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8.37 pm

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution to the important debate on the Homelessness Bill. I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) for a truly first-class maiden speech—we have heard several of them today.

During the recent election, I, like many other candidates, held public meetings almost every night in my constituency, and I debated with my opposing candidates on four separate occasions. On one of those occasions, at the instigation of Churches Together, the questions that we were asked included whether we would back the immediate re-introduction of the Homes Bill. I am happy to record that all four candidates said that they would welcome the re-introduction of that Bill. I am privileged to be the one candidate of those four who is able to fulfil that undertaking today—no longer the Member of Parliament with the lowest Labour majority, but the Member of Parliament with the 36th highest Labour vote.

Homelessness is an evil that has no place in modern society, yet like all hon. Members I have seen sights in this country, and especially in this city, that shame all of us. Although there seems to be unanimity among the parties that that is a scourge and a cancer that we must tackle with all the weaponry that we can bring to bear, it was not always thus.

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Although I am now a Member of Parliament for a Northamptonshire seat, I cut my political teeth in inner London. I became a Camden councillor in 1990, at a time when, across the border in Conservative Westminster, certain councillors were talking of being cruel and nasty to the homeless—and homeless there were, many of them.

I lived at that time in Arlington road, just down the road from Arlington House, which was then and perhaps still is the biggest homeless persons' hostel in Europe. For one year I served on the board of management of that hostel. My council ward was the Brunswick ward, host to the architecturally celebrated Brunswick centre. Above ground at the centre was a shopping centre, a cinema, a club and flats housing several hundred people. Below ground, however, there was a carpark housing dozens of homeless people. After a surgery one Friday evening, representatives of the local residents association took me into that carpark to see for myself that subterranean housing estate. It was a site viewing that lasted only five minutes, made physically unbearable by the stench of urine. Residents had to park their cars there, and the homeless had to sleep there.

Down the road from my ward was Lincoln's Inn Fields, next door to the Inn of Court where I had dined with Law Lords to be called as a barrister a few years earlier. It was also home to dozens if not hundreds of homeless people. If they were not in Lincoln's Inn, they were underneath the arches of Waterloo, littering every doorway in the Strand or hanging around hopefully outside amusement arcades in Leicester square, hoping just for a punter for their prostitution.

Some of them were the hardened homeless, on the road for years; some may have even been exercising a freedom of choice to live that way; but many were the victims of the then Tory Government. Some were indirectly caught by the side wind of disastrous economic policies—the booms, the recessions, the mass unemployment, the negative equity, the repossessions and the widening gulf between north and south.

The then Government's influence on the homelessness of others, especially youngsters, was even more direct. The Tories closed down short-stay accommodation in, for example, Covent Garden, but they never replaced it. They also withdrew benefits from 16 to 18-year-olds except for those in the most exceptional and extremely vulnerable circumstances, so that even youngsters fleeing from abusive homes or abusive parents could find themselves unaided and forced into homelessness by the very Government to whom they should have been looking for protection.

The result of all of that was that, at the tail end of the Thatcher Administration, 140,000 people were homeless—140,000 scars on the modern history of this nation. The homelessness figure peaked in 1990, since when there have been steady decreases, but the decreases have been nowhere near fast enough. Moreover, the decreases seem only very rarely to have been due to concerted Government action to tackle homelessness as a key political priority.

During the Major Administration, when numbers fell to 116,000, the decrease was due to external factors, not to deliberate Government action. Indeed, the principal initiative of the then Government moved in entirely the wrong direction if the objective was to rid the nation of homelessness. With their Housing Act 1996, the Tories

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voted not to limit but to extend the definition of those considered to be intentionally homeless, to whom lesser housing duties were therefore owed. That made it more difficult for them to be rehoused, not easier.

With the same Act, the Tories legislated to reduce to the giving of mere advice the assistance to which even the unintentionally homeless in priority need were entitled if there was deemed to be suitable accommodation in their area. That, too, made it more difficult for them to be rehoused.

With the same Act, the Tories legislated to reduce, where it still remained, the duty to secure accommodation to a duty to secure it for just two years. Once again, the Administration made it more difficult, not easier, for the homeless to find the permanent home that they needed. However, even that was not enough. Having already presided over the general withdrawal of benefits from under-18s in the late 1980s, in 1996 the then Government further restricted housing benefit for under-25s to the average rent for shared accommodation, to single-room rent, so that no under-25s were entitled to independent accommodation, however vulnerable their circumstances. All would have to share with strangers.

So when the Labour Government came to power in 1997, we inherited not only 116,000 or so homeless people but a legislative regime and a benefits system that were designed to make things tough for the homeless. It is that regime which the Homelessness Bill—and, before the general election, the Homes Bill—is attempting to address. The Bill is a belated but welcome response to that regime.

The Bill is a belated response. Although it has been introduced early in this Parliament, it was introduced so late in the previous one that, despite the size of our majority, we could not pass it. That delay was unfortunate because the scale of the homelessness problem was huge when we assumed power and remained huge throughout the entirety of our first term. The number of households accepted as homeless and in priority need still stands at about 110,000.

The problem is particularly acute in London. I described earlier the manifestations of homelessness as of the 1990s, but little has changed. The same manifestations are here now; the beggars and the bedraggled are still with us, on the streets, in shop doorways and in London Underground access tunnels. It is not just the rough sleepers who are still with us, or those without a roof over their head, but those whose roof is not their own, but a friend's; those whose roof is not of a flat or house, but of a car; those whose roof may be of a house or flat, but one that is substandard, overcrowded or unfit for occupation.

In one outer-London borough of which I have some knowledge, the supply of affordable housing to meet housing demand is so inadequate that even if no one else applied for housing in that borough for the foreseeable future, it would take three years to make one offer of housing to every registered homeless family in temporary accommodation and four years to make one offer of housing to every tenant in housing need—and that is if nobody new came on to the housing register. That borough receives 300 homelessness applications every month and nearly 200 more applications a month to join

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the housing register. As matters stand, many of those applicants have no realistic prospect of ever receiving an offer of a suitable home.

Although the problem is clearly focused on London and the other cities, it exists elsewhere. In my constituency—leafy, middle England, and a rural area with 17 villages and 70 farms—I frequently see at my surgery those who present themselves as homeless: the lorry driver from Rushden whose relationship collapsed and who was sleeping in the cab of his lorry and had been doing so for months; the youngster on a programme for the Prince's Trust who was looking forward to his stay at the residential home for the disabled where he was to be a helper because it meant that he, too, had a bed to sleep in; the family who had been forced to waste their last pennies on hotel rooms as different local authorities passed them on, one to the other, until they had no money left; and several couples with children, evicted because of arrears, who could not then obtain either a reference or a deposit to live somewhere else.

That amounts to a reservoir of housing need in this city and throughout the country with which we now must deal. We are doing so, but later than we should. The Bill is a belated response; it could have come earlier, but it is none the less welcome. It is welcome because it deals with some of the obvious errors of the past decade and, in particular, the Housing Act 1996.

I particularly welcome four features of the Bill. First, it requires authorities to take a strategic multi-agency approach to the prevention of homelessness and the rehousing of homeless households. That is clearly right. Secondly, the Bill abolishes the current two-year period during which authorities are subject to the main homelessness duty. Again, that must be right. Thirdly, the Bill gives authorities a new power to secure accommodation for homeless applicants who are not in priority need, especially single people. That, too, must be right. Fourthly, I welcome the proposals to improve the right of appeal for housing applicants. Far too many have in the past been faced with the awful decision either to accept a property that they consider wholly unsuitable to meet their needs or to refuse that offer and lose the prospect of being housed altogether.

All those measures are welcome, and are welcomed not only by me but by all the major political parties, the local government associations and the charities. However, our enthusiasm, although real, must still be muted by our understanding that this Bill is a start, but not a solution. Much, much more needs to be done if we are truly to address a problem on the scale that I have described. That is why the Bill calls for the drawing up by local authorities of homelessness reviews and strategies. It is through such bigger, broader multi-agency strategies that most will be done.

Legislation alone can never be enough. We do not house the homeless by passing a Bill and making it an Act. We do so by bringing into being more supported temporary accommodation and by building more permanent homes. When we have those beds and those homes, we need not pious words and statutes but practical solutions on the ground if we are better to enable access to them by those currently excluded, whether through poverty, mental problems, addiction or any of the myriad problems that can make one homeless. All that requires proper co-ordination between different Government Departments and local government; between

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the public, the private and the voluntary sectors; between those with responsibility not just for housing, but for planning, health, social services, social security and social exclusion.

How better to bring back into use the 760,000 homes that currently stand empty than by listening to the Empty Homes Agency, whether on VAT or council tax? How better to convert into sustainable homes the spaces that the institutions own above the shops in our high streets than by listening to those who have devised legal instruments that meet their concerns about being landlords?

How better to ensure that when new homes are built they are built for the poor as well as the rich than by revising policy planning guidance 3? Yes, the Labour Government revised PPG3—they were right to do so—and sought to extract from all appropriate private housing developments an element of affordable housing. That was a step in the right direction; but developers still argue, and all too often successfully, that their site is not an appropriate one, that it is too small to accommodate different types of tenure, that the economics of provision do not stack up, and that compliance would mean that the development was not a successful one, even if it was viable. PPG3 must be revised again, and soon, if the targets for affordable homes throughout the country are to be met.

How better to sustain in their homes those who are unused to managing themselves, let alone their budgets, than by providing social and health care and, above all, benefits to meet their needs? Let us tackle the single-room rent now, and signal our intent to do better by youngsters, not worse.

The Bill is a belated and partial response to a desperate problem. It is a very welcome start, but it is a start down a very tricky road. I urge Ministers to keep going on that journey, and I wish them very well on it.

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