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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Does the hon. Lady realise that had those provisions not been made, almost

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all the available social housing would have continued to go to those on the homelessness list, while those who had waited for years had no chance at all in many boroughs?

Margaret Moran: The hon. Gentleman demonstrates that he does not have an understanding of the link between homelessness and housing need more generally. The representations made by charities and housing organisations showed a clear link between homelessness and wider housing need, which the hon. Gentleman appears not to understand.

We have seen an increase in the use of bed-and- breakfast accommodation and in the number of homelessness admissions. That is regrettable, but it is to do with the legacy of the previous Government's housing and finance policies. The supply of affordable housing is falling, as are the numbers of local authority and housing association re-lets. That inevitably pushes up the number of homeless families. Families who are already in overcrowded or unsatisfactory accommodation may eventually find themselves homeless simply because the pressure on them is too great. Young couples who are forced to live with mum and dad find their circumstances becoming so difficult that they cannot cope with the overcrowding and are forced into temporary accommodation and homelessness.

We need to tackle the roots and the preventive aspects of homelessness. In line with the Bill, we also need a parallel strategy to tackle the need for an increased supply of affordable rented accommodation and for increased housing investment. We welcome the Government's additional investment. The increase to £2.5 billion in resources for local authorities and the doubling of the Housing Corporation's approved development programme will go a significant way towards increasing the supply of affordable housing, but much more still needs to be done.

I wish to make a couple of remarks on some issues that were discussed in relation to the Homes Bill. There has been a general welcome for the Homelessness Bill's extension of the measures to tackle the problems of families and individuals at risk of violence. I particularly welcome the measures to assist survivors of domestic violence who have for too long been forced to make the unpalatable choice of moving from their homes to secure their safety and that of their family.

I hope that a distinction is made in the guidance between the needs of survivors of domestic violence and the problems of antisocial behaviour. Domestic violence is a crime, and needs to be taken seriously. It is essential that when guidance is issued, the needs of the survivors are made much clearer than they have been, and that local authorities take their duties more seriously than they have done in many instances in the past.

If we are to give effect to the provisions that seek to provide greater safeguards for survivors of domestic violence, we need to think in a more joined-up way about other parts of our policy. Our "supporting people" policy, for example, is welcome in a general sense. However, there are grave concerns that by giving local discretion, there is a risk of survivors seeking refuge in women's aid hostels finding that hostels are not available because local authorities have chosen to fund other types of accommodation. We urgently need a national network of hostels and refuges for survivors of domestic violence. I urge Ministers to consider whether central funding is more appropriate if the protection afforded in the Bill is to have real effect.

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When the Homes Bill was considered, there was debate about the uneven quality of housing advice services around the country. It was suggested that there should be minimum standards of housing advice available to all. I strongly endorse such a view, particularly in respect of survivors of domestic violence, because although we advocate a multi-agency approach, its effectiveness in terms of advice given and support offered is often patchy across the country. We need to introduce minimum standards for all agencies tackling domestic violence, so as to end the current location lottery. All survivors, wherever they live, should be assured of a refuge place if they need one and of the correct advice and support whenever they need it.

There has been much discussion of, and a welcome for, the introduction in the Bill of a homelessness strategy. During debate on the Homes Bill, it was pointed out that such a strategy should form part of an overall housing strategy that had statutory effect. That was resisted by Ministers on the grounds that more time was needed for consultation. Time has passed since then—although not time intended for such consultation—and I urge Ministers to reconsider such a requirement under the Bill. It fits completely into our partnership agenda and will provide a much-needed focus on more joined-up government—linking education, health, planning and so on. That is long overdue. Those sectors must be meshed together if we are effectively to tackle housing needs.

Mr. Don Foster: That is not merely the hon. Lady's view. Local authorities are desperately keen for a single requirement on them to provide an over-arching homes policy.

Margaret Moran: The hon. Gentleman is right. Strong representations have been made from that quarter. I have been appalled by some local authorities that, having undertaken stock transfer, say, "We don't do housing any more. We have got shot of housing". We do not advocate that approach to housing either in the Bill or more generally. We need a more strategic approach on a statutory basis, extending the statutory housing powers of local authorities to enable them to carry out their full range of duties in all aspects of housing provision in their area. That requires the strengthening of the obligations on registered social landlords and other housing providers to assist local authorities in meeting their housing needs.

Furthermore, if we are to reduce homelessness, we must make more effective use of the private rented sector. In Luton, for each of the 4,000 families in desperate housing need, there are seven empty properties in the private rented sector. That is nonsense. Without the resources or the statutory ability to tackle the problem of empty properties, that disgrace will continue. We must address the need for additional resources to deal with private sector rented properties that are in disrepair. We also need to provide greater resources for poor owner-occupiers who need assistance to maintain their homes to a decent standard, before they reach the state of dereliction of some properties in my constituency.

We need to improve quality and security for tenants in the private rented sector without driving up prices. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State

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mentioned that he is considering a consultation document on that sector and on houses in multiple occupation. Legislation on those sectors is long overdue.

We should extend the powers of local authorities to introduce discretionary licensing to all forms of private rented sector provision. It should not be restricted solely to low-demand areas. The current housing benefit system should be adjusted to give financial incentives, under licensing schemes, to private landlords who provide good-quality, affordable housing for households in need.

As my right hon. Friend said in his introduction, the Bill is but one element in the range of measures necessary to prevent homelessness and tackle housing need. We also need to set targets during the next 10 years for overcoming the backlog in affordable housing, to parallel our target for ensuring that existing housing meets decent standards. The Government should set out a programme for achieving those new targets, which will inevitably require a significant increase in housing investment. Local authorities should be required to show in their housing strategies how the target will be met in their areas. That would mesh with the Government's target to reduce the number of homeless households placed in bed-and- breakfast and other forms of temporary accommodation. We need an emergency programme for achieving that target.

As we have heard, homelessness involves not only a financial cost to the Treasury and the public purse but a human and political cost. The problem is acute in London and is growing worse in the south-east. It is certainly reaching acute levels in areas, such as my constituency, around the M25 belt. Therefore, our need to increase the number of affordable social housing units is more acute, and we need to find new financial mechanisms to increase the availability of affordable housing in those areas.

We should tackle the low demand that exists in some parts of the country, but not at the expense of responding to unmet needs in areas of high demand. In that context, I have grave concerns about the review of the general needs index and the housing needs index. Under the current proposals, it seems that the areas of highest housing need could be penalised by indicators that address areas of low demand. I certainly ask Ministers to consider very carefully the impact of those proposals because we could financially penalise the very areas that need most support to accommodate homeless people and provide affordable housing.

We must also think about our wider housing strategy. If we are to tackle homelessness and housing need, we must stop treating arm's-length company initiatives as the only game in town. There are other methods of financing social housing, and we need to be inventive in considering them. For more than a decade, many tenants and housing professionals have said that a level playing field needs to be introduced in housing finance and investment.

I am not a purist in such issues. As the Government have said, what matters is what works. No need is more acute than that in housing. We must look beyond large-scale voluntary transfers as our main way of tackling housing need. We must consider a wider range of ways in which to increase housing investment.

I welcome the additional resources that have been invested, but in no way will they provide more affordable homes, which we urgently need, in the time scale

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necessary to tackle the problem. I have a suggestion to make to the Ministers who will discuss the forthcoming spending round with the Chancellor: we can consider increasing investment within the existing financial rules. The Chancellor has rightly introduced the golden rule and, at present, we are comfortably within that limit. Net public debt is set to fall steadily to below 40 per cent. of gross domestic product.

In 2001–02, the Chancellor could have increased public sector net debt to invest in housing by about £50 billion while still remaining within the golden rule. Housing investment has the additional benefit that it need not appear in one year's accounts; it can be spread over several years to meet need and demand. We are fortunate in that we have a Chancellor and Government who have set great store by healthy public finances, and we should use the healthy state of public finances to allow greater investment in housing. There is room for a significant increase in housing investment, by about 1 to 2 per cent. of GDP.

I hope that, in approaching the forthcoming spending round, Ministers will recognise that the Bill tackles the most urgent needs of homeless people, but that those needs should be dealt with in parallel with the need for greater investment in our housing stock and for increasing the amount of affordable housing. I hope that Ministers will put those arguments to the Chancellor, thank him for his financial prudence and say that he has room within his golden rule to allow greater housing investment—greater even than that which we have seen in the past three years.

The cost of homelessness is great. It is great to the public purse and to those who are personally affected, their families and their friends. It has a political cost, too. I welcome the measures in the Bill, but I hope that Ministers will move further and introduce other legislation, particularly for homes in multiple occupation in the private rented sector. I hope that they will take this historic opportunity to argue for greater housing investment and so end the torment of homelessness that so many of our constituents experience.


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