HL Deb 02 November 2004 vol 666 cc142-5

2.52 p.m.

Lord Laming asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to stem the increase in homeless families in England.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the Government have sustained reductions in rough sleeping, ended the use of long-term bed-and-breakfast hotels for homeless families and strengthened homelessness legislation so that more vulnerable people are rehoused. We are concerned about the numbers in temporary accommodation, although more than 80 per cent are now living in self-contained homes. We have provided additional investment to help local authorities prevent homelessness. Coupled with significant increases in new affordable housing, this will help us turn round the rising trend in homelessness.

Lord Laming

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that very helpful and encouraging reply. Is he aware of the very informative report of the Social Exclusion Unit called Breaking the Cycle which makes it clear that the number of families living in temporary homeless accommodation has increased every year during the past six years and is now at an all-time high? How many children are currently living in such accommodation, and what steps are being taken to secure their proper development, including their education?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am grateful for the tone of the noble Lord's supplementary. The direct answer to his question, astonishing though it might seem, is that I do not know. The point is that nobody knows. We know the number of families with children in temporary accommodation, but we do not know, at the press of a button, the number of children.

At the end of June this year, the estimate was that some 99,000 households were living in temporary accommodation. At around the same time, the number of families in temporary accommodation was estimated at 70,000, so one can see that there is a minimum number of children involved.

With reference to the report Breaking the Cycle, we will be taking forward the Social Exclusion Unit's recently announced work programme. We need to learn more about families in a transient situation or moving around. Being in temporary accommodation is still not the same as having a home that will remain, which helps stability with regard to schools and other such matters.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, the Minister will know that when Shelter gave evidence to the inquiry by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Select Committee into homelessness, it reported that three-quarters of all local authorities surveyed by it identified affordability or a shortage of affordable housing as the significant outstanding challenge to tackling homelessness. The Minister will also be aware that the situation is particularly bad in rural areas where, in the past few years, the number of homeless people has gone up by 30 per cent. What are the Government trying to do to deal with this serious problem?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I presume that the noble Baroness is referring to the current inquiry by the Select Committee, to which the Government have not yet given evidence but to which Ministers will be going—not just myself, but Ministers from other departments—before the end of the year. In addition, we are rewriting and reassessing the current homelessness strategy.

Following the spending review announced in the summer, although we have not yet made all the detailed decisions, we are fairly confident that in the period covered by the spending review we will be able to gain an extra 10,000 affordable dwellings on top of those which would already have been provided with the programmes. That will go some way towards meeting the situation we are in.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in its survey, Living in Limbo, Shelter found that, on average, children in temporary accommodation were missing 55 days of school and that average stays in temporary accommodation were approximately nine months? Has he noted its recommendation that serious consideration should be given to funding child support workers in all the tenancy support schemes and the other recommendations on supporting children in these families?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am not aware of all the details, but I know the overall situation. I can assure the noble Earl that there is a very large programme of assistance and research across more than one government department—the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills—regarding the effect of homelessness on children. There is a serious issue here. Another study found that only 29 per cent of children in temporary housing situations attended mainstream schools. We know that living in temporary accommodation has an effect on the mental health of both children and adults.

We have reduced the number of children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in the past two years from 9,500 to around 26 because of the target to get families with children out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Getting people out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation into temporary accommodation is the next move. Sometimes that temporary accommodation will become their permanent home, but it is still unsatisfactory in that it is temporary.

Lord Chan

My Lords, what is being done to encourage local authorities to co-ordinate their regeneration programme, particularly in the inner cities, so that unoccupied houses can be used for homeless people?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I hope that all noble Lords will be here tomorrow to give the Third Reading to the Housing Bill. It contains a host of goodies that will help deal with the situation. One is to get homeless families access to long-term empty property—not confiscation, but access. We have had many debates in the House; this is just one measure. We are also actively looking at the idea of bringing back into action empty flats and dwellings above retail premises. There will always be empty properties—there have to be, given the market situation. But properties left empty for a non-market reason are quite unacceptable as they represent an asset that the country is wasting, particularly in view of the need for them.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in rural areas there is greater difficulty in obtaining temporary accommodation? What are the Government doing about it?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right; there will be an inevitable shortage of temporary accommodation. However, we have a special programme for community settlements with populations below 3,000. There is a Housing Corporation programme to build affordable dwellings which we will have doubled in a four-year period. There are efforts going on in small villages and hamlets where there may be just two, four or six dwellings. The way out of that is to construct more at small levels—not large-scale developments—within the growth areas to ensure that the needs of the rural community are met.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, within the 70,000 families with children quoted by the Minister, does he also have statistics on how many are in inner cities and how many are elsewhere?

Lord Rooker

No, my Lords, I regret that I do not have that information, either off the top of my head or in the statistics that I have gathered from the overall figures. However, the information would be available on a local authority basis because we collect the figures from local authorities. I will see whether I can get that information and write to the noble Lord.