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House of Commons

Tuesday 5 March 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 12 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): When the Government will publish a national homelessness strategy. [36643]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): We have announced the establishment of a new directorate within the Department to co-ordinate action to tackle homelessness. I have asked it to report to me as a matter of urgency on the steps that need to be taken to address this issue.

Simon Hughes: The House and the country will be glad that the Homelessness Act 2002 gives us the basis for moving forward, and we welcome the Government's initiative in that direction. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the record number of homeless families in temporary accommodation who are waiting for a permanent home will form part of the discussions between him and the Treasury about funding the strategy? Will he assure us that in cases of family breakdown, those who leave the family home, particularly because of fear of violence, will immediately be accommodated safely, rather than having a harrowing wait before they find alternative secure accommodation?

Mr. Byers: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome for the Homelessness Act. I was pleased that it was the first measure introduced after the general election last June and that it got Royal Assent last week. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we amended the Bill as it was going through the House to ensure that, where a relationship breaks down, the interests of children are put first, which is a positive change. The hon. Gentleman

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points out that, for a variety of reasons, the number of families in temporary accommodation is increasing, which is a matter for real concern. Young children are being denied life chances because they do not have somewhere that they can call their home. In facing the challenges in housing, we must ensure that we can deliver for those young children.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Who will be responsible for monitoring the efficacy of the homelessness strategy? Will it be the homelessness directorate? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any national strategy will incorporate what would work most efficiently within the Greater London area, which is a pan-London strategy in partnership not only with the Association of London Government but with the Greater London Authority?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the situation in London, particularly as it is clear that individual housing authorities alone cannot solve the deep-seated housing problems faced by London. There has to be a pan-London approach to the issue, and that is something that the newly established directorate is looking at carefully. We will be monitoring the strategy ourselves, but a variety of voluntary organisations will be looking closely at how we are delivering this important part of my Department's agenda. I believe that in this Parliament housing will move towards the top of the political agenda.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Secretary of State accept that if he had spent a bit more time putting roofs over the heads of families who need them and less time giving house room to the likes of Jo Moore, we would not now have a situation in which the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has increased by 152 per cent. and the number of empty council houses in England has increased by 6,000 since 1997? What has he got to say about that sort of record?

Mr. Byers: The increase of 6,000 in the number of empty homes sounds significant, but what the hon. Gentleman did not say is that there are 750,000 empty homes in the United Kingdom, so perhaps 6,000 is not too many. As he should know, in last year's Budget we introduced measures to bring empty properties back into use, such as 100 per cent. capital allowances to convert space above shops into flats and a reduced rate of 5 per cent. for VAT on the cost of renovating homes that have been empty for over three years. We are taking action to deal with empty homes; the Conservative party in government did absolutely nothing.

For the record, this Department and this Secretary of State are going to deliver on the housing agenda. As far as I am concerned, it is one of the top priorities, and Opposition Members will see the results in the very near future.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): While I welcome the homelessness strategy, I hope that it will not apply to people whom councils have spent months trying to evict. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that when councils get rid of such tenants, they will not get in somewhere else through the back door as a result of the strategy?

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Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point. His constituency is just south of mine on the River Tyne, and we share similar problems, even if one football team is doing better than the other.

Local authorities are being far more robust in dealing with tenants who make the lives of their neighbours hell. Those tenants are moving out of council housing into private accommodation, and a growing number of private landlords are taking on tenants who have been evicted. In many well-established streets up and down the country, private tenants are being installed, often on housing benefit, who make life hell for private owners. We want to consider a licensing system for private landlords so that they will have to deliver on their responsibilities.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): In considering his homelessness strategy, the Secretary of State will wish to think about the number of rough sleepers, which has been artificially massaged down. Is he aware of the press release issued by the Transport and General Workers Union on behalf of independent charities, which alleges that the rough sleepers unit used public money to pay for rough sleepers to stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and states that outreach workers were pressurised into not declaring the full number of rough sleepers? It also alleges that rolling shelter beds were left empty for a month before the count, and that four hostels had dining rooms turned into bedrooms—all to massage the figures down artificially. Will the Secretary of State announce today that he will hold an inquiry into that, and if he will not, will he accede to the request from Shelter and the Simon communities to hold a meeting to discuss the allegations?

Mr. Byers: What the hon. Gentleman has not said is that the methodology used in the rough sleeper count was constructed not by this Government, but under the Conservative Government in 1996. The voluntary agencies that conducted the survey followed the methodology agreed by that Administration. The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but those are the facts. He does not like the facts to get in the way of his prejudices, but we all know that the Conservative approach to rough sleepers was well stated by a former Cabinet Minister who spoke about the inconvenience of coming out of the opera and having to step over people sleeping in the doorway. For the Tory party, rough sleepers are an inconvenience to be ignored—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the next question.

Rail Services (East Midlands)

2. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What recent assessment he has made of the need for new passenger rail services to relieve motorway congestion in the east midlands. [36645]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): As my hon. Friend may be aware, we are currently conducting a programme of regional multi-modal studies, including several involving the east midlands region. The studies are assessing demand for all modes of travel to

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2021, including public transport, road use and motorway congestion. Recommendations to Ministers are expected shortly.

David Taylor: I thank the Minister for that answer and for visiting north-west Leicestershire 11 days ago for a briefing on the national forest rail line project in my area and in south Derbyshire. When he receives the conclusions of the M1 multi-modal study for the east midlands, will he examine carefully any reference to that project in the light of the information that he has received? Will he do his best to arm-wrestle the Chancellor for the necessary funding, which is but a small fraction of the £60 billion rail investment announced two years ago? That investment works out at £100 million for each constituency, and a small amount would do a lot of good.

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend makes a strong case for his constituency, just as he and representatives of his local authorities did when I visited his area. I shall bear in mind the comments that I heard then when we receive the multi-modal studies. My hon. Friend and his colleagues sought to tackle the issues in the interests of their constituents by considering new communities in the area and new modes of travel. We shall consider those issues in his and in other areas when we make our assessment of how to remedy the substantial under-investment that we inherited from the Conservative Government.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I am sure that the Minister will have seen the letter that I received from the Secretary of State this week. I had raised with him the matter of the statement by the Strategic Rail Authority about East Midlands Parkway station. How can we take seriously anything from a Department that sends a letter to a Member of Parliament stating:

We are fed up with errors from this Department. When will we start to get some action, some true information, and proper apologies when people give us wrong information in the Chamber?

Mr. Spellar: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was asking for that particular project. He was probably not making his presentation in such an approachable way as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). As I understand it, there was a straightforward error by the Strategic Rail Authority, for which it has apologised. In spite of the hon. Gentleman's protestations, we will certainly give the matter proper consideration, so as to extend travel opportunities, comfort and facilities for travellers right across the east midlands. I guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that I shall look into the matter for him.

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Ilkeston is the only town of its size in the east midlands without a railway station. A project for a station there has been identified by the SRA and by a multi-modal study. The problem is the Trent junction signalling box, which needs to be upgraded before capacity can be improved. Unfortunately, that upgrading will not take place for quite some time. May I

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urge my hon. Friend to look at the issue, and to do all that he can to bring that project forward so that capacity in the area can be increased?

Mr. Spellar: The Strategic Rail Authority and Railtrack are looking at a number of the constraints and bottlenecks in the railway system, in respect of which they could make a considerable cost-effective enhancement to facilities. That is extremely important because, previously, Railtrack seemed to be far more focused—although not particularly effectively—on the major projects, and did not look at running the system that it already had. We are already seeing a significant improvement in Railtrack's attitude and performance.

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