HL Deb 15 January 1997 vol 577 cc191-261

3.8 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel rose to call attention to the housing needs of the nation, particularly in the light of the Budget Statement of 26th November; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, 1 shall allow a suitable interval while noble Lords opposite, including the Leader of the House, who have no interest in the housing needs of the nation leave the Chamber.

Your Lordships will see that the Motion on the Order Paper is widely drafted. That is quite deliberate. It is designed to allow the widest possible scope for debate on all aspects of domestic housing throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. I see that the Chief Whip has left the Chamber so that I now have a free run. We have not had such a debate for a few years. I apologise to my noble friends from Scotland for the use of the word "nation" in the Motion since they may take the quite proper view that Scotland is a nation in its own right. I apologise as a fellow Celt. The agenda is wide, and I imagine that your Lordships will wish to take full advantage of this. I hope that some noble Lords will wish to speak generally on the present condition of our housing stock; others will wish to speak of the importance of adequate housing to health, family relationships and the disabled; others will, I hope, focus on the failure of leasehold enfranchisement and the dog that has significantly failed to bark in the night; namely, commonhold.

There is also the general housing situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in the great cities of England; the state of the construction industry which will have to build the houses which we need, and its importance to our economy; how we fare compared to our European partners; and, of course, the continuing problem of homelessness. All those matters are encompassed within the agenda of the Motion which I am moving. As icing on the cake—if I may put it like that—of this particularly rich agenda, I much look forward to the maiden speeches of my noble friend Lord Hanworth and the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe.

Although the agenda is broad and rich, there is one unifying theme which I hope to demonstrate: that in almost every single area I have mentioned, the Government have, by their own actions, succeeded in turning what started off as problems into crises. If I am right, and if the charge sticks, as I believe it will, the upshot is that whoever forms the next government will inherit, at best, severe problems and, at worst, crises, right across the range that I have described. It is only right that at least one House of Parliament should be aware of those realities before we get into the rough and tumble of a general election campaign.

Let me start with the owner-occupied sector. House prices, as we know, are starting to rise again after five years of decline, and yet repossessions seem still to be running at the rate of just above 40,000 a year—a level quite unknown in any period prior to 1990. We hope of course that the figure will go down; but we are now faced with a total of 370,000 repossessions since the present Prime Minister took office. That is hardly a proud record. But the problem, because it was a problem, has been turned into a crisis by the Government's consistent refusal even to look at the proposal we made years ago of a mortgage to rents scheme. They turned a problem into a crisis.

Of course there is a further problem. Although house prices may rise, for most owner-occupiers that is a paper rise. It cannot be easily converted into the cash necessary to carry out essential repairs and maintenance which certainly were not afforded during the dark years and which have therefore accumulated. The result is that much of the owner-occupied housing stock is in poor condition with consequential effects upon overcrowding, ill-health, and—I shall come to this later—family breakdowns leading to youth homelessness. We should not forget that owner-occupiers have been through the worst housing crisis since the war.

That brings me to the next sector, that of private renting. The second result of a rise in the money value of the housing asset base has been a rise in investment in the privately rented sector. For the first time in half a century, institutional investors are looking closely at the possible opportunities here. Now that in itself is all to the good, particularly if the consequence is a sensible partnership between private and public capital such as, for instance, in local housing companies. But of course private investors require a reasonable return related to the risk, and that may only be available away from such desirable public/private relationships. Now I am not suggesting for a moment that there are no honest, sympathetic and caring private sector landlords. Of course there are. But there are some who are not so honest, sympathetic and caring. Which ones do your Lordships think are going to hit the front pages of the Sun when the going gets rough? I certainly know which landlords in London hit the headlines when leasehold reform proved to be such a flop. The place for the private rented sector is as a useful and perhaps essential facility for those who can afford to buy their own house but for one reason or another do not wish to do it at that time. It should not be treated, and should never be treated, as a fall-back for inadequate social housing.

That bring me naturally to the sector which is known as social housing. I personally dislike the term. I am one of those old-fashioned people who regard a home as a fundamental social right—who believes that nobody in a civilised community should be left without the opportunity for decent housing. But let that be. I shall use the expression "social housing", however much I dislike it.

Now one result of the general rise in house prices over the decades has been the rise in the cost of social housing. But this Government, apparently averse to local authorities spending their own money, have also succeeded in making life increasingly difficult to the providers of such housing. Let me give your Lordships, as briefly as I can, the nature of the problem. In 1995, just to take England alone, the Department of the Environment estimated that the desired annual increase in the net social housing lettings was between 60,000 and 100,000 a year. The spread between the two figures is said to be due to assumptions about the propensity of younger households to be owner-occupiers; and it is only fair to add that private studies put the median figure rather higher. But the department itself was estimating the output of social housing at 58,000 in 1996–97 and 55,000 in 1997–98. In other words, the Government themselves—before the Budget—were assuming a shortfall in social housing output on their own figures. Already there was a problem. The Government were envisaging not just a deterioration in the social housing stock but the inevitable consequence—which follows as the night the day—an increase in homelessness. The problem moves quickly into becoming a crisis.

Let me be quite clear about homelessness, since it seems to have occupied the attention of a number of people and one or two obviously dyspeptic journalists in the past 10 days or so. Let me rehearse the facts, and to illuminate the discussion I ought to say that all the figures I quote are from Centrepoint, which is an established organisation and well known for authoritative views on homelessness. Seventy-six per cent, of those registered as homeless in the Centrepoint study first left their parents' home at or below the age of 17; 17 per cent. were told to leave or were thrown out; 22 per cent. left after family rows; and the rest left to seek greater opportunity; 72 per cent. are unemployed and are seeking work; and 24 per cent. are seeking training; 48 per cent. have a GCE, CSE or GCSE; and 7 per cent. have A-levels or a degree. Only 35 per cent. have no qualification. That does not paint the picture of loutishness and ignorance that is so often painted in the press.

I am not shy of saying that I have "zero tolerance" not of the homeless but of homelessness itself. It is a scandal to a civilised society. If there are among the homeless petty criminals, then they, like all petty criminals or criminals of any description, should be stopped. But the solution is not to force people to sleep on the streets. The solution is to provide opportunities to get them off the streets—in particular, by ensuring that local authorities have again a proper obligation to house people who are homeless through no fault of their own and are in priority need. That is an obligation which, as the noble Earl well knows, the Government removed last year.

My Lords, let me move forward. On the day before the Budget last November, the Government published a Green Paper. It was entitled, rather plaintively I thought, Where shall we live? "Where indeed?" we might ask. Now, the Green Paper only dealt with England, presumably on the assumption that nobody would want to live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland—the case for devolution has been accepted. But even in England the projection was that by the year 2016 there would have to be 4.4 million new households. Not only does this mean arithmetically net additions to the overall housing stock of well above present levels but also, if current relationships between the different sectors hold up—and there is no reason to believe that they will not—it means an absolute minimum of net new social housing of the Government's own figure of 60,000 per annum.

On the next day, enter Mr. Kenneth Clarke. Total spending on social housing, it is announced, will be some £1 billion lower next year than in the current year. The Housing Corporation's budget for housing association new build will be £344 million lower in 1997/98 than this year. Credit approvals for local authorities in England will be some £290 million down. The housing budget in Scotland is estimated to be cut by some £200 million. And, to cap it all, there will be cuts of some £130 million in housing benefit to tenants in the private rented sector.

The result of all this is all too clear. New social housing starts are likely to fall below 20,000 in 1997/98. As Mr. James Coulter, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, said, reasonably enough: how on earth the Government expects the social housing sector to contribute properly to the 4.4 million new homos needed by 2016 beggars belief. That, if I may say so, is the question that the noble Earl has to answer this afternoon. Do the Government stick by their view that an average net 60,000 new lettings a year over a long period in the social housing sector—their figure—is still required? If not, are they prepared to produce a revised figure like perhaps the 20,000 which will be started this year? If so, where is their justification? If they stick to 60,000, how can it be reconciled with the Chancellor's Budget? The problem has yet again become a crisis.

I shall be frank. The truth of the matter, whatever the noble Earl may say in answer to my question, is that we know that there is not much mileage, in terms of votes, in the complicated business of domestic housing. I shall tell your Lordships a story which will illustrate the point. At the time of the great poll tax row, which in the end unseated a Prime Minister, a Conservative Member of Parliament, after visiting his constituency at the weekend, came back to Westminster with a bleak message to his Whips. He said, "They are talking about it in the pubs. Its always bad when they talk about things in the pubs". He was right. But so far as I know nobody has come back to the Conservative Whips with that message about housing. It is not a subject which ranks high on the list of pub topics in the seats which the Conservatives desperately wish to hold. I believe that that is why they imagine they can cut support for it.

But that does not mean that in my eyes or those of Members of this House it is not of the highest importance to men, women, children and families and— dare I say it?—to our society up and down the breadth of the land. That is precisely why I am inviting your Lordships to address these matters today. I beg to move for Papers.

3.26 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, the notion is not original, but if you were cast adrift on that classic desert island, what would you need before settling down to your eight discs, your books and your luxury? I suggest that you would need a nice warm cave and that you would look for that even before using your Bible and Shakespeare to educate yourself and before looking for local herbs to protect your health. If your nice warm cave were flooded, you would look for another pretty promptly. Housing is that important.

Secure, good quality housing is fundamental to so much else: to health, education and employment. It is a pity that the current attention being paid to family life and family values has not adequately addressed housing. Rotten housing, or having no home, is a major factor in the breakdown of relationships.

All of that is why today's debate is so important. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for introducing it. He has reminded the House of the Budget announcement; the fifth consecutive year of significant cuts. They are cuts of the greatest frustration and perhaps the second greatest frustration today is the time limit on the debate. In December the comment was made that the week started with the Secretary of State for the Environment envisaging where an extra 4.4 million households might go during the next 20 years and the next day presiding over cuts which shifted the question from "where" to "whether".

I specifically ask the Minister today to tell the House what assessment the Government have made of the effect of the cuts and how they propose to address that effect. It cannot be that the Government have not carried out that exercise. To share the information might mean a more constructive debate both inside and outside this House. If the Government did not make that assessment I do not believe that I need to comment on the omission.

I hope that the assessment will include a comment on the supply of accommodation which the Government regard as appropriate for single people under 60. I refer, of course, to the housing benefit changes. Leaving aside whether such accommodation is right for someone of middle age, can the Minister tell the House whether the Government are satisfied that there is an adequate supply of such accommodation and of an adequate standard? Can he also comment on the effect of personal, rather than bricks and mortar, subsidy? How do the Government envisage that we can halt throwing money down the drain with no realisable asset to show for the expenditure?

The social sector needs to provide about 100,000 units a year at a minimum in order to prevent an increase in unmet housing needs—and that is before there is any impact on the backlog of unmet needs, and I say "needs" deliberately. To take London as an example—in other words, quite a short distance from this place—the scale of need for additional and improved, affordable housing is quite staggering. I give only a selection of figures: an estimated 109,000 "non-priority" single homeless people; a poverty trap, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which means that for a household earning £160 a week to be £20 cash better off, it needs to increase its income by £55 if its rent is £30 or by £115 if its rent is £60; 229,000 dwellings are unfit and a further 158,000 or thereabouts need renovation; 140,000 homes are empty; but to end on a potentially more positive note, there are vacant office buildings and sites which could perhaps yield up to 50,000 plus additional dwellings.

I do not claim that making up the shortfall in affordable housing is easy. I suspect that this Government do not claim that it is easy otherwise the Green Paper of December would have been rather less coy on the subject. It was not exactly bursting with ideas. Nor do I argue that any one agency should have the monopoly of providing it. The "how" and the "what" matter far more than the "who". But income tax cuts balanced by council tax increases—another Budget twist—mean that the burden of part of the expenditure is not being borne by the better off and we see alongside that, drastic cuts in local authority housing investment programmes which mean that repair and improvement schemes by local authorities will be affected drastically and will no doubt cost more when the work can eventually be done.

What is the sense in not enabling local authorities to play their part? "Do as we say, not as we do", say central Government. "Treat your capital and your revenue spending separately". That is quite right. But if the Government distinguish between capital and revenue for the purposes of PSBR they may find it easier to distinguish between revenue expenditure and investment. It seems that it is acceptable for the Government to borrow huge sums to fund unsustainable tax cuts, but it is not acceptable for local authorities to borrow sensibly against rents for house repairs and building programmes.

The workings of the PSBR need considerable revision and on these Benches, we should like to see local authorities more free to invest—"invest" is a respectable term which some denigrate by using the word "subsidy"—to meet local housing needs. We would urge a change to the public accounting system so that the social benefits of a particular investment would be the crucial elements. I refer to social benefits because at present we are hooked on indicators which measure things only in financial terms, and in environmental terms almost not at all.

We want sensible housing investment to get unemployed people back to work. Your Lordships will all be familiar with the arguments both about employment in the housing industry and the benefits tax.

Perhaps one of the major challenges is how local authorities can work with their communities to provide the extra housing and to provide it in a fashion which is sustainable both environmentally and socially. How are we to debate most productively as to whether there is a need for new settlements? Are they unavoidable? If some greenfield land must be used over the long term, it is better that that should be planned. It is better not to over-extend existing centres than to spoil and not improve our urban environment.

I do not wish to see the indiscriminate use of greenfield sites but my party, along with others, has proposed a new greenfield development tax in order to address that based on the increase in the value of land resulting from planning permission. I wish that I had time to develop the arguments of the benefit of that in terms of encouraging the development of derelict sites.

Unused stock and empty homes are emotive subjects, but I just do not believe that it is acceptable for fit, habitable homes to be left empty deliberately for long periods for reasons of speculation. We have proposals to develop a simplified grant application system to enable local authorities and housing associations to work with private landlords to bring back suitable homes into use and above all, to find ways of providing affordable housing. I do not believe that the recent circular will achieve that.

I can only allude quickly to the promotion of the private rented sector which, of course, is much intertwined with the wider economy. Some of your Lordships will have seen, with regard to the private rented sector, the private tenants' manifesto drawn up by the Campaign for Bedsit Rights. The problems which it identifies in that sector certainly left me feeling most uncomfortable. I do commend that.

Finally, I return to the Budget. The removal of nearly £1 billion from housing spending achieved barely a mention and certainly no analysis in the non-specialist media. But there is much to concern us all.

3.35 p.m.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, I begin by saying that it is a privilege to address your Lordships for the first time this afternoon. My father, who died recently, was active in this House in his latter years and, although we had different political allegiances, I believe that we shared some of the same social instincts. I am grateful also to my noble friend Lord Williams for introducing this debate on housing which provides me with an opportunity to make my maiden speech. I cannot think of a more appropriate and timely subject to be debated this afternoon.

Today we shall hear much about the inadequate and deteriorating state of our housing stock and about the social problems which that engenders. Those housing problems have arisen gradually over the past 20 years and are now of such a magnitude that any serious attempt at amelioration must necessarily envisage a policy which spans an equal length of time stretching way into the first quarter of the coming century.

Faced with such problems, an attitude of resignation is perhaps inevitable, and we are bound to have difficulties envisaging prospects which differ greatly from those which confront us at present. That is why it is important and instructive to look further afield to witness other circumstances which may serve either as warnings of what is in store if we fail to act vigorously or as encouragement in the way of what is capable of achievement.

I should like to offer an example which arises from my own personal observation. Recently I walked along the banks of the Danube river on the northern side of the city of Vienna in the direction of Heilingenstadt for about 5 kilometres. Marching purposefully along that axis is a splendid and handsome line of buildings which are somewhat severe in outline and decorated in the yellow stucco which is peculiar to the city of Vienna. To each of those buildings is affixed in bold red lettering a legend which says that the building has been constructed in some year of this century by the city of Vienna in pursuit of its social housing policy. That particular line of buildings terminates in a splendid and symbolic edifice which is the Karl Marx Hof. That residential citadel is a grand expression in masonry of the political power of the social democratic party which acceded to power at the end of the First World War. In fact, the building served as a bastion and military stronghold for the Social Democrats during the civil war of 1934.

But today, the building remains the property of the municipality of Vienna. Those apartments are much sought after by rich, retired citizens whose families have matured and dispersed. Residence in Viennese public housing has never acquired the stigma which besets public housing in many other European countries. That may have something to do with the quality of the provision, both in terms of architecture and substance.

Originally, the tenancies were limited to larger families, young families, Social Democrat party workers, I must say, and a few others. But nowadays the city of Vienna is a major provider of housing for all classes of citizen.

The social housing policy in Vienna is an integral part of a concerted municipal enterprise which is at the same time municipal socialism and capitalism and on a grand scale. It commands the services not only of architects, city planners and construction workers but also bankers, professors of urban geography, transport workers, sanitation workers and many others besides.

I offer that example because it represents a vision which I feel we are in danger of losing. I offer it also because it runs contrary to almost every single presupposition which we are liable to entertain when we think of social housing policy in this country.

I shall itemise three of those suppositions and shall call each into question. The first supposition is that social housing policy should address the needs only of a disadvantaged, low income group. I believe, on the contrary, that it should be an integral part of a general housing policy. In this country large investments are urgently needed for the renewal of the entire housing stock, which is ageing uniformly. I believe that our larger municipal authorities should consider the experience of the city of Vienna and that they should be prepared to cater for all classes of citizen at all stages of life.

The second supposition is that social housing is bound to be of an inferior quality. On the contrary, I believe that, apart from the detested system-built tower blocks of the late 1960s and early 1970s, much of the council housing stock which has recently been sold off (and some which remains in the possession of local authorities) is of a standard which is markedly superior to anything which has been constructed in recent years either by private contractors or housing associations. One of the roles of a social housing policy should be to impose standards upon the quality of construction. That, in fact, was the purpose of the Parker Morris standard which was suspended by the present Government. I see no reason at all why that standard should not be reinstituted and applied across the board.

The third supposition is that local authorities are inappropriate providers of housing and that their role, if it is to be revived, should be taken by other agencies. I am sure that this is wrong. One should expect larger authorities at least to have the knowledge and the capacity to plan for residential construction on a large scale and to relate it to other needs, such as those of transport, recreation and the need for open spaces. Such authorities are the only agencies which can be relied upon to view the problems of society within a sufficiently broad perspective. They are in an ideal position to monitor the quality of construction and, because of the scale of their operations and the experience that they can derive from them, they can achieve efficiencies which are denied to other organisations. By all means let private capital participate, but there should be an overall plan within which it must operate.

At present, our housing industry is disorganised and de-skilled. Only a concerted national policy of residential construction can revive it. But so poor is its health and so diminished are its capacities that I fear that the early years of such a policy are bound to be attended by a succession of crises and shortfalls. I also fear that that is the price that we will have to pay for the derelictions of our Government over such a long period.

I would continue with my account but I fear that I have already encroached upon my allotted time. Further, I can see affixed to the parapet of the Gallery above some bold red lettering which indicates that I have already spoken for long enough. When the occasion arises, I feel sure that I shall make further contributions to your Lordships' debates. When I do, I believe that I shall be moved to make much more trenchant comments than the conventions of a maiden speech allowed me to make this afternoon.

3.42 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure on behalf of the House to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, on his excellent maiden speech. It was not only a speech of great quality; it was also an important speech to which I believe many of us will wish to refer in the future. When arranging the order of speakers for today's debate, I do not know whether the Whips Office had inside information, but it is in fact a happy coincidence that the great-great uncle of the noble Viscount was one of my predecessors as Bishop of Norwich. Bishop Bertram Pollock sat on these Benches more than 50 years ago. I do not know a great deal about what goes on in Heaven—yet!—but I have no doubt that he will be looking down upon us this afternoon with pride at the performance of his great-great nephew and that, like us, he will be looking forward to hearing many such important contributions in the future.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I should also like very warmly to express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for introducing today's important debate.

On Monday afternoon a senior Peer on the Government Benches said to me, "Steer clear of political issues for the next few months, my boy, it's going to be a rough time". At the age of 63 it was rather gratifying to be addressed as "my boy". I suppose that this is one of the few places where such a thing could happen. I have no intention whatever of becoming involved in the rough and tumble of party political issues which for me, and the vast majority of my brethren, are a spectator sport.

However, moral issues—that is, matters affecting the well-being of individuals and of communities—and issues affecting the quality of human life and the integrity of the family are very definitely the business of Christian leaders. Housing is such an issue, which is why I believe that at least a brief contribution is necessary from these Benches. Time does not allow for detailed comments on particular issues, so I will confine myself to one or two general points.

Konrad Adenauer may or may not have been right when he said that it is impossible to keep the Ten Commandments when you are inadequately housed. What is beyond doubt is that homelessness and poor housing, from whatever cause they originate, negatively affect people's moral, spiritual and physical well-being and development. I take it as axiomatic that this House is united in agreement on that point, and that Members of all political parties believe that a determination to give these questions priority is fundamental to good government.

In recent years the Church of England has undertaken two major studies, the findings of which were published in the reports Faith in the City and Faith in the Countryside. I was personally involved in the latter as the vice-chairman of the Archbishop's Commission on Rural Areas which was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Prior. Both reports contained extensive studies of housing conditions and needs. Faith in the City attracted a good deal of somewhat hysterical criticism, often from those who had not read the report. But, when the fuss died down, the evidence is that government departments were quietly grateful for the work that was done and that, in fact, it inspired some new government initiatives in the inner city, even though the source of that inspiration was rarely acknowledged. Having been forewarned, the subsequent report Faith in the Countryside left fewer hostages to fortune in unwise phrasing and drew much praise, despite many criticisms of government policy, notably from the then Minister of Agriculture, Mr. John Gummer.

The research and findings of both those reports remain valid and authoritative, and much can be gained from re-reading them. They are authoritative for two reasons, the first of which is that in both studies the Church was able to draw together acknowledged expertise in a number of fields relevant to both urban and rural areas. Secondly, the Church speaks with authority on these issues because, uniquely, it is present in every area and aware, as few organisations are, of what is actually happening.

In the most deprived urban areas of this country the clergy are often the only professional people actually resident in the area. In many cases in the inner city you will not find a teacher living there, nor a doctor, nor even a social worker; but you will always find a member of the clergy: men and women who can speak with first-hand and intimate knowledge of the people among whom they live and of their conditions of life. Clergy tend only to hit the headlines when, in the case of a very small minority, something goes wrong. The overwhelming majority of our clergy are faithful, dedicated and hardworking. They are important resources of knowledge and experience and they possess an expertise of which local authorities in particular could, and should, make far greater use.

There is of course disagreement about how such issues should be resolved and governments are often dismayed when Church leaders speak critically on some of these matters. There is frequent misunderstanding— often wilful misunderstanding in the media—about the reasons for our pronouncements. That is perhaps inevitable, but I hope that noble Lords will understand that those criticisms arise from our proper concerns, concerns about which we speak with some knowledge and experience. They do not arise from a partisan political spirit. They arise from pastoral compassion, and from our Christian, biblical convictions about what constitutes a fully human life and harmonious life together as God intended for the world that He created.

We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for introducing this debate. It will not, of course, be the last word on the subject. If in the future he ever finds himself speaking on this side of the House he will, I trust, not be dismayed if over his left shoulder he hears the occasional voice of dissent.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Cottesloe

My Lords, I shall be brief. I should perhaps explain that although I succeeded to the title when my father died nearly three years ago I have not taken an active part in your Lordships' House while I was Lord Lieutenant for Buckinghamshire. I have now retired from that post. I must confess I feel I may resemble the conventional Buckinghamshire swan, calm and serene, I hope, above the surface but paddling furiously, and not a little nervously, below.

As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has told us, homelessness is a terrible thing. I entirely agree with him. However, I do not think in all honesty that either of the main political parties can be completely absolved from blame. In my view the Labour Government after the war concentrated too much on tenants' rights and security, while the Thatcher administration perhaps over-emphasised home ownership. Both acted from the best possible motives, but they effectively decimated the rented sector. Here I must declare an interest; I am a private sector landlord, but not, I hope, a wicked one. I am, I hope, an honest, sympathetic and caring one. Indeed I like to think I am so regarded locally, but perhaps that is being immodest.

I possess a number of houses and cottages which I might well require at some future indeterminate date for an employee or a widow or a pensioner or a member of the family, or even for myself. Those houses and cottages would now be empty were it not for the assured shorthold tenancy provisions which provide the certainty that I could recover possession if and when required in the future. Therefore I hope there will be absolutely no question of repealing those provisions as an aid to solving the housing shortage. That would have the opposite effect.

Further, I feel that well-intentioned planning restrictions and their equally well-intentioned but over-rigid local interpretations can sometimes inhibit acceptable development, as can the bureaucracy in respect of low-cost rural housing. It is, of course, important to have safeguards, but it is also important to get the balance right.

The housing needs of the nation have been estimated as 4.4 million new homes over the next 20 years. It is almost impossible to envisage that. I describe that more graphically as 27 new Milton Keyneses over the next 20 years. This problem will only be solved by adopting a variety of diverse measures which are generally supported by all parties and both Houses. I am most grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate and to draw attention to the fact that the demand for housing is not in any way matched currently by the availability of sites.

3.53 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, it gives me enormous pleasure genuinely to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, on his maiden speech. I certainly saw the swan parading beautifully before us and could not pick out any paddling underneath. The noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, has had a successful naval career and then a distinguished career serving many institutions, particularly in Buckinghamshire. We look forward to his serving the country in this House and to hearing many contributions from him in the future. I must admit that I believe he would be entitled, unlike myself, to call the right reverend Prelate "my boy". We hope that over many years he will contribute to our debates.

I also wish to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, on his maiden speech, which was also impressive and clearly showed his great experience. Finally, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for introducing this debate. While I still have some time left in which to speak, I wish to ask my noble friend some questions on certain points relating to housing, and in particular to homelessness.

First, I wish to refer to direct access places. I understand there are some 18,000 hostel places in London. That figure is higher than it used to be, but there are only some 2,500 direct access hostel places. That figure has halved over the past 10 or 12 years. Even if we take into account those direct access bed spaces that are in the process of becoming available, we need some 500 more direct access places. I appreciate that there are many homeless who are not willing to go into hostels for one reason or another, and therefore hostels are not a complete answer. There is probably no complete answer to the problem of homelessness, but we need to do what we can. I ask my noble friend whether more work is needed in preparing people to move from hostel places, and in particular direct access places, to semi-independent and independent accommodation? However, we need to be able to provide that.

I have the privilege of being chairman of the board of an organisation called the Church Army. In Marylebone we recently opened a hostel for homeless women which has 100 beds. We hope that will make a contribution to solving the problem of homelessness. A small number of those 100 beds are direct access and are available each night for women who come in off the street. We provide a team of people to encourage women to move on from direct access places into more advanced bed spaces and into a bedroom with a shared kitchen and sitting room which we provide in the building. From there, the team encourages women to move into semi-independent flats and into independent accommodation. A great deal of work goes into that. More work needs to be done in London and elsewhere. I congratulate the Government on their rough sleepers initiative, but it is not an answer to the question of homelessness because those who are housed during times of cold weather have to go somewhere after the winter.

Reference has been made to the problem of empty accommodation. That is really a blight on our horizon. However, again this is not an easy matter. We have heard about the budget cuts—and I shall not repeat them—but will they not reduce in practice the boroughs' capacity to bring empty properties into use? We all hate seeing empty accommodation, but substantial expenditure is often required to bring it into use. There is no way around that. It may be cheaper to pull down some empty accommodation and to rebuild. But surely we need to have stronger policies in place regarding rebuilding or renovation. That matter needs to be tackled.

I do not believe my next point has been mentioned yet; namely, shared accommodation. A number of people who are homeless cannot face going into shared accommodation. I ask my noble friend what is the position on security when people go into shared accommodation? They fear both harassment and theft. They fear their few possessions will be "nicked" if they go into shared accommodation with someone they do not know. That is a real anxiety. What can be done to mitigate that fear? Those people often need to work through problems arising not just from their sleeping rough but also from what caused them to sleep rough. They may be able to do that better in solitude than in shared accommodation. I am a quiet, retiring person, and if I had to live with a highly garrulous person for most of the time I should find life very difficult.

One of the problems is that parents often will not admit that they have thrown out their child. They are embarrassed to tell the social services that fact. There is difficulty in obtaining priority accommodation for many of those young people for that reason. We need greater support both for people who share accommodation and for those who are alone. The situation needs more attention from both charities and social services. I believe that we should see that coming in the future.

4.1 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel for initiating the debate which covers a wide range of housing issues and has given rise to two notable maiden speeches. I congratulate both noble Lords.

I should like to say a few words about the private sector, with particular reference to commonhold. It is generally agreed that our whole system of leasehold tenure is flawed and has given rise to problems, abuses and exploitation of tenants by some rogue landlords, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. Efforts to curb those abuses have resulted in various Acts of Parliament, but those have largely done little more than tinker with the problem. Landlords still have considerable power over leaseholders. There have been some disgraceful cases of exploitation by a minority of landlords who levy exorbitant service charges and insist sometimes on unnecessary building work which tenants often dare not challenge for fear of eviction or of having their lease terminated.

The Housing Act 1996 gives the tenant the right to challenge service charges before the leasehold valuation tribunal. However, that costs £500 per application and requires extensive documentation, adding to the costs of the exercise. There have been cases where some lenders have connived with unscrupulous landlords in leasehold blocks to add service charge bills to mortgages to protect their own interest.

The valuation appeal system also is not working well. Appeals against the leasehold valuation tribunal's decisions go to the Lands Tribunal, which seems to be a more landlord oriented body. If the tenant decides to be represented or to represent himself at the Lands Tribunal hearing and the decision goes against him he is often made liable for high landlord's costs as well as his own. Indeed, the Council on Tribunals has told the Leasehold Enfranchisement Association, I understand, that although there is nothing in the primary legislation or in the rules of the Lands Tribunal to prevent tenants presenting their own cases, such an action is not considered helpful to the tribunal. Those attitudes do not reflect the present intentions of Parliament. The result is that when David takes on Goliath it is Goliath nowadays who usually wins.

All those problems arise from our antiquated, almost feudal, system of land tenure where large urban areas are still owned by the same great estates. We are the only country in the world, except, I believe, Hawaii, to continue this system.

All political parties now recognise that the solution is to move to a commonhold system like other countries. The advantages of commonhold are, first, that it gives genuine title; and, secondly, that it standardises the terms of tenure throughout the country. This is in contrast to existing legislation whereby if residents of a block of flats enfranchise they are still legally in a leasehold situation. Under commonhold each unit owner would have separate title to his or her unit and the common parts would be owned and managed collectively by the commonhold body of which each unit owner would be a part. It would be used largely for blocks of flats but would also involve non-residential and mixed use properties.

I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, for good reasons, cannot be in his place today. The noble and learned Lord is very keen on commonhold, and for some years his department has been working on it. A draft Bill was made available following a consultation period towards the end of last year. I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord's department for letting me have a copy. I understand that the final Bill has had to be dropped because of pressure on the legislative timetable at this stage of this Parliament. I know what a disappointment that must be to the noble and learned Lord. The House would have had a lively Committee stage because, I am sorry to say, the Bill is badly flawed and it has not found favour with the tenants associations or even with the Leasehold Enfranchisement Advisory Service which is government funded. The service had the courage and temerity to say that it did not agree with many of the details. The scheme proposed was essentially a voluntary one depending on the agreement of all parties, including the landowner, who would have had a virtual right of veto— which I imagine most would have exercised.

There was also no mechanism for resolving disputes over service charges. The Bill would have given far too wide powers for individual mortgage lenders to intervene in the control of the management of the block. All in all, flat owners would have had fewer rights than those given to leaseholders under the present landlord and tenant legislation.

I hope that Labour will tackle those defects and introduce an acceptable commonhold Bill when the time comes.

4.7 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, many noble Lords have spoken about housing conditions. I have knowledge of the illnesses which bad housing conditions cause which should never arise, and the absenteeism from schools which should not occur. People are still living in conditions which cause problems. Many comments have been made on that aspect.

Those conditions were brought home to me when I was elected to Birmingham City Council. I represented the areas around the Saltley gas works containing large and small factories. It was an area ripe for development even before the war years. Enemy bombardment caused much demolition. So I know about housing conditions because I used to represent the people in those areas. I got to know them very well. Some people still keep in contact with me now.

Therefore I shall concentrate on Birmingham. I do so because I do not think that it is any "mean city". It is unfortunate that the Government make such derisory comments about it. Birmingham does its best to solve its problems. People forget that Birmingham has the largest ethnic minority population of any city in this country. It includes those from Bangladesh and Jamaica. However, there are problems. Birmingham has a large population with equal claim to the housing provided.

Seventy per cent. of the tenants housed by Birmingham City Council receive state benefits of some kind or other to help them pay their rent; that is 70 per cent, of the 98,000 properties that the council manages—flats, maisonettes, bungalows or whatever. The average weekly rent payable by those tenants is £40. Therefore, given the amount that they receive, they have a very small amount on which to live.

On examination of the budget proposals it was quite obvious that all local authorities had to make a submission. Birmingham's submission documented fully the massive housing problems that face the city— not only the difficulties faced by those who lack adequate accommodation but also massive problems relating to the condition of old housing stock in both the public and private sectors, and the inadequacy of housing supply.

The council put forward its bid, which was thoroughly worked out on the basis of an investment programme for the next 10 years. The need presented to the Government was for £220 million. The council was told that its bid could not be higher than £75 million, and was eventually informed that its allocation would be £28.4 million. It is therefore faced with grave difficulties for the future. We cannot solve them on our own. Nor do the housing associations do very much to help. I know about housing associations; I am a member of one of them. Repossessions presently remain high. One problem is that councils cannot evict people who owe a substantial amount of rent. They would merely become homeless and therefore part of another responsibility.

I wish all political parties would recognise that decent housing helps and influences our citizens to play a fuller part in the communities in which they live. Society cannot become better unless we recognise that certain of our fellow citizens need more help than others.

The Government place the problems of those who are badly housed and of the homeless on the shoulders of the local authority. They provide the local authority with inadequate finance to provide solutions to the problems. We tell the housing associations to build more. They say that they are faced with the same financial restrictions as the local authority. Statistics show that over the past five years the output of social housing has fallen to its lowest level since the Second World War.

I close with a quotation which all Members of the House may remember. It came to my attention in a book given to me at Christmas by my grandson. He gives me a book on government matters every Christmas, but I found this particular quotation very apt. It is from Mr. Harold Macmillan, who, when he became Prime Minister, was MP for Stockton-on-Tees and was a housing Minister in the Conservative Government. He said: Housing is not a question of Conservatism or Socialism. It is a question of humanity". I could not agree more.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, I wish to pursue further the theme of youth homelessness touched on by several speakers, notably the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford.

Homeless young people are, for the most part, invisible. When we do see them, we feel uncomfortable. At our worst we want to punish them for being homeless; at best, we feel guilty. We say that something ought to be done, and then forget about it. Society offers young homeless people nothing except an occasional hand-out. In turn, they give nothing to society. On the contrary, they impose significant extra costs on the NHS, the police and other hard-pressed services.

The recent inquiry into preventing youth homelessness commissioned by nine charities, including the YMCA, Barnardos and NCH Action for Children, defined young homeless people as 16 to 25 year-olds. For some purposes, however, it is better to focus on youngsters aged 17 or under, for most of whom even the meagre statutory benefits safety net has been withdrawn.

Homelessness among young people in modern times is relatively new. Forty years ago, homeless people whom one might meet in Whitechapel were older men (and very occasionally older women) of the traditional vagrant type. Twenty years ago it was much the same. Since then there has been first a gradual and then a rapid rise in the number of young homeless people. They are resentful, bitter and often violent, and they insulate themselves with alcohol and drugs. As my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel said, they often come from broken homes and from a background of family and personal unemployment. As he emphasised, and as we should constantly remind ourselves, a high proportion of them left home because of violence or because they were kicked out. They did not choose to be homeless. Exhortations to them to go back home or the withdrawal of benefits in an attempt to force them back are pointless or worse.

The most worrying group of all comprises those who have learnt how to survive on a bit of casual work, a small amount of benefit and some thieving and drug pushing. They have lost interest in permanent housing or work. They are, thank goodness, a tiny minority.

Whether they can be salvaged is, sadly, debatable. It is imperative to ensure that their still small numbers are not further swollen.

Any strategy for dealing with youth homelessness must be firmly based on prevention. A debate on housing is not the occasion to explore family support services, although reference has already been made to them. Any housing strategy must start from the fact that family breakdown is the biggest single cause of youth homelessness. It should include better provision to enable low-income families to accommodate and support their children, and should provide support and mediation services to families under stress.

The inquiry into preventing youth homelessness estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 young people in Britain experienced homelessness in 1995. But that figure hides much more than it reveals in terms of length, which is usually, thank goodness, brief, and in terms of severity. Relatively few of the people about whom I am speaking regularly sleep out. I share the welcome given by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, to the rough sleepers initiative, which has been very helpful, at least in London, but nobody claims that that in itself will eliminate homelessness among young people.

I am mainly concerned with getting youngsters out of unsatisfactory hostels, bed and breakfasts and doss houses and off the floors of reluctant friends. What they need is a place of their own, however meagre, which offers them some chance to learn independent living and responsibility for themselves. In some cases—I take the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich—sharing is not the answer; but particularly for those who have come out of shared care in local authorities, living alone can be formidably difficult and for them sharing is probably the answer.

Next month NCH Action for Children, in which I declare an interest, will launch a sustained national initiative on youth homelessness. It is putting up £3.5 million out of its own reserves and is looking for partnership funding from statutory and voluntary sources because, while government must take the lead in confronting and solving this problem, a concerted effort is necessary. It involves much more than putting roofs over youngsters' heads. I pick out three components which are particularly relevant to housing strategy as such.

First, tackling youth homelessness must be identified as a distinct but integral part of a national policy, so well described by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. To that end, national projections of future housing needs must include a realistic assessment of the needs of young people who have no choice but to live independently; and the gradual release of local authority capital receipts should be conditional upon allocating a defined proportion to housing young single homeless people.

Second, we need a better local response to housing homeless young people. Local authorities should be under a statutory duty to make and publish estimates of numbers in their areas, to identify 17 and 18 year-olds as a priority group and to fulfil their duties under the Children Act on pain of being penalised for failure.

Third and last, when young people are settling in they need help both financially and to develop personal discipline. The best way to do that is through work, training and education to help them break out of the "no homes, no jobs" vicious circle. Foyers are increasingly recognised as one effective way out of the trap and the 40 or so which have been set up so far have shown that almost half their residents have been able to find jobs, most of them full time.

Homelessness among young people is a major scandal of our time and a major scandal of our society. We should be thoroughly ashamed and ashamed to the point of making up our mind to end it.

4.24 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, introduced this debate, he said that he was offering your Lordships a wide agenda. I propose to take advantage of that and concentrate on the subject of heating standards in homes. I do so particularly because last November the Department of the Environment issued a major report on the subject, based on the findings of the 1991 housing condition survey in England. These things take a long time. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of information, some of it very worrying, contained in that report.

As your Lordships will be aware, homes are important energy users and account for something like 30 per cent. of the total energy consumed in this country. I may become a little confused when I refer to "country" and to England because, unfortunately, the housing survey refers only to England. Sometimes I shall refer to the UK and sometimes to England and I hope your Lordships will forgive any possible confusion.

On general environmental grounds, if no others— because houses emit considerable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere—there should be considerable efforts made to improve heating standards. But other major reasons emerge from the report to which I refer. On page 239, it states that in spite of the attention to the subject in recent years, there is still: considerable scope for improvement in the energy efficiency and thermal performance of the housing stock". The phenomenon of cold homes is particularly concentrated at the lower end of the social scale, especially among those who are most vulnerable, such as pensioners living on their own.

In that respect, I regret to say that standards of housing and particularly heating in British homes are worse than in other European countries. There are some 20,000 excess winter deaths in Britain each year. That is double the level elsewhere in the European Union. Indeed, in countries like Denmark, where building and heating standards are particularly high, there are virtually no excess winter deaths. Undoubtedly, therefore, a large proportion of the winter deaths are due to poor living conditions and particularly to lack of adequate heating and damp homes.

The report gives a telling illustration of the poor heating conditions in many British homes. Despite the relatively mild winter in 1991–92, a large proportion of homes were cold and only 25 per cent. met standard temperature regimes. Some 30 per cent. fell below even the minimum regime. To live in conditions below that is a serious hazard to health, as the report emphasises. Goodness knows what conditions were like in those homes during the recent cold spell.

The Government have recommended a standard assessment procedure (SAP) for calculating the energy efficiency of a home. Under that system there is a rating of up to 100 with the highest figures representing the best heating standards. I believe that this is an excellent system for determining levels of heating in individual homes. Indeed, I have introduced a Private Member's Bill, in which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, is involved, in order to try to extend the application of the system.

Under current building regulations newly-built homes have to achieve a rating of at least 60. Indeed, most of them are now in the area of 70 or even 80. So we can be satisfied that new homes are being built to a high efficiency standard so far as concerns heating. However, the report stresses that the average rating of existing— not new—homes is of the order of 35; namely, about half that of newly-built homes. But within the average, there are variations down to 10 or less and up to 50 or more.

In my opinion, the most disturbing part of the report is the finding that there are 3 million homes with a rating of 20. That means a level of energy rating which, as the report says, is far below the standard for acceptable heating. In the most vulnerable sector of all—pensioners living on their own—the rating is often 10 or less. According to Oxford University's Environmental Change Unit, which is specifically studying this question: We are here talking about badly maintained older houses with thin solid walls, draughty doors and windows, open chimneys, no insulation and a tiny electric fire for heating. This simply does not provide adequate shelter from the elements". What can be done about this extremely disturbing state of affairs? On page 8, in paragraph 156, the report contains a proposal. It states that almost all the work required on dwellings with SAP ratings below 20 can be financially justified in that they have a simple pay-back period of less than 10 years. It estimates that for a capital cost of just over £5 billion there could be a notional saving in annual heating expenditure of more than £1.2 billion. That is indeed a pay-back of less than 10 years. But it is not just a question of pay-back. We are talking about raising standards of comfort and improving people's health. Those are the main issues at stake.

It is a worrying thought that at a time when more needs to be spent on the 3 million homes in England with totally inadequate heating standards—presumably there are similar homes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the position in England is all we have information on—the funding of the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme (HEES) should have been cut by one-third. This is a matter I have referred to in previous debates. I declare an interest in that I am connected with an organisation—the NEA—which is involved in that scheme. The scheme exists for the very purpose identified as needing attention in this important report. If we want to help the vulnerable people affected by poor heating conditions in their homes we need to increase the HEES expenditure, not reduce it.

4.31 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel for initiating this important debate today. It is a little over a month since we in this House discussed the role of the family. On that occasion an enormous variety of views were expressed about the current state of family life but I believe that all sides of the House agreed about the importance of the family as a cornerstone of life in this country.

The needs of families vary enormously— economically, socially and culturally—but the one thing we can all agree on is that all families need a decent home. That is particularly true for families with children. A home is somewhere for the family to be secure, a place that provides the warmth, the safety and the basic shelter for the nurturing of children and young people and the care of the elderly. Indeed, the Central Statistical Office, in its 1996 edition of Social Trends, says: The need for housing is an essential part of everyone's life". Of course, the forms of home vary enormously and the pattern of housing has changed over the past generation. We all know that for many families the housing position has improved. Owner occupation has increased and housing standards have improved. But there is a growing population of families who have little chance to break out of the cycle of desperation and deprivation in terms of their housing, their health and the welfare of their children.

In 1993–94, according to the Office for National Statistics, a third of new local authority tenants in the UK had been accepted as homeless compared with over one-fifth only six years before. In 1994, over 135,000 households who were found accommodation were in priority need as defined by Part III of the Housing Act 1985. Of those, over 70 per cent. were households comprising either dependent children under 12 or an expectant mother.

The Government's own projections indicate that in the 25 years between 1991 and 2016 there will be need for 4.4 million more homes in England. That is almost 1 million more than the 3.5 million additional households on which current government plans are based; and all that is in addition to the unmet need of nearly half a million homes that was identified in 1991. Moreover, the Department of the Environment acknowledges in Our Future Homes, published in 1995, that, government household projections have, for at least 10 years, consistently underestimated the number of new households actually formed". The estimates of the country's housing needs vary. The Government themselves have a varying figure of between 60,000 and 100,000 social lettings each year up to the year 2001. Rowntree calculates that 90,000 social lettings a year will be needed and Shelter calculates between 85,000 and 90,000. The Institute of Housing comes in with a higher figure of 120,000 social lettings. Of course there will be argument around the figures, but let us take the most modest predictions. The Government's own lower figure, published by the Department of the Environment last year, assumes that the number of additional social lettings will fall short of the Government's lower target and estimate of need of 60,000 by 17,000 a year from 1988–89 onwards. As the need grows, so the Government continue to cut, so that at a time when 120,000 families were accepted as homeless by local authorities in the most recent statistics, the 1996 Budget cut more than £500 million off budgets which had already been slashed in 1995.

My noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel has discussed the impact of the Budget housing cuts. I believe that the House's overwhelming concern will be with the impact of these cuts on low income families which children. The Prime Minister has spoken of his commitment to families, a commitment which I believe most of us share. But how is that commitment made real when we consider the attitudes of key Cabinet Ministers and how they have changed? In 1988 the late Nicholas Ridley announced reforms in the private rented sector but was adamant that, deregulation would not price people on low incomes out of the market". By 1995, a mere seven years later, Peter Lilley's attitude was very different. He said: Although a rent may be appropriate for a particular property, it is not necessarily reasonable for housing benefit to meet the rent in full". If housing benefit does not pay the rent of the poorest and most vulnerable families, where does the money come from? Does it come from their food budget or from the money for warm winter clothing for children? Poverty is cruel enough when it is recognised, but it is crueller still when it is not. But perhaps the cruellest thing of all is homelessness.

Homelessness splits families. Shelter reports that its advice centres see at least 1,000 split families per year. It believes that that is only the tip of the iceberg. Low incomes mean that many families simply cannot afford to buy or rent good quality accommodation. Families with children in care get caught in an almost intractable spiral of difficulty. Without a home they cannot get their children out of care. Until their children return to the family, the family cannot secure housing.

We all need homes. I expect the overwhelming majority of us were brought up well sheltered, adequately nourished, mostly warm, but above all secure in our homes. Similarly, the overwhelming majority of us have been fortunate enough to house our own families in secure homes. Without secure homes, stress in families increases, health deteriorates and education suffers. There is marriage breakdown. Children lose the stability of their family lives. The temptation of truancy is replaced by the temptation of drug abuse, prostitution and petty crime.

When we discussed the family some five weeks ago, the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, suggested that families work best when they are independent and self-sufficient. Many of us would agree with that. But to be independent and self-sufficient, families, particularly those on low incomes, need affordable housing. To achieve that I believe we must see an end to the embargo which the Government have placed on the ability of local authorities to act as housing providers. We need to deploy the skills and commitment of both local authorities and housing associations. We need to release the set aside capital receipts which local authorities are currently prevented from reinvesting and to explore new ways of raising private finance for investment in public and private housing partnerships.

Over 120,000 families have little hope of experiencing any so-called "feel good factor" if they remain caught in the vicious circle of homelessness. Without a change in government policies on housing they will remain largely forgotten, hidden away in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, insecure, unstable, stressed and distressed. Many believe that the Government have turned their face from them by cuts year on year, by their dogmatic and illogical constraints on local authorities, and by their increasingly uncompromising attitude to social housing.

There are those who argue that housing is not really a government or a social responsibility and provided that there is a nominal safety net of a roof over the heads of those in greatest difficulty the market will take care of the rest. But the roof of the bed-and-breakfast accommodation is not a home; it is not security, and it is not safety. Families need more. Government and society must shoulder and share those responsibilities and the responsibility to sustain young families and their future through the adequate provision of social housing. That would at least give reality to the commitment, which, I am sure, is sincerely meant, to support families and their future.

4.41 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I must add my voice to those who have already expressed our thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for introducing this debate. Like so many of your Lordships' debates, I believe that it will be a landmark debate and one that will repay reading by anyone interested in housing in the coming weeks and months.

What are we faced with? We are faced with a situation where there is homelessness, disrepair of the housing stock, uncertainty and a lack of security. We are also asked to consider the housing situation vis-à-vis the recent Budget, which effectively reduced Government support for social housing. It is part of a pattern because Government support has also been reduced for housebuilding in other areas. Support has also been reduced for house maintenance and renovation. It is a pattern of free market dogma being implemented with total disregard for the real needs of the people of this country. Effectively, we are seeing the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. That process has got to stop.

When I thought about how I should contribute to this debate, it struck me that one of the significant things was to look at the housing situation and the way in which it has been approached by politicians over the past half century. I am coming up to my 50th birthday and I thought that it would be quite relevant for me to make a review of that period.

We need to recognise that the subject falls into two distinct periods. There was the period of 30 years after the war when there was a consensus across the political spectrum that the object of political policy was to ensure decent homes for the people of this country. It is interesting to reflect that during that 30-year period of political consensus there were 17 years under Tory governments; only 13 years were under Labour governments. That consensus broke apart in the mid-1970s and for the past 20 years we have had a lack of consensus on the need for housing and improving the housing stock and provision for the people.

To rebuild that consensus, which we have to do, will involve two fundamental aspects. First, we must ensure that we have a well-built housing stock in good repair. Secondly, we should ensure that the housing stock is fairly distributed. In developing that essential consensus we should also recognise that it will help to tackle the other major problem of unemployment. Let us link those two elements and agree that as long as anyone living in this nation is without adequate housing and unemployed, it shall be the object of political endeavour by everyone involved in politics to ensure that we, the people, invest in housing, match needs with resources and ensure that the scourge of bad housing is eradicated from this land.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Currie of Marylebone

My Lords, perhaps I may add my voice to those of previous speakers who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel on initiating this debate on the housing needs of the nation. As he rightly argued, this is an area of policy that has been sorely neglected by this Government. There are many noble Lords who can speak more authoritatively than I on housing policy in detail and its social impact. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to place housing and housing policy in the context of the broader economy.

The last boom and bust of the British economy has made it plain to all, if they did not know already, that the housing market in the UK is particularly vulnerable to the overall state of the economy. With one of the highest levels of owner occupation in the OECD, financed by very high levels of floating rate mortgages, the UK housing market is unusually sensitive to the twists and turns of the economic cycle. Moreover, to make matters worse, the UK has been among the most volatile of the major OECD countries over the past two decades. Without making it a party political point, any impartial observer will conclude that this volatility has been especially manifest with Conservative governments.

At the same time, the housing market itself has had a major impact on the performance of the economy. For most people, their house is their major asset and its value affects fundamentally how wealthy they feel. That in turn affects how much they spend.

In many respects, therefore, the British housing market contributes to what amounts to a kind of long-sought-after perpetual motion machine. But it is one of rather diabolical design in that instead of driving us forward, it condemns us to a perpetual drunken motion round and round and without progress.

A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation analysed with great succinctness the problem of the British housing sector. The number of new homes produced each year has fallen by half since the late 1960s. The private sector is failing to substitute for the cutbacks in social housing. Public sector housebuilding used to play a stabilising role and now that has gone. New housing shortages in turn have intensified the owner-occupied market's boom-bust cycle. The UK has a more volatile housebuilding cycle than other countries and invests far less in housing. In turn, the uncertainty and volatility faced by builders reduces the number of homes that they can build and their ability to innovate and reduce cost. So the housing investment cycle damages the UK economic performance by exacerbating the overall macro-economic cycle. The bottom line of that is that it is a fair bet that growing housing shortages will spark off another bout of house price inflation over the next five years or so unless we do something about it.

It is important to make the point that there is nothing inevitable about this. We do not have to run our housing market in a way that makes it so vulnerable to interest rate fluctuation. It is inefficient, inequitable and absurd that we should do so. If we look to continental countries, and particularly to the German market, we see housing financed on a much more long-term basis with a much higher proportion of fixed-rate mortgages. I am surprised that the building societies and mortgage lenders do not do more to promote the take-up of fixed-rate mortgages. Most of the packages available to new buyers in the housing market that offer inducements, such as cash-backs, interest rate discounts and the like, are focused on the floating rate segment of the market.

Perhaps the problem lies in the overall conduct of our macro-economic policy over the past 20 years. At the longer end of the market, long-term interest rates incorporate a 1.5 per cent. premium to reflect the concerns in international financial markets that this Government's inflation performance will not endure. That represents one of the key barriers to moving to a more rational and long-term system of funding our housing.

As has already been said, we need a strong and vital rental market. Indeed, we have over-emphasised owner occupation to the detriment of the overall economy. The lack of a flourishing rental market makes it hard for people to move quickly and easily. That reduces the mobility of labour and imposes a wider cost on the efficiency of the economy as a whole.

However, a more vigorous private rental market will not diminish the need for substantial investment in social housing to provide adequate low-cost housing for the more disadvantaged parts of society. It is in that area that government policy has been so inadequate. The slashing of expenditure on, and investment in, social housing has been savage, and the consequences will be very severe indeed.

We all know that in a tough expenditure round the Treasury looks to capital expenditure because that is much easier to cut than current expenditure, but this is social short-termism gone mad. The cuts will add to the social problems that we already have, such as homelessness, inadequate housing, poor health and education, and increased crime. Current policy is sadly condemning millions of people to live in a ghetto of inadequate and deteriorating homes and we shall reap the social consequences well into the future.

However, the effects of those cuts are also felt more widely. The construction industry is an important sector of our economy in its own right, accounting for some 5 per cent. of gross domestic product and a rather higher percentage of total employment. The construction industry is currently in the doldrums. It has ample capacity to expand without inflationary pressures and, if it did expand, that would provide a considerable increase in the number of much-needed manual jobs. Each £100 million invested in housing creates some 3,000 jobs in construction and another 1,700 in other sectors. The cut over the past four years in the capital budget of the Housing Corporation alone will cost some 50,000 jobs in construction and about half that number elsewhere.

I said at the outset that this Government have a record of mismanagement through instability of the overall housing market and of woeful neglect of social housing. It is regrettable that the consequences will be felt for decades. I therefore echo the sombre warning in the notable maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Hanworth that it will take 20 or 30 years or more to reverse the failures of the past two decades, but we must do that for the health of our nation.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, at this stage of the debate the Government should be in no doubt about the suffering caused by their housing policies, exacerbated by the cuts in the Budget. My noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, in an outstanding speech, and a number of my noble friends have revealed in detail how very severely affected very large numbers of people are by the failures of the Government's housing policies.

I am glad that it is the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who is to reply to the debate. I regard the noble Earl as the Government's best Minister, so we are expecting a constructive reply when he comes to respond to the various speeches made from this side of the House. I am sure that the noble Earl has noted the imbalance of speakers on the two sides of the House on this crucial social question. I believe that there are one or two noble Lords sitting behind the noble Earl, but I need my binoculars to see them. That is certainly not the case on this side of the House. The subject is important because so many people are severely affected by the Government's housing policies, including the poor, the young, the old, and those with no jobs and no prospects.

I should like to concentrate on one group which has been particularly badly hit by the Government's housing policies. I refer to those who are disabled. Fewer than 30,000 new homes are to be built by the housing associations next year because of the £400 million cut in the programme. As my noble friend Lord Williams said—the point was also made by my noble friend Lady Symons in what was for me the most striking Back Bench speech of this debate—the Department of the Environment estimates that between 60,000 and 100,000 new homes for rent should be provided each year. Therefore, according to the Government's own definition, they are failing to provide the number of houses required.

However, the need for new housing that is accessible to disabled people is much higher than that. The National Wheelchair Housing Associations' Group estimates a staggering shortfall of over 300,000 in wheelchair-accessible units. That figure gives some measure of the need of disabled people for accessible housing. Because the housing associations are the major providers of new accessible homes for disabled people, the reduction in the number of new homes they are able to build has hit disabled people very severely. They have been left to grapple with horrendous problems in unsatisfactory accommodation, thus adding the insult of inability to the injury of disability.

Disabled people who are denied appropriate housing association accommodation will be forced to seek adaptions of the rooms in which they live but the pressure on local authorities to make such adaptions will be enormous, and we all know that their resources are far too tight. Many people will seek such adaptions in vain. Many disabled people really do face a housing crisis.

I turn for a moment to the Government's decision to limit the amount of housing benefit. The point has already been raised by my noble friends. The payment of housing benefit for single people under the age of 60 in private rented accommodation is to be limited to the average cost of shared accommodation. Again, that will severely damage disabled people. People who become disabled often lose their jobs or have a reduced income and are likely to need housing benefit. Under the new regulations, however, single people will either have to make up the shortfall themselves or move to shared accommodation. For disabled people in poverty, making up that shortfall will be the equivalent of walking up a mountain—in other words, it will be out of the question for them. They will be forced into shared accommodation. The consequences can be serious. I ask your Lordships to imagine a blind or partially sighted person having to walk around a place where furniture or possessions are moved without notice or the plight of a deaf person who relies upon sign language but who has to share with someone who does not have the foggiest idea about sign language. Visualise, too, someone in a wheelchair who has to adapt to difficult accommodation and share with another who may be indifferent or downright hostile. That is an intolerable imposition on disabled people.

The Government should withdraw the proposals. However, if they insist dogmatically in pushing them through the least they can do today—I look to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for a constructive response—is to exempt disabled people. That is the simple answer for them.

My final point concerns the proposals of the Department of the Environment to extend part M of the building regulations to new residential dwellings. These are reasonable provisions. I emphasise the word "reasonable". The proposals were put forward on 12th January 1995, two years and three days ago. They were constructive proposals that would have benefited disabled people. They have not yet been implemented. This is either bureaucracy or incompetence of mind-boggling proportions. There is a sting in the tail of the story. The situation is even worse than I have just outlined. The Minister in another place, Mr. James Clappison, said in a letter that the Government had put in train a short study on the costings to be carried out jointly with the House Builders Federation early in the New Year. Fancy that! A study with the one organisation opposed to these constructive proposals! That is bound to raise suspicions that the Government are looking for an excuse to drop the proposals. Thank goodness that instead of the Government dropping the proposals the electorate will be dropping the Government within the next four months.

5.2 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, there appears to be no doubt about the need for a large amount of new housing, even though there may be an argument as to what that figure is within a few thousand. The debate takes place against the background of the White Paper Household Growth: Where Shall We Live? My noble friend referred to it as a Green Paper, but I believe that it is a White Paper, although we will not argue about its colour. The White Paper suggests that 4.4 million new units of housing must be provided by the year 2016. I believe that we must seriously consider not only what the houses should be like but where they go. The Council for the Protection of Rural England points out that new housing development is responsible for the loss of more countryside each year than any other form of built development. Because of population increases and changes in the way we live it appears that a vast increase in housing is unavoidable.

The noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, in his interesting maiden speech, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to the need to choose sites. Very little else has been said about it. I would like to focus my attention on where these units should go and how we can lessen the environmental impact of new developments. We can hope for changes in life patterns—less divorce, fewer one parent families and so on—but in a free society we cannot legislate for them. If we are to honour our commitment to sustainable development, to which I believe we all feel committed, and protect what remains of our countryside we have no alternative but to plan for this increase. I am aware that the Government dislike the concept of planning, but in the White Paper there is an acceptance that in this situation only effective planning will provide a real solution to the problem.

The present Secretary of State for the Environment recognises that at least there must be a coherent approach to land use. How odd it is, therefore, to read Circular 3/96 dated 3rd April 1996, which is headed "Withdrawal of requirement upon local authorities to compile and publish information about unused and underused land". This circular removes the obligation on local authorities even to maintain registers of such land in their ownership, although they are required to obtain the best price when they sell it. It is difficult to understand how they are supposed to sell their unused land for the best price if they do not know what they have. The same deregulation is offered to Crown properties and government departments. To add to the absurdity of the situation, one learns in paragraph 4.9 of the White Paper that the Government acknowledge the importance of having the facts about land holdings. They state: An important step is to improve our knowledge of how much land is available or potentially available for recycling. To do this we have commissioned research on how to improve our land use information base. In other words, more time and money is to be spent on collecting information which was previously available within existing budgets. Local authorities are no longer required to publish the details of their holdings even when they have them. Since all of the land covered by the circular is by definition in public ownership it is astonishing that the public is, by government decree, deprived of the right to know about it. Perhaps the Minister can explain the thinking behind this rather odd regulation.

The Secretary of State expresses the hope that 50 or 60 per cent, of the new housing need can be met by using brown field sites; that is, land that has been used previously for something else. Surely, this will require firm direction on commercial and industrial development as well as housing. For example, it may well be found expedient to direct industry to contaminated sites so that residential development can take place on land that has been used but is not quite so contaminated. Of course, the principle of the polluter pays should be applied where practicable to meet the cost of cleaning up the land. But here action would be made more difficult by the Government's inexplicable decision to stop the completion of the national survey of contaminated land which was proceeding a few years ago. I have been unable to discover the thinking behind this decision. Perhaps the Minister can provide an answer to that question. Will the newly commissioned research include contaminated land? Will it also include land holdings of the privatised utilities? Some of these holdings are considerable. There is anecdotal evidence, which comes from a fairly good source, that British Gas alone could release enough recycled land to make a sizeable impact on the overall need.

The White Paper provides a comprehensive survey of options for development. I welcome the invitation to members of the public to put forward their views. There is no single solution to the problem, but there are numerous ways in which progress can be made, for example by encouraging smaller families to move to smaller premises. The best way to achieve this is to ensure that smaller houses cost less to occupy. That may require, among other things, a look at how council tax bands are applied.

I offer an illustration from my own experience. I know of a family that moved from a large house to one approximately one third of the size in the hope that on retirement the cost of living in that house would be reduced, only to find that because that house was also in a pleasant area the same council tax band applied. That seems to be entirely unreasonable, and certainly is not an incentive to retired couples to move when their families are smaller. If size were a determining factor in charges there would be a strong incentive for people in that situation to move as family size decreased.

I welcome the assurance that green belts will continue to be protected, although having heard about Manchester this morning I am a little worried about it. They have suffered too much incursion in recent years, and the nibbling away of open spaces must be discouraged. Once people are housed in suitable housing the very next thing that they look to is the care of their environment.

I thank my noble friend for introducing this debate. Housing the population is one of the great challenges of the next decade, and it will need to be tackled with vigour and imagination. Planning for that scale of new housing must begin with a revision of PPG.3, which is the housing planning guidance. The new guidance needs to be based upon an up-to-date assessment of needs, including the need for affordable housing, about which many of my noble friends have spoken. This is an important debate. I hope that the Government will take on board some of the points that have been made and will answer some of the questions.

5.10 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, the debate brings together a variety of views and underlines the need for the Government to continue to ensure that we have a range of choice and quality of housing, whether rented or privately owned.

I should like to cover both aspects. I shall start with the private housing sector. The private housing market has been depressed, but is once again on a firm upward trend. The Halifax Building Society report stated that house prices in November 1996 were 7.2 per cent. higher than at the same time the previous year. What we need to see is a sustainable rate of increase, without a return to the 1980s boom period. Confidence in the housing market is returning. We often now see in the streets the "sold" signs which confirm that move.

First time buyers are being wooed by building societies and many special offers are being promoted. Low interest rates and a variety of housing from which to choose their first home are open to first time buyers. Their first purchases have added to a move in many housing chains. Private starts rose 18 per cent. between August and October 1996, compared to the three previous months, and rose overall by 28 per cent. on the same period in 1995. That is a welcome move reflecting an increasing confidence in home ownership and an opportunity for more people to become home owners. Mortgage rates are now at their lowest level for 30 years. A monthly payment on a mortgage of £33,000 is now £170 lower than when interest rates peaked in 1990.

Not everyone wishes or is able to take on the prospect of owning their own homes. The Government must continue to encourage choice and quality in the rented sector. Housing associations have a valuable role to play; the £2.5 billion allocated to them over the next three years will help to secure an additional £1.8 billion in private sector finance. Those funds, together with the support of other programmes, will deliver about 600,000 new lettings.

Voluntary organisations, too, have an important part to play in the prevention and relief of homelessness. The £7.8 million which has been made available to them by the Government will enable them to develop practical projects to assist single homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless. That is a welcome move.

Earlier speakers referred to the position of families and the breakdown of families. While providing for people's housing needs is a priority, we must appreciate that some people choose to live in a different way. That is not something which many of us in this House can understand. This year, for the second time, my brother worked with Crisis in London over the Christmas period. Those noble Lords who know about Crisis will be aware that it has centres to which homeless people can go. They provide not merely food and warmth but a variety of care and advice. But some people who live rough chose not to go to those centres, and so food and help was taken to them. While we sympathise and would like to see all of our homeless people given homes, we must appreciate that some people choose to live in a slightly different fashion.

I welcome the Government's rough sleepers' initiative which offers advice and support to many, especially here in London. I understand that it is being taken to cities outside London. The result of that work has been a reduction in the number of people sleeping rough from 1,000 to about 300.

Local authorities too, have their part to play in ensuring that there is enough rented accommodation. I am disappointed that we still see a great many rent arrears and houses that are not fully used. My own area of Charnwood reflects that. It is not a satisfactory situation and it is one to which thought needs to be given. Whatever else happens, the Government must continue to work towards providing choice within the privately owned and rented sector. There are many people who a generation ago would always have considered that they would stay within the rented sector and who are now looking to become first time buyers. By providing choice and affordable housing we shall be able to make a start on that.

I congratulate the two noble Lords who made their maiden speeches. It is just a month ago since I made mine. I well remember what a fearful experience it was. I welcome the comments that have been made this afternoon: home, the environment, the family, and housing are of the greatest importance to us all. As I said, it is our government's intention to continue to provide a variety of choice for people. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for making this debate possible.

5.17 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to take part in a debate about housing so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel. I, too, should like to congratulate the two noble Lords who made their maiden speeches on their interesting and challenging remarks. For most people the most important things in life are a home and a job. For many, the increased insecurity which now seems to be a feature of life is putting both at risk. I should like to concentrate on a particular aspect of what I believe to be a housing crisis. My noble friend Lord Williams repeatedly referred to a "crisis", and I believe that there is a crisis in this area.

I should like to mention in particular the plight of the single homeless. Other noble Lords have dealt with the subject to some extent, but I should like to make a few more comments about the subject. Of course Christmas is a time when the issue receives some media attention, largely through the worthwhile efforts of a number of charities which endeavour to ensure that such unfortunate people at least have some shelter and a hot meal at a time when large numbers of us are eating and probably drinking far too much. But for the rest of the time it is almost as though we have come to accept as inevitable the presence on our streets of people who clearly have nowhere else to go and whose only means of living seems to be begging.

I can recall when I first took holidays abroad way back in the 1960s, feeling somewhat superior when I saw beggars on the streets in other countries. We did not then have numbers of beggars on our streets, and jobs of some kind were available to anyone who wanted work. The past 20 years have seen a widening of the gap between the very well off and the poor, with people falling into what has become an underclass.

I do not accept the view put about by certain sections of the media that people make a good living from begging and choose to do that as a way of life. I do give to beggars, although I respect the views of those who do not. I just do not believe that anyone would choose to live like that—sleeping rough, unprotected, in often mercilessly cold weather—if there were alternatives available. I have never yet been subjected to what is known as aggressive begging.

We have to ask how that has come about and what can be done about it. One of the problems in London, according to the excellent report by Single Homelessness in London, is the lack of affordable permanent housing, which has become increasingly evident since the 1980s. What goes for London applies also in a number of other large cities.

There has also been a growth in single person households, coupled with a sharp reduction in the development of new council housing. This has inevitably led to a severe shortage of accommodation for poorer people. The Government clearly believe that the private sector should be providing low cost accommodation, but in London private sector rents are extremely high.

There have been some useful initiatives. Reference has already been made to the rough sleepers' initiative and to others such as private sector leasing (PSL) which, according to the SHiL Report, has provided some temporary solutions, reducing local authorities' dependence upon bed-and-breakfast hotels and offering an alternative to hostel accommodation. Nevertheless, the report claims that shortage of affordable permanent housing has become more acute and the need for a major new building programme has become all the more pressing. Unfortunately, the Government's philosophy, which appears to be "public bad; private good" with a focus on private sector provision, cannot meet the need for affordable housing for very low income groups.

Other pieces of government legislation have also had a negative effect. The Social Fund, which was set up under the provisions of the Social Security Act, has replaced emergency grant payments for basic household items with a loans system and a restricted budget for grant awards. Agencies working to meet the resettlement needs of homeless single people are critical of these arrangements, saying that they delay the resettlement of hostel residents.

The community care Act has given to local authorities the responsibility for allocating limited resources on the basis of competing community care needs. This has caused particular problems for drug and alcohol projects and mental health schemes, particularly those catering for single homeless people who may not be considered a priority by cash-strapped local authorities. One of the most striking changes since 1986 has been the increase in the number of young single homeless people. Other noble Lords have dealt with that problem and many of the reasons for it.

Measures introduced by the Social Security Act, which removed entitlement to income support for 16 and 17 year-olds and reduced the level of benefits for claimants under the age of 25, have been widely blamed for precipitating this problem. As we know, family breakdown has also played a part in increasing the number of young homeless people.

The Government still seem to believe that most 16 to 18 year-olds should be living at home with their parents—and that despite the evidence of family breakdown to which a number of noble Lords have referred and the fact that, as we know, unfortunately, not all homes provide a safe environment for young children and adolescents.

We have seen attempts in recent years to provide better and safer hostel accommodation, but there have been stories about the abuse of young people in such places. Unfortunately, many prefer to take their chances on the streets. Homes for Homeless People, an organisation of which I am a patron, believes that the provision of more short stay hostel places is very important. It states: There is a strong case for improving the current hostel provisions for certain categories of homeless people such as women, young people and the mentally ill". It also believes that the Government's attitude to local authorities has seriously damaged their capacity to meet housing needs. Specifically, it believes that a duty should be placed on each local authority to secure accommodation for homeless 16 to 18 year-olds and to give them a right to hold a tenancy. Of course, it is absolutely necessary that empty property should be brought into use. But, even so, it has been estimated that there is a shortfall of some 100,000 homes. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that local authorities should see as their first priority the need to house families with children. In such circumstances, the single homeless are liable to slip through the welfare net and land up on the streets.

It is hardly surprising that some of the more embittered among the younger people should seek to make a living by turning to street crime and that, sadly, many young women left alone and friendless in London turn to prostitution as a way of making some kind of living. It is clearly in all our interests that steps are urgently taken to deal with this situation. Some of the possible solutions have been raised by a number of noble Lords during the debate and I hope to hear from the Government what they intend to do about it.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel for his gracious and generous recognition of the need to have two plurals in the title of the debate. My comments will be focused largely on Scotland, although I am the first to recognise that many of the problems and issues are shared on a UK basis. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that there are significant differences in history and in the details of policy in housing between England and Scotland. Today, in particular in Scotland, we take inspiration from the work of that great housing reformer John Wheatley, who laid down the basis for strong public-sector housing provision in this country. Wheatley had a vision of people decently housed. Today that vision is at the mercy of myopic policies which have led to an increase in homelessness and a deterioration in the quality of our housing stock. The Wheatley legacy is at risk.

The scale of the Government's failure is powerfully conveyed by the stark statistics. We have heard many of them today. In 1986 the number of households applying as homeless in Scotland was just over 25,000. In the current year it is 41,000, which represents about 75,000 individuals. That is an increase of about 63 per cent. In 1981, 137,000 households were on local authority waiting lists. Today the figure is 195,000. Those figures demonstrate a failure of the Government's policy—or, rather, a lack of housing policy—in Scotland.

Mention has been made of the private sector, particularly the recovery in the private sector. Yes, my Lords, there are signs that a recovery is under way, but what a mess the Government created in the first place! The mess in the private sector was created by gross government incompetence of economic management. A little humility would be in order in the context of this debate.

Throughout the years we have seen a major change in the tenure structure of Scottish housing. I am in favour of tenure choice and tenure diversity. I recognise the contribution made by the housing association movement. The strength of the housing associations has traditionally been their responsiveness to specific local circumstances and their ability to focus on the needs of non-conventional applicants. But I have a concern that with the relatively sudden growth of the housing association sector some housing associations have become too big. They are in danger of becoming remote and of losing the closeness with their tenants which has so often been their strength.

We must recognise that some local authorities must learn a lesson from being too remote and not being responsive to their tenants. It would be a great tragedy if the housing associations had to go through that learning process, too. I look forward to a continuing contribution from the housing association movement but I believe that there are some causes for concern.

As the Minister will be aware, policy towards the use of capital receipts has been rather different in Scotland from that which applies in England. Until the current year, expected capital receipts have been taken into account when setting the capital allocation of individual authorities. For most authorities, capital receipts came to constitute their effective capital allocation.

This year the system was changed: 25 per cent. of capital receipts are now required to be allocated to debt repayment. That was bad enough but earlier this year the Minister, Mr. Raymond Robertson, announced that next year the proportion of capital receipts lost to debt repayment is to increase to 75 per cent. For local authorities in Scotland, that means that the amount available from capital receipts has been reduced from what would have been, on this year's basis, a potential £170 million to £57 million. The effect has been devastating. It has simply brought to an end for many local authorities even the minimal new build programmes which they have been able to preserve.

In my own city of Aberdeen, with 1,800 households seeking sheltered accommodation, the local authority had been able to maintain an albeit small new build sheltered housing programme. That has been brought to a halt. It has been ended by the decisions of the Government.

But that is not all. Window replacement, rewiring, central heating programmes—all essential for the proper modernisation and repair of the stock—have been severely curtailed. The effect of the policy will be a reduction of access for those vulnerable people in need of sheltered housing and a deterioration in the quality of the general housing stock.

Of course, that was not the way that Mr. Robertson, who represents South Aberdeen, explained the matter to CoSLA or to the press. He explained that it was a policy based on pure altruism, devised to reduce the debt burden falling on the poor tenant. The idea of the present Government riding to the rescue of the hard-pressed local authority tenant really takes the biscuit. The record in Scotland is that since 1979, average local authority rents have increased by 482.9 per cent. It is nice to know that the Government are now concerned about the rent levels in Scottish local authorities.

Of course, the Minister let the cat out of the bag a little later when he stated to the press that the problem would be solved overnight if local authorities simply disposed of their housing stock. There is a wonderful logicality to that: you solve your problems of maintaining and managing your housing stock by getting rid of it. That was a clear admission of a cynical policy designed to minimise the ability of local authorities to respond to the housing needs of their citizens.

Interestingly enough, no mention was made of tenant choice. There was no recognition of the mounting evidence that when consulted, tenants prefer to remain within the local authority sector. The Government are very strong on choice except when it comes to people wanting to be tenants of their own authorities. In Scotland, Scottish Homes is in the process of disposing of its houses but its tenants are not even given the choice of transferring to the local authority.

When it comes to democratic manipulation, we have something to learn from this Government. In the case of voluntary large-scale disposals, the Government take the view that all tenants who do not actually vote against the proposal are in favour of it. We are committed to a referendum in Scotland on devolution. I wonder what the party opposite would say if we took the view that those not opposing it were in favour of it.

Government policy is bankrupt. We need a comprehensive housing policy which covers consumption, production and exchange. But more than that, we need a housing policy which sets housing within a framework of other policies relating to employment, training, education and poverty. Only then shall we be able to build stronger, more cohesive communities and give hope and opportunity to all our people. At the moment, the Government's policy fails on all counts.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, we have heard of the need of housing for an additional 4.4 million households and on the next day a cut of £1 billion from social housing benefit. It is interesting also to recall that housing expenditure has been cut by more than 60 per cent, in real terms since 1980.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, talked about housing heating provision in various member states of the Community and reached conclusions which are frankly embarrassing even for this Government. I should like to widen the discussion to housing generally and make a few other comparisons with other OECD countries.

I was very surprised to learn that Britain is investing less in housing than almost any other advanced nation. We trail 19th out of the 21 OECD nations. We are currently spending around 3 per cent. of our GDP on housing investment compared with between 5 and 6.5 per cent. being spent by France, Germany and Italy.

My noble friend Lord Currie referred to the German situation and housing finance. No doubt some Europhobic noble Lords opposite may say that Britain knows best. But do we? Many noble Lords may have travelled in other OECD countries and seen the good and bad in housing. There are excellent housing schemes which provide full social facilities and there are also the worst slums in some of those countries.

But this Government take great pride in Britain knowing more than its European partners on every conceivable subject—BSE, fishing and competition policy for airlines. They have tried to hide their own changes or failures of policy by attacking Brussels or other member states. But the Government need first to look in the mirror. As we have heard, a little humility in that sense may be in order and nowhere more so than in the sphere of housing. We have something to offer our OECD partners but we also have something to learn. If France, Germany and Italy spend between 5 and 6.5 per cent. of their GDP on housing, is Britain really right to spend about half of that—3 per cent.?

What are the consequences of that policy? The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, painted a rosy picture of the growth in house sales, mortgages and so on. That is very nice for those who can afford it. But what about the others? It is a very different story in the social housing policy sector.

What are the consequences? I believe that almost without exception it has been concluded in this debate that there will be increased homelessness and unwished for homelessness, both because of the shortage of affordable homes and because of Peter Lilley's restriction on housing benefits in the private rented sector. That will lead to more homelessness and to more people being trapped in squalid, sub-standard accommodation. There will be fewer rented housing starts. It is hardly surprising that the Budget has been universally condemned throughout the housing world. I shall not quote extensively but, like the National Housing Federation, the Housing Corporation, the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Association of District Councils housing chair, I believe that local authorities have a major role to play. Their universal criticism is quite beyond belief.

What are the consequences of all this for the construction industry? The National Housing Federation estimates that the Budget cuts will lead to the loss of 5,000 jobs in the coming financial year and 11,000 jobs in the following year. My noble friend Lord Currie produced slightly different figures but they tell the same story. It is generally accepted that an unemployed person costs the state about £10,000 a year in benefits. So, if my calculations are right, those cuts in jobs will cost the Treasury about £160 million in additional benefits with the additional loss of skills to the nation and the social problems which we all know come with unemployment.

The additional cost of benefit actually negates half the cuts in the grants to housing associations announced in the Budget of £356 million. It seems surprising that the Government cannot get their mind around the problem that a Treasury-imposed cut in one department will have, as certainly as night follows day, the consequent opposite effect of increasing the social security budget to the extent of half the housing cost. One wonders whether the Budget actually allowed for that increase in cost. The sad thing is that that not only exacerbates the housing crisis; it is also unproductive and an insult to those who suffer, with all the social problems that go with it.

Over many years we have seen that building oneself out of a crisis, creating new housing and reducing unemployment have all been opposed by government with the excuse that it is inflationary. But it does not have to be. Surely it is better to invest in housing than in benefits, at least until the next cuts in benefits. My conclusion is that the housing policy of the present Government is a disgrace and I am very confident that the electors will support that view in the forthcoming election.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, housing can be regarded either as social provision or as a market. But there can be no dispute that in both manifestations its mechanisms are seriously ineffective at present. We have a private rented sector which, despite deregulation (which was designed by this Government to attract more landlords into it) is in secular decline, sustained only by a massive social security bill and perhaps a little in recent years by landlords, who are unable to sell, letting their property out. We have an owner-occupied sector which is proportionately the highest in urbanised Europe but whose attractions have been distorted by the absurd fact that in many parts of the country it is cheaper to buy than to rent. Yet, for those people who have bought, the expected increase in value has until very recently failed to materialise, leaving many people stuck in houses which they cannot sell and in places from which they cannot move.

We have a social rented sector where, again, we have the absurdity of local authorities being prevented from using their capital receipts to improve the housing and to acquire more property, and where rents have soared in order to meet the imposed budgetary figures. That in itself has a detrimental effect on the housing benefit budget, which nevertheless is still inadequate to meet those rents. As many noble Lords have said, there is also the failure to provide the housing needs of low income families, of the disabled and of young single persons— the latter, contributing, as the noble Lord, Lord Murray, graphically demonstrated, to the vicious cycle of homelessness, unemployment and, in some tragic cases, alcoholism, drug abuse and prostitution.

This must be a market which is seriously malfunctioning. In addition to the overall mismatch for which many speakers have quoted figures, there are massive rigidities within that market. I need to make clear that this is no longer an argument about forms of tenure; it is about flexibility within and between the various forms of tenure. Indeed, even many years ago it was necessary not to make presumptions. I remember one of my very early political experiences while campaigning 25 years ago for the predecessor of my noble friend Lord Dubs as MP for Battersea. We were accosted in a market place by a dishevelled man with a very heavy brogue, complaining about the level of rents. It took that politician 30 seconds to realise that he was actually talking to a landlord. That level of political perception is something that I have not yet managed to attain.

These old rigidities were blamed by the Government and the free marketeers on the bureaucracy of the housing waiting-lists in local authorities and on regulated private rent markets. But there are new rigidities. In many respects the myth of choice does not exist for hundreds and thousands of people. I would follow my noble friend Lord Berkeley in that respect. There are many examples in western Europe where they do things better. We have a lower proportion of new build and new provision than many of the northern European countries, despite a slightly higher rate of household formation. We have the highest level of owner occupation and the lowest level in the allegedly flexible private rental sector, but owner occupation is no use if people are stuck in houses that they cannot sell and in places from which they cannot move.

Floor space per household in the UK is actually not only lower in absolute terms than in many western European countries but is also falling. That is a measure of the quality of housing in the same way as the figures referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, relating to heating provision are a test of the quality of housing. Although we all condemn vacancies, they do at least provide some elbow room in an otherwise rigid market. Our level of vacancies is one of the lowest in Europe in that respect. It leads to a situation like that in France, which has a slightly smaller population, where there are 3 million more houses than in Britain. Moreover, not all of them are tumbledown cottages in the Dordogne being offered to wide-eyed and naive Britons.

Many European housing markets also have rigidities. Anyone who has tried to buy or rent a flat in Brussels will know about the bureaucracy there. There are also massive social problems, as the French suburbs show. Nevertheless, they are very good examples of where rigidities in the market are overcome. We have had very few innovations in the housing market since the growth of the housing associations in the 1970s. I should just like to cite a few examples in addition to the Austrian case referred to by my noble friend Lord Hanworth.

In Sweden there are public/private partnerships in the provision of rented accommodation for different family sizes which change over the life cycle. In Germany, in addition to the role of the banks to which reference has already been made, local authorities and local mutuals— if not exactly lenders of last resort then at least estate agents of last resort—allow transfers both from and between the rented and owner-occupied sectors in a much smoother way than does our rigid structure in this country.

In France, again, the role of the banks in providing for holding property where there is difficulty in selling is much more advanced compared to the passive failure to take a proactive role by our building societies and other lenders. In the Netherlands we have the good example of the provision of joint local authority/private sector housing and the provision of social housing, especially for single persons and young couples in the cities of that country. In many European countries there are much more sophisticated and flexible systems of rent into mortgages and, indeed, vice versa. In many of those countries, the professional classes actually prefer a rental system.

We are all in favour of the benefits of owner occupation but not if it leads to a severely differentiated form of housing between the private and public sectors and to deeper and darker divisions within our society. Such divisions—that kind of residualising and ghettoising of housing—apply only too manifestly in a number of cities in the United States. In this, as in many other contexts, I believe that the European social model is much in advance of that in America.

This is a market which requires government attention and, indeed, it receives such attention, but unfortunately often in the wrong direction. The last Budget showed the Government cutting investment in housing by £2 billion in a market which is seriously undersupplied but, at the same time, accepting the inevitable subsidy to the revenue side of the Budget in housing benefit by an increase of provision—probably an inadequate increase—of £2.5 billion on that side.

An inflexible housing market leads to an inflexible labour market; it leads to an inflexible access to training; and it leads to ineffective planning and environmental policy. It is my contention that we need to take a whole new radical look at government policy in this field. A range of measures is needed. I hope that the examples that I have given from the European experience will help, if not for this Government then for their successor.

5.49 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, as other speakers have done, perhaps I may first express my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, for initiating today's debate on housing. It is not before time. I believe it is true to say that it is nearly two years since this House last debated housing. Indeed, I think that I opened that particular debate. Moreover, I also have a very strong feeling of déjà vu on the subject, because, although the figures cited are slightly different, the same comments were being made two, three or even 10 years ago to this Government but they have not take one iota of notice. They have blundered on and have implemented policies. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred to the Government's housing policies. I cannot find any trace of a meaningful policy. There is no such policy.

In the 1980s there was concern for people at the bottom end of the social scale. Two distinguished non-political people formed commissions to look into that matter. One of them was the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Runcie, who produced a report entitled Faith in the City. The other body was formed under the aegis of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. Both of those bodies were manned by people who were hand-picked because of their expertise in housing matters. No political appointments were made to those bodies. Those bodies, and other bodies who addressed that subject, came to the conclusion that there was a need to produce each year 100,000 properties to let for those at the lower end of the market until the year 2000.

I and other Members of your Lordships' House have pressed Minister after Minister to allow local government to resume their role as the major provider— I am not saying they should be the only provider—of local authority housing. On each occasion our requests were turned down. Political decisions were taken quite intentionally by the Government. They must have known what they were doing. On each occasion we addressed the matter, the Government said, "We have replaced that with housing associations under the care and control of the Housing Corporation". The last figure I was given by a Minister at the Dispatch Box in relation to this sector of the housing market was an eventual target of 63,000 units a year. The number of units has never reached anywhere near that level. Previous speakers today have referred to the massive cut last year—which is in addition to the cuts of previous years—in the money that the Housing Corporation is allowed to allocate to housing associations. Therefore there is no possibility of achieving any improvement in that situation.

I now wish to discuss how the Government have dealt with council house tenants. The Government have conducted one of the most spiteful vendettas that any government could inflict on a section of the community. They finally introduced a housing Bill which obliged a tenant paying his rent to accept rent increases to pay for another tenant's arrears. If that is the Government's idea of a fair policy towards council house tenants, it is a poor one indeed.

I have heard mention today of a White Paper and the 4.4 million new homes that are deemed to be required in the foreseeable future. On the basis of simple arithmetic, if one builds new homes at the rate of 100,000 a year, the building programme will last for 44 years. Does anyone really believe that if this Government are returned to office they will try to reduce that deficit and start to build those houses? I do not believe they will. The tragedy is that the two reports to which I have referred of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Edinburgh were rubbished by Ministers of the day before they had time to read them. The former Chancellor, who is now the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, said, minutes after Faith in the City was released, that its proposals were impractical and could not be implemented. That is the kind of government we have, and in my opinion their approach towards housing has grown infinitely worse.

Throughout its history the Conservative Party has been deemed to be the champion of the owner occupier. Let us consider what has happened to the owner occupier under the Government's present policies. In another place and in this House Minister after Minister has reminded us from the Dispatch Box of the failures of the past Labour Government. Ministers have always referred to the year 1979. As the Minister is a fair man, I do not believe he will object if I refer to 1979.

In 1979, under the Labour Government, 2,910 owner-occupied houses were repossessed due to mortgage debts. In 1995, under this so-called successful government, that figure had risen to almost 50,000. That is not a bad increase. In 1979 the figure for mortgages six to 12 months in arrears was 9,690. Last year, under the present Government, the figure was 126,000. Dare I refer to that as another success story? In 1982 the figure for mortgages more than 12 months in arrears was 5,500. I could not get the relevant figure for 1979. In 1995 that figure escalated to 85,000.

When the Government have talked about owner occupation in this House, I have repeatedly said that most of the people in the owner occupier sector who have lost their homes will never get back into the housing market. In most cases it is the one investment they make in their lives and when it is gone it is gone for ever with all the tragedy that entails. I have nearly reached the end of my allotted time to speak but I close by saying that the Government's record on housing since they took office is absolutely appalling and outrageous. When I was involved in housing in Manchester, most of the major cities had seen the end of the slum problem. I am not saying that we did everything right but units were being built. In my opinion, this Government in an act of governmental vandalism have ruined that achievement to their eternal shame. I hope that at the next election some other government will have the opportunity to accept the challenge to do something about housing in this country.

5.57 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, perhaps I can offer the Minister a momentary interlude in the sustained assault the Government have encountered from the Opposition Benches this afternoon. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, in a thoughtful and important speech, raised the question of where the many new houses we need are to go. I should like to add a few words on this question as the impact of new housing on the vanishing countryside in our crowded island is something that should, I think, concern us all. It steadily converts country into town. It is a process that has been going on continuously since the war. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has catalogued the loss of rural land since 1945, pointing out, for example, that in East Anglia an amount of farmland eight times the size of Norwich has been lost. The story is the same in all the other regions. By 2016 the Government estimate that 11.9 per cent. of England will be urbanised compared with 10.6 per cent. in 1991.

The pressure looks set to continue, and even to increase. Large numbers of people are moving out of towns and cities into the country. Inner London's population decreased by 850,000 between 1951 and 1976. People commute in to work from ever greater distances.

The Government set out the nature of the problem last November when they published Household Growth: Where shall we live? Their projections, as a number of speakers have pointed out, indicated that there could be up to 4.4 million new households in England by 2016, an increase of 23 per cent. Just under half of this will be due to the 3.6 million projected increase in England's population—half a million by immigrants. A third will be due to social changes, notably more divorces and separations, a fifth to changing age distribution. People are living longer, often on their own, and the young leave home earlier. The government paper points out that in 1900 the average household size was just under five people; by 1991 it was down to two and a half people. That enormous increase in new households has worrying implications. To put all the new houses in the country would create 35 new towns the size of Bracknell. One can easily imagine the rows of identical, tightly-packed box-like houses put up by speculative builders. If they built better quality houses, some anxieties might be assuaged. As the Daily Telegraph commented recently, The sheer ugliness and insensitivity of so much post-war development have left us with a national phobia about new building". In launching their projections, the Government said that they hoped that 60 per cent. of the new homes could be accommodated on previously used land—the so-called brownfield sites. A recent survey has shown that over half a million acres of derelict vacant land in towns and cities, enough to provide for all the new homes, are available. But a good deal of that is in the north-west whereas the main demand is in the south. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, pointed out, some of the land, too, is contaminated and would need an expensive clean-up before it can be built on.

But there appears to be plenty of capacity for building in towns without what is called town cramming. I understand that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's research shows that the capacity of urban areas can be doubled in ways that benefit the urban environment. Clearly we must not build on playing fields and town parks. There can, moreover, be little prospect of the 60 per cent. target being met unless living in towns and cities and establishing businesses there can be made more agreeable. But it is essential to make more and better use of urban land for our housing needs.

Even if the 60 per cent. target can be met, that would still leave 40 per cent. of the new homes, 1.76 million of them, to be built on greenfield sites in open country— the equivalent of 10 cities the size of Bristol. That is a daunting prospect. The Government say optimistically in their paper that the countryside, must not become one vast building site". But in parts of the south that is indeed the likely prospect. Ancient cities and villages are frequently wrecked by expansion outwards into the fields. Builders generally prefer to build on greenfield sites because it is cheaper. However, the Government are reported to be considering a tax on housing built on those sites to encourage builders to build in cities and towns. That sounds to me a very good idea. I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government are indeed planning such a move. Can I also ask him what the Government think can be done to make use of some of the 800,000 empty properties in England?

I understand that the Government are already using regional planning guidelines to require the building by often reluctant local authorities of hundreds of thousands of new houses in different parts of the country over the next 10 or 15 years. Small towns will be particularly hard hit. Gloucestershire County Council has proposed to site a new town of 6,000 or more houses in the unspoilt landscape of Berkeley Vale. The CPRE has drawn attention to plans which it says would, bury Berkshire under new development". The Weald near Lewes in East Sussex may after 2006 have to accommodate one or even two new towns. All this suggests that talk of burying the whole of our island under concrete is not entirely fanciful.

One important and neglected question is the need for quality and better design in the houses that are built in the country. All too often what is built is of indifferent design and out of sympathy with its surroundings. The problem is to discover how to induce councils and private individuals to go for good design and materials rather than bad ones. If it were possible to persuade builders that they could build better houses without incurring greatly increased costs, that would be a great gain. It can be done. The West Dorset District Council architect, David Oliver, is reported to have persuaded developers and builders to construct new village homes at Broad Windsor and Abbotsbury in traditional styles and materials with results that please architects, builders and the owners of new houses. Some time ago I came across a small booklet called Patterns for Suffolk Buildings: A Simple Design Guide produced by the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust and the Suffolk Preservation Society. It struck me as quite admirable and to contain a lot of sound advice.

The Government need to encourage businesses to build new factories and offices on vacant land in or near cities and towns rather than on greenfield sites which may be attractive to them but which urbanise another tract of country. As the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said, the emphasis needs to be on, recycling previously developed land and severely restricting development on greenfield sites". I believe that we must build most of the new houses we need in our existing cities and towns—far more than 60 per cent.; and the idea of a tax on housing built on greenfield sites is a good one. I commend it to the next government, of whatever complexion.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, perhaps I may join in congratulating my noble friend Lord Williams for having initiated the debate and for giving us the chance to draw attention to the housing difficulties facing many people in this country. It should go without saying that everyone should have the right to a decent home whether owned or rented, preferably with some choices. It is my belief that 18 years of Conservative government have resulted in denying a significant proportion of our population that right to a decent home. I intend to say a little about housing difficulties, unmet needs, with particular reference to London, and then to deal with a recent district auditor's report into the housing policies of the London Borough of Wandsworth.

It is fairly clear that the Government's own targets for housing will not be met and that there will be a large and increasing deficit between housing needs and the number of new homes coming on the market. That is largely the result of the depressing cuts that the Government have made in housing in recent years. We have seen a virtual end to council house building. To those people who said, "That's alright because housing associations will cover the gap left by the cut in council house building", perhaps I may say that that is no longer the case. The Housing Corporation has indicated that its new starts will be cut by 60 per cent., from 44,000 down to 20,000. We have seen vast numbers of people statutorily homeless. Last year that figure reached 117,000 nationally. Last year London had over 26,000 households accepted as homeless, representing over 26,000 homeless individuals. The situation is worse than that, because more than twice that number had applied to be considered homeless. We all know that the temporary accommodation into which homeless people are placed is inefficient. It is expensive compared with proper accommodation and represents lower housing standards. Indeed, London has 230,000 unfit homes; and another 400,000 homes in the socially rented sector are in need of renovation.

Those cold statistics represent human tragedies. The problem is not about statistics but about tragedies. People who are badly housed and those who are homeless cannot do anything with their lives except look for accommodation. They cannot function in any other way, and we should recognise that.

I wish to turn to two local authorities in London, Westminster and Wandsworth. They used to be called the two Conservative flagship councils. So far as concerns Westminster, we still have the ongoing homes for votes scandal. I do not need to remind your Lordships of the fact that the matter is now proceeding through the courts.

Let me turn to Wandsworth. I have the district auditor's report on the review of objections regarding the council's voluntary sale policy. It was published on Thursday 19th December. It received little publicity at the time; it should have received more. It is produced by Binder Hamlyn, a firm with a reputation second to none. What does the report deal with?

Wandsworth Council had a paper before it in 1992 and decided in the light of that paper to declare blocks/estates comprising over 3,000 dwellings as sales areas. That followed an aggressive sales policy that had been pursued since 1978, when the Conservatives took control of the council. Since then, large numbers of houses and flats have been sold. I am not talking of the right to buy, the purchase by sitting tenants of their own homes, which I fully support. I refer to Wandsworth Council's policy of selling empty homes to people who were mostly not on the waiting list, may not have been in housing need, had no medical priority and probably did not even live in the borough. Let me give one or two examples from before 1992. I speak from experience, since I represented a part of Wandsworth; namely, the Battersea constituency, over those years.

When the Conservatives took over the council, the East Hill estate was just coming on stream having been built by the Labour council. It was low-rise housing and was intended to get families with young children out of tower blocks if they lived above the fourth floor. As soon as those houses and flats were built, they were sold—not to those on the waiting list but to people from all over London. There were numerous other examples of the council selling off whole estates, thereby denying to people on the waiting list the right to those homes.

What did the district auditor say? I refer to events after 1992. Let me set the record straight in case I am accused of deviating. He said that there was no evidence of improper purpose, no set pattern or bias towards marginal wards. That was, after all, the allegation proved as regards Westminster. But let me quote again from the report: We have concluded that the Council misdirected itself in law, did not take into account all relevant considerations which it was bound to take into account and that the decision taken … to declare further sales areas was unlawful and accordingly gives rise to items of account which are 'contrary to law'". There was unlawful activity. The council misdirected itself and reached a decision that was inconsistent with its statutory duties to the homeless. Its decision-making process was flawed. It did not give proper consideration in its sales reports to its duties to the homeless. It failed to take into account the consequences for essential medical cases. It did not draw attention to the significant increase in the use of temporary accommodation over the same period, the near record number of homeless households in temporary accommodation at the time, or the cost of dealing with homelessness, which exceeded £6 million in the previous year. That is a pretty damaging indictment. It is disgraceful. For a large part of that time a senior position in the council—and for much of the time the position as leader—was held by Sir Paul Beresford, who is now a Conservative Minister.

It is my contention that both Wandsworth and Westminster showed a lack of concern for the housing needs of people in their areas, people for whom those councils surely had some responsibility. In the most recent report, Wandsworth Council is said to have showed a disregard for the needs of the badly housed, those with medical priorities or other urgent needs, or the homeless. That characterised the policies of both Conservative councils—councils which were lauded by the Conservative Party as exemplary models of local government. The Government have shown in their national housing policies a similar lack of responsibility for the housing needs of the most vulnerable people in our country.

6.14 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I wish briefly to mention three matters: first, the crucial impact of the Budget on essential housing needs in Northern Ireland; secondly, housing as the major factor in the maintenance of purposeful home and family life and in the promotion of community well-being; and, thirdly, the vital role of planners in preserving the fabric of neighbourhoods, especially in urban areas, and for the best needs of environmental conservation.

The 1996 reduction of £21 million does not reflect the total reduction in public and private capital expenditure on housing in Northern Ireland. Inflation, increased prices and other capital cost factors have reduced and will seriously further reduce house-building in the Province. Sadly, in addition to the public funding factors, there are the tragic increased financial burdens of the renewed upsurge of political malevolence, mayhem and destructive terrorism. It is a situation in relation to which both Houses of this Parliament have sought, with favourably bipartisan approaches, to remedy the causes and the results.

In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in these islands, we must get up off our knees and actively call upon our communities, at all levels, to effect the required measures for change and a better life for all.

Northern Ireland has the fastest growing population in Western Europe, together with high levels of unemployment and social dependency. For many years successive governments have recognised the important constructive force that good housing can be in eliminating the inevitable sense of social exclusion.

Some 10 years ago we had the report of the Church Commission on urban living conditions, Faith in the City. It was quite an exhaustive study and was well received. The commission found that: Housing is a major issue. Living conditions are such a basic necessity that they affect well-being in every aspect of life". The Duke of Edinburgh's study on housing, published at about the same time, reached similar conclusions.

There is strong evidence that a sense of social exclusion promotes divisions in society and exacerbates feelings of social inequality. It reinforces the disadvantage that is generated elsewhere: in education, in the labour market and in general community life.

The aggravated growth of social exclusion can create virulent conditions in which petty misdemeanours, malevolence, organised crime and sectarian/political paramilitary organisations can flourish. Sad as that fact may be, as I believe most noble Lords will agree, there is more good in this world than there is evil. There have been community leaders and benefactors, even poets, who started life in slum conditions.

Central to the development of future housing policy is the role of the planners. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, dealt with the matter in detail. How can the demand for new houses, generated by demographic trends, be accommodated if the countryside is to be conserved against unlimited greenfield developments? How can better use be made of existing urban buildings and sites if the schools, transport, environment, shopping and law and order provisions are all marginalised and reckoned to be inferior? Downtown sites are open to speculators, to the disadvantage of speculation in greenfield sites.

I ask the noble Earl who will reply: is it not time that, throughout the United Kingdom, we had some agreed cross-party consensus in housing such as 1 mentioned earlier as being the substance of the Duke of Edinburgh's inquiry and the Church's report, Faith in the City? The noble Lord, Lord Dean, also dealt with that aspect and the need to look back at reports compiled some 10 years ago to see what has been missed and how we have left things undone in many respects in connection with important views expressed by non-partisan people.

Notwithstanding the very helpful and imaginative developments in housing since 1970, during the past years it has been perceived by many directly concerned with housing in Northern Ireland that the situation is now beginning to get out of control. There is accelerated building of private sector housing. Waiting lists are hopelessly increasing. From March 1990 until March 1996, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive priority list increased from 3,395 to 6,206. There is also immense overcrowding in areas considered of less priority. There is something like a 21 per cent, increase. Given that there are some 12,000 on the housing list, that is a huge increase.

In the Northern Ireland context it is indisputable that there is an urgent need to institute and develop a regional planning strategy along the lines reported by the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister may care to express a view on this particular aspect—a parliamentary review that has been pigeon-holed. He may also perhaps express to those interested in Northern Ireland who may hear or read this report the need for public expenditure on housing to be restored to more acceptable and reasoned levels.

6.20 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, it is almost certain that the 25th speaker on the List will find that almost all that needs to be said has already been said. As speakers have spoken before me, I have scrapped page after page of my contribution. But I shall do my best.

I do not have difficulty finding a reason for the Government's policy and for the lack of attendance on the Government Benches opposite. Government Members are probably ashamed of the policy and do not feel that they can defend it. Nor do they have anything to say about the future policy. I can understand.

Last year's housing Bill was the seventh major housing Bill to be discussed and debated since 1979. It was mainly about restrictions, further restrictions and more restrictions on local authorities about who should be housed and who should not, for how long they should be housed, and whether in temporary accommodation and so on. Sadly, homelessness is excluded from the restrictions placed on local authorities as a priority need for assessment. I have no difficulty in assuming that the Government are hell-bent on the total privatisation of all property. One needs only to have looked in estate agents' windows for the past few years to be aware of the increase in houses for rent—not in sales, which were down. There are hundreds of photographs and pages of description of houses for rent. But they are not at affordable rents. I have not yet met anybody who can afford the rents in the area in which I live. A one-bedroomed "kip" starts at £150 a week, and rents go up and up. There are many houses for rent but who can afford them? Certainly not the people who live where I used to live. So I do not have the difficulty that some people have with the Government's stance.

I have a lot to say and not much time to say it, but I want to say something about the homelessness situation. Just a few weeks ago, as has already been said, many people up and down the country opened their hearts and pockets so that the homeless—the rough sleepers—could be as comfortable as possible for a few days. All of us are grateful, as the noble Baroness on the opposite Benches said. We are grateful to all those people, many of them youngsters, who were prepared to give their time and energy to organise, arrange and distribute aid and assistance to those people in need and in such terrible circumstances. I am also grateful to the professional people who I know gave their services: dental, medical, podiatric, cookery and technical—there were many technicians—who helped to arrange everything. All those people give their time to make that annual event a kind of conscience-salver for the rest of the nation—because we do have a conscience about the extent of homelessness. But, sadly, Crisis is not just for Christmas. For too many of our fellow human beings, there is an on-going crisis, week in, week out, year in and year out.

I too welcome the attempts that have been made to improve the situation. That has also been mentioned by previous speakers. I remember well the discussions that took place before the rough sleepers' initiative. It was led mainly by Sir Robert Young, a Member in the other place, who pushed it through. That certainly helped but it could not be expected to deal with the entire underlying problem of homelessness. It would have had to go much further.

There is the matter of begging, which has appeared in many press reports of recent days. That question has to be addressed. A few years ago I introduced a Bill on the Vagrancy Act and there were long discussions about begging and aggressive begging. Most of those who were present during those discussions understood the situation. There are already laws to deal with aggressive beggars. There are many who do not like the way in which beggars approach them and there are rules and laws in that respect. There are bound to be people who do not meet the standards that some of us expect when asking for money.

But also, not all the people who live on the streets do so from choice. Many newspapers have hinted that it is a matter of choice, but that is not so. There are people who suffer from long-term unemployment, broken marriages, broken homes; there are youngsters leaving care with nowhere to go and some who have run away from difficult homes; there are people with drink, drug, physical and mental health problems. Until we face up to those problems, we shall make little improvement in this issue. Begging is a symptom of a whole heap of serious problems that we have not even begun to tackle. We have in fact dodged them.

The benefit changes of the 1988 Social Security Act have been mentioned: 16 to 17 year-olds were left with nothing; 18 to 25 year-olds had their benefits reduced; and some benefits are now paid two weeks in arrears whereas supplementary benefit used to be paid in advance. All that has added to an already terrible situation for people who find themselves at the bottom end of the estate.

There has also been the disappearance of what were referred to as "access beds" in Rowton houses and lodgings ("digs"). They have all gone. There is nowhere to send people any more, certainly not in the area of London in which I operate, where literally thousands of access beds have been lost through the closure of two huge Rowton houses. Access beds would take many people off the streets, but they have disappeared and not been replaced by anything at all. It is little wonder that there are now more people living and sleeping rough on the streets. It is estimated that in Tory Britain since 1979 the number of people who live on the streets has doubled from 55,000 to 122,660.

All those aspects put together have had a devastating effect on people who live not only on the streets but in poor housing conditions. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, raised the issue of uninhabitable houses— houses which are falling down around people's heads and which they cannot afford to repair. What such people do not need is more punitive legislation. There has been enough of that. We do not want any copies of an American-type "rope-them-in" or whatever it is called, to get people off the streets. We do not need that kind of legislation. We need the political will for the creation of a more just and loving society, so that we understand those people.

I suggest for a start that politicians should not just walk by on the other side of the road. They should bend down and talk to the fellow on the street, find out what he is doing there and whether they can in some way send for assistance or get some ideas on how to help in the wider problems. That will be dealing competently with the problem.

I am reminded of a whole number of other issues which I do not have time to deal with at the moment. However, many of the great saints of history were beggars. St. Francis of Assisi was the subject of a speech outside Downing Street not so many years ago and he was a mendicant friar who went about begging. Would we have crossed the road? Or would we have said that we did not want to talk to him? Would we have said that we could not afford to give him anything? I doubt it.

I want to get back to the right kind of attitude. We must try to understand why we have allowed those people to be there and why we feel guilty about it. We must do something about it. It does not matter which government is in office, so long as they start to tackle that problem they will have my support.

6.29 p.m.

Lord Coleraine

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, courteously informed me before Christmas that in his introductory speech today he would be, "regretting the failure of leasehold reform and the abandonment of commonhold". I would have liked to have spoken on both these subjects, but as the days have gone by and I have seen the list of speakers grow, and the time allotted to my contribution shrink from about 15 minutes to an eight minute soundbite, I have decided that I must jettison comment on the so-called abandonment of commonhold. It is a very large subject and it comes, in any event, under the aegis of the Lord Chancellor's Department.

As the House may recall, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and I share broadly similar views as to the desirability of leasehold reform. During the passage of the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993, the noble Lord and I frequently spoke or voted with the same intention, whether it was to sustain the Government and the Prime Minister's brave initiative, or to urge the Government to go a little further, if not the whole then at least a much greater part of the hog towards leasehold reform than some others on these and the Cross Benches would have wished. I have no doubt that if I have not been put out to grass by then, the noble Lord and I may be in danger of seeing things the same way if legislation is put before the next Parliament.

I draw attention to this unsanctified liaison in order to emphasise my surprise that the noble Lord should castigate leasehold reform as a failure. That is a view I do not share. I never have. I have never taken the negative view that the Act would fail in its long-term purpose of enabling those flat owners who wished to be the complete masters of their homes to acquire their freeholds or extended leases. Tonight, the noble Lord has said that leasehold reform has been a flop, but he has not said any more than that. He was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who had one or two points to make, which I shall come back to myself, where leasehold reform can be improved. But nothing has been said so far to substantiate the claim that leasehold reform has been a flop.

My own view of the 1993 Act in relation to leasehold reform, particularly as affecting flats, is well put in a recent article by Gerald Cadogan in the Financial Times. I quote from the article. It is headed, "Leasehold on its Last Legs: Gerald Cadogan on why it is now easier for tenants to obtain freeholds". Mr. Cadogan writes: Leasehold is fading as it gradually becomes easier to 'enfranchise'. Several factors are easing the process of enfranchisement, not least of which is the acceptance by those in the property business of the Leasehold Reform, Housing and Urban Development Act 1993. Three years after it came into force, it has become a normal part of the central London property scene, as increasing numbers of owners enfranchise their leasehold or obtain a 90-year extension on the lease of their flat in cases where enfranchisement is not allowed or difficult". We now also have, as Mr. Cadogan points out, the improvements to leasehold reform made during the passage of the Housing Act 1996. Nevertheless, now that applications to the leasehold valuation tribunals and appeals to the Lands Tribunal are increasingly coming on stream, there is growing evidence that the procedures for settling the marriage value of properties are not working well, and should be improved.

Under the 1993 Act, marriage value is to be shared between freeholder and lessee as it would be shared in willing buyer and willing seller negotiations, subject to the proviso that the freeholder's share will not be less than half. I can say that the fears expressed that this proviso might result in the fixing of the freeholder's share of marriage value at, say, 75 per cent. are proving unfounded. The rule is proving to be 50 per cent. But freeholders, who in some important cases are extremely wealthy, with extensive property portfolios, can and do take cases to appeal in order to establish valuation precedents.

Lessees in many cases cannot afford to be involved in appeals to the Lands Tribunal where costs can be awarded. They will often be advised to settle and pay substantially over the odds for their share of marriage value rather than go before an LVT, with the possibility that this may then result in an appeal by the freeholder to the Lands Tribunal. These settlements then become evidence of settlements outside the Act, used by freeholders in later negotiations and/or hearings before the tribunals in order to ratchet up the freeholder's share of marriage value.

Another problem now being met is that when a freeholder appeals to the Lands Tribunal the lessee may well be advised not to respond to the appeal. This leaves the presiding member of the tribunal, who is usually a surveyor, to assess values on the basis of the unchallenged evidence of the freeholder's surveyor. The presiding member will inspect the property, and this may result in his accepting or not accepting the evidence of the freeholder's witness. He may substitute his own figures. But the lessee will not have had the opportunity of giving evidence, or of cross-examining the freeholder's witness, or of commenting on his evidence. Failure to respond to freeholders' appeals to the Lands Tribunal may be seen as a prudent way of avoiding the making of an order for costs which could well make the lessees' total costs of appeal quite disproportionate to any cash sum in issue. But not responding to an appeal, though it may be prudent, is not likely to lead to the fair assessment of marriage value itself or of the share of marriage value to be paid to the freeholder. Values which are unsatisfactorily set in this way will be used against lessees, as precedents or comparables, on other occasions.

The trouble is that for the lessee the costs of the appeal will so often be disproportionate to any possible benefit, whereas for a freeholder, who may own many reversions, or wish to establish precedents, or merely wish to show his might and frighten other lessees, disproportionality is not a relevant consideration in the same way. The point about the need for proportionality in relation to costs is forcefully made in the final report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, Access to Justice.

The suggestion is made by the Leasehold Enfranchisement Association, and I would endorse it, that the power of Lands Tribunals to award costs against lessees should be reconsidered.

I hope that the Government will consider most carefully these aspects of the operation of the 1993 Act. The lessees affected by the problems I have outlined will often be young couples with families in inner suburbs, and possibly little equity in their homes. I am continually advised that, although the money sums involved may not seem large, the experience of trying and failing, or of being advised not even to try, to realise something approximating the share of marriage value for which the law provides leaves many working people with a dreadful feeling—a feeling of despair and humiliation. That is not something which we should tolerate.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I expect that it will be of no great surprise to your Lordships that I shall be spending my eight-minute allocation talking about the effect of poor housing on health. In a recent article in a publication called Better Housing, Better Health, Professor Peter Townsend gave his view of what constitutes health. He said: Ask anyone about their state of health today. They will not only reproduce statements passed on to them by their doctors … They will speak of levels of energy, satisfactory sleep, vitality, comfort, enjoyment of activity, peace of mind, states of happiness and fulfilment and the way they are getting on with others and doing a useful job in their family or community relations". That is what health means in a comprehensive sense. Every one of those aspects of health can be helped or hindered by the environment in which people live, whether considered from a micro or macro point of view.

First, I should like briefly to consider the effect of housing on physical health and mortality. Standardised mortality ratios, normally abbreviated to SMRs—that is, the chance of dying among a certain section of the population in relation to the population average, adjusted for age and sex—rises from a low level among owner occupiers to a higher level among those who rent accommodation. Council rented housing is associated with a higher rate than most privately rented accommodation. The highest mortality rate of all is found among the homeless, especially rough sleepers. It is quite difficult to get an accurate measure of their mortality rate but their expectation of life seems to be near to that of some of the most impoverished developing countries.

But it would be wrong to blame the high mortality rate on housing alone. Those who live in council accommodation, quite apart from those sleeping rough, are more likely to have lower status jobs or no jobs, less good education and a more deprived childhood—and they smoke more. All of those factors have an effect on sickness and mortality rates.

Disentangling all the factors which lead to the worse health of council tenants is complex, but there has been an increasing amount of high quality research recently which shows clearly that damp or cold housing leads not only to an increase in mould spores and house dust mites, which can cause asthma and other allergies, but also to a higher prevalence of respiratory and other infections. The importance of adequate heating for health was very well described by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. But it is probably the effect of poor housing on mental health which contributes most to family breakdown, poor educational attainment and increased use of the National Health Service. That is very difficult to separate from the effects of poverty and the other adverse socio-economic factors which affect the populations concerned. Recent studies have shown that emotional problems are directly related to the number of housing problems people face and the standard of housing in which they live.

Ever since the pioneer work of my noble friend Lord Young of Dartington and Peter Wilmott in Family amp; Kinship in East London, which is a famous study made about 40 years ago, the disturbing effect of uprooting and rehousing communities has been well known and documented. However, despite that, in too many cases new housing developments have not taken the lessons of this classic study seriously enough. The basic facilities needed by new communities have not been in place when communities have been settled in them.

As a general practitioner working in a socially mixed inner city area—the same area about which my noble friend Lord Stallard spoke—I visited many patients in very poor housing conditions. Often, families, with great ingenuity, had managed to make very comfortable homes in the face of adversity. But frequently the atmosphere in local authority housing developments was not good. As noted by my noble friend Lord Sewel, the housing department was remote and the tenants did not have a sense of being stakeholders in their homes. It was worse in some instances because of the council's undeclared policy of "ghettoisation" under which the least co-operative and noisiest tenants, often with major or minor legal problems, were housed on the same estate or in the same block. Other estates or developments were filled with quieter and more law-abiding tenants. Many had taken up their right to buy option, leaving the council with not only a smaller stock of housing, but usually the least desirable part of it.

To return to the question of health, there is little doubt that poor quality and inadequate housing imposes a high cost on society through the impaired health and increased social malaise of its citizens. I quote from the report, The Real Cost of Poor Homes, which is a critical review of research literature by the University of Sussex and the University of Westminster, commissioned by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors: Additional funds invested in refurbishment and/or better housing management may well be highly cost effective in terms of money saved on other budgets". The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, to whom I have already referred, has shown how that is true for heating bills. It is almost certainly true also for the costs of healthcare, social security and law enforcement.

It is now widely accepted—it has been documented over and over again—that the past 20 years have seen a growing gap between the health and life expectation of the rich and the poor in this country. Part of the explanation can be laid at the door of the Government's housing policy or, as my noble friend Lord Sewel said, their lack of a housing policy.

6.44 p.m.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I fancy that this is one of the few occasions when the House will be pleased to see me rise to my feet to address it. The reason is that I am the last speaker in the list before the Front Bench speakers reply to this very lengthy and extremely interesting debate. I thought that I would hear applause at that point.

I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel has given us the occasion to debate this important subject, but I am extremely dismayed that he has been obliged to set it down today. I say that because rather more than 30 years ago I was involved in a by-election for another place, which turned out quite happily for some of us. At that by-election 30 years ago almost the most important item of discussion was the housing shortage and the need to solve it. Yet here we are, 30 years or more later, facing the same question with more people needing houses than was the case then and fewer houses being built than was the case at that time. Something seems to have gone wrong. I do not intend to blame anybody, but I merely put it like that. It appears to me that something has gone wrong and I hope that somehow it will be put right before we all shuffle off.

The housing shortage, which I and others have mentioned in the course of this lengthy debate, is not only a social evil, but it has very substantial economic impact, as my noble friend Lord Currie of Marylebone pointed out in his interesting and intellectual contribution. The building and construction industry with which I have been concerned very closely for many years, is a key and integral part of the British economy. It employs more than 1 million people. If it were being properly utilised it would probably employ about 2 million people, which it has done in the past and which I hope it will do sometime in the future.

The building and construction industry is obviously in two parts. Housing is in the building part and heavy civil engineering, with which I am more concerned, falls in the other part. But the bigger half, if I may put it in that Irish way, is the building industry and the smaller half is the construction industry. Building, in the sense of houses, offices and other things of that kind, is crucial to the building and construction industry. As a consequence, as has been said already, it is crucial to the health of the economy as a whole. In that respect the comments of my noble friend Lord Monkswell are totally apposite.

There will be no surprise to noble Lords that I am interested in the health of the construction industry and wish to see it encouraged. As the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, reminded us earlier on, this debate has a wide agenda going far beyond the mere provision of housing and its social effects. Like him, I wish to take advantage of that wider agenda.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will recall the lengthy, detailed and occasionally entertaining debates, which we had last year on the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill, which is now an Act. We discussed then the limited proposals which the Government had put forward in that Bill, now an Act, to implement a small number of the elements of the Latham Report on the construction industry. As noble Lords will recall, the Bill came before the House a poor, almost a miserable thing, but, largely due to the efforts of my noble friends Lord Williams of Elvel and Lord Berkeley, whom I see sitting there, and others who shall be nameless, the Bill left the House somewhat improved. It was not improved enough, but it was improved quite a bit.

What I really want to do is to put down a marker for further improvements which could be made in the next Session of Parliament or perhaps even in the Session after that—or at least fairly soon when the impact, such as it is, of that Act has been seen, measured and probably criticised somewhat heavily. I do not have the time today to go into such criticism in any great detail, but I hope to have the opportunity to do so before the summer.

I note that time is moving on, so I conclude by saying that many of Sir Michael Latham's proposals are still not part of our legislation but should be included in it fairly rapidly. Perhaps I may enumerate two or three of them; namely, measures relating to insolvency protection; changes in liability law and the introduction of mandatory latent defects insurance. I know that some of those matters are still tied up with the Law Commission, but they are of crucial importance to the health of our construction industry. Indeed, as Latham said, they are of crucial importance to producing a less costly product from the construction industry.

I shall leave it at that although I could say a great deal more—and will doubtless do so when the opportunity arises. I do not ask the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, to reply to those points tonight. He knows me well enough to know that I would not press him in that way in a debate such as this. However, I hope that the noble Earl will convey to his colleagues elsewhere in Whitehall that the rest of Latham's proposals are important—not only those which were included in legislation last year—and should be included in new legislation as soon as possible.

6.51 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, it is my pleasure to congratulate our two maiden speakers on notable performances. I hope to hear from them both on many occasions in the future.

It is my pleasure also to thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for introducing a very necessary debate. In general I am not a great fan of guidebooks, but I remember one occasion when I was a boy when we were temporarily in a part of England that we did not know and used a guidebook to try to find a suitable walk. The guidebook explained that at the end of a walk down a river valley you would meet the car that had meanwhile gone round. That seems a little like the Government's attitude to housing. They are very much concerned about getting people into employment, but they seem to think that when the successor of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, gets on his bike and finds a job, at the end of the journey he will meet the house which has "meanwhile gone round". The Government are not nearly as concerned as I should like about the anxiety of the CBI with regard to the difficulty of getting people into employment because of the inability to relocate.

The noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, put that into context in an extremely interesting speech. Investment in housing has been declining steadily since 1979. The noble Lord pointed out that it started from a low base in the first place. In that context, somebody must mention the cut in the grant to the Housing Corporation in this Budget which I regret deeply.

As noble Lords know, I regret also the extension of the new system of shared residence for housing benefit for single people. The Government do not know how much shared housing is available. In a Written Answer of yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, tried to help us a little further when he stated: It is estimated that… a large proportion of some 700,000 lodgers and flat and house sharers … are likely to have such accommodation".—(Official Report, 14/1/97; col. WA27.] Even by the notable standards of Whitehall that is a cautious answer.

My noble kinsman Lord Henley also tried to help me a little further on this point. He wrote: The Government is of the view that the private rental market is sufficiently flexible to cope with changes in demand. This is evidenced by the growth in private accommodation available to students". That is perhaps the most surprising answer that I have heard from a government Minister since our mutual kinsman, my uncle Frank, speaking from the Government Dispatch Box in 1929 assured the House that no sensible person could possibly suppose that the introduction of a driving test would do anything to reduce road accidents. In the first place, I do not know that that view of student accommodation is shared anywhere in any university. In the second place, I do not see why my noble kinsman Lord Henley assumes that those people would not have been in shared accommodation if they had not been at a university. Many of them would have been.

I was also disconcerted to find that the Government intend by that change to discourage the formation of single person households. That doctrine is by Aristotle out of the Treasury. That really is letting barren metal breed. In any case, who do they think they are to decide in what sort of households we should live? That is not an appropriate power for a government in a free country.

I very much enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forrest. The report to which he referred does, indeed, have my name to it, but since the work was done when we were considering the Asylum Bill I was much involved otherwise which means that I think that I may, without immodesty, praise it. That report shows an extent of single homelessness among the young far greater than we had previously supposed, and especially among 16 and 17 year-olds. Your Lordships may guess what I suspect that the answer to that is. It shows the considerable barriers in the way of such people getting into accommodation.

The Government pride themselves on having got more people into employment. They pride themselves on having done so on very low wages, but among people under the age of 18, men are earning 31 per cent. of the average wage and women are earning 44 per cent. of the average wage, which is a difference which might interest the Equal Opportunities Commission. On that sort of wage you simply do not get into housing, especially if a deposit is needed. One case that was recounted in the report concerned an employee of the Department of Social Security's Benefits Agency who was relocated from Leeds to London and could afford the rent but not the deposit. She slept on a succession of friends' floors and finally took a sublet. The owner of the place then discovered that she was gay, put graffiti on the door and finally threw in a tear-gas canister. That refinement was not needed. That sort of thing makes it far harder to get people out of homelessness than one would wish.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, said what he did about the effect of homelessness on health and about its cost. Shelter has produced an excellent report, Go Home and Rest, which costs the effect of homeless people not having GPs and making inappropriate use of accident and emergency departments, something to which the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, has drawn our attention for a long time. The cost of that inappropriate use—not taking into account the increased ill health caused by homelessness—is reckoned at £66,000 for the catchment area of University College Hospital alone. It is an expensive waste of public money.

There have been many speeches today with which I agreed and which I was ready to cheer warmly. If I mention the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Currie of Marylebone and Lord Murray of Epping Forest, of the noble Baronesses, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, Lady Fisher of Rednal, and Lady Turner of Camden, and the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, I do not intend any disrespect to the others. Some of those speeches sat a little uneasily with an interview with the Leader of the Labour Party recorded in The Big Issue. I cannot say that the Labour Party is unfortunate in the timing of this debate because it has chosen the timing itself, but it has not worked out very well for it. I wondered whether or not I should mention this subject. I was emboldened to do so by the matter having been referred to obliquely by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, in his opening speech. He said that we should be intolerant not of the homeless but of homelessness. I have no quarrel with those words, but here are the words of his Leader: yes it is right to be intolerant of people homeless on the streets". That shows either a carelessness in the use of words, which is dangerous in a person of that prominence, or a proposal to use compulsion. Those of us who took part in the Mental Health (Patients in the Community) Bill know how difficult that is likely to be.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will perhaps remember a case about which I have already had some discussion with him. I refer to an individual personally known to me who slept on the streets for six years because, being gay, whenever he went into a hostel he was assaulted and was not safe. Compulsion is perhaps a good deal less easy than those words suggest. It is something for which the Leader of the Opposition appears to have a weakness. In that context, I am extremely glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said what she did about choice, provided—I am sure that the noble Baroness will not dispute the proviso—that in recognising that people do that we are interested in how they came to be in the position to make those choices. I am glad to see that the noble Baroness does not disagree with that. I am not surprised.

I turn to what the Leader of the Labour Party said about beggars. The question was: I also wouldn't say it's satisfactory to have people arrested for begging. That's a 19th century approach". The reply of the Leader was: Of course, unless they're doing something that is problematic for other people". I find very distasteful the weighing in the scale of the problem experienced by the beggar against the momentary distaste of the person who sees him.

Some of your Lordships may have read the feature in the Observer last Sunday about one aggressive beggar at King's Cross. I have no time for aggressive beggars, but it is interesting to learn how that particular one got there. His father was an alcoholic. He broke his son's knee by throwing him down stairs when he was nine. Subsequently, he broke his nose. His mother put him into care. He said that she was the only person in his world and she put him into care. He said that he would never forgive her. He came out of care at 16 and, of course, had no benefit. He took to begging. That is something about which I hear nothing in the piece by the Leader of the Opposition in The Big Issue. Now that he is 18 he is wanted by the police for criminal damage, so he cannot claim benefit or go into employment. If we offer that man zero tolerance we offer him only what he is used to.

The Leader of the Opposition says that he will offer work. He says that these are good options. It is the voice of the man who offers his daughter an arranged marriage, locks her up because she does not accept it and then says that it is a good match. I know that he wants to do something about homelessness and that some of the charges made against him are unfair. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, as to that. I believe that the appropriate words are those of Edward Gibbon. He said that the graver charges against the supreme Pontiff were dropped and they persisted only with the charges of murder, robbery, heresy, rape, piracy and incest.

7.5 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I remind your Lordships of the Government's housing statistics published four weeks ago. This evening several thousand people will sleep rough in doorways, on benches and under archways. This week 500 families in private rented accommodation and 750 families in owner occupation will find themselves homeless. This week nearly 5,000 families will be in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Ten thousand will be in hostels and 43,000 will be in temporary accommodation—all because local authorities have no permanent homes to offer them.

This year some 120,000 families have been accepted as homeless by local authorities in England alone. It is the numbers that numb. Of those who have a roof over their heads, 150,000 live in properties which are classed as unfit for a human being to live in. A further two million homes are in need of very substantial repair because they are damp, insanitary and impossible to heat. Our housing stock is crumbling around us. This is the proud result of 17 years of Tory housing programmes. This afternoon and this evening my noble friends have shown what this has meant. There has been a wide-ranging, thoughtful and provocative debate introduced so effectively by my noble friend Lord Williams. It has been graced by two fine maiden speeches from my noble friend Lord Hanworth and the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe.

In this afternoon's debate my noble friend Lady Symons told us movingly what the DoE statistics meant for families. My noble friend Lord Rea has described what they mean for health. My noble friends Lord Murray and Lady Turner have reminded us of the desperate plight of young single homeless people. My noble friend Lord Stallard has talked with great compassion about their life on the streets. Others of my noble friends have provided hard evidence about the implications for our economy of failing to invest, especially in comparison with Europe. Other noble Lords have referred to the fine speeches by my noble friends Lord Currie, Lord Berkeley, Lord Whitty and Lord Dean. My noble friend Lord Strabolgi has reminded us of the failure, despite our best efforts, to deliver effective leasehold enfranchisement.

Homelessness is not an act of God, nor is it a lack of moral fibre. It happens to those who cannot buy their way out of the housing crisis. Homeless people simply need a home. That is precisely what the Government opposite have refused them. It was also precisely what my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition called for in a long and thoughtful speech that he gave to Shelter in December—I have it here—which the noble Earl might in all balance have quoted but did not see fit to do so. Each year under the Tories the Government have cut capital moneys for new social housing. This year they have cut it by almost £1 billion. My noble friend Lady Fisher told us about the effect in Birmingham; my noble friend Lord Sewel spoke about Scotland; my noble friend Lady Nicol spoke about the effect on rural economies; my noble friend Lord Blease spoke about the effect in Northern Ireland; and my noble friend Lord Dubs spoke about the effect in London, despite the best efforts of Wandsworth council to pervert fair housing policies in so many areas, according to the district auditor.

Housing associations, which were investing £2.4 billion a year at the last general election, will go into this election with their budget under this Government cut by three quarters. Their budget is down to just £662 million. As for local authorities, last year the total number of new local authority starts across the whole country was 600 houses—less than my city of Norwich built each and every year for a decade. Yet, as my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel said, and the Government's own research has told us, we need to double, not reduce, the number of new socially rented houses we build every year if we are to meet this country's growing housing need. In a splendid maiden speech my noble friend Lord Hanworth reminded us of the values and virtues of local authority housing at its best, which broke, for a generation, the link between poverty, poor housing and ill-health.

So bad has the situation become, and in such short supply now is social housing, that last summer the Government passed the Housing Act 1996 which had just one purpose behind it: to remove the right of homeless families to permanent social housing. Why? Just because there was not enough of it to go around. The Government, having deliberately dried up the supply of socially rented housing, then cynically fingered the homeless for taking too large a proportion of the social housing that remained. That 1996 Act was hypocrisy personified.

The homeless need a home, and the Government refuse to allow housing associations and local authorities to build the homes that they need, though my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that under Labour we will phase in those receipts to permit that rebuilding to start. Homeless families need a home that they can afford.

That brings me to my second point which is the effect of November's Budget on housing benefit and affordability. The Government, over many years now have deliberately removed the subsidy from bricks and mortar and let rents soar, saying that they preferred to subsidise the individual. In Sir George Young's phrase: Housing benefit would take the strain". That has had two consequences. The first is that, as rents rise, low earning as well as unemployed families become trapped on housing benefit, unable ever to earn enough to spring themselves off benefit. Having constructed a benefit trap, the Government then had the gall to blame the poor for being caught in it.

It has had a second effect also, because it has meant, as my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, that as the DoE subsidy of bricks and mortar fell—that was investment subsidy—so social security revenue spending on housing benefit rose. Every pound removed from building investment subsidy has cost an extra 75p in housing benefit. DoE savings have become DSS costs. The DSS then of course predictably engineered a moral panic about the rising cost of the welfare state as a backlog to the DSS in turn seeking to cut its costs by cutting housing benefit which had risen as a result of DoE policy. How has it done that? First, the Government have cut housing benefit for people under 25 to the rent of a bedsit. Then they cut housing benefit for families to the average, and not the real rent that they are paying in their locality. Finally, in November's Budget—perhaps worst of all—the Government proposed to cut from next October housing benefit for single people under 60 to the rent of a bedsit.

Few single people live in bedsits; 93 per cent, of single people have self-contained housing, and nearly half of them receive housing benefit. In future, as each year they renew their claim for housing benefit, they will find that it does not cover the home in which they live, and they will have to move. There will be turmoil in the housing market as bedsits go up in rent and one-bedroom flats become virtually unlettable. Who will be affected? My noble friend Lord Ashley talked movingly of the effect on disabled people.

Let me give some other examples: a divorced man in a one-bedroomed flat who loses his job as a van driver will, under these proposals, lose his home as well because housing benefit will not cover the rent. As in a bedsit his children cannot now decently stay with him, he may lose contact with them as well. A carer in her 'forties whose elderly mother dies will be forced to leave their small flat in which she has lived all her life and move into a bedsit. A widow in her 'fifties— perhaps still in mourning—will be forced to leave the modest one-bedroom flat they shared because housing benefit will cover only a bedsit.

Let me attempt to describe that future home of a widow: a single room in a shared house—perhaps 12 feet by 13 feet, and too small for all her furniture. So the spare bed for a friend and the dining table and chairs will have to go because they cannot be fitted into a room 13 by 12. The house may be squalid— overflowing dustbins, dangerous wiring, soiled bathroom. In the next room may be an addict, an alcoholic, a former offender or someone with a history of mental illness as a result of breakdown of care in the community. She will share kitchen and bathroom with strangers who may be drunk, diseased or "shooting up". They may threaten her, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, said. They may break into her room, for the locks and bolts on these rooms are never secure. She will never feel safe for she has nowhere else to go, and has no money to afford anywhere better. She has lost her mother, or a husband. She has lost her home. She has lost her furniture and possessions. She has lost her privacy and safety, and she will lose her dignity and self respect. We shall have humiliated her. Under a Tory Government this woman will be condemned by us to that room until she is 60.

I hope that the Minister will not complacently say that I am exaggerating. I am not. I used to inspect such properties. When just a few months ago in the 1996 Housing Bill we moved amendments to require local authorities to license such houses, the Government rejected our amendments. Equally, I hope that the Minister will not tell us that such people should shop around and negotiate rents down. They cannot. It is a landlord's market, and landlords do not want to know DSS tenants. Nor can such people turn to the local authority, because as single people they have no priority. Nor can the local authority help them financially because their ability to do so—in case the Minister should want to argue this—under Monday's circular has been limited financially to some 20 or 30 people in an average local authority area.

I hope, too, that the Minister will not say that such people have a choice about where they live; that they can pay the difference between the rent charged and the housing benefit that they will receive. They cannot. If they could pay that difference, they would not be eligible for housing benefit in the first place. If, as my noble friend Lady Symons said, they top up their rent from their income support, they will not have enough to eat.

Can there be a greater indictment of housing policy from this Government than that? I repeat, as I wind up, the Government have cut social housing, and they have deregulated private rented housing. Rents soared, predictably, so housing benefit soared. Therefore the Government now propose to cut housing benefit and people will lose their homes. Every link of that chain of misery has been hammered into place by the Government. The human cost: forcing the widow, the carer, the disabled person, the divorced man to leave their homes of a lifetime and move into a squalid bedsit. Seventeen years of Tory housing policy has come to that. We should be ashamed.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Now answer that!

7.20 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord the Opposition Chief Whip says, "Now answer that". He merely has to sit on his seat and listen to me do so. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for having introduced the debate. Housing is always an important subject and it is right that from time to time your Lordships should take the opportunity to express their views and say where the shoe pinches and what they believe ought to be done. We did not hear too much about that. We heard a lot of criticism, but I shall turn to that later.

One of the features of the debate has been the two notable maiden speeches. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, made a delightful maiden speech. I remember his father well; he started on the Cross-Benches and then moved to the Liberal Democrat Benches. Now his son is sitting on the Labour Benches. Perhaps his son, in turn, like so many hereditary Peers in the Labour Party, will join the Conservative Party. We shall look forward to that. I hope that his intervention today, distinguished as it was, will persuade some of his noble friends on the Front Bench that the hereditary peerage is quite a good thing, even when it is part of the Labour Party.

I was fascinated to hear his observations about the Viennese housing problem. My experience, which is only small, leads me to believe that we have much to learn from the Viennese about housing. I had not expected them to be associated with social housing problems; one normally thinks of them as being more esoteric. His speech was fluent and articulate and he made some very trenchant comments.

The noble Viscount was obviously slightly unnerved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, who said that the noble Viscount's great, great uncle was a Bishop of Norwich. That is a great responsibility to bear, whether you are a nephew or a great, great nephew. The right reverend Prelate told us that someone once said to him, "Watch out my boy! Steer clear of politics or you will be in for a rough ride". Using the same phraseology, but not with such impertinence, I would say to the right reverend Prelate, "Watch out my boy! If you are not careful you might conduct yourself in such a way that your great, great nephew will become a member of the Labour Party". That would be an almost bigger responsibility than being a right reverend Prelate.

I wish also to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe. His father was a notable attender in this House and a much loved person. It is good to see the noble Lord take his place today and make his maiden speech. The noble Lord had the capacity of making a succinct speech in three minutes, which is an example to emulate. I hope that we shall hear him and the noble Viscount frequently for many years.

It is not easy to answer a debate consisting of 30 participants. I apologise if I do not answer all that has been said by all noble Lords. I believe that noble Lords opposite have enjoyed describing the policy of Her Majesty's Government. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said that it was a disgrace and many other adjectives were used by noble Lords. They appeared to be going through the vocabulary to find better ones. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, referred to vandalism, which I thought was a little over the top. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lords, Lord Ashley of Stoke, Lord Berkeley, Lord Whitty and Lord Stallard and many others said that the Government have misbehaved terribly over their housing policy. I thought that they were like an owner who gets hold of his dog, puts him over his knee and slaps him hard for making a mess upon the drawing room floor. That is all very fine, but it is unfair if the dog has not made a mess.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, spent a great deal of time making a speech which relied more on emotion and drama than on policy. I do not propose to answer all her questions about housing benefit for the under 60s because I believe that she knows the Government's view about it. It was explained to her succinctly by my noble friend Lord Mackay when he said that we believe that single people on benefit ought to be in the same position as single working people; namely, they must take account of their income when deciding on the kind of accommodation that they can afford. That applies to everyone in this country and it should apply also to those on benefit.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, asked whether we can reach cross-party agreement on housing. I believe that that is a jolly good idea. If he can persuade some of his friends to come round more to our point of view we might be able to do so. However, there appears to be a minor chasm between us.

It is interesting that in all the criticisms that have been made today—and they have come thick and fast from noble Lords opposite—we have not heard one word of what the Labour Party would do if it were in government. Noble Lords have not said, "If we were in government we would spend this extra money. We would put up so many new houses and would go into social renting". There has been nothing of that, other than a little whisper which was slipped in by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. I believe that she was quoting from the Labour Party manifesto when she said: We need to allow local councils to invest capital receipts". That is a lovely phrase, but what does it mean? It means spending more money which means putting up the public sector borrowing requirement. If that is what the Labour Party intend, they should say so. We want to know what they intend to do. But, despite having had 20 people castigating the Government, not one said what he or she would do if the party came into office.

Perhaps I may tackle the thorny subject of this year's housing settlement, which has come under a good deal of hammer. Of course, I understand the disappointment that has been expressed by your Lordships and by those outside Parliament. This year's settlement was a hard one and it was necessary in order to control the growth of Government expenditure. Every facet of national expenditure had to be subject to intense scrutiny and housing was no exception. All governments must have regard to priorities. The Government were concerned to see that the needs of education, health and law and order should have the benefit of additional expenditure. Those were the priorities on which Ministers judged people wished to see money spent. That being so, there were two alternatives; either one could increase the totality of government expenditure, with all that that implies, or one could curtail expenditure in other directions. The Government considered that, in the national interest, the overall priority was to curtail government expenditure. That was also what people in the country felt should be done.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, that without proper housing, health, families and happiness suffer. Reasonable housing is essential. The noble Baroness mentioned the uncompromising attitude of the Government to social housing. I found that a little unhelpful, but she was right in her general premise that good housing is essential.

Of course, housing is important and we must make the best use of the money that is available. We want to encourage people to own their own homes. We want to encourage the private-rented sector to play a bigger part. We want to ensure that affordable social housing is available which will act as a safety net for the most vulnerable.

The noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, was concerned that the impact of the cuts on the construction industry might be considerable. We need to have a balanced sector. We do not need to rely on any one sector. Home ownership must be sustainable. Unlike the noble Lord, I believe that we are taking a balanced view. It is a long-term view and it supports the construction industry. We achieved that by keeping interest rates low, having stable economic growth and increasing consumers' and taxpayers' confidence. Housing starts have increased during the past year with increased confidence in the housing market. In so far as the noble Lord, Lord Howie, is involved in the construction industry, he seems to me to be alive and well, which is perhaps a reflection on the construction industry itself.

We are making considerable progress, despite what has been said today. Since 1979 the percentage of houses which are lived in by those who own them has risen from 56 per cent. to 68 per cent. The housing market is now reviving and, thank heavens, negative equity is on the way to becoming a facet of history.

Since 1991 the private rented sector has grown by 200,000. Since 1991 public investment has provided around a quarter of a million social homes, and 60,000 more have been created through the better use of the existing housing stock. That is encouraging but we have to recognise that, with the competing demands of health, education and other public services, there will always be a constraint on resources. That means that the Government have to place their resources where they can be of best use. And that means we want to help those who are in greatest need.

I was glad when my noble friend Lady Byford referred to the fact that house prices are rising and that the housing industry is coming out of the doldrums. That is true. When recession takes over, as it did, the whole economy is grabbed by the throat and housing has been no exception. Now, at last, it is getting better.

There are few who can be in greater need than those who have no home or who, for one reason or another, decide to leave home and sleep on the streets or elsewhere—a sight which distresses everyone. The Government provided the rough sleepers initiative which has done much to help these people. It has been running in central London since 1990 when the number of people sleeping rough on any one night was estimated at more than 1,000.

Under the rough sleepers initiative, the Government have spent over £180 million in the last six years— building new homes and hostels and providing help and resettlement services actually on the street—to help people to get off the streets.

In the last count by voluntary sector organisations in November of last year, the number found to be sleeping rough had fallen from 1,000 to 286. That is substantial progress, but the figure is still too high.

The noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, said that those who left home did so because, in some cases, they had been kicked out or had become the subject of violence. He said that they were mostly youths who had not wished to leave home. My noble friend Lady Byford was right to say that many of those sleeping rough have very complex social problems. These may result from mental instability, insecurity, family breakdown, loneliness or alcohol or drug abuse. There may be a whole kaleidoscope of different reasons, one of which is not knowing exactly where to go for help. In that regard, the rough sleepers initiative has been of assistance.

The solutions are seldom easy or straightforward. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rea, when he refers to the effect of housing on health and says that they are connected. It is perfectly true that there is an association between poor housing and health; in particular there are links between mould and growth, damp and poor housing conditions and physical health. But housing is one factor among many which may affect people's health. Poverty, unemployment and unhealthy life styles may have at least as great an effect.

The main emphasis of the rough sleepers initiative has been to provide permanent accommodation: nearly 3,500 new homes have been provided with government funding. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, wants help for those on the streets. That is exactly what the rough sleepers initiative has done. It has also enabled funding to be provided for a variety of services to help those people and it has helped to bring together statutory and voluntary agencies such as social services, local authority housing departments and housing associations.

The noble Lord, Lord Murray, expressed concern about growing numbers of younger homeless. It is a regrettable consequence of increased family breakdown that young people become homeless. But the numbers of young people sleeping rough is very small and far from increasing, as the noble Lord suggested, the numbers are falling. In central London, where the rough sleepers initiative has been operating, the number of under-25s who are sleeping rough has fallen from 172 in March 1992 to 38 in November 1996. That is also a considerable improvement.

The initiative is now in its third phase, which runs between 1996 and 1999, and it has been extended to a number of other cities and London boroughs. The Government are making £73 million available to fund the third phase.

Of course, a very important role indeed in all this is played by charities and voluntary agencies. Governments cannot and should not do it all. The charities and voluntary agencies have a great part to play. In addition to the funding which is provided to them through the rough sleepers initiative, the Government offer grants to many of these agencies—it is close to £8 million this year—to support projects which prevent, or which relieve, single homelessness.

The rough sleepers initiative is aimed at the extreme examples of need. But the Government remain equally determined to provide social housing in order to help the poorest and the most vulnerable people in our society. That is the direction in which government resources should be spent.

My noble friend Lord Brentford emphasised the need for permanent rather than just hostel accommodation. The initiative emphasises the provision of permanent accommodation. It is not merely a programme of winter relief. The initiative has helped thousands of people back into permanent accommodation. Nearly 3,500 homes have been provided since 1990.

It is important that housing should be allocated fairly to those in greatest long-term need. The Housing Act, which received Royal Assent in July last year and which the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, thought fit to castigate, has enabled that to happen. As from 1st April this year, there will be a single route into long-term social housing; namely, the local authority housing register. That means that all those who require social housing will be assessed on the same basis; that is, the evidence of their need for long-term low-cost housing. That replaces the present system where those declared statutory homeless were automatically given priority over everyone else, even those already on the waiting list whose needs may have been as great or even greater.

The approach will be much fairer and the criteria used by local authorities for assessing the needs of the applicant will continue to ensure that proper priority is given to families and to vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, was concerned that we had last year removed our duty to the homeless. That is not so. We did not do that. Those in priority need will continue to have a two-year minimum safety net under the new legislation.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, raised the question of who should have the benefit of social housing. We believe that social housing—subsidised housing—should go to those people who most need that form of long-term subsidy. We do not believe, perhaps because we are not Austrian or socialists, that we should make ordinary taxpayers pay to subsidise the home styles of those who are better off.

The noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, referred to the fact that she generously gave to beggars. I thought that I must have a chat with her afterwards but it may not be very helpful. I was in fact approached by a gentleman requesting a little assistance after I left a restaurant. One of my party had already given a donation to his needs. However, I declined and he called me an XYZ judge. I am bound to say that I thought he was wrong both as to the noun and to the adjective.

Begging is a difficult problem to deal with. The person whom I met I do not believe would have slotted in to what the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, called a second day St. Francis of Assisi. However, I repeat that it is a difficult problem. The leader of the party opposite says that he takes a view of zero tolerance. I wonder what that means. I suppose he means that the Labour Party will not tolerate any begging or anything of that nature. That seems to me to be running back to the days of the 18th century vigilantes. I believe that the right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition may have cause to regret using that expression of zero tolerance. It may need to be explained rather more to others.

I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that compulsion in these matters is very difficult. We must try to remove the reasons for begging and, on the whole, there are few reasons for it because the social security system and all that goes with it is designed to prevent it happening.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to Wandsworth sales policy and particularly attacked my honourable friend Sir Paul Beresford. I believe that, in due course, he may regret that. I think, on reflection, that the noble Lord will realise that that was both undesirable and unwise. I can only say that the District Auditor has issued a draft report. The next stage is for those named in the report to have the opportunity to comment. At this stage it would be wrong for me, or for anyone else in government, to comment upon the matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to 60,000 lettings a year as did the noble Baroness, Lady Symons. She said that we were falling down on our own estimates. Indeed, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also made that comment. We intend to provide an average of 58,000 to 60,000 new social lettings a year over the decade 1991–2001. That is in line with what is a long-term estimate of need. In some years provision will be higher while, in others, it will be lower. But, overall, we are on course to meet our target.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was concerned about the supply of shared accommodation, given the Government's proposal on housing benefit. I need only say that the availability of shared accommodation depends on the demand for it. It is difficult to predict in advance how the market will act. But, so far, the market has responded and there are currently about three-quarters of a million single people living in the deregulated private rented sector, mainly in house and flat shares.

It is sometimes claimed—and we heard it said this evening—that we have allowed a backlog of demand for social housing to build up. But there will always be people who are going through the process of forming households, dissolving households or, indeed, of moving house. There will also always be people who are sharing houses but who wish to live independently. That is part of the moving scene of life. Nevertheless, aspiration for housing is not the same as need. Circumstances change. What we have to do is to ensure that Government resources go to where the needs are. Therefore, we must be careful before we jump to conclusions about who really needs social housing. We are monitoring the trends and we shall continue so to do. At present, the trends are moving in the right direction. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, referred to a deteriorating state of housing stock. That disregards the clear evidence. There is a 10 per cent. fall in the number of unfit homes under this Government and two-thirds of those homes require less than £2,000 to repair.

Meeting the housing needs of the nation does not simply mean building new homes; it is also important that the existing stock should be properly improved and maintained. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that making use of empty stock is important in helping to meet a 4.4 million growth. To achieve that aim, we are encouraging people to rent out property, encouraging housing associations to buy up and repair rundown property and we are also making use of the empty stock. In 1995–96 the number of empty homes in the Government's estate fell by nearly 40 per cent. As a result of the estate renewal challenge fund, 29 of the most needy estates will now receive £174 million of Government support over the next three years. That, in turn, will bring in a further £250 million of private investment and the process is well under way.

Under the large-scale voluntary transfer programme local authorities can transfer stock to new landlords with the tenants' consent. Since 1988, £3,700 million of private money has, as a result, been brought in to improve those estates. The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, said that Birmingham council had asked for £200 million and received far less. I advise the noble Baroness that Birmingham should seek to take advantage of these opportunities which combine public and private finance to improve the housing of its residents.

There are a number of other points which various speakers raised. Perhaps I could just tell my noble friend Lord Coleraine, who mentioned leasehold reform, that we are aware of such problems. The Lands Tribunal has a discretion towards costs and the issues are similar to those which can be raised in the courts generally. The Government fund the Leasehold Advisory Service which gives free advice on enfranchisement. Anyone who is faced with defending an appeal on a local valuations tribunal decision can discuss his options with that expert service before consulting his professional advisers.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, said that the latest restrictions on housing benefit for single people will hit the disabled. I should just point out to the noble Lord that we recognise his concerns. The proposals are currently open for consultation and we shall take final decisions after carefully considering all the points that have been made.

In conclusion, I should like to point out that if I have not been able to answer all the questions raised—and I do not believe that I have—perhaps I may take advantage of the Hansard report and undertake to write to those noble Lords whose speeches I have not covered. However, the picture is really not as negative as some have suggested. Governments cannot deal with housing alone; they have to deal with it through the whole spectrum of housing, voluntary sectors and charities. It is up to the Government as well as those organisations to take into account the difficulties of the housing sector. That is being achieved at present and not without success. The evidence is of a housing market which is in fact improving and getting better. Despite the criticisms that noble Lords opposite have made—and they have enjoyed doing so—I hope that your Lordships will agree that the position about housing is better than it was. I hope that it will continue to improve.

7.46 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for responding to the debate in the manner that he has. It has been a difficult day for him because we have heard many speeches and the noble Earl has had to listen to all of them. All those speeches have been critical in one way or another of government housing policy—and quite rightly in my view.

I am very grateful to all noble Lords who took part in the debate. I am especially grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine. They were the three Conservative Peers who took part in our debate—

Lord Graham of Edmonton

How many?

Lord Williams of Elvel

Three, my Lords. All the other speakers in the debate either came from my own party or from the Benches to my right. What conclusion can we draw from that fact? Well, perhaps that noble Lords sitting behind the noble Earl do not seem to be as enthusiastic about the Government's housing policy as he seemed to be in his concluding speech. It is not for me to make a long speech at this stage but, in so far as the Minister and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, complained about our failure to put forward Labour Party policy on these matters, perhaps I may refer them to the speech made by my right honourable friend Mr. Tony Blair at Shelter's 30th anniversary event. If the Minister and the noble Earl would care to cast their eyes over the report of that speech, they would understand exactly what we are talking about.

It is normal on such occasions to say that we have had a good debate. But I am bound to say—and I say this in all frankness as a Member of this House—that I am not sure that this has been a very good debate. We have heard some very excellent speeches, but we have not had any feedback from the other side on them. I regret that because, when moving a Motion, I genuinely hope and believe that there will be speakers from the other side, and indeed from the Cross-Benches. Of course the noble Lord, Lord Moran, made a contribution tonight but I would like to see a debate take place rather than simply an onslaught on the Government, which is what happened today.

That onslaught is justified because the Government's housing policy is rubbish. Nevertheless, in this House we have to have proper debates. Therefore, in future, when we table such Motions, I hope that the party opposite will respond in a proper fashion. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.