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5.41 pm

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on their new appointments. Assiduously arguing the importance of housing and of preventing homelessness has clearly ensured that the Bill is the first that the House considers after the long debate on the Queen's Speech. When I was campaigning in the general election, I found that homelessness was an issue of particular importance here in London. At this point, I should declare an interest: I am a member of the Mayor of London's cabinet and his adviser on homelessness.

One point that the Bill brings to the fore is that the prevention of homelessness is not exclusively a question of bricks and mortar. The multi-strategy approach inherent in the Bill will prove vital in tackling homelessness, which is particularly prevalent in London. It will also ensure that rough sleepers who can be persuaded to come in off the street are kept off the street. I pay tribute to the Government for funding the rough sleepers unit initiative and to the work that that initiative has done in London. It is entirely possible that the unit will reach its target of reducing the number of people who have nowhere to sleep other than the pavements and shop doorways of this great capital city by two thirds by 2002.

In the London context at least, the number of rough sleepers pales into insignificance when compared with the number of those who are deemed to be "hidden homeless". The most recent assessment puts the number of hidden homeless as high as 160,000. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), mentioned the number of people in temporary housing and bed-and- breakfast accommodation. The most recent figures for London show almost 48,000 families in temporary housing and almost 8,000 people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

The issue is clearly of enormous importance, but there is little point in any Government—certainly not a radical, reforming Government such as ours—attempting to tackle homelessness unless they also tackle the other basic problems that deny the citizens of this country equal opportunities: poverty, ill health and the inadequacies of our education system. I should point out to the Conservatives that it was they who left us to tackle those problems. I found it incomprehensible that the hon. Member for Eastbourne should ask why the Government had not solved the problem of homelessness in their first four years. He neatly side-stepped the real issue, for which he should have been apologising in spades. Conservative Governments, after almost two decades, left us with appalling problems, not least in social housing.

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When the Conservative Government came to office in 1979, London boroughs were building affordable social housing at the rate, on average, of 15,000 units a year. When Labour came into office in 1997, I believe that only one property had been built in the Greater London area by a local authority. That was the direct result of Conservative Government policies. There was no mention of the number of families who became homeless because of Conservative party economic policies when they lost their houses because they could no longer keep up with the mortgage payments.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Bill looks to the future, not the past. It behoves us as a radical and reforming Government, with a clear commitment to the idea of affordable social housing, to learn from the disastrous mistakes of disastrous Conservative Governments and place, as the Bill clearly does, housing at the top of the agendas of local authorities and the Government.

Poor housing creates ill health. It reduces the ability of young children to learn. It can affect the ability of people to re-skill themselves and therefore to earn for themselves and their families a decent living wage. Housing is essential in delivering on other major strands of social reform, which is the Government's clear commitment.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made the salient point that many people who are homeless are suffering from mental illness. The point was accepted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in terms of the multi-agency approach to tackling and preventing homelessness.

When local authorities begin to set in train their homelessness strategies, I sincerely hope that they will not regard the approach as being limited either to the housing officer or to the director of social services. There must be links with health departments, and in many instances they should go much broader than the remit of a local authority. There should be links with basic education, with further and higher education and with the many programmes that are already being put in place by the voluntary sector that relate to affording homeless people meaningful occupations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred this morning to his visit to the Passage and to Sister Ellen and her remarkable band of volunteers. Their work is extraordinarily valuable. I feel confident that he would not wish to say that the Passage was the only place in London where sterling work is being done.

Only this morning, I visited one of the hostels run by St. Mungo's, which is situated in Kingsway. Programmes at that hostel are designed to help many young people to develop skills. They were not given the necessary encouragement or the straightforward training to develop skills when they were at school. Of course, they were at school under a Conservative regime. It is hardly to be wondered at that they left school with so few skills to enable them to create a life for themselves in the wider world.

By taking a multi-agency approach, we can begin to tackle a problem that no nation as rich as ours in the 21st century should have to face. However, we do have to face it, and the multi-agency approach is right. The clear commitment given by the Government and the vast amounts of money being poured into the creation of social housing are the way forward. We will not be able to

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transform the situation overnight and no single agency can tackle the issue. However, if we accept that all the agencies must work together, with a clearly defined goal to eradicate for ever poor housing and, certainly, homelessness, much can be achieved.

That will be achieved only by central and local government working together, by the public and private sectors working together and by the statutory and voluntary sectors working together. Again, in the London context, we hope that local authorities will be able to involve the private rented sector in a continuing relationship that will ensure that families are taken out of appalling bed-and-breakfast accommodation. No child should have to sleep next door to someone who is severely mentally damaged or suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, where the only division between them is not even a lath and plaster wall but often something that a violent fist could easily come through. It is no use pretending that that can be achieved and that affordable housing for all can be provided unless there are careful partnerships, and careful understanding by those who decide where people will live. There must be genuine consideration of who the neighbours are.

We have heard much about neighbours from hell. Every hon. Member could cite a constituency case involving a neighbour from hell—[Interruption.] Not everybody lives next door to a Member of Parliament; hon. Members should not be quite so quick to castigate themselves. The issue can certainly be complicated. For example, what does a local authority do when people who own their own property object to people who are moved in next door because they have been harassed on the ground that they do not like the colour of the incomers' skin? The local authorities with which I have dealt are clear that they will not tolerate or indulge that kind of malice by neighbours.

There are other cases in which, for example, a woman has to move from her home because of domestic violence. However, that means that her children have to move from their local school and she has to move away from the supportive circle of friends and family. Quite often, she has to move a considerable distance. In one case, which I have mentioned in the Chamber before, the perpetrator of domestic violence was prevented from going within a certain distance of his partner and her family. However, his brothers took over the job and decided that it was their duty to harass and even physically attack my constituent. The issue involves many complex matters.

Tony Baldry: One thing that concerns me—and I declare an interest as a lawyer—is that it is now practically impossible for many of our constituents to get access to the courts. In the case to which the hon. Lady referred, it would be possible, as it was in the past, to get an injunction at the county court to restrain individuals themselves, their agents or servants that would have prevented the brothers from taking such action. I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House, who see constituents at their surgeries, find increasingly that vulnerable, inarticulate people are obliged to represent themselves in the county court in eviction and other proceedings and, not surprisingly, find it difficult.

Glenda Jackson: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, but I can look only at the example of my own local authority; no such individual would be without some form of advocacy if he or she were in that situation, as there

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is close working between the authority's relevant bodies. However, I do not claim that all local authorities are such shining examples.

I am a believer in short, sharp speeches in the Chamber, and the hon. Gentleman has brought me neatly to my final point: we must not lose sight of the fact that the most vulnerable people in our society can be some of the most unpleasant, difficult and, in some instances, the most violent and hardest to reach. They can be the most obdurate and they dislike and fear authority in any shape or form; they are not the easiest people to deal with. However, it is surely our responsibility as a civilised society to ensure that, in any strategy proposed by a local authority or consortium of local authorities, the needs of those people will be considered and, in future, adequately met. Otherwise, there will simply be a revolving door of people being taken off the streets, put in the wrong kind of situation, denied the right kind of social interchange and going back on the streets.

I shall end where I began by welcoming the commitment that is symbolised by the Bill being the first of the Session to be debated on the Floor of the House; I wish it well in its passage.

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