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Tim Loughton: Is not that an indictment of the past four years? This Government have promised everything. We have had warm words and Green Papers and speeches from Labour Members, yet the figure is the same as when the Conservatives were in governmentyet, as we are constantly hearing, the economy is stronger than ever. What an indictment of four years under this Government.
The figure on bed-and-breakfast accommodation is two and a half times worse than in 1997. There is the scandal of empty housing, with more than 750,000 empty homes. The north-south divide has worsened and the gap between rich and poor has vastly widened, yet the Government promised the reverse. What has been their response?
The response has been a dramatic slashing of the number of social houses that have been built over the past four years to a record low. A Green Paper published in April 2000 was long on words but left the future status of council housing in doubt and suggested confused gimmicks for dealing with the major problem of the shortage of affordable housing for key workers, especially in London and the south-east.
Despite promises, there has been nothing on houses in multiple occupancy, and there has been continuing crisis over inefficiency and abuse in the housing benefit system, which has been made more complicated by the Government changing the regulations almost weekly. There has been nothing to help young people to get their feet on the first rung of the housing ladder, and nothing to promote do-it-yourself shared ownership schemes, which we pioneered. There have been increases in stamp duty but they still fail to define exemptions from it in areas of urban regeneration, as promised last year. This Government have slashed the right to buy and abolished mortgage interest relief at source.
That is the legacy of the previous Labour Government. Housing is an area in which they have single-handedly failed to deliver. They need urgently to reverse their appalling record if they are to justify the second chance granted by the British people at the general election. I sympathise greatly with the Minister. She will be a high-profile fall-girl if her new team continues the culture of failing to deliver.
The problem continues to worsen and it is not limited to major metropolitan boroughs. In my constituency on the south coast, local people are suffering. Worthing and Adur councils are failing to find people places in short-term accommodation, largely because of the actions of large cities such as Brighton and Hove and of the London boroughs, which have the power to take block bookings in resorts along the south coast, leaving those of us who live in the area short of the accommodation that we desperately need.
In addition, the quality of accommodation has been worsening. People with disabilities are being offered upper-floor flats and children with asthma are being put in damp ones. In one shocking case, a woman who had twice attempted suicide was placed in a fourth-floor flat
The Under-Secretary's job is an urgent one. We will help as much as we can by not opposing the Bill, programme motion or no programme motion. However, all her warm words and good intentions will count for nothing unless talk of new provisions for homeless people and directions to local authorities and other providers to implement homelessness strategies are backed up by appropriate resources directed toward the problem from central Government.
We support many of the Bill's provisions, as we did many of the measures in part II of the Homes Bill. We support homelessness strategies and, in particular, special measures aimed at those who are fleeing domestic and racial violencein fact, we tabled amendments to strengthen such provisions in the Homes Bill. We recognise the special requirements of people with physical and mental health disabilities and we shall support measures to help them.
We welcome clauses that deal with the suitability of homeless applicants based on their behaviour, but we shall explore in Committee whether that includes previous behaviour. Dealing with neighbours from hell means dealing with people who have a bad track record in previous tenancies, but the Bill is not clear on that point. We also want to ask questions about whether the new regime now prevailing between the new Secretary of State and local authorities will include provisions for homelessness now that he has threatened to send in private companies to wrest control over local services from local authorities, and whether that will include failing housing departments.
We broadly support the Bill, although we have many questions that we shall put to the Minister and her colleagues in Committee. The Government still have a long way to go to honour their pledge to tackle homelessness. Those suffering the appalling waste of homelessness will not forgive the Government if they fail to deliver a second time.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): It has been an excellent debate featuring some outstanding maiden speeches as well as contributions displaying the experience that Members of Parliamentespecially Labour Membershave in housing matters. It is appropriate that the first Bill of the Parliamenta Parliament that will focus on public servicesshould deal with the most basic service of all: the need for a roof over one's head.
The Bill supports the rights of homeless people. Those rights were first recognised in a Bill that was introduced by a Liberal Member of Parliament under a Labour Government, but they were shamefully eroded by the Conservatives' Housing Act 1996. I wonder whether it was lingering shame about the 1996 Act, the results of the general election, or Wandsworth council's track record on dealing with homelessness that made the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) so uncharacteristically sour. [Laughter.] I give him some credit. I look forward to our discussions about the Bill and the issues on which I shall make a contribution to government.
The Bill will be a landmark for homeless people and will form a key part of the comprehensive housing strategy that the Government have established to address the housing needs and aspirations of the nation. First, the Bill embodies the drive to prevent homelessness by placing a duty on local authorities to review housing needs and develop strategies to deal with them.
Secondly, we will extend the rights of homeless people and increase the powers of local authorities to help them. Anyone with an ounce of compassion would recognise that 16 and 17-year-olds who are out alone on the streets of our cities are in desperate need of safe housing. Under the Conservative Government, the rights of that most vulnerable group were not recognised. The Bill and the order on priority needs, which will be introduced shortly, will end the scandal of housing in some of the most affluent towns and cities in the western world being denied to young homeless people. That is one of the differences that the Bill will make, which is what the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) was asking about.
Thirdly, there is no point in recognising the needs of the homeless without providing more housing. That is why we are more than doubling the level of capital investment that we inherited, including £153 million over three years for supporting the most vulnerable people.
Fourthly, our proposals will put choice at the heart of letting. That will help us to achieve our objective of secure, safe and sustainable neighbourhoods. People who choose to move to an area are more likely to have a commitment to that community than those who are merely allocated a property at the convenience of the local housing authority. The Bill will deal also with housing aspirations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), in his outstanding maiden speech, spoke of the importance of meeting the aspirations of the community. The Bill will be important in meeting the community's housing needs. My hon. Friend paid a sincere tribute to his predecessor, who is well remembered and fondly regarded by all Labour Members. My hon. Friend's predecessor raised constituency issues frequently and forcefully. I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue in that tradition.
In his maiden speech, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Mr. Selous) paid a well-made, well- deserved and heartfelt tribute to his predecessor. He referred clearly to issues of concern to his constituents. I do not know all of those issues, but I share one with the hon. Gentlemanthe Silverlink service. I wish him well in the campaign. I hope that he succeeds.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) made a polished speech and paid glowing tribute to his immediate predecessor. He raised the issue of empty properties and asked whether people could not simply be put into them. The Bill enforces the importance of choice and the need to ensure that people live in properties in a part of the country where they want to reside and in a type of property in which they want to live. He also raised the important issue of creating stable communities, and that is one of the aims that lies behind the Bill and supporting policies.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to the important issue of homelessness in rural areas, as did several other Members. They were right to do so. There are a number of policies to ensure that the interests of people in rural areas are protected. For example, the Housing Corporation has a rural programme for settlements, especially for fewer than 3,000 people.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) talked about his passion for local servicesa passion that many of us on the Government Benches share. He spoke about the role of his Liberal predecessor who introduced the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which is clearly important in the context of the debate. He was right to focus on allocations policies, which are often overlooked but which are an important feature of the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) paid tribute to his distinguished predecessors and to the policies of one in particular, Keir Hardie. Far from being anathema to the Government, we have fulfilled several of the policies that Keir Hardie drew up all those years ago. I am sure that my hon. Friend will play an important role in advancing those policies.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) paid a fulsome tribute to his constituency, its traditions and especially its language. He drew attention to the hardship resulting from the decline of traditional industries and the loss of younger economically active people. He will probably go down in history as the Member who managed to visit, I think, 84 polling stations in his constituency on polling day.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) spoke movingly about agriculture and the importance of tourism in his constituency. He spoke about the need to deal with the particular pressures of housing in his constituency; I draw his attention to the importance that the Bill attaches to homelessness strategies, which should be drawn up by local authorities and should involve both the statutory and private sectors. I hope that that will help to resolve some of the issues that he raised.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) drew attention to the problem of homelessness in rural areas. The Government will ensure that funding for the new starter homes initiative is available for rural areas; I hope that that will help to keep some younger people in those areas.
I welcome the support that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) expressed for the Bill, although I suspect that he will also have a number of reservations. The seller's pack, about which he asked, was a manifesto commitment; measures dealing with it will be introduced when parliamentary time allows. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the rough sleepers unit. We shall look at the lessons that can be drawn from it before deciding how to develop important policies for keeping people off the streets of our towns and cities.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) spoke forcefully about the problems of homeless people in London, which are of great concern, especially the number of those who are currently homeless or in bed and breakfast. My hon.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) spoke knowledgeably about the Bill. Obviously, he played a substantial role in it reaching the House in its present form and I welcome his contribution. I shall certainly make sure that the consultation document is placed in the Library. He asked when the priority needs order would be introduced. It will be submitted for parliamentary approval at the start of the next Session; it will be an affirmative order, so it will have to be debated. It should therefore come in to effect by the end of next year. The hon. Gentleman also asked about registered social landlords and their obligation to work with local authorities. They already have a statutory obligation to do that; guidance is coming out and further guidance will be issued for consultation in August. I certainly undertake to look again at the timetable because, clearly, August is not a key time for people to debate consultation documents.
The hon. Gentleman raised a couple of practical issues, including priorities and whether people should be told automatically about any change in the priority order. I urge him to think carefully about the impact that that would have on local authorities in terms of sheer bureaucracy and red tape. If he thinks the matter through carefully, he will realise that that proposal would be impractical for most local authorities.
The same is true of time limits. For some people, 24 hours is too long to respond to a housing offer. For some people, three days is too short. I had to deal with a case in which a woman received a housing offer while she was in hospital having a baby. Under such circumstances, it is important for the local authority to be able to use its discretion.
The hon. Member for Banbury asked what was the point of the Bill and what difference it would make. I have given him one answer, and there are others. One is that it would end the uncertainty of the two-year limit; the other involves choice in lettings. If he cannot think what the Bill would achieve, he lacks imagination or he does not understand the reality of homelessness in Britain today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North made a number of serious points, especially about homelessness in London. On overcrowding, I agree that the present standards are incompatible with what should be expected. On the possibility of two strategiesone for the north and one for the southI believe that housing strategies should be driven by local needs. That is the thrust of the Bill. It is therefore important that local communities and local authorities draw up the housing strategies that best meet
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) showed her long experience and expertise in housing matters, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who was involved in piloting choice-based lettings. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) highlighted the need for policies to help particularly vulnerable people. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), my close neighbour in Northamptonshire, gave a forceful speech reminding us of the appalling sights that we used to see during the Tory years, and reminded us that although much will be done under the Bill much remains to do.
Those at the sharp end of helping the homelesscharities such as Shelter and Crisishave welcomed the Bill and its provision to extend the rights of homeless people. It is clear from speeches made this evening that the Bill's provisions and the programme to combat homelessness, the biggest extension of rights for the homeless for a quarter of a century, the recognition of the needs of the most vulnerable people in our society, the protection for those at risk of violence and the measures to keep the young off the streets and to take responsibility for ensuring that those most at risk have a roof over their heads resonate with many hon. Members.
Our aim is not just to make sure that homeless people can get a roof over their heads; it is also to make sure that they have a choice of a decent home and the support that they need to become a valued part of our society. Homelessness, or the threat of homelessness, is one of the most frightening prospects for most people, and it is why so many people tolerate the intolerabledomestic violence, racial harassment, extremes of poverty, overcrowding or abuserather than end up without a home.
Together with the priority needs order and increased spending, the Bill will increase protection for the most vulnerable people in our society and will form an important plank in achieving our vision of a more inclusive and a more just society. I commend it to the House.