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7.12 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, overall, this is a bad Bill. It was a Bill demanded originally by Tory authorities wanting to stop homeless people enforcing their rights to housing through the courts. They were given aid and encouragement by the then Minister, Sir George Young, whose constituency included Heathrow Airport. Since then, the Minister has moved on, and most Tory authorities have been voted out of office. But, like the Bourbons, the Government never learn and never forget. So the Bill remains with us.

We welcome the Minister to the debates on the Bill. He will have a particular enthusiasm for it as, wearing his DSS hat, he will find that it will add some £120 million to the cost of housing benefit. However, if he accepts our amendments, we can help him make savings on those sections of the Bill. Without those amendments, the Bill will remain a bad, miserable, cynical, predatory Bill. It has however one saving grace: its timing. Coming at the fag end of a tired government, it will be ameliorated by regulation, I believe, and then repealed, I hope, before it has had time to do much damage.

What does the Bill seek to do? My noble friend Lord Williams has already outlined our objections to Part I and to the automatic RTB of housing association property where it is difficult to replace such housing, as the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, said, or where social housing was part of a Section 106 planning agreement. When talking about HMOs, my noble friend made it clear that, although we welcome registration as a move in the right direction, nonetheless it is inadequate as it stands as probably half of all HMOs will be excluded. We need a mandatory scheme.

On Part III, my noble friend Lord Dubs talked about leasehold reform. He emphasised that we seek to give leaseholders greater rights and to give greater protection to those tenants threatened with eviction, since, as he said, tenants can be evicted if they fall eight weeks behind with their rent. Yet housing benefit is paid four weeks in arrears, and about a third of all local authorities currently fail to pay housing benefit on time. Those tenants may well be evicted through no fault of their own.

Part V relates to anti-social behaviour. Like the Government, we find it unacceptable wherever it occurs. Therefore, any remedies should apply also to owner occupation and to the private rented sector.

I turn now to Parts VI and VII. As my noble friend Lord Stallard said, they are the most offensive parts of the Bill. They remove the right to permanent housing from homeless families who are homeless through no fault of their own. While they queue, they will be parked in a sequence of six-month temporary tenancies, each

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time uprooting the family and children from home and school. In the process, I suspect, that will turn a homeless family into a problem family, and vulnerable children into damaged children.

Those parts of the Bill turn the clock back almost 20 years, because, back in 1974-75, nearly 3,000 children were taken into care, simply and solely because their parents were homeless. We said, "Never again". The Act introduced by Stephen Ross (later Lord Ross) in 1977, which was passed with the help of the then Labour Government, imposed upon local authorities the duty to house those homeless families who were both vulnerable and not intentionally homeless. That Act offered a safety net to some of the most fragile people in our society. That Act was reviewed by Mr. Heseltine in the early 1980s; it was consolidated by the Conservative Government in 1985; it was reviewed again by Chris Patten and Nicholas Ridley in 1989; and each time it was found to be working satisfactorily.

As Chris Patten said then:


    "The present terms of the Act strike a reasonable balance between the interest of the genuinely homeless and others in housing need".
That was in 1989, but perhaps things have changed since then. No, only a couple of months ago, the DoE published research reviewing its 1991 code of guidance on homelessness. It concluded that local authority homelessness procedures had become "better and fairer". That research came out only a few months ago. Homelessness procedures are now better and fairer. So why the Bill? Why do we have it?

Is there any evidence of abuse? No. As the DoE said in 1989:


    "Despite anecdotes to the contrary, there is little or no evidence of abuse".
Local authorities investigate thoroughly. If people have made themselves deliberately homeless, they have no claim to permanent housing, and they do not receive it. Local authorities are tough-minded. In my experience it is difficult to abuse the system.

Do homeless families take up too many council houses? Do they, as the Minister said in his opening remarks, "dominate" allocations? No, the evidence is to the contrary. Outside London only a quarter of all allocations, and inside London about 40 per cent. of allocations--not just new property--go to homeless families. That has not changed much over the past half dozen years. The rest of those allocations go to families on the waiting lists or, perfectly properly, to families with medical and social needs.

Are homeless families perhaps being housed too quickly compared with other families? Homeless families, like those who live in badly sub-standard housing which is grossly overcrowded or who have severe medical needs indeed take priority over those whose main claim is length of time in the queue. As so many noble Lords have said, homeless people are simply at the most urgent end of the spectrum of housing need.

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In any event, three-quarters of the families who are homeless are already on the waiting list. They are not a different sort of people. As the 1989 Department of the Environment study said:


    "in many local authorities, those who are homeless are simply people on the waiting list with nowhere to wait".
Their housing conditions have broken down and they cannot continue where they are. Why is that? We know why. They may find their homes repossessed--1,000 houses are being repossessed every week in this country. They may find that their dwellings are intolerably over-crowded, particularly with the arrival of another child. They may be victims of domestic violence. They may find themselves evicted from the private sector because they are in rent arrears and they are in rent arrears because in 40 per cent. of all cases, housing benefit does not cover the cost of their rent. Or, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, family breakdown leads to insecure accommodation and insecure accommodation leads to family breakdown.

In my experience, homeless families usually receive only one offer of accommodation. Those who wait on the list usually have two or three offers. The homeless have to go where they are put which is often to the roughest and toughest of estates. They will have lost their right to choose where they live and may be unable to live near the husband's workplace, the child's school or the elderly, sick relative for whom they are caring. You pay a high price if you are homeless. It is not an easy route into permanent housing, the mythology notwithstanding.

Is it that local authorities are complaining that the legislation is too generous and that they cannot make it work? On the contrary, when the Government consulted on this legislation five years ago, 85 per cent. of local authorities were satisfied with it and just 15 per cent. were dissatisfied. That 15 per cent. were dissatisfied because the legislation was not sufficiently generous. It is worth reminding ourselves that it is those local authorities--not us, not central government, not the Minister and not the department--which are at the sharp end of housing need and which have to manage it.

When this Bill went out for consultation, 10,000 organisations replied. They were virtually all hostile to its proposals. The Government were told by a then Tory authority that it was:


    "ill conceived and if adopted would cause unnecessary trauma to many families and individuals in genuine housing crisis".
When talking about the Government's proposals to push homeless families into the private rented sector, with six-month tenancies, that same then Tory authority said:


    "problems will occur with families finding shorthold tenancies in the private sector which last for only six months, following which they may approach the local authority again as they may be homeless for a second time, only to have to repeat the process of temporary accommodation with the council followed by another shorthold tenancy. No account seems to have been taken of the effects upon family life of this constant disruption, particularly upon children involved".
That Tory authority was Suffolk Coastal, the constituency of the Secretary of State for Environment, John Selwyn Gummer.

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If the nature of homelessness has not really changed, and all the research, as the Minister knows, shows that it has not changed, why do we have this Bill? I believe that it is because homeless families are being asked to pay the price of the Government's failed policy. What was that housing policy? As far as possible it was to get rid of council housing; to encourage owner-occupation; and to strengthen the private rented sector. As my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, selling over one-quarter of council housing without replacing it while slashing the building programme from 100,000 council houses per year to under 1,000 council houses a year guarantees a housing crisis, a crisis of rationing.

Last year, 28,000 people were accepted as homeless in London. The London boroughs were allowed to build just 22 houses for them. That is not even enough to house the rough sleepers under Waterloo Bridge. Homeless families are being forced to compete with the waiting lists because there is not enough to go round. That is because the Government have ensured that there is not enough to go round. That should not surprise us. It is no different from blaming those on invalidity benefit for their sickness or blaming those who are unemployed for being jobless and therefore making more harsh the jobseeker's allowance. When in doubt blame the victim. We have seen it in policy after policy during the past two years. I believe that the Minister said that they are not going to change that. I believe it, but we shall change the Government.

In addition, the Government have pressed those who could not afford it into owner-occupation. With negative equity, those people were unable to trade down. Because of the housing slump, they were unable to sell and, with the removal of income support, they were unable to pay their mortgage. Finally, the Government encouraged private renting by deregulating rents and saying that housing benefit would take the strain. It did not and those pressed into private renting found themselves evicted.

Therefore, to the homeless, the casualties of life, are added the refugees from owner-occupation and from private renting. Those are the casualties of the Government's housing policy. They all arrive at the doorsteps of local authorities at the very same time as the ability of local authorities to house anyone has been reduced severely. That is why we have this Bill.

Lady Porter tried to ship the homeless out of the marginal wards in Westminster. With this Bill the Government are trying to ship the homeless out of council houses altogether. Local authorities are supposed to privatise the homeless. But because, fortunately, local authorities cannot be trusted to behave like Lady Porter, the Government are going to do the job for them by determining the nature of the waiting list and the principle of allocation from them: who may go on the waiting list; who may be housed from it; and at what speed. But just in case local authorities should cheat and house, ahead of others whose need is less urgent, a desperately homeless family with vulnerable children, the Government, having failed to abolish council housing, will appropriate its management. As my noble friend Lady Fisher said, the Minister responsible for housing, having presided over a

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catastrophic national housing policy, is now going to make himself the chairman of every housing committee in the land.

We need a housing Bill; but not this one. We need a housing Bill to tackle the problems caused by the 1,000 repossessions a week, the 1 million families in negative equity and the 255,000 families in serious mortgage arrears. We need a housing Bill to help leaseholders trapped in property which they cannot sell. We need a housing Bill to tackle disrepair in the private rented sector, because 1.25 million privately rented houses are now unfit. We need a housing Bill to bring back into use the 800,000 empty properties, mostly in the private sector. We need a housing Bill to prevent homelessness, especially of young people coming out of care and on to the streets. We need a housing Bill to end the poverty trap and dependency brought about by present housing regulations. But, above all, we need a housing Bill to build decent quality, affordable social rented housing for those who need it. This Bill could have done those things but it has not and it will not. In winding up, perhaps the Minister will tell us why.


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