HC Deb 29 October 2003 vol 412 cc105-28WH

2 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important issue. Many Members have shown a great deal of interest in this Adjournment debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) who first suggested calling it.

Overcrowding is the forgotten issue in housing policy. Because it is so difficult, perhaps it has not been so much forgotten as put on the back burner, where it has remained since 1935, when the standards were first introduced. The point of this Adjournment debate is to set out how disastrous the standards are and how they can be improved, and to press for their improvement as part of any housing legislation introduced in the near future.

The number of families in statutorily overcrowded conditions is not known, because the figures are not collected. London Housing states that 150,000 households are overcrowded, but its definition is not exactly the same as statutory overcrowding. In the introduction to his Housing (Overcrowding) Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) referred to the survey of English housing, which states that 500,000 households nationally are overcrowded—but again, the definition is not necessarily the same as that for statutory overcrowding.

The actual number of statutorily overcrowded families is likely to be minimal, because the standards are so abysmally low that it is hard to breach them. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and I have examined housing in her constituency. Although many of the families whom we met on that visit live in overcrowded conditions, when I counted up the people and the rooms, none of them was statutorily overcrowded. However, my hon. Friend knows of a number of cases of statutory overcrowding.

Many of us have been involved with housing over the years both as councillors and as MPs, and all the evidence, and the experience of those of us who have been involved with housing on a professional or a casework level, points to three things. First, overcrowded households include families with children. That may sound obvious, but it is worth emphasising that the issue concerns not only housing policy but policy for children. By and large, overcrowding does not affect single-person households. Secondly, the problem disproportionately affects people from ethnic minority communities. Some communities are affected more than others. In particular, the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, on which Shelter has produced an excellent report, is seriously affected by overcrowding. Thirdly, overcrowding is a problem for young families with one or two children who are trapped in one-bedroom flats in excruciating circumstances—something that I see a lot in my constituency.

Overcrowding is often seen as a big city problem, but that is not the case. In my middle England constituency, I come across the problem too often. For example, I know of a Bangladeshi woman with six children who lives in a little terraced house. She has created six bedrooms in her house by making haphazard subdivisions. She shares one small room with her baby, her 15-year-old daughter lives in another tiny room, her four other children sleep in a third room, another couple and one of their children share a fourth room, that couple's other three children, one of whom has special needs, sleep in another room, and a single man sleeps in an attic room.

Last weekend I visited a family who live in a one-bedroom first floor flat. The young woman, her husband and their two-year-old son share a bedroom. The daughter, who is about 10 years older, has serious special needs and sleeps in the sitting room. The sitting room is full of containers of clothes, baby items and toys. Both families have serious problems as a result of their overcrowded conditions, but neither is statutorily overcrowded. Neither has any hope of moving.

It is hard to overestimate the profound sense of injustice that overcrowded housing conditions can create in people. There is complete fury when people are told that they should relieve the pressure on the bedroom by putting a bed in the kitchen, or when they are told that they can meet the requirements for gender segregation if the wife sleeps in the same room as the daughter and the husband shares a room with the sons.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

We can all come up with terrible examples of overcrowding. Would not a really good outcome of the debate be for the Minister to give a direction under the Homelessness Act 2002 that when local authorities carry out their homelessness plan they should also inquire into the exact amount of overcrowding in their area?

Ms Keeble

I shall come to some ways forward at the end of my remarks. I said at the beginning that the problem is very difficult to solve. There must be careful thought about how we progress. One real difficulty with overcrowding is that in none of those cases are the families statutorily overcrowded. If a survey were done of statutory overcrowding, the horror stories that everyone could tell would not show up, because the families are not statutorily overcrowded according to the present rules.

We must review the standards and set new ones that would have been more appropriate even in 1935, let alone today. We must also consider how the Government work with local authorities to map out the extent of overcrowding and to determine how to catch the small but acutely disadvantaged group of people who live in unacceptable conditions.

One could argue that people who are overcrowded should simply be regarded as homeless. That would create a catch-all, but no clear framework for solving the problem. I shall come on to some solutions later. It is important that proposals are put forward in this debate that can be picked up and implemented by the Government to ensure that we end what has been a complete scandal for many years.

The sense of injustice felt by people who live in such circumstances is increased when they see homeless families get two or three-bedroom houses. Most local authorities use more generous space standards for housing allocations, but overcrowded families do not score highly on points systems for transfers.

Overcrowding is often a problem for growing families who become trapped because they cannot get transfers, or because adult children who cannot get housing remain with their parents and have children of their own. Two or three families may live in one house. One way out is for families to make themselves homeless, and some end up doing just that.

It is hard to overestimate the damage caused by overcrowding. It is an area on which the different aspects of Government policy are not joined up properly. Children cannot do their homework if the sitting room is a bedroom and there is no space to study. The consequences for health can also be dire. The British Medical Association's head of science and ethics has said that poor housing can cause psychological and physical health problems, and the best way to reduce health inequalities in this country is to improve living standards. There are also risks to children's safety and well-being as the result of inappropriate sharing of bedrooms and the resulting lack of privacy.

The Government are making real progress in developing good children's policies and putting them into effect, but for some families, overcrowded housing is a barrier to child health, educational achievement and freedom from abuse.

There is nothing new about the criticisms of overcrowding standards. I invite Members to consider this statement: the right hon. Gentleman's standards as regards overcrowding are not standards which are tolerable in the twentieth century. He contemplates as a normal thing that living rooms should be used as bedrooms. I can never agree to that. I think it is wrong."—[Official Report, 20 May 1935; Vol. 302, c. 42.] Here is another one: it would be much preferable to establish a standard which hon. Members can defend in the country, even if we give a time limit to local authorities, rather than hang around the necks of hon. Members and local authorities a standard of overcrowding of which this country will be ashamed within the next two years."—[Official Report, 29 May 1935; Vol. 302, c. 1191.] Those criticisms of the overcrowding standards were made when the Housing Bill was on Report in 1935—the year that the standards were first introduced. It was expected that they would be upgraded in future years. It is interesting to note that those standards were introduced by a Health Minister, because of the link between housing standards and health.

The amendment tabled in 1935 was radical, because it proposed to disregard the living room in the calculation of standards. It was recognised that the standards were deliberately set low in order to prevent the building of a whole swathe of extra houses. That really is the rub. As the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) pointed out, the question is not whether, but how, the standards should be changed,

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton set out a gold standard in his Bill, which has been very important, as has the report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing Planning and Local Government, and the excellent work of Shelter.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. She will be aware that the standards in my Bill were based on those set in the English housing conditions survey, which is, by unanimous acclaim, a modest overcrowding standard. To have a gold standard, we would be considering something significantly better than the standard in my Bill.

Ms Keeble

I take my hon. Friend's point. I was just trying to say that if his standards were enshrined in legislation, we would be doing extraordinarily well.

Whatever happens, we must see some improvements on the present position. It is a scandal that the standards MPs said in 1935 that they would be ashamed of two years after their introduction are still in place almost 70 years later, and without the modest improvements that were proposed then, such as discounting the sitting room.

My hon. Friend's standards would have been contained in primary legislation, but they should not be introduced there because they should be open to wide discussion. They should also be open to simpler amendment than primary legislation allows. Secondary legislation would provide for greater flexibility and allow us to improve standards without the problems that we have seen with past housing Bills, in which it has been difficult to change standards. There is a reluctance to commit too much to secondary legislation, but overcrowding standards are ideally suited to that form of settlement.

It is important to have absolute standards. The issue is not about establishing when housing overcrowding becomes a risk, as in the housing health and safety rating system's proposed method of considering overcrowding standards, but about specifying what standards of space accord with wider policy objectives for children and families. It is also about our changed perceptions of space and privacy compared with those of 1935. For example, should it be recognised that husband and wife should not have to sleep in separate rooms to meet overcrowding standards? I certainly think that it should. It is very difficult to explain to older parents that they might have to sleep with their grown-up children rather than each other because of the gender segregation requirements. It should also be recognised that children under 10 count as people, not half-people. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton says that the cut-off age should be five.

We should recognise that families need a living room. They are entitled to some space—more if the family is large—to use for recreation, leisure, eating, doing homework and the like.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I agree with the broad thrust of what the hon. Lady is saying. Something must be done about the problems, but how should it be done? I slightly disagree with what she said about the provisions not being in primary legislation. It seems to me that the Housing Bill that the Government are about to introduce would provide an ideal opportunity to deal with the problem, and it would update the Housing Act 1985, which is nearly 20 years old. Standards have moved on considerably since then.

Ms Keeble

It is a moot point where the provisions should be. I would just say that the Housing Acts passed after 1935 have always reinforced the previous standards. That is partly because there have been other priorities. Certainly, local authorities were applying different, more generous standards during the 1960s and 1970s. With all the changes taking place at that time, perhaps it did not seem quite so important to improve the statutory standards. Including those standards in legislation has made them very resistant to change.

If it is not possible to get absolute agreement on the standards to be enshrined in the Bill, it might be more helpful to have secondary legislation so that there can be detailed attention to that particular aspect of housing. It is right that over time we should constantly improve the standard of housing and recognise that people should have more space for recreation. It would be nice if they had space for proper dining facilities, for example. It is also important that we understand that the changes that we introduce now would be subject to change in future years.

We should make absolutely sure that we do not pass legislation now and then leave it for another 70 years before there is the opportunity to change something, just because we used primary rather than secondary legislation. We need to consider that risk carefully, but we must not say, "We can't get agreement to change the wording in the Bill so we aren't going to do anything." I suspect that that is what happened with previous Housing Acts.

Probably the most difficult issue is that there needs to be a process of implementation, during which there would have to be careful assessment of the impact of changing standards and how the goals could be achieved. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton also made the point about the need for a survey so that we can quantify the level of overcrowding and ensure that we know how that can be managed.

Some of the issues involved in tackling overcrowding concern management of the housing stock, such as management policies for transfers, arrangements for housing homeless people, how we manage homelessness, and what we do about grown-up children with babies who are living with parents and grandparents. We also have to consider the design of new homes, including proper provision for larger families.

One option that I do not believe is open is to leave the standards untouched. They are offensive, they cause immense hardships for families with children—the very families that other areas of Government policy are so keen to support—and discriminate unfairly against particular ethnic minority communities. They are also virtually impossible for people at the sharp end in the communities to challenge, because of the different ways in which the various pieces of housing legislation work. I hope that careful consideration will be given to that matter.

Mr. Love

Is not one of the most important considerations the fact that the incidence of overcrowding in Greater London coincides with the incidence of the deepest child poverty in this country? One intensifies the other. If the Government have set themselves a target of reducing child poverty, there must be some action on overcrowding.

Ms Keeble

I agree. It is clear that overcrowding is about child policy, not just housing and family policy. Overcrowding and economic disadvantage are related. Also, there is a failure to take into account the pressures on the most disadvantaged families. The case in my constituency that I cited, in which one of the children living in those circumstances had special needs, is typical of a number of families. A family with children with special needs often needs extra space to manage the equipment and the behavioural problems. I hope that such issues can be taken forward by a really careful consideration of, and improvement in, the overcrowding standards. I also hope that this subject will be covered in any forthcoming housing Bill, and that we will at last bring our overcrowding standards not just into the 20th century, but into the 21st century.

2.21 pm
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

May I draw Members' attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this important debate. She has shown a great deal of interest and concern about the issue, and is to be congratulated on giving us an opportunity to discuss the matter again today. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on all the work that he has done in bringing the issue forward.

Overcrowding is one of the most serious and pressing concerns for those of us representing constituencies facing a housing shortage. It has knock-on consequences for a number of the Government's agendas for tackling social exclusion, including agendas for health targets, educational achievements and antisocial behaviour. There are few areas of concern that the Government are rightly seeking to address, and into which they are putting resources, on which overcrowding does not have an impact.

I have made my next point before when speaking on housing issues in this Chamber and in my constituency. Overcrowding is one of the most serious causes of racial tension—I am sure that some of my colleagues face racial tension issues—for the simple reason that, at a time when there has been a great deal of media and political interest in immigration and asylum, the chronic housing shortage and its consequences create a sense among many people living in unacceptable and appalling conditions that immigration and asylum seekers are to blame for their plight. I shall draw attention to why that view is not true. However, I have no doubt about the unfortunate consequences of the situation in terms of public policy.

I hope that the contributions made today, and those that I am sure many of us will continue to make, can do something to get this terribly serious problem on to the Government's agenda. The problem with housing is that most people are either satisfactorily housed—thank goodness for that—or see housing as a market need. Many people who are buying their own houses will see their ability, or inability, to have the house that they want as a market transaction. Housing therefore simply does not get the same attention as education and the health service. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North and I have said, the impact of housing shortage where it is most acute is undermining so many of our attempts at progress on those other agendas.

In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton drew attention to the particular issues in London. There are impacts on other cities and parts of the country, and there are pockets of serious rural overcrowding to which we could draw attention, but there is no doubt that this problem impacts specifically and detrimentally on the capital. In London, overcrowding is almost four times as frequent as outside it, and there was a 21 per cent. increase in overcrowding levels between the 1991 and 2001 censuses. When we bear in mind that the 2001 census in London, Manchester and a few other places was woefully inaccurate, that does nothing to give us confidence that we have found the real scale of the problem. It is probably a great deal worse than census data give us cause to believe.

According to that data, which we shall have to use until we have any better, there has been a 21 per cent. increase in overcrowding levels in London compared with a 22 per cent. decline in the rest of the United Kingdom. I am extremely pleased about that decline, but we are grappling yet again with a serious regional imbalance. We are often stymied by the fact that we put forward policy solutions to a problem that are in danger of being dismissed because they have a particular regional impact. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister understands that those of us seeking to address this issue can do so only from the facts and experience of our own localities. The seriousness of the problem should not be masked by a national set of averages that, if examined, show that the rest of the country has enjoyed a decline in overcrowding levels in recent years.

The two boroughs in my constituency are among the worst affected in terms of increases in overcrowding. There has been a near doubling of overcrowding among tenants of registered social landlords in Kensington and Chelsea, and the amount of council stock deemed to be overcrowded has increased from 9 to 14 per cent. in Kensington and Chelsea and from 8 to 12 per cent. in Westminster. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North said, we have to remember what those statistics represent: absolute human tragedies.

Mrs C has two children, one with autism and one with heart disease. Their school has advised me that at the moment, their living conditions are severely hampering not only their social, but also their mental and physical development". Another constituent wrote to me recently to say: My parents have allowed my family to temporarily stay in their property and as a result I share a 3 bedroom flat with 9 people … I occupy one small bedroom and share a double bed with my husband and 4 year old son, my two year old occupies a cot and frequently wakes in the night, disturbing everyone. My father is a pensioner with Parkinson's disease, depression, hypertension and bladder problems … my mother is also a pensioner … Two of my brothers are in full-time education and attempting to study for examinations. A third constituent, Mrs. S, writes: I stressed all the support sent from my GP, Social Worker and from you regarding my health. My physical and mental state is seriously deteriorating. I am sinking into a deep depression as I battle with my housing situation daily. I am at breaking point! And the children are suffering too. Yes I now have constant heating and hot water", for which she is grateful, but there are still the problems of the flights of stairs, lifting, carrying and climbing for four people sleeping in the one bedroom. No space for the children to play is made more apparent as the baby is very mobile now. The noise in the flat is worsened by the fact that there is no soundproofing. I cannot take any more. I am desperate and very vulnerable at this time.

As my hon. Friend said, even people suffering from such levels of overcrowding cannot for the most part become registered as statutorily overcrowded under the present legislation. As we have heard, children under one year of age do not count, despite the fact that they take up sleeping room and become mobile as they begin to crawl. Children under 10 count as a half. I referred the family of a Mrs. M to the environmental health office for an assessment, but the reply that I received stated: The ages of the children mean that the family currently has 4.5 'persons' in that the 3 younger children each currently count as 0.5 of a person. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will understand that when constituents receive a letter telling them that a nine-year-old child counts as only half a person, it causes them great irritation. The child in question may be, as in the case of my constituents, aged nine and a half with special educational needs. Three of the family's four children have special educational needs relating to language and speech development disorders, which are not counted for the purpose of overcrowding. The rules make it impossible to compound either many different levels of medical need—because medical points are allocated for only one person in a household—or the impact of overcrowding on the family's medical problems. The result is that they cannot secure statutory overcrowding points.

My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the fact that under the 1935 legislation housing authorities are allowed to require the living room to be used as sleeping accommodation, regardless of the impact that that would have on the family's social life or privacy, or on children's ability to get a proper night's sleep or to study. However, things are slightly worse than that, because under legislation there have been instances when it has been decided that the kitchen could be used for sleeping.

A reply to a letter inquiring about a constituent stated that the lounge and two bedrooms were clearly included as sleeping accommodation, but that the difficulty for the environmental health department was whether to use the kitchen-diner as a living room, since there were a table and chairs in the room and it therefore seemed to be used for more than just cooking. It is possible for an environmental health department to decide that if a kitchen-diner is used for eating, it can therefore be used for sleeping. I would not know, because the information is not monitored across the board, in how many instances such a ruling has been made.

The problem is that even if a family can get through the equivalent of the biblical eye of the needle and qualify as statutorily overcrowded, they still cannot move, because of the shortage of accommodation. The family of Mr. A in my constituency is statutorily overcrowded and has received the maximum additional points that are available. There are seven people in a two-bedroom flat, and they have medical points because the gentleman in the family has ischaemic heart disease. The family have not been allowed to move and are still 11th on the housing waiting list, having been on it with maximum points for about four years. A letter from the sure start unit in the ward where the family lives states: I do not understand why the family has not been able to move … the family are statutorily overcrowded with 2 adults and three children"— it is in fact four children— in a one-bed flat … the family is surviving in the most distressingly cramped conditions … Charlie … aged 11 years, and Faith, aged 5 go to sleep in their parents' bed and then, when they are ready for bed, the parents transfer them to a sofa bed in the lounge room … the two youngest children sleep in a cot beside their parents' bed … The mother is one of the main supports for her mother in law who lives nearby … who has cancer". There are therefore good reasons for the family not to welcome a letter from the local authority asking whether they would be interested in being considered for a move to the north of England.

Another family, living in north Kensington and statutorily overcrowded in a housing association property, are a couple with four children over three years old. They live in a one-bedroom flat. I asked the environmental health department to assess the flat for overcrowding. Its view was: The recognition of statutory overcrowding will not provide an early offer of permanent local housing. I was informed that the head of housing needs in the borough—who is an excellent housing officer and has been of enormous practical help to me over the years—has none the less advised in this instance that there are many hundreds of families with similar overcrowding currently registered for larger accommodation on the Council's Housing register.

Ms Keeble

Perhaps the Minister could confirm my understanding that if people are statutorily overcrowded and register with the local authority for a transfer, the matter ends there. Priority is granted, but there is no automatic right to rehousing as one might normally expect following a breach of a statutory standard. Once people apply for housing, they lose their immediate rights and the obligation to rehouse them ends.

Ms Buck

My hon. Friend is right. In some ways, it is worse than that. Her point leads me to my next sentence. Last year, the chief housing officer for the housing association wrote to me as follows: It would not be in your constituents' interest if enforcement action was taken in respect of statutory overcrowding as this would require us to evict the family for breaching the covenant requiring them not to overcrowd the dwelling. According to statutory overcrowding legislation, it is the tenants' fault that they are overcrowded. In my experience, private tenants and tenants housed by registered social landlords and local authorities are often technically in breach of their housing obligations if they are overcrowded. They are therefore the ones who are at fault, and they can be evicted. In practice, that does not happen, especially where children are involved. In this instance, however, the housing association's comment flags up a particular problem.

There is a serious and worsening crisis, especially in London. Given the nature of the legislation, it is extremely difficult for families to qualify as being statutorily overcrowded. When they do, it is almost impossible to move them. In many cases, families are told that their only option is to consider moving to the north of England. Some would welcome that, and I assure hon. Members that I have nothing against the north of England in this respect. However, many—probably the overwhelming majority—of these families have extremely strong local ties. Many of them are working, despite the conditions in which they live, and many are from minority ethnic communities with strong community links. Many, such as the family with the three children with special needs in language development, have strong ties with the health service and schools, which provide them with vital support for their children. Uprooting such families and moving them to another part of the country is simply not an option.

If we are to deal with the problem of overcrowding, we must treat it as important, monitor it and set targets. It is right that families living in substandard housing should be a target in the monitoring of child poverty. Defining homelessness and overcrowding as forms of housing need and as targets in tackling child poverty is also well overdue. If we do not commit ourselves to updating the legislation and to monitoring the impact of overcrowding and the problems arising from it, the issue will continue to stay below the radar. I join my hon. Friends in asking the Minister to reconsider the matter and to pursue it.

It is not satisfactory simply to wrap up the problem by using the standards that the Government propose. A few months ago, the Minister's colleague wrote that to raise the issue of overcrowding standards in isolation from other factors would not deal with the problem". I suggest that if we do not raise these issues, and deal with them, the hard core of chronically overcrowded families will simply be ignored, and they will continue not to receive the attention that they deserve.

Will the Minister also undertake to consider the role of registered social landlords? Housing associations are increasingly becoming the primary providers of social housing, and we are finding that they have different standards in relation to overcrowding. I have seen many cases in which families in overcrowded accommodation finally receive their one chance of an offer. Their case is made to the housing association, but they are rejected because the association says that they are overcrowding the accommodation. For example, the association will not consider housing more than six people in a three-bedroom property. That means that a family with seven or eight members in the worst housing need, with no prospect of receiving an offer of four-bedroom accommodation, is least likely to receive an offer because of the way in which the RSLs operate their own overcrowding standards. Obviously, we do not want to overcrowd accommodation more than we need to, but we must recognise that it is unacceptable to leave a certain cohort of households, which are in a chronic condition, at the back of the queue because of the way in which housing association rules work.

I now return to my opening point about some of the tensions, particularly racial tensions, arising out of the housing shortage. We must recognise that stock shortage is at the heart of that problem. There has not been a massive increase in the number of families who have presented themselves as being homeless and come through the homelessness route. The heart of the overcrowding problem is not London's rising population, but the decline of housing stock over the past 10 or 20 years. A recent parliamentary question about the total social landlord dwelling stock in England and Wales showed that the number of properties available for rent in London has fallen by 23,000 since 1997. If those 23,000 units had been available to us, we would have been able to relieve a great deal of overcrowding and homelessness.

Part of the problem is that Housing Corporation rules make it impossible for larger properties to be built in high-value areas such as London. We desperately need to procure and purchase four and five-bedroom accommodation to deal with larger families who are not offered three-bedroom accommodation. Although that would lessen overcrowding, they are turned away. We cannot produce that stock because of Housing Corporation rules and the way in which capital finance works.

It is time to grasp the nettle. The situation is intolerable for tens of thousands of overcrowded London residents, particularly those at the sharp edge, who are close to statutory overcrowding limits, or just over them. I hope that the Minister will raise these issues with the Department. I hope also that she will make the case for updating legislation, and for some of the rule changes and resources that are necessary to relieve the problem.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I feel compelled to remind the Chamber that we conventionally begin the first of the three wind-up speeches 30 minutes before concluding a debate. There are only 18 minutes left, and two hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I hope that they will bear that time constraint in mind when they are speaking, and when they accept and respond to interventions.

2.42 pm
Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this important debate. Most of us believe that the provision of secure, well-founded and affordable housing is one of the most important issues with which we must deal. It is particularly critical in the east and the south-east.

Overcrowding is a big issue. In my constituency, some extended families use overcrowding to move up the waiting list. Parents give their children, who often have a child of their own, notice to quit, which leaves the young family homeless, and therefore a higher priority than an overcrowded household. That shows that there is a lack of affordable housing.

It does not matter how housing is allocated if the supply is insufficient to meet demand. This year, my area was fortunate enough to receive the highest allocation in the region: £18.2 million. It is one of the most expensive areas in the country for land prices and building costs, and there is a lack of skilled workers, but we are doing some good things. One of our more innovative schemes is due to be completed soon; I hope to persuade the Minister to cut the ribbon. It is for 52 two-bedroomed flats on a former electricity site, 40 per cent. of which are for key workers. No public subsidy has gone into the scheme. The flats will be kept for rent in perpetuity so that successive tenants can enjoy the advantage of an affordable home.

We recently granted planning permission for a mixed development on an old Territorial Army site, 35 per cent. of which will be affordable homes for rent. We are also developing small sites and lumping several together so that they can benefit from the economies of scale that normally accrue to large sites. I am also trying to persuade the local council and our local population that some of the land on an old aerodrome site of 300-plus acres, which was mined for gravel, should be allocated for housing, even though it is technically green belt. That land is also the subject of some speculation about the provision of a rail freight terminal: a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year operation. It seems to me that a few hundred houses, a bypass to the local village and some formed woodland would be a better option.

I want to raise two other issues, the first of which concerns empty homes. It is estimated that 750,000 homes are empty, with more than 80 per cent. in the private sector. Houses next to empty homes can suffer devaluation by as much as 10 to 20 per cent. according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 gives the right to order disposal of empty public property. That process involves a public request ordering disposal.

As more than 80 per cent. of empty homes are in the private sector and not covered by the Act, now is perhaps the time to include them. Private owners served with a PROD could use the property themselves, let it, sell it or provide a justifiable reason—such as a planning reason—why it needs to stay empty. Even if only one quarter of empty homes were brought into use, that would equate to 180,000 extra homes.

The second issue is VAT on refurbished homes. VAT on new buildings is zero, yet on refurbished homes it is 17.5 per cent. We all know of homes that could be refurbished, but which it might be cheaper to knock down and rebuild because of the VAT. Many of us have been putting that argument for some years without any sign that it is understood or listened to by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Regeneration is rightly given a high priority by the Government. That would be greatly helped by the scrapping of VAT on refurbishment.

Overcrowding is a symptom of housing under stress. I welcome the Government's plans for major house building in certain areas. However, I would plead that cities, such as St. Albans where the housing need is as great as anywhere in the country, continue to receive substantial grants for new affordable homes.

2.46 pm
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing the debate. As a councillor, as an MP and as a Minister she has shown real commitment to helping families who live in overcrowded conditions. During her time as Minister, she visited the Boundary estate in Bethnal Green and listened to the experiences of a number of families living in overcrowded homes—families in which three or even four children shared a single bedroom; or families in which parents or siblings slept in the living room every single night. The health, well-being, educational attainment and employment prospects of those families—in other words, their entire future—are blighted because their homes too small.

The survey of English housing estimates that there are more than 17,000 overcrowded households in London. In Tower Hamlets, we have approximately 8,000 overcrowded households. That is the most severe level of overcrowding in the country, and is accompanied—unsurprisingly, as there is a direct link between the two—by the highest density of poverty in the country.

The vast majority of those overcrowded households are young families with two or three children waiting for a family-sized home to become available. Unfortunately, as my constituents know to their great cost, they have to wait for an unacceptably long time. Some have already waited more than 10 years. Some have waited for almost 20 years. I am sorry, but I will do what other MPs have done and illustrate the problem by referring to families with whom I come into contact. That is because it is so difficult to portray the level of human suffering involved. I am not using the worst cases; I usually use the worst examples, but I thought that this time I would go for the averagely bad.

Mrs. A lives in a small two-bedroom flat with her husband and four children. There is not enough room for all the children to have separate beds, and the boys and girls have to share a room. Mrs. B also lives in a small two-bedroom flat. Mr. B is elderly and disabled, and lives with his disabled wife, adult son, adult daughter and baby grandson. Once again, there is not enough room for everyone to have a bed, and there is not enough room for facilities to deal with Mr. and Mrs. B's disabilities. There is obviously no privacy for the adult son and daughter. Predictably, both those tenants have come to me asking for help to get the one available vacant house in their area. At least one of them will be disappointed; from my experience both of them are likely to be disappointed.

Mr. C lives with his wife and two children, aged five and two, in a one-bedroom flat on a high floor of a tower block. A third child is expected in three months. There is insufficient room for the existing children to have a bed each, and it is difficult to see how space could be made for a cot for the third child. I took a former Minister with responsibility for housing to a property in Tower Hamlets where an extended family of 16 people were living in two bedrooms—and I am sorry to report to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North that none of the families that we visited have yet been rehoused in larger, family-sized accommodation.

Mr. Love

Is not the important point that none of those cases counts as statutorily overcrowded? That shows just how completely out of date the system is, as it cannot deal with modern circumstances.

Ms King

That is precisely the point. The accommodation of the last family that I mentioned, with 16 people in two bedrooms, is of course regarded as statutorily overcrowded, and another family on the Tower Hamlets waiting list who require five bedrooms also currently live in accommodation that is classed as statutorily overcrowded. However, my hon. Friend is exactly right: all the other cases that I have mentioned do not count as statutorily overcrowded.

I am sure that the lack of progress is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North initiated a review of the current statutory definition of overcrowding. As has already been said, the definition ignores babies and expects living rooms to be permanently available for people to sleep in. For the benefit of my hon. Friends, I should add that 70 years ago, the Labour party described those very same standards as intolerable in the 20th century, and a Labour Member of Parliament said that this House ought not to let it go forth that we regard it as a satisfactory state of affairs that people should normally have to sleep in living rooms."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 19 February 1935; c. 54.] That was 1935, yet the same standards are still with us.

The review of those standards that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North initiated gave hope to overcrowded families in Tower Hamlets that the Government were turning their attention to their needs. However, after she moved on to the Department for International Development, no progress was made with that review.

Since then, we have been told that overcrowding will be addressed through the new housing health and safety rating system. Unfortunately, the HHSRS cannot provide that review, not only because the number of hazards due to overcrowding and a lack of space are likely to be dwarfed by the number due to factors such as fire risk, damp and cold, but because the HHSRS inevitably involves a subjective assessment of conditions in a property. I hope that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but the only objective yardstick against which environmental health officers can measure hazards that arise from overcrowding and lack of space is the room and space standards in the current statutory definition—the very same definition that the Minister with responsibility for housing described as outdated. That is why I hope that the Minister will follow her predecessor's lead and signal that she is prepared to consider updating that definition, as that would give hope to families in my constituency.

The Housing (Overcrowding) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) does not give overcrowded families the right to insist that they are prioritised for rehousing ahead of homeless families, yet the fear that that might happen has delayed the Government's movement. A remedy of that nature is specifically excluded from the Bill, because it is recognised that it might have unacceptable outcomes. However, local authorities already accept that such families have a right to a larger home, and in so doing they apply higher overcrowding standards than the statutory minimum. All that we are asking, therefore, is that the Government recognise that standard in law.

A modernised statutory definition will not add to the burdens on local authorities, but will help us to see more clearly what the problem is and where it exists.

If I thought that we could solve the problem of overcrowding with current or predicted resources, I would be less concerned about updating the statutory definition. However, despite the fantastic increases in Government investment in housing, we are still nowhere near doing that. Tackling overcrowding does not yet have the priority that it deserves. We are making huge investments: over the next three years we shall increase the total housing resource to £11 billion, we are on target to reduce the number of non-decent social homes by 1 million by 2004, and, through the transfer options, we are unlocking huge amounts of investment in social housing. I congratulate the Government on that. Tower Hamlets has had a welcome and much-needed 300 per cent. increase in investment in social housing, but it needs more.

I suggest to the Minister that the forthcoming housing Bill offers the chance to give decision makers an incentive to move overcrowding up the agenda. Across southern England, updating the standards would help to energise our campaign to end child poverty. Let us not forget that 48 per cent. of this country's children in poverty live in inner London. I know that many in the rest of the country do not believe that—they think that all the streets are paved with gold—but it is a fact. If we are to meet the Government's target of dealing with child poverty, we have to tackle one of the biggest issues that faces those children—overcrowding. It has to be moved up the agenda. That would help black and Asian families, who are seven times more likely to experience overcrowding than their white counterparts. Once one has faced up to a problem, one can begin to tackle it, and retaining a statutory definition that is so outdated and so rarely breached only helps us to convince ourselves that overcrowding is not a problem and does not need to he tackled. We need to set a new threshold—a gold standard—to aim for. The bedroom standard used in the survey of English housing is that standard, and the forthcoming housing Bill will provide the perfect opportunity to put it on the statute book.

I shall briefly offer some solutions. Admitting the scale of overcrowding is the first step in tackling it. The next is building affordable homes in the numbers that are needed. I have argued previously that the only way to tackle the housing crisis is to double our output of affordable homes. That would mean doubling our investment again, and I know that the money cannot be found immediately, so I suggest helping to generate an immediate increase in the number of council and housing association lettings. We need some short-term emergency measures to free up family-sized accommodation for families suffering severe overcrowding.

During a debate in June, I suggested an expansion of the seaside and country homes scheme. In the Minister's reply, he told me that Housing Organisation and Exchange Mobility Services, which manages the scheme, has begun working with Girlings Retirement Options to give elderly people further options. I would be grateful for details as to how that has progressed.

Since the local restriction of right to buy, cash incentive schemes have become really popular in Tower Hamlets, with the result that more tenancies, including four four-bedroom tenancies this year, have been returned to the council to be re-let. A cash incentive is a cheap and efficient way to help tenants of social housing to become home owners. It empowers tenants by giving them choice over the size of their new homes. Please may we have more? The money for that has been cut, and although Tower Hamlets has subsidised it, we need it to be increased.

My last point concerns occupation. As well as there being many people who want to leave London, we have the advantage that a surprisingly high number live in homes that are not fully occupied. In London, 28 per cent. of council and registered social landlords' stock is officially under-occupied. The present incentive—between £500 and £1,000 for each bedroom—is not adequate; we need to increase it if we are to get people out of those properties. I should be grateful if the Minister would write to me on the points that I have drawn to her attention. We desperately need to tackle the terrible problem of overcrowding now.

2.59 pm
Matthew Green (Ludlow)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on having secured the debate. It is very timely in view of the forthcoming housing Bill, which will, as has been said, present a good opportunity to make changes.

I shall avoid covering much of the ground that the hon. Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), for Edmonton (Mr. Love), for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) have covered, because they have given excellent examples from their constituencies. I cannot do that: while we have a severe shortage of affordable housing in Ludlow, overcrowding is not as great a problem as it is in London. Let us consider the extent of it. About 500,000 households in the United Kingdom would be regarded as overcrowded if we adopted the bedroom standard. That is a significant number; it is about 3 per cent. of all households in the UK. In London, the figure is about 6 per cent. As we heard from the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, the percentage is much higher among ethnic minorities. I understand that, by that definition, up to 30 per cent. of Bangladeshi households would he overcrowded. None of us can regard that as acceptable in the 21st century.

We have heard, rightly, about the effects of overcrowding, particularly those on health. The transmission of respiratory and infectious diseases and the increase in mortality and death rates are closely related to overcrowding. It is always connected with the spread of infectious diseases, either through the air or by physical contact. Measles, mumps, chicken pox, diphtheria and most respiratory conditions are more easily spread in overcrowded conditions, as are those that are spread by physical contact such as scabies. Longitudinal studies show that overcrowded housing dramatically increases the odds that young children will develop severe ill health in later life.

We know, too, about the emotional effect on families. There is good evidence that it causes developmental delays in babies and young children. The stress of sharing bedrooms leads to tension and an increase in the breakdown of family relationships. That can result in an increase in homelessness among the teenage children of families in overcrowded homes. Overcrowding contributes to homelessness; it does not compete with it. It also has a large impact on education. If children do not have quiet space in which to do homework and their sleep is often interrupted, they are less able to concentrate at school. They then perform badly, and have behavioural problems. Consequently, their educational attainment suffers by comparison with that of children who are not from overcrowded homes.

The problem is clear, well known and well documented, and it is growing. Why has it reached this point? Overcrowding was, by most measures, in decline until the early 1990s. It is linked to a reduction in the availability of affordable housing of all types, which happened because the right-to-buy policy decimated the council housing stock and also, where there were preserved rights, that of registered social landlords. Perhaps more worryingly for the Government, the number of new social houses built has declined since 1997. The housing and planning research centre estimates that between 83,000 and 99,000 affordable homes need to be built every year in order to meet demand. Even if we add together Housing Corporation-approved development grant, the effect of the transitional arrangement on the local authority social housing grant and houses from planning gain, about 50,000 homes will be built in the next 12 months, which will meet half of the estimated need. The shortfall will be at least 33,000 homes and will probably be more like 50,000 homes.

Those are the problems. What are their solutions? All hon. Members who have spoken have rightly said that the housing Bill is an excellent opportunity to introduce a modern statutory definition of overcrowding such as that outlined in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Edmonton. If I have the privilege of serving on the Committee that considers the housing Bill, I will try to ensure that such a definition is brought forward.

I understand that Ministers have some difficulties with a new definition. The Minister for Housing and Planning has said that the definition cannot be modernised in the housing Bill because such matters cannot be raised in isolation from other factors. Some of the current proposals would have the effect of imposing a quite unrealistic demand on the resources of the local authorities and diverting them from the excellent decent homes programme and their responsibilities to homeless families, who often live in far worse conditions than overcrowded households."—[Official Report, 22 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 631.]

I have some sympathy with his views.

There is a way to deal with the problem. We could put a definition in the Bill with a sunrise clause stating the number of years before the new standard is implemented, which would give the Government breathing space in which to commit extra resources or to deliver extra affordable homes to allow the standard's introduction not to cause perverse effects. No one in the Chamber wants a new definition to cause perverse effects.

If the Minister for Housing and Planning is arguing that the definition should not be included in the Bill because it will immediately cause perverse effects, a sunrise clause is a possible solution that he should examine seriously.

Ms Keeble

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that overcrowded families often become homeless, which is one way out of their problems?

Matthew Green

I accept that. The current definitions also cause perverse effects. I am attempting to give Ministers a means by which they can accept a new definition without causing themselves problems.

The supply of affordable homes lies at the heart of the matter. Every time an affordable home is built, it has a double effect on reducing overcrowding. If some people are moved out of an overcrowded home, the problem is solved for two households.

The Government are not doing enough on supply, and the answer involves more than throwing more money at the system. Planning gain is one of the major ways in which we can deliver more affordable homes. The hon. Member for St. Albans discussed a site in his area that contains 30 per cent. affordable homes. I say, "Well done," but that is not going far enough.

Mr. Pollard

It is 35 per cent.

Matthew Green

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that correction.

In some parts of the country—for example, my constituency—local authorities have made that figure 50 per cent. on sites containing two or more houses. One problem is that the Government's guideline suggests applying the percentage rule to sites containing 19 or more houses. We must apply that percentage throughout the country. Given the growth in house prices, there is sufficient affordability in the system for planning gain to deliver the extra houses. The Government must be stronger in driving through a higher percentage on all sites to ensure that planning gain is recovered from the system. We need not only a few local authorities situated here and there doing that but large numbers of them in high-demand areas. Otherwise, developers will avoid developing in one area and shift across to the next one. That is where the Government can have a significant impact.

Mr. Love

Indeed, the Mayor of London carried out a detailed study on the matter. It showed that a 50 per cent. target was feasible in many parts of inner London, but other parts of inner London and parts of outer London could not sustain such a target. I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments, but success will depend on the region.

Matthew Green

The proposal would be sustainable in south Shropshire. I suspect that the study should be reviewed.

Finally, we must give councils the choice to scrap the right to buy in their areas, because we must stop the decline of social housing. The Government have taken some action, but they have not gone far enough. Give councils power to replace the right to buy with a right to invest in social housing. That will inject more capital into the registered social landlord sector and provide more affordable housing.

3.10 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

This has been an excellent debate. I congratulate the hon. Members for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King). It is a pity that we did not hear from the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love). I congratulate him on his Housing (Overcrowding) Bill, his persistence as chairman of the all-party homelessness and housing need group and the work that he has done on the subject. It is common ground among us all that something must be done about the problem.

I came across an interesting article by James Gleeson and Maya Martinez. The headline conclusion was that London has three times the overcrowding problems of elsewhere in England, with one in 20 households now affected, according to 2001 census data. There is doubt about whether the census data understate the scale of the problem in London, but they do make the point that while the problem is getting worse in London, it is probably getting marginally better in the rest of the country. The article comes up with a shocking statement that although only 2 per cent. of white families in London live in overcrowded conditions, for ethnic minority households the figure is over 14 per cent.—climbing to around 25 per cent for some Asian groups. The point has already been made about the severe effect on children. We know that the problems of families who are homeless or living in overcrowded conditions are, in some instances, becoming much worse. Indeed, in his excellent speech in the House to introduce his Bill, the hon. Member for Edmonton said that until the late 1980s, the number of overcrowded households fell steadily year on year. In the past decade, the acute shortage of affordable accommodation has meant that many families have found themselves severely overcrowded but with little possibility of a move to larger, better-quality, family-sized accommodation. He went on to say that 500,000 households are overcrowded, of which about a third are in the capital. Those figures have already been given by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green).

The hon. Member for Edmonton then made the point that I have just made about child overcrowding. He stated: Many families experience severe effects on their health, welfare and well-being as a result of overcrowding. According to recent research, there is a high prevalence of skin disorders and infectious diseases. Owing to a lack of space, children are at much greater risk of having accidents, and the stress of living in such cramped conditions can place a severe strain on family relationships."—[Official Report, 22 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 323-4.] I am sure that we all totally agree with that. The question is: what is to be done?

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow rightly asked the following question: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister on how many occasions since 1985 he has (a) received a report from a local housing authority and (b) directed a local housing authority to prepare and submit a report on the extent of overcrowding in their district, under section 334 of the Housing Act 1985".—[Official Report, 19 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 956W.] I am sorry to get slightly technical, but it is important to recognise that there are powers under section 334 of the Housing Act 1985, which allow local authorities to undertake a survey of overcrowding in their area, draw up a report for the Secretary of State on the nature and extent of the problem and make proposals to provide the required number of dwellings. No reports appear to have been drawn up or submitted to the Secretary of State since those provisions were consolidated, and no Government have taken specific action to address the housing needs of those in overcrowded accommodation.

We need to take action to know the extent and scale of the problem. I hope that one outcome of today's debate will be the Minister telling us that she is taking real action to secure concrete data on the problem so that we know where it exists, how severe it is and which houses do not meet the 1985 standards, let alone the English housing condition survey standards. We need to have a handle on the problem, and once we have, as the hon. Member for Ludlow rightly said, we need to introduce primary legislation that will enable the Secretary of State by regulation to introduce a standard that can be incorporated over a period of time according to what resources are available.

We also need to apply that to the private sector. In making these remarks, I am conscious that whatever we do with the private sector, we need to encourage more private sector investment in the residential sector. That is an important way of being able to produce more affordable homes. On page 17 of the report on overcrowding from the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, it is stated: Proportionately more private rented homes are in poor condition than in the other housing sectors. Ownership is highly fragmented: most landlords rent out only one or very few homes, and have little chance to become expert property managers. Many turn to letting agents for help but agents' standards of confidence and probity vary greatly. We have to think very carefully about how we are to deal with the private sector to help it to overcome such problems.

Although the Select Committee dealt with overcrowding and recommended a standard, the Government do not seem to have responded. The report was excellent, and it is an excellent way of going about our business to have the housing Bill subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny in that way. I quote what the report says on overcrowding at paragraph 32: Clauses 123-128 amend existing legislation on overcrowding in HMOs. Oona King MP's memorandum noted the effects of overcrowding on the health, welfare, education and employment prospects of occupiers. Yet as we heard from Shelter the problems caused by overcrowding outside of HMOs cannot be identified by the HHSRS"— the housing health and safety rating system.

The report continues: We recommend that the Government take forward Shelter's recommendation that the Bill be used to modernise the current statutory overcrowding standards. Members on both sides have suggested that the Bill could be an ideal opportunity to address the problem. We need to hear from the Minister whether it will be so used. If not, I do not think that we can wait another 18 years. The standards—or, at least, the mechanisms for gaining an indication of what the problem is—were laid down in the 1985 Act. We look to the Government for action on the problem. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. A Division has been called in the parent Chamber so we will suspend for a maximum, I hope, of 15 minutes. However, if participants in the debate return within that time we can start early, as soon as they are assembled.

3.17 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.29 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We have lost 12 minutes, so we need to award 12 minutes' injury time.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I feel rather like a contestant on "Just a Minute" when the whistle has blown meaning that I have 10 seconds left. In those 10 seconds, I shall just quickly sum up what I think needs to be done.

We must introduce more measures to encourage the private sector to invest in its existing housing and new housing. We need more measures to encourage the public sector to build more affordable houses, and in that respect we have already produced proposals to extend the right to buy. We need to deal with the problem of empty houses. Mention has been made of 750,000 empty houses. We need to deal with the powers that we have in the 1985 Act and part 7 of the Local Government Act 2003 in order to require local authorities to draw up housing strategies that include the issue of overcrowding. We should require regional housing boards to give priority to tackling overcrowding in developing the housing investment strategy. These recommendations come from Shelter.

A new housing poverty indicator should be developed as part of the Government's measurement of child poverty and that should include an overcrowding element. Overcrowding should be included among the indicators used for the index of local deprivation. I appeal to the Minister to tell us how a new definition could be introduced into the Bill, over what time scale it could be introduced and how much it would cost. The Government have been addressing the problem for some time. Now is the time, if I may say so to the Minister, for action.

3.31 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) for securing the debate on this issue. When she was a housing Minister, she took a close interest in the matter. It is an area on which a series of hon. Members have spoken, drawing on considerable expertise, as well as constituency experience. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has agreed to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issues. I am sure that we shall discuss the issues further, and we shall respond in due course to the Select Committee's report, to which hon. Members have referred.

We have to recognise that overcrowding can cause serious problems for families. My hon. Friend referred to examples concerning children unable to do their homework. Hon. Members referred to health problems, family relationship problems, significant traumas and stress that can arise, and, particularly those from London, described the circumstances of their constituents. My hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) referred to examples from their constituencies of distressing cases of overcrowding.

It is estimated on the basis of the 1935 measures that 25,000 households are statutorily overcrowded. On the bedroom standard used by the survey of English housing, an estimated 2 per cent. of households—about 500,000—would qualify as overcrowded, mostly in the social housing sector.

Mr. Love

My hon. Friend mentioned that those were estimates of statutory overcrowding and overcrowding according to a more liberal standard. Would she give consideration to the Department's carrying out some more focused research into the levels of overcrowding and the impact that it has on all of the issues that we have discussed, such as health and education?

Yvette Cooper

I am happy to consider research issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) has done a great deal of work as part of his research for his private Member's Bill. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government try not to overburden local authorities with the collection of data, given the amount of data that they already have to provide.

The Government know that a significant number of overcrowded households are in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North was right to say that it is different in other parts of the country. London has specific housing problems. We must recognise that there is a problem but be very honest about how we address it. Overcrowding is not an isolated problem; it is often a symptom of wider problems, such as under-supply of affordable housing, as many hon. Members have said.

Families may be living in cramped conditions because they cannot afford to move to a larger flat or home, or because the demand for social housing is too great and too many other families are waiting for a home. They may be homeless families, or families in bed-and-breakfast or temporary accommodation. Overcrowding is part of the more significant problem of housing supply, which must be addressed, in London in particular.

Homelessness acceptances are another aspect of the same problem. They have increased to almost 31,000 in London. Bed-and-breakfast numbers have been reduced as a result of specific action taken by local authorities to address the problem of families stuck in cramped and inappropriate accommodation. It is one of the most severe aspects of the London housing problem. We must recognise that overcrowding is part of a wider issue, which involves meeting the decent homes target.

The underlying problem is the need for affordable housing supply, particularly in the capital. That is why the sustainable communities plan set out a major investment programme expanding the provision of affordable housing in London and the south-east. The Government have established investment programmes in housing supply across the board with 200,000 homes in addition to those already planned. There has also been significant investment to increase the number of affordable homes, supporting the London Housing Board strategy of investment in key worker homes.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) raised the issue of planning gain. We are keen to use planning gain to expand the numbers of affordable housing units. That is why we are considering further section 106 agreements and consulting on empty homes, which was an issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard).

We have the wider Kate Barker review—

Matthew Green


Yvette Cooper

I am aware of the lack of time, so if hon. Members will allow me to make progress, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if I have time.

Overall, £5 billion will be invested in affordable housing between 2003–04 and 2005–06. That is double the investment in 1997. As hon. Members have said, the matter is partly about resources. The Government are substantially increasing the investment in affordable housing across the capital and the south-east.

Improvements are being made to the most extreme aspects of the problem. Rough sleeping has been reduced by two thirds and there have been significant reductions in the number of homeless families with children who are in bed-and- breakfast accommodation. We must consider how we address all aspects of the problem—temporary accommodation, homelessness, houses not meeting the decent homes standard, and overcrowding.

Ms Oona King

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Yvette Cooper

If I can specifically address the issues concerning overcrowding raised by hon. Members and if I have time, I will give way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North specifically asked for changes to the statutory definition of overcrowding. It is not acceptable to defend a 1935 definition of overcrowding that is out of date. I have some sympathy with many of the points that hon. Members have raised.

I want briefly to explain the Department's concern about the proposals that have been made. We are investing resources in the London housing problem as fast as we are able. Changing the overcrowding standards will not create any extra homes or expand the housing supply any faster. The concern is that to set statutory definitions at a particular level would be to divert resources away from addressing the issue of bed-and-breakfasts, the homelessness problem and the wider problem of decent homes. As we invest in the London housing market, we need to ensure that, as well as tackling problems surrounding the bed-and-breakfasts and homelessness, we tackle overcrowding problems. We need to consider further how we can ensure that overcrowding is addressed alongside bed-and-breakfasts and homelessness.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will the Minister give way?

Yvette Cooper

I am conscious that I have just one more minute. I am willing to respond further after the debate, but I want to make some final points.

We recognise the strengths of hon. Members' arguments. As we try to expand the affordable housing supply in London and the south-east, we must recognise the needs of all the different groups. We will be having further discussions about these issues over the next few months. Our approach has been to say that all the issues should be addressed together as part of local homelessness and housing strategies. We need to consider further how overcrowding is addressed as part of those strategies. Certainly, putting those strategies on a statutory footing will strengthen the case for that.

We are also considering the matter as part of the housing health and safety rating system. I recognise that hon. Members have raised concerns about that, but it is important to bring overcrowding into the health and safety system in a stronger way than before. The guidance to local authorities will make it clear that, for example, GP or hospital referrals will be relevant to the hazard assessment. I recognise that there is considerable concern from hon. Members about the matter, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning and I will have continued discussions with them.

I hope that I have explained the Government's concerns on the issue and I congratulate hon. Members again on raising such important questions. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thought for one moment, as I was coughing, that we were going to have a by-election as well as a leadership election. Hon. Members must forgive me. I feel fine now.