importantly, in my opinion, it is also home to Somerset county cricket club; it is regrettable that we lost by eight runs to Gloucestershire yesterday. Taunton Town football club, which, sadly, until 99 this year had a habit of coming second in cup finals—19 times in a row—has managed to reverse that trend, and we are now the proud holders of the FA vase. The rugby club can also hold its head high, having won promotion.
My constituency is not just pretty names and stunning church towers, although we do have one church tower that has been described as the noblest parish tower in all England. The St. Mary Magdalene charitable fund needs £500,000 at the moment to restore the historic organ, the tower and the fabric of that church.
Some, especially those who wish to go there, may perceive Somerset as a bucolic idyll luxuriating in milk and honey. None the less, there are more than a handful of homeless people in Taunton and the rest of Somerset, and the problem is getting worse as agriculture declines, both in terms of the number of people employed and in terms of wealth.
There are pockets of rural poverty, and the people who live in them will look towards Taunton, which has only 2 per cent. unemployment, to provide them with work. They will therefore travel there and look for bedsits, but there are now fewer of those, as our landlords have been forced to upgrade the accommodation without any corresponding increase in rent. The heavy hand of the local authority and of Government legislation has frightened them off. It is worrying that the Government now say that they will publish a consultation document later this year. That will only add to one of the major problems in dealing with homelessness—that there are already too many laws that have frightened away private landlords.
We know how many people are officially homeless in Taunton, but we do not know how many there are unofficially. The Taunton Association for the Homeless says that it turned 90 people away last month, so it wants to build more rooms—yet the first the residents of nearby Alfred street heard of that was when the proposal went out to planning consultation.
That is regrettable. If we want those facilities to be able to cater for the number of people who are homeless, and to be accepted in local areas, we need to ensure that they can nurture the locality and that residents' fears are understood.
Taunton Association for the Homeless is a fine, well-runassociation, and its work is complemented by Open Door, which is run by Taunton Christians Together. As its mission statement says, Open Door triesto relieve the need, hardship and distress of the homeless within Taunton and the surrounding countryside.However, Open Door has a problem that is not purely financial. Apparently, it can operate for only three days a week at present. It gets funding from the local councils partly because the county council will not operate on a Sunday.
If we are to be successful in combating the problems of homelessness, we need participation from the voluntary sector. I worry, because at every voluntary and charitable event that I attend I am too often the youngest by a whole decade—and I am not that far off 40. If people in my age group do not get involved in voluntary work and in supporting, financially and through their own actions, those charities that help the homeless, it is a potential 100 worry because the authorities will not always be able to fill in the gaps. That makes the contribution of the voluntary sector very important.
I am sure that the Bill is well meaning, but I fear that it will not reduce the regulation overload that is seriously hampering attempts to reduce homelessness. That is a problem that we must all resolve.
§ 9 pm
§ Margaret Moran (Luton, South)
I congratulate my hon. Friends who have made their maiden speeches today, and I also congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), whom we have just heard. We have had the privilege of hearing several spirited maiden speeches and have seen the emergence of strong parliamentarians who will be excellent representatives of their constituents.
Many of us will celebrate when the Bill finally reaches the statute book after many false starts, especially those of us on the Government Benches who have been trying to extend the rights of the homeless since the 1970s. Homelessness was my formative political experience, because my first job as a young woman was working in Battersea social services. I shall not say how many years ago that was, but it pre-dated the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. When homeless families came into the social services offices with their children, often with their worldly goods wrapped up in string, my job was to offer them a ticket back to whatever floor they had recently been sleeping on—perhaps belonging to friends or relatives—or to offer to take their children into care. Those were the only options available to homeless families, and that is why I worked in a voluntary capacity to help to ensure the introduction of the 1977 Act—of which we can still be proud—in the days of "Cathy Come Home". In a professional and voluntary capacity since then, I have worked to try to enhance the rights of the homeless and those in housing need.
It is significant that this Bill will be the first to receive a Second Reading after the election. I am proud that it is the Labour party that has always sought to protect the rights of the homeless and to tackle housing need. The new-found enthusiasm for the homeless on the Opposition Benches should be tempered with the reminder that it was during their 18 years in government that we saw devastating cuts in housing investment, over and above those in any other public service; 1 million people becoming homeless as a result of repossession; a doubling of homelessness; and, worst of all, in the dying days of the Tory Government, the Housing Act 1996.
Sections 6 and 7 of the 1996 Act further curtailed the rights of the homeless and reduced the duty on local authorities to rehouse homeless families permanently. Instead, the Act introduced a two-year duty, requiring local authorities to provide only hostel or other temporary accommodation. That was a disgraceful move and was universally condemned by homelessness charities and all of those working in the housing and homelessness sector. Inevitably, those measures led to an increase in the numbers of the homeless and the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We are still reaping the whirlwind of that legacy of the previous Tory Government.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
Does the hon. Lady realise that had those provisions not been made, almost 101 all the available social housing would have continued to go to those on the homelessness list, while those who had waited for years had no chance at all in many boroughs?
§ Margaret Moran
The hon. Gentleman demonstrates that he does not have an understanding of the link between homelessness and housing need more generally. The representations made by charities and housing organisations showed a clear link between homelessness and wider housing need, which the hon. Gentleman appears not to understand.
We have seen an increase in the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and in the number of homelessness admissions. That is regrettable, but it is to do with the legacy of the previous Government's housing and finance policies. The supply of affordable housing is falling, as are the numbers of local authority and housing association re-lets. That inevitably pushes up the number of homeless families. Families who are already in overcrowded or unsatisfactory accommodation may eventually find themselves homeless simply because the pressure on them is too great. Young couples who are forced to live with mum and dad find their circumstances becoming so difficult that they cannot cope with the overcrowding and are forced into temporary accommodation and homelessness.
We need to tackle the roots and the preventive aspects of homelessness. In line with the Bill, we also need a parallel strategy to tackle the need for an increased supply of affordable rented accommodation and for increased housing investment. We welcome the Government's additional investment. The increase to £2.5 billion in resources for local authorities and the doubling of the Housing Corporation's approved development programme will go a significant way towards increasing the supply of affordable housing, but much more still needs to be done.
I wish to make a couple of remarks on some issues that were discussed in relation to the Homes Bill. There has been a general welcome for the Homelessness Bill's extension of the measures to tackle the problems of families and individuals at risk of violence. I particularly welcome the measures to assist survivors of domestic violence who have for too long been forced to make the unpalatable choice of moving from their homes to secure their safety and that of their family.
I hope that a distinction is made in the guidance between the needs of survivors of domestic violence and the problems of antisocial behaviour. Domestic violence is a crime, and needs to be taken seriously. It is essential that when guidance is issued, the needs of the survivors are made much clearer than they have been, and that local authorities take their duties more seriously than they have done in many instances in the past.
If we are to give effect to the provisions that seek to provide greater safeguards for survivors of domestic violence, we need to think in a more joined-up way about other parts of our policy. Our "supporting people" policy, for example, is welcome in a general sense. However, there are grave concerns that by giving local discretion, there is a risk of survivors seeking refuge in women's aid hostels finding that hostels are not available because local authorities have chosen to fund other types of accommodation. We urgently need a national network of hostels and refuges for survivors of domestic violence. I urge Ministers to consider whether central funding is more appropriate if the protection afforded in the Bill is to have real effect.
102 When the Homes Bill was considered, there was debate about the uneven quality of housing advice services around the country. It was suggested that there should be minimum standards of housing advice available to all. I strongly endorse such a view, particularly in respect of survivors of domestic violence, because although we advocate a multi-agency approach, its effectiveness in terms of advice given and support offered is often patchy across the country. We need to introduce minimum standards for all agencies tackling domestic violence, so as to end the current location lottery. All survivors, wherever they live, should be assured of a refuge place if they need one and of the correct advice and support whenever they need it.
There has been much discussion of, and a welcome for, the introduction in the Bill of a homelessness strategy. During debate on the Homes Bill, it was pointed out that such a strategy should form part of an overall housing strategy that had statutory effect. That was resisted by Ministers on the grounds that more time was needed for consultation. Time has passed since then—although not time intended for such consultation—and I urge Ministers to reconsider such a requirement under the Bill. It fits completely into our partnership agenda and will provide a much-needed focus on more joined-up government—linking education, health, planning and so on. That is long overdue. Those sectors must be meshed together if we are effectively to tackle housing needs.
§ Mr. Don Foster
That is not merely the hon. Lady's view. Local authorities are desperately keen for a single requirement on them to provide an over-arching homes policy.
§ Margaret Moran
The hon. Gentleman is right. Strong representations have been made from that quarter. I have been appalled by some local authorities that, having undertaken stock transfer, say, "We don't do housing any more. We have got shot of housing". We do not advocate that approach to housing either in the Bill or more generally. We need a more strategic approach on a statutory basis, extending the statutory housing powers of local authorities to enable them to carry out their full range of duties in all aspects of housing provision in their area. That requires the strengthening of the obligations on registered social landlords and other housing providers to assist local authorities in meeting their housing needs.
Furthermore, if we are to reduce homelessness, we must make more effective use of the private rented sector. In Luton, for each of the 4,000 families in desperate housing need, there are seven empty properties in the private rented sector. That is nonsense. Without the resources or the statutory ability to tackle the problem of empty properties, that disgrace will continue. We must address the need for additional resources to deal with private sector rented properties that are in disrepair. We also need to provide greater resources for poor owner-occupiers who need assistance to maintain their homes to a decent standard, before they reach the state of dereliction of some properties in my constituency.
We need to improve quality and security for tenants in the private rented sector without driving up prices. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State 103 mentioned that he is considering a consultation document on that sector and on houses in multiple occupation. Legislation on those sectors is long overdue.
We should extend the powers of local authorities to introduce discretionary licensing to all forms of private rented sector provision. It should not be restricted solely to low-demand areas. The current housing benefit system should be adjusted to give financial incentives, under licensing schemes, to private landlords who provide good-quality, affordable housing for households in need.
As my right hon. Friend said in his introduction, the Bill is but one element in the range of measures necessary to prevent homelessness and tackle housing need. We also need to set targets during the next 10 years for overcoming the backlog in affordable housing, to parallel our target for ensuring that existing housing meets decent standards. The Government should set out a programme for achieving those new targets, which will inevitably require a significant increase in housing investment. Local authorities should be required to show in their housing strategies how the target will be met in their areas. That would mesh with the Government's target to reduce the number of homeless households placed in bed-and-breakfast and other forms of temporary accommodation. We need an emergency programme for achieving that target.
As we have heard, homelessness involves not only a financial cost to the Treasury and the public purse but a human and political cost. The problem is acute in London and is growing worse in the south-east. It is certainly reaching acute levels in areas, such as my constituency, around the M25 belt. Therefore, our need to increase the number of affordable social housing units is more acute, and we need to find new financial mechanisms to increase the availability of affordable housing in those areas.
We should tackle the low demand that exists in some parts of the country, but not at the expense of responding to unmet needs in areas of high demand. In that context, I have grave concerns about the review of the general needs index and the housing needs index. Under the current proposals, it seems that the areas of highest housing need could be penalised by indicators that address areas of low demand. I certainly ask Ministers to consider very carefully the impact of those proposals because we could financially penalise the very areas that need most support to accommodate homeless people and provide affordable housing.
We must also think about our wider housing strategy. If we are to tackle homelessness and housing need, we must stop treating arm's-length company initiatives as the only game in town. There are other methods of financing social housing, and we need to be inventive in considering them. For more than a decade, many tenants and housing professionals have said that a level playing field needs to be introduced in housing finance and investment.
I am not a purist in such issues. As the Government have said, what matters is what works. No need is more acute than that in housing. We must look beyond large-scale voluntary transfers as our main way of tackling housing need. We must consider a wider range of ways in which to increase housing investment.
I welcome the additional resources that have been invested, but in no way will they provide more affordable homes, which we urgently need, in the time scale 104 necessary to tackle the problem. I have a suggestion to make to the Ministers who will discuss the forthcoming spending round with the Chancellor: we can consider increasing investment within the existing financial rules. The Chancellor has rightly introduced the golden rule and, at present, we are comfortably within that limit. Net public debt is set to fall steadily to below 40 per cent. of gross domestic product.
In 2001–02, the Chancellor could have increased public sector net debt to invest in housing by about £50 billion while still remaining within the golden rule. Housing investment has the additional benefit that it need not appear in one year's accounts; it can be spread over several years to meet need and demand. We are fortunate in that we have a Chancellor and Government who have set great store by healthy public finances, and we should use the healthy state of public finances to allow greater investment in housing. There is room for a significant increase in housing investment, by about 1 to 2 per cent. of GDP.
I hope that, in approaching the forthcoming spending round, Ministers will recognise that the Bill tackles the most urgent needs of homeless people, but that those needs should be dealt with in parallel with the need for greater investment in our housing stock and for increasing the amount of affordable housing. I hope that Ministers will put those arguments to the Chancellor, thank him for his financial prudence and say that he has room within his golden rule to allow greater housing investment—greater even than that which we have seen in the past three years.
The cost of homelessness is great. It is great to the public purse and to those who are personally affected, their families and their friends. It has a political cost, too. I welcome the measures in the Bill, but I hope that Ministers will move further and introduce other legislation, particularly for homes in multiple occupation in the private rented sector. I hope that they will take this historic opportunity to argue for greater housing investment and so end the torment of homelessness that so many of our constituents experience.
§ Matthew Green (Ludlow)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech.
It is an honour to represent the constituency of Ludlow and the county of my birth. It is a particular honour as I am the first Liberal Democrat Member ever to represent Ludlow and, I believe, the first Liberal to do so since 1886,
I welcome the Bill. Homelessness is not just an urban problem, as several hon. Members made clear. The homelessness problem in rural areas such as mine, where house prices are going through the roof and yet we suffer from low wages, is that young people are being driven out. The problem is not so much that they are sleeping rough, but that they are not sleeping in the constituency of Ludlow.
Several hon. Members have mentioned Stephen Ross, whose Bill in 1977 put much homelessness legislation into practice. Many Members will not know this, but he moved to Ludlow after he had finished his time in the House and was president of our constituency party until he died.
I also pay tribute to my predecessor, Christopher Gill, who retired at the general election after 14 years in the House. There is much local respect for him, because he 105 stuck to his principles through thick and thin. I suspect that Conservative Whips had less respect for his determination.
Christopher Gill could also be a doughty fighter for local people. At the outset, he was a lone voice in fighting for Kidderminster hospital. Despite the political differences between us, I suspect that he will be rather pleased that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and I will continue his fight for services at that hospital.
Many Members have said—I am sure that everyone does in a maiden speech—that their constituency is one of the most beautiful in the country. All I say is that people should come to Ludlow and draw their own conclusions. Not only will they find it very beautiful, they will find that the people are very relaxed, friendly and welcoming.
The Shropshire hills have been given a boost by the Secret Hills Discovery Centre in Craven Arms, which is a must for all visitors. My constituency is also full of historic castles and buildings. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) referred to Caernarfon castle, but he may not know that, for some time, Ludlow castle was the seat of government for this country and, for a much longer period, ruled Wales. Ludlow now boasts more Michelin star restaurants than any other constituency and it has many fine pubs and hotels. Indeed, it has the largest number of micro-breweries. The figure of six is more than anywhere else and they produce top-quality real ales.
I do not, however, want to gloss over the problems that my constituency faces. It is one of the most rural constituencies in England. Nearly 12 per cent. of the working population work directly in agriculture and the jobs of many others are dependent on the agriculture sector. That sector has been in decline in the past five years and foot and mouth very nearly finished it off. It is the bedrock of the local economy and I hope that the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will turn the rural economy round and not earn the reputation of its predecessor, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Kidderminster hospital is primarily known because of its connection with Wyre Forest. However, a third of my electorate—20,000 people—used it because it was their nearest hospital. For them, the loss of the accident and emergency department might be life-threatening. They were used to the 45 minutes that it took from making a 999 call to being taken to an accident and emergency hospital. Many now face a wait of an hour and a half from the time that they make the call to when they arrive.
Shropshire and my constituency are affected by the poor state of local government finance, which is a familiar problem in rural areas. Schools are desperately underfunded but, none the less, produce excellent results. The roads improve whenever one leaves Shropshire. That is no surprise: every surrounding county is better funded. Social services have experienced severe cutbacks. I heard that a local government finance reform Bill was going to be announced in the Queen's Speech and was deeply disappointed when that did not happen.
The election in Ludlow was not entirely about party politics. Its electorate are relaxed, friendly and not easily stirred. Indeed, they probably have not been stirred for 115 years in political terms. However, there is a growing 106 feeling that central Government are ignoring the constituency and that our problems are not being heard. The electorate have been roused and they have asked me to put their problems to the House. I hope that I will succeed in doing that.
§ Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
We have had a fascinating debate, but it should not be taking place. The Homes Bill could have been an Act by now had the Government taken our advice and not insisted on linking it with the highly controversial compulsory seller's pack. It is a vindication of the Conservative opposition to that rushed and ill-thought-out measure that it was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. That goes to underline the pitfalls of abusing our powers of scrutiny by using programming measures to rush badly drafted legislation through the House. How many measures that succeeded courtesy of the Government's programming sledgehammer will we have to revisit in this Parliament simply because they legislated in haste? In their unseemly rush to flex their political muscle, legislation was not subject to the full rigour of scrutiny inside and outside this place. The Secretary of State, who is not present, had a cheek to present the Homelessness Bill as if it were the first month of the first Labour Government.
Let us look on the bright side. Without today's debate, the House would have been deprived of a string of excellent maiden speeches, of which a surprising number touched on homelessness. Interspersed with those were many contributions by old lags—the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster), for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). Indeed, I think that the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) spoke for even longer than she did in her maiden speech four years ago. However, that was not before the annual tirade—the short, sharp speech—by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). For those of us who joined the House four years ago, it is familiar to hear all the ills of the world put down to 18 years of Conservative government. There was no mention of the appalling housing record of Labour-controlled London boroughs. Perhaps she will put us on notice of when she will take some responsibility for the deterioration in housing under four years of Labour government, including her short, sharp tenure at the now defunct Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. When will she be prepared to be judged on her record as the Mayor's special adviser?
Returning to the maiden speeches, we started with an excellent contribution by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami). It is good advice to mention one's agent in one's opening speech. The hon. Gentleman's tones are not, perhaps, the mellifluous Welsh ones of his predecessor, but his understanding of the problems of his constituency and his portrayal of it as very different from the seat that his predecessor inherited 31 years ago show that he is in touch with his constituents. His point about stable communities being at the heart of a solution to housing problems was very relevant.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous), who also made an excellent contribution, as we would expect from someone 107 who cut his teeth in Conservative politics in Wandsworth, as I did. He managed to mention teacher numbers, police numbers, clinics, bypasses, banks, railways, flight paths and waste disposal—the entire panoply of public services—in one 12-minute speech. He will bring great experience to the House, not least from his work with homelessness charities, which he mentioned.
We had another excellent maiden contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly). Not many of us can talk about two highly distinguished predecessors with busts in the Palace of Westminster. I hope that my hon. Friend will not repeat the performance of the earlier of those predecessors, Oliver Cromwell, who snatched the Mace, made one contribution in his first year as a Member of Parliament and suffered a lingering death from malaria. My hon. Friend is very welcome here in the defence of the privileges of this House as its powers, including the power of scrutiny, come under attack not now from the divine right of kings, but from an arrogance of power exercised by an Executive in Downing street.
We then heard an excellent maiden contribution from the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), following in the tradition of difficult-to-pronounce Scottish constituencies. His approach was a refreshing alternative to blaming everything on those wicked Tories between 1979 and 1997. His commitment to homelessness projects in his constituency resulted in the expertise with which he contributed on the subject.
I am afraid that I missed the maiden contribution of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), although I gather that he gave us some insight into the highly underhand tactics used by Liberal Democrat candidates, including the fact that he identified a former Conservative Member of Parliament as not living in the constituency, even though he was his landlord.
We then heard a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). It is excellent to see the Isle of Wight back in Conservative hands, as well it should be. He brings to the House great expertise in education. He made very bold claims: he said that it never rains in the Isle of Wight. He gave us a different view on the promotion of tourism by advertising the prisons available on the island and the attractions of garlic ice cream, garlic beer and garlic honey—which is ironic given the fact that in "Dod's", he gives one of his recreations as avoiding gardening.
We then moved on to the Welsh tradition of unpronounceable constituencies, with the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), whose maiden speech was a refreshing jerk back to the tradition of Labour Members blaming everything on the wicked Tories. By my count, he mentioned Keir Hardie at least seven times. His strong, passionate speech was reminiscent of Keir Hardie's contributions, and then he started mentioning socialism and trade unionists—subjects that do not, these days, raise too many cheers from his ministerial colleagues. The crucible of Welsh politics that produced Keir Hardie in the last century is, I fear, rather different today.
We then heard from another Welsh Member, albeit from a different party. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) follows in the distinguished footsteps of Dafydd Wigley and tried to outdo the Member who 108 spoke before him by talking about Lloyd George rather than Keir Hardie. He certainly wasted no time in asserting his constituency's independence from that terrible place, England. He spoke with expertise on housing and with personal experience of wards that feature in the ten worst in Wales for housing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) spoke about his most beautiful constituency, but, with refreshing honesty, admitted that it does indeed rain a lot there, in contrast, apparently, to the Isle of Wight. He took the wise step of mentioning just about all the villages in his constituency, which always helps, and spoke intelligently about the stark mutual dependence of rural and urban areas and the problems of homelessness and poverty, which exist just as much in the country as in the towns. I am sure that the people of Taunton will be well served by their new Member. I would expect no less from someone who, like me, cut his political teeth in Wandsworth politics, and is also godfather to one of my daughters.
We completed our Cook's tour with the contribution of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green). He followed the tradition of mentioning the beauty of his constituency, as well as the restaurants and breweries in which he takes pride. He was not quite shameless enough to mention them all by name to acquire free dining facilities, but his was an interesting contribution all the same. He also concentrated on the many problems of poverty and homelessness in a largely rural constituency.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), on her promotion to the Front Bench. She and I have done battle on many occasions, largely on financial Bills, although she was temporarily hushed during her tenure as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the now Chief Whip; we welcome her back and, no doubt, she will be more vociferous.
I greatly sympathise with the Under-Secretary, for her portfolio includes a number of poisoned chalices. It includes urban regeneration, on which the Government have singularly failed to deliver. They have produced a plethora of initiatives that are all about setting up structures rather than delivering, and there was no mention in the Queen's Speech of an urban White Paper or Bill.
The Under-Secretary is also responsible for planning—another area where the Government have singularly failed to overhaul the chaotic system under which we suffer—and housing, which was one of the previous Government's biggest failures. The Minister for Local Government has just arrived to give her a crumb of comfort for the Government's most appalling record.
Just five years ago, on 5 March 1996, the Prime Minister said:Labour will do everything in our power to end the scandal of homelessness, to tackle the spectacle of people sleeping rough on the streets, and to end the waste of families sleeping in bed and breakfast accommodation.Five years on, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said, the homelessness figures from the Department for Transport, Local Government 109 and the Regions are truly appalling. Ministers may quibble over the odd thousand, but we know as they know that the figure has been getting worse.
§ The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)
It was the same when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power.
§ Tim Loughton
Is not that an indictment of the past four years? This Government have promised everything. We have had warm words and Green Papers and speeches from Labour Members, yet the figure is the same as when the Conservatives were in government—yet, as we are constantly hearing, the economy is stronger than ever. What an indictment of four years under this Government.
The figure on bed-and-breakfast accommodation is two and a half times worse than in 1997. There is the scandal of empty housing, with more than 750,000 empty homes. The north-south divide has worsened and the gap between rich and poor has vastly widened, yet the Government promised the reverse. What has been their response?
The response has been a dramatic slashing of the number of social houses that have been built over the past four years to a record low. A Green Paper published in April 2000 was long on words but left the future status of council housing in doubt and suggested confused gimmicks for dealing with the major problem of the shortage of affordable housing for key workers, especially in London and the south-east.
Despite promises, there has been nothing on houses in multiple occupancy, and there has been continuing crisis over inefficiency and abuse in the housing benefit system, which has been made more complicated by the Government changing the regulations almost weekly. There has been nothing to help young people to get their feet on the first rung of the housing ladder, and nothing to promote do-it-yourself shared ownership schemes, which we pioneered. There have been increases in stamp duty but they still fail to define exemptions from it in areas of urban regeneration, as promised last year. This Government have slashed the right to buy and abolished mortgage interest relief at source.
That is the legacy of the previous Labour Government. Housing is an area in which they have single-handedly failed to deliver. They need urgently to reverse their appalling record if they are to justify the second chance granted by the British people at the general election. I sympathise greatly with the Minister. She will be a high-profile fall-girl if her new team continues the culture of failing to deliver.
The problem continues to worsen and it is not limited to major metropolitan boroughs. In my constituency on the south coast, local people are suffering. Worthing and Adur councils are failing to find people places in short-term accommodation, largely because of the actions of large cities such as Brighton and Hove and of the London boroughs, which have the power to take block bookings in resorts along the south coast, leaving those of us who live in the area short of the accommodation that we desperately need.
In addition, the quality of accommodation has been worsening. People with disabilities are being offered upper-floor flats and children with asthma are being put in damp ones. In one shocking case, a woman who had twice attempted suicide was placed in a fourth-floor flat 110 with a balcony from which, tragically, she threw herself last week. Many hon. Members will know of similarly desperate cases.
The Under-Secretary's job is an urgent one. We will help as much as we can by not opposing the Bill, programme motion or no programme motion. However, all her warm words and good intentions will count for nothing unless talk of new provisions for homeless people and directions to local authorities and other providers to implement homelessness strategies are backed up by appropriate resources directed toward the problem from central Government.
We support many of the Bill's provisions, as we did many of the measures in part II of the Homes Bill. We support homelessness strategies and, in particular, special measures aimed at those who are fleeing domestic and racial violence—in fact, we tabled amendments to strengthen such provisions in the Homes Bill. We recognise the special requirements of people with physical and mental health disabilities and we shall support measures to help them.
We welcome clauses that deal with the suitability of homeless applicants based on their behaviour, but we shall explore in Committee whether that includes previous behaviour. Dealing with neighbours from hell means dealing with people who have a bad track record in previous tenancies, but the Bill is not clear on that point. We also want to ask questions about whether the new regime now prevailing between the new Secretary of State and local authorities will include provisions for homelessness now that he has threatened to send in private companies to wrest control over local services from local authorities, and whether that will include failing housing departments.
We broadly support the Bill, although we have many questions that we shall put to the Minister and her colleagues in Committee. The Government still have a long way to go to honour their pledge to tackle homelessness. Those suffering the appalling waste of homelessness will not forgive the Government if they fail to deliver a second time.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)
It has been an excellent debate featuring some outstanding maiden speeches as well as contributions displaying the experience that Members of Parliament—especially Labour Members—have in housing matters. It is appropriate that the first Bill of the Parliament—a Parliament that will focus on public services—should deal with the most basic service of all: the need for a roof over one's head.
The Bill supports the rights of homeless people. Those rights were first recognised in a Bill that was introduced by a Liberal Member of Parliament under a Labour Government, but they were shamefully eroded by the Conservatives' Housing Act 1996. I wonder whether it was lingering shame about the 1996 Act, the results of the general election, or Wandsworth council's track record on dealing with homelessness that made the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) so uncharacteristically sour. [Laughter.] I give him some credit. I look forward to our discussions about the Bill and the issues on which I shall make a contribution to government.
111 The Bill will be a landmark for homeless people and will form a key part of the comprehensive housing strategy that the Government have established to address the housing needs and aspirations of the nation. First, the Bill embodies the drive to prevent homelessness by placing a duty on local authorities to review housing needs and develop strategies to deal with them.
Secondly, we will extend the rights of homeless people and increase the powers of local authorities to help them. Anyone with an ounce of compassion would recognise that 16 and 17-year-olds who are out alone on the streets of our cities are in desperate need of safe housing. Under the Conservative Government, the rights of that most vulnerable group were not recognised. The Bill and the order on priority needs, which will be introduced shortly, will end the scandal of housing in some of the most affluent towns and cities in the western world being denied to young homeless people. That is one of the differences that the Bill will make, which is what the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was asking about.
Thirdly, there is no point in recognising the needs of the homeless without providing more housing. That is why we are more than doubling the level of capital investment that we inherited, including £153 million over three years for supporting the most vulnerable people.
Fourthly, our proposals will put choice at the heart of letting. That will help us to achieve our objective of secure, safe and sustainable neighbourhoods. People who choose to move to an area are more likely to have a commitment to that community than those who are merely allocated a property at the convenience of the local housing authority. The Bill will deal also with housing aspirations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), in his outstanding maiden speech, spoke of the importance of meeting the aspirations of the community. The Bill will be important in meeting the community's housing needs. My hon. Friend paid a sincere tribute to his predecessor, who is well remembered and fondly regarded by all Labour Members. My hon. Friend's predecessor raised constituency issues frequently and forcefully. I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue in that tradition.
In his maiden speech, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) paid a well-made, well-deserved and heartfelt tribute to his predecessor. He referred clearly to issues of concern to his constituents. I do not know all of those issues, but I share one with the hon. Gentleman—the Silverlink service. I wish him well in the campaign. I hope that he succeeds.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) made a polished speech and paid glowing tribute to his immediate predecessor. He raised the issue of empty properties and asked whether people could not simply be put into them. The Bill enforces the importance of choice and the need to ensure that people live in properties in a part of the country where they want to reside and in a type of property in which they want to live. He also raised the important issue of creating stable communities, and that is one of the aims that lies behind the Bill and supporting policies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) was right to highlight the role of housing and social exclusion. He talked of the need for 112 more advice to help young people to avoid homelessness. Again, that is one of the aims that lies behind the Bill and the policies that will be introduced to support it.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to the important issue of homelessness in rural areas, as did several other Members. They were right to do so. There are a number of policies to ensure that the interests of people in rural areas are protected. For example, the Housing Corporation has a rural programme for settlements, especially for fewer than 3,000 people.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) talked about his passion for local services—a passion that many of us on the Government Benches share. He spoke about the role of his Liberal predecessor who introduced the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which is clearly important in the context of the debate. He was right to focus on allocations policies, which are often overlooked but which are an important feature of the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) paid tribute to his distinguished predecessors and to the policies of one in particular, Keir Hardie. Far from being anathema to the Government, we have fulfilled several of the policies that Keir Hardie drew up all those years ago. I am sure that my hon. Friend will play an important role in advancing those policies.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) paid a fulsome tribute to his constituency, its traditions and especially its language. He drew attention to the hardship resulting from the decline of traditional industries and the loss of younger economically active people. He will probably go down in history as the Member who managed to visit, I think, 84 polling stations in his constituency on polling day.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) spoke movingly about agriculture and the importance of tourism in his constituency. He spoke about the need to deal with the particular pressures of housing in his constituency; I draw his attention to the importance that the Bill attaches to homelessness strategies, which should be drawn up by local authorities and should involve both the statutory and private sectors. I hope that that will help to resolve some of the issues that he raised.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) drew attention to the problem of homelessness in rural areas. The Government will ensure that funding for the new starter homes initiative is available for rural areas; I hope that that will help to keep some younger people in those areas.
I welcome the support that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) expressed for the Bill, although I suspect that he will also have a number of reservations. The seller's pack, about which he asked, was a manifesto commitment; measures dealing with it will be introduced when parliamentary time allows. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the rough sleepers unit. We shall look at the lessons that can be drawn from it before deciding how to develop important policies for keeping people off the streets of our towns and cities.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) spoke forcefully about the problems of homeless people in London, which are of great concern, especially the number of those who are currently homeless or in bed and breakfast. My hon. 113 Friends may be interested to know that the London housing statement will be issued next month; it is a working document for London local authorities and housing associations and should go some way towards dealing with some of the problems of housing and homelessness in the capital city.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) spoke knowledgeably about the Bill. Obviously, he played a substantial role in it reaching the House in its present form and I welcome his contribution. I shall certainly make sure that the consultation document is placed in the Library. He asked when the priority needs order would be introduced. It will be submitted for parliamentary approval at the start of the next Session; it will be an affirmative order, so it will have to be debated. It should therefore come in to effect by the end of next year. The hon. Gentleman also asked about registered social landlords and their obligation to work with local authorities. They already have a statutory obligation to do that; guidance is coming out and further guidance will be issued for consultation in August. I certainly undertake to look again at the timetable because, clearly, August is not a key time for people to debate consultation documents.
The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of practical issues, including priorities and whether people should be told automatically about any change in the priority order. I urge him to think carefully about the impact that that would have on local authorities in terms of sheer bureaucracy and red tape. If he thinks the matter through carefully, he will realise that that proposal would be impractical for most local authorities.
The same is true of time limits. For some people, 24 hours is too long to respond to a housing offer. For some people, three days is too short. I had to deal with a case in which a woman received a housing offer while she was in hospital having a baby. Under such circumstances, it is important for the local authority to be able to use its discretion.
The hon. Member for Banbury asked what was the point of the Bill and what difference it would make. I have given him one answer, and there are others. One is that it would end the uncertainty of the two-year limit; the other involves choice in lettings. If he cannot think what the Bill would achieve, he lacks imagination or he does not understand the reality of homelessness in Britain today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North made a number of serious points, especially about homelessness in London. On overcrowding, I agree that the present standards are incompatible with what should be expected. On the possibility of two strategies—one for the north and one for the south—I believe that housing strategies should be driven by local needs. That is the thrust of the Bill. It is therefore important that local communities and local authorities draw up the housing strategies that best meet 114 those needs. That will result in not just one or two, but a number of different policies to suit the people who live in those areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) showed her long experience and expertise in housing matters, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who was involved in piloting choice-based lettings. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) highlighted the need for policies to help particularly vulnerable people. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), my close neighbour in Northamptonshire, gave a forceful speech reminding us of the appalling sights that we used to see during the Tory years, and reminded us that although much will be done under the Bill much remains to do.
Those at the sharp end of helping the homeless—charities such as Shelter and Crisis—have welcomed the Bill and its provision to extend the rights of homeless people. It is clear from speeches made this evening that the Bill's provisions and the programme to combat homelessness, the biggest extension of rights for the homeless for a quarter of a century, the recognition of the needs of the most vulnerable people in our society, the protection for those at risk of violence and the measures to keep the young off the streets and to take responsibility for ensuring that those most at risk have a roof over their heads resonate with many hon. Members.
Our aim is not just to make sure that homeless people can get a roof over their heads; it is also to make sure that they have a choice of a decent home and the support that they need to become a valued part of our society. Homelessness, or the threat of homelessness, is one of the most frightening prospects for most people, and it is why so many people tolerate the intolerable—domestic violence, racial harassment, extremes of poverty, overcrowding or abuse—rather than end up without a home.
Together with the priority needs order and increased spending, the Bill will increase protection for the most vulnerable people in our society and will form an important plank in achieving our vision of a more inclusive and a more just society. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).