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Like many other hon. Members speaking in this debate, I should like to deal specifically with one part of the Bill. I shall concentrate on part II, on homelessness. As hon. Members have made clear, we all think that homelessness--particularly of non-intentional rough sleepers--is a dreadful blight on any society that is as rich as ours. Anything that will alleviate that problem, at least in part, has to be welcomed.
As other hon. Members have also said, homelessness is very rarely a simple problem, but is usually the product of a series of personal, medical, financial and social problems. Usually, homeless people have not "a problem" but a series of interlinking problems, each of which has to be dealt with on an individual basis. I question whether the sum of £8 million that is mentioned in the explanatory notes is sufficient to enable local authorities to deal with those problems. It is wrong for Parliament to place a duty on local authorities but not to provide sufficient resources for them to perform that duty.
The Bill makes it clear that local authorities have a leadership role to play in solving our homelessness problem. The solution is a matter of implementing specific policies within a wider housing strategy. However, local authorities are able to formulate such policies and strategy, as their corporate structure includes social services, education and youth services and their own housing departments.
Local authorities are also able to work with partners. My own local authority has a very good record of working in housing forums with partners such as registered social landlords and private sector landlords. However, I do not think that such partnerships offer a panacea to all our housing problems. Registered social landlords themselves can cause problems. Many of them are quite small-scale landlords and do not have the critical mass necessary to employ sufficient of those with the experience and expertise to deal with difficult tenants. Quite often, a registered social landlord works not with one local authority but with various local authorities, each of which has only a minority of the registered social landlord's housing stock. Such arrangements can cause problems for local councils in co-ordinating the implementation of their housing strategy.
I doubt that any hon. Member has not had problems with bad private sector landlords. Such landlords take money from people who are usually on housing benefit and put them into houses, but then provide no management of the property or assistance to the tenants. Subsequently, tenants go to their Member of Parliament or local authority representative to try to find a solution to a problem that often has been caused by a lack of management skills. It is a problem that we have to try to solve.
The Bill recognises that local authorities are vital in solving the problem of homelessness. As I said, local authority departments are able to work corporately. They also have the political overview that is necessary to solve the problems that arise in implementing their housing strategy. Most local authorities, and particularly those with housing stress areas, own and manage their own stock. It is essential that local authorities should, if they wish, be able to continue to do that.
In the past 20 years, we have had terrible problems, which were ably highlighted by hon. Members, because of reductions in housing subsidy and overall investment. Those reductions have now been reversed. All Labour Members welcome the £5 billion from the right-to-buy sales that has been reinvested in local authority housing. An increase is planned in the maintenance and renewals allowance. Money will also come from rent restructuring, and it is important that local authorities have the ability to keep that money. There cannot be a return to the "daylight robbery" that took place under the previous Government, by that or any other name.
In a recently published MORI poll of local authority tenants, 75 per cent. wanted to keep the local authority as their landlord. Less than 10 per cent. were seeking a different sort of landlord, and those cases usually involved housing problems caused by an earlier lack of investment, rather than by the present housing management. It would be grossly unfair if rent rationalisation and equalisation between registered social landlords and local authorities meant that registered social landlords were allowed to keep all the rent that they received, while the local authority, receiving a similar rent for a similar property, had its income capped by means of a reduction in subsidy or even a negative subsidy.
The Government have a policy of encouraging large-scale voluntary transfers, where there is consent by the tenants. Consent is the important factor. Neither the tenants nor Labour Members would understand or support a situation in which that consent was skewed by the fact that the only way to obtain the necessary amount of money for continued investment was by a move to a large-scale voluntary transfer. We cannot have a situation in which remaining with a local authority results in financial penalties. Local authorities have an important role to play in the development of homelessness strategies and housing strategies. They need the finances to achieve those aims, both in terms of their general rate fund finances and of the housing investment programme and moneys from rent. If that can be achieved, we shall make progress towards solving homelessness and ensuring that this is the first of a series of Bills to ensure that housing is finally put on a decent basis, and that decent homes can be provided for everyone in the country.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): It is a pleasure to take part in a debate on housing, particularly as housing has been such an important part of my political life. I spent many years serving on Westminster city council, and I remember only too well the famous minute of a meeting involving the then director of housing, during the days of Dame Shirley Porter, which required the local authority to be mean and nasty to the homeless.
I find it hard to be moved by Opposition Members who, when talking about homelessness, take out an onion and weep about the increase in homelessness in recent years. That increase has undoubtedly happened, and I shall return to that matter later. Opposition Members forget the shameful record of their own years in government, when there were 1,000 repossessions a week and the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation soared to a record high in the late 1980s, before asylum seekers and other reasons for increased demand even entered the picture. The Opposition also oppose all reasonable attempts to increase the supply of housebuilding in the south-east and elsewhere. Relative to need, that is indeed the case.
The Government have recognised the importance of housing across the board. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) lamented the narrow scope of the Bill--wrongly, I believe, because it is only part of the story. There has already been a doubling of housing investment in the comprehensive spending review, a commitment to tackle the repairs backlog over 10 years, and the use of substandard housing as one of the indicators for the Government's commitment to reduce the number of children living in poverty. There has also been a recent initiative by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security to tackle a number of the problems that have plagued the housing benefit system. In addition, the Bill contains an overdue and very welcome commitment to remove the arbitrary and unfair two-year limit on the housing duty towards homeless families.
I also warmly welcome the proposed duty on local government to formulate a comprehensive strategy aimed at preventing homelessness, and the review of the letting process to increase choice and flexibility. That will work most effectively in areas of low housing demand, especially in the north of England, but it may also be a valuable tool for authorities and housing associations in areas of high demand.
I commend the work done by Camden council and by Notting Hill housing trust, which work in areas of exceptionally high demand but still believe that a take it or leave it approach to housing allocation is wrong. Even those in the most desperate and urgent housing need have a right, where possible, to exercise some choice over where they are to spend a considerable part of their life. There may be a need to review the performance indicators, particularly in respect of housing voids, if we are to allow authorities the flexibility that they will require.
The Government are right to recognise the frustrations of single people who are not currently defined as in priority need and who are effectively disqualified from access to housing, especially in the south. I deal with people in that situation almost every day: adult children wanting to leave the family home; people in the private rented sector; partners leaving the marital home after a relationship breakdown.
The London Housing Commission, of which I was proud to be a member, estimated that there were 34,000 single homeless people in London alone. Their situation is becoming increasingly hopeless. To take one example from my current case load, Amanda has been registered with Westminster city council for 10 years and last autumn faced becoming homeless when her grandfather
Even for those with the greatest need and vulnerability, the situation in London is the worst that I have ever known, trapping families with children with physical and mental health problems in deeply unsuitable conditions and leaving no room whatever for the important but less needy group of single people.
There are nearly 50,000 families in temporary accommodation in London. That is expensive and unsuitable, and it is almost impossible for families in that situation to work, because of the high rents charged and the difficulties associated with housing benefit.
In 1884, a royal commission on the housing of the working classes discovered that eight people to a room was commonplace in the "pestilential human rookeries" of London slums. The worst that I have found is 10 people in a two-bedroom flat in a Conservative-controlled council area in the last days of the Conservative Government--but things are still pretty bad now.
Desmond is the father of a family of seven sharing a two-bedroom flat in the borough that has been their home for 20 years. His children are doing well at school and college, but he will have to move out of London to stand any chance of being rehoused. One of his young children was recently diagnosed with tuberculosis, so he can draw the dubious comfort of having extra points because it is recognised that overcrowding can exacerbate the spread of TB. My London colleagues and I deal with such cases every day of the week.
Why has the situation become so bad? The number of people accepted as homeless and in priority need has grown, but it is still 10,000 below the peak of the early 1990s. The shortfall in supply, rather than the increase in demand, is at the heart of the problem: supply is down by 11 per cent. this year, with 10,000 fewer properties to let than last year.
That is the consequence of a bottleneck in housing supply that has developed over two decades, and a decrease in supply from turnover linked to high house prices. It is no coincidence that the number of first-time buyers fell by a half last year. Blaming the problem on the homeless, including asylum seekers, as Opposition Members have done in the past week, is not only deeply unpleasant but simply wrong. We do not need an approach to homelessness rooted in blame and prejudice. We need practical solutions, and that is what the Government are providing. If the Conservatives genuinely want to express their distress at the suffering of homeless people, they will join us in offering practical support.
We need not only to implement the policies in the Bill, but to hang them on specific targets--such as a target for meeting housing need, similar to the existing target for tackling the backlog of disrepair in council housing. There should also be a national target of eliminating the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for all but short-term emergencies, and reducing the use of temporary accommodation across the board. We can do that.
The focus in the Government's early years was a much needed improvement in substandard housing stock; now the focus must also be on increasing supply, especially if we are to meet the needs of new groups that have been brought into the priority categories of homelessness.
A recognition of the cost of housing in central London is essential, especially if we are to create larger, family-sized homes. It cannot be acceptable that in one London borough the average wait for homeless families wanting four-bedroom accommodation is six years. We should support the effective use of planning powers to increase the supply of affordable homes, as recommended by the London Housing Commission.
As well as increasing the supply of social rented housing, schemes to promote low-cost home ownership are welcome, whether they involve subsidised mortgages, shared equity or shared ownership. The provision of low-cost home ownership needs to address wider housing needs than those of key workers alone. In the past 18 months, Westminster city council has sold 50 shared ownership properties, but only 13 of them to people in housing need categories. If shared ownership is to make a real contribution, it must be made more affordable and be geared, in part at least, to meeting wider housing need, as well as that of workers essential to London's economy. As the council's housing supply manager pointed out, reduction of the minimum equity share by 5 per cent. is helpful, but of limited assistance in a market that has typically seen house prices rise by 40 per cent. over the past year.
The proposals in the Bill, together with the welcome additional investment in housing set out in the comprehensive spending review, will underpin the Government's commitment and make it possible to provide respect and dignity for homeless people, to offer them the chance of a permanent house, and to give everyone in this country the chance to live in a decent, affordable home.