Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I shall ask the hon. Lady the same question as I asked the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). We have met our manifesto commitment to build more than 150,000 houses since we were elected in 1992, but the hon. Lady criticises the Government's policy. In the unlikely event that the Liberal Democrats were elected to power, how many houses would they build each year and how much would they spend on the social housing sector?

Mrs. Maddock: I supported the Government two years ago when they forecast how many houses they would build and how much money they would spend. However, I would not have reneged on that promise: we would have gone on to build those properties. If the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown)is patient, I shall comment later on how we would pay for social housing.

In 1977, more than 162,000 public sector homes were completed across Britain. We will be lucky if the figure reaches 50,000 this year. For the past four years, social housing output has averaged only 60,000--which is at the bottom end of the Government's estimate of need, ranging from 60,000 to 100,000. The situation will be even worse next year. According to the Budget outcome, the Government have halved their expenditure on housing in

29 Jan 1996 : Column 685

the past two years. They have estimated that there will be 51,000 new social lettings--which is 9,000 fewer than the Government's lowest estimate of housing need.

The Government seem to be alone in estimating housing need at 60,000. Even the former chief housing economist at the Department of the Environment--who until 1994 was the official Government expert on such matters--now thinks that the Government have got it wrong. Is the Minister saying that everyone but the Government has got it wrong? It seems incredible that it is almost 20 years since the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was enacted, but apparently no lessons have been learnt about tackling the long-term problems of homelessness.

The Government continue to take a short-term approach. They are driven by an obsession with the headline figure of the public sector borrowing requirement to the exclusion of almost any consideration of the long-term benefits of investment in good-quality housing. The Government have hit the safety net for home owners and for private tenants and they now intend to hit the safety net for the homeless.

The review of access to social housing was not, of itself, a bad idea--and under different circumstances I might have welcomed it. However, it was clear from the context in which it was announced that it was less about tackling the housing crisis than about reinforcing Ministers' prejudices. Those prejudices include the belief that local authorities are bad, that home ownership is the only answer, and of course we have all heard about "back to basics". It is time that the Government stopped looking for scapegoats for those problems and started to look for solutions.

It was brought home to me very clearly before Christmas what damage the Government have done by attempting to scapegoat groups of people. A charity in my area, which provides assistance and accommodation for young homeless people, conducted an appeal before Christmas. It found hate mail in its appeal envelopes, reflecting politicians' often repeated claim that all young homeless people are wastrels. It is not so, but that is what happens when one maligns groups of people.

If the Bill succeeds, it will be the final undoing of the 1977 legislation. Last summer's judgment by the other place in the Awua case has not altered the way in which most local authorities deal with homeless families. The Government's proposals most certainly will.

The Bill represents a golden opportunity to move forwards, not backwards, from the 1977 Act, but it appears that that opportunity will be lost. Liberal Democrats will fight tooth and nail to defend the Act that Stephen Ross took through the House with all-party support.

Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire): We are waiting with mounting impatience for the hon. Lady to say just what the Liberal Democrats would do about the housing programme. They have already pledged to increase taxation by 1p to pay for more spending on education. By how much would they increase taxation to spend more money on social housing?

Mrs. Maddock: The provision of housing is not a matter of revenue budgets and taxation.

29 Jan 1996 : Column 686

The Government's proposals to encourage the use of short-term tenancies in the private rented sector for housing homeless people make bad financial sense and would be bad for families. There is no substitute for a stable, affordable home. Instability damages children's education. Using the relatively expensive private rented sector will increase the Government's housing benefit bill and make it harder for homeless people to take work without losing benefit.

The prohibition on a local authority housing a homeless household in its own property for more than two out of three years is quite astonishing. When the Secretary of State was asked about the problem of families having to move, he said that it would not happen, but the Bill will make it inevitable.

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): It might be helpful if I clarify the matter before the hon. Lady takes it any further. A local authority can provide temporary accommodation in its own housing for more than two years. If a family present themselves as homeless, they will be given temporary accommodation in a property owned by the local authority or a housing association,or one in the private rented sector. If that family then fulfil the criteria in the allocations policy--I suspect that the hon. Lady has not read our allocations policy, otherwise she would not have made implications about the moral prejudices that informed it--they can then be housed permanently and very rapidly, possibly in the same property.

Mrs. Maddock: We shall have to differ on our interpretation of the Bill. The Bill makes it clear that a tenant could be asked to move after two years in local authority housing.

It is quite amazing that the Government avoid stating anywhere in the Bill or in the consultation paper that homelessness is a factor in housing need. Insanitary housing, unsatisfactory housing conditions and people living in conditions of temporary or insecure tenure are among the proposed criteria for housing registers, yet the most severe and obvious form of housing need--homelessness--is conspicuous by its absence. I have yet to hear a good reason why we shall be debating regulations when we will have almost completed considering the Bill in Committee.

Clauses 145 and 146 are particularly draconian as they exclude a person seeking political asylum in the United Kingdom from any local authority assistance, however temporary. Apparently that includes advice or information on housing. We recently debated the effects of excluding asylum seekers from housing benefit, so the Minister should be in no doubt about my views and those of my colleagues. I remind him that we are talking about those who seek asylum officially--not illegal immigrants or people who fail to be granted asylum, but people who are waiting for the Government to process their appeals. The Government could reduce costs by dealing with those appeals more quickly.

What angers me most is the Government's complete abdication of responsibility for the current shortage of social housing, which has reached crisis level. I am angered by the sight of Ministers, who are responsible for the underfunding of housing and have reneged on promises even since I have been in the House, trying to pin the blame for the waiting lists on homeless families.

29 Jan 1996 : Column 687

The Government are fond of talking about the marketplace. We are discussing a product for which demand greatly outstrips supply. A normal response would be to increase supply, but the Housing Bill will reduce the supply to those in most need.

We have heard much from the Government about the values by which people live in society. The Minister will know as well as I do that that is exactly what prompted the enormous write-in by members of the Methodist Church, who have written to me, to him and to the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). I know that many of them will be as disappointed as I am by the lost opportunities in the Bill.

The elements of the Bill that I have welcomed should be part of a housing policy that recognises the importance of investment in housing. We spend £1.5 billion on treating people who suffer ill health because they live in cold, damp homes. There is massive unemployment in the construction industry and that represents considerable cost to the nation. More investment in housing would save the money that is being spent on those people. Most people agree that the capital receipts that are sitting in council coffers should be invested in housing, although there may be differences on how to go about it.

First, we need a change in attitude to public accounting that recognises the difference between revenue and capital spending and the value of long-term capital investment in infrastructure, as in the rest of Europe. Secondly, the Government need to recognise the importance of safety nets, whether people are renting or buying, so that fewer people are in severe housing need. We also need a mortgage benefit.

Earlier in the debate, we were asked what we would do about mortgage income tax relief. As we have said for many years, we would do away with it, but we would introduce a mortgage benefit to provide direct assistance to those who need it most.

If the Minister were to incorporate some of those suggestions into the Housing Bill, he would get more bouquets and fewer brickbats. We have the opportunity to improve the Bill in Committee. I mentioned earlier that Members have received communications from the Methodist Church. I am still receiving them and I picked up another bundle on my way to the Chamber. One of them echoes what I have been saying for some time.It says:

Next Section

IndexHome Page