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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with care. Would he care to

29 Jan 1996 : Column 691

comment on the fact that, among all the housing organisations, the Government are alone in thinking that the Bill will help? Has he seen the advertisement in The Times this morning, which is signed by, among many other housing organisations, the chairman of the National Housing Forum, Councillor Graham Facks-Martin, who is the last remaining Conservative councillor in the North Cornwall district? I believe the hon. Gentleman met Councillor Facks-Martin on his visit to Cornwall. Why does the hon. Gentleman feel that the Government are the only people who have got the right answer, when the broad alliance of organisations have not?

Mr. Hendry: The hon. Gentleman has a short memory. Every policy that the Government have put forward in the past 16 years has been opposed tooth and nail by Opposition parties and their outside advisers, but many of our policies have later been adopted--the Labour party has moved on, and the Liberal Democrats have moved in different directions. The Opposition parties have accepted what the Government have done in many areas as the only sensible way forward, although they may have opposed it a few years ago. One of the difficulties of being in government, with which the hon. Gentleman will never have to deal, is that sometimes one has to take difficult decisions, and do what one thinks is right.

The constituents about whom I have spoken, who have lost out because of the existing legislation, will welcome the Bill, and many other people feel the same.

Mr. Betts: Will the hon. Gentleman return to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) asked him? My hon. Friend suggested that the problem was not the allocation of houses, but the fact that there were too few houses to allocate. Does the hon. Gentleman not believe that there should be more houses available to rent in his constituency?

Mr. Hendry: In answer to the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), I said that I would come to that point. I wanted to hear the hon. Gentleman's point, because, for some years, he controlled the city of Sheffield. My constituency is on the outskirts of Sheffield, and one reason why property prices were so high in my constituency is because so many people wanted to move out of Sheffield under his leadership of the council.

There is nothing in the Bill about removing homeless people's right to help. Indeed, I would suggest that many of the Bill's proposals will improve the type of help available. For example, if a single mother is allocated a flat in a high-rise block on the wrong side of town, where she knows nobody, at a stage in her life when she is most vulnerable and most needs support, that is entirely the wrong way to help her and her child. We should be trying to find the most appropriate form of accommodation for her, which may be with other single mothers or staying at home with her parents. The first way to help single mothers should not be to give them flats on their own, because that often results in their being in a more difficult situation, in which they cannot bring up their children as well as they would wish.

I shall now deal with the point that has been made in a couple of interventions. Some people argue that the problems have arisen only because of the lack of homes. In 1979, there were 2 million fewer houses than there are

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now. We have therefore seen a significant increase in the number of houses available. That increase has been well above the increase in the population in that period.

The biggest change has been in the number of people who are living on their own. In 1971, there were 3 million single-person households, and they made up one fifth of all households. In 1991, that figure had risen to 5 million single people, or one quarter of all households. By 2011, the expectation is that there will be 8 million single-person households, or one third of all households.

We must question whether it is the responsibility of the taxpayer to build more houses every year simply to take account of people's desire to have a different life style from that of their elders. All of us had parents who started life in rented accommodation, and, as they could, bought their own homes so that they could have more space. We must ask ourselves whether it is right that the taxpayer should be funding young people's desire to leave home earlier in their lives rather than stay at home, as many people did in the past.

Mr. William O'Brien: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hendry: I am very close to the end of my speech, and I do not intend to detain the House further.

I hope that, in his response to the debate, the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) will return to a point that his hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about spending capital receipts.

The Secretary of State was absolutely right when he replied that, under Labour, that would be a way of moving capital receipts and housing money from one part of the country to another. If that will not be the case, I would like an absolute assurance--a 100 per cent. guarantee--that a Labour Government would allow the money that has been raised in High Peak and Derbyshire Dales, which are both prosperous areas, to remain in those areas and be spent there. If not, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras inadvertently said something that he did not mean. I hope that the hon. Member for Greenwich will give that clear guarantee.

There is no doubt that recent homelessness figures have been very worrying, but those figures have peaked and have since been declining. For example, local authority homelessness acceptances peaked in 1991, and the figure has now dropped by some 20 per cent. The number of homeless households in temporary accommodation also peaked in 1991, and has dropped by two thirds for those in bed and breakfast. Of course, progress can still be made.

Mr. Raynsford: The figures are still double what they were in 1979.

Mr. Hendry: There is no point the hon. Gentleman making that contrast between the figures. They are now coming down. He would do more credit to himself and his party by accepting the reality of the situation, rather than the biggest scare story.

We must tackle the problems of today and the future, rather than those of the past. The Bill is clearly part of the solution, and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading tonight.

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6.27 pm

Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East): I wish to concentrate on the homelessness provisions in the Bill, which I think are deeply worrying. I am worried because of what I have observed as a member of the council in Newham in east London since 1984, and as a member of the housing committee throughout that time.

After I was elected in June 1984, I was appointed to a sub-committee that was directed to address the problem of homelessness in Newham. At that time, the only temporary housing option for homeless people was bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I remember that we had about 30 families in bed and breakfast in November 1984. We were worried by that large number, and we were determined to ensure that every one of those families would be in a permanent home in time for Christmas.

Twelve years on, it seems amazing that we could even have contemplated that idealism. That sort of caring at Christmas must surely belong to another era, but it was only 12 years ago. We managed it--by Christmas 1984 there was not one homeless family in bed and breakfast in Newham. Well, those days of innocence did not last very long. A couple of years later, we had 600 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The costs were immense, and the council's budget process became a matter of cutting services in order to fund the mushrooming bed-and-breakfast bill.

Cuts in services were not the only damage caused. I vividly remember visiting, in 1986, a bed-and-breakfast hotel in central London which the council was using. Other hon. Members have described the abject misery of a family living in a single room, perhaps with just a wash basin and a gas ring, and eking out an existence for a year or more.

We found an alternative by leasing homes from their owners for temporary accommodation. The Government introduced restrictions to make that as difficult as possible, but it was a means of providing reasonable accommodation, less costly than bed and breakfast, for families waiting for permanent homes to become available.

Homelessness is a desperate plight for a family to endure. Indeed, it destroys families. Until now, at least there has been the assurance that a secure and permanent home would ultimately be available where a family could put down roots, recover from its ordeal and develop as a family should. Unfortunately, that is what the Bill, if implemented, would abolish.

We know that homelessness is deeply disruptive. Families are moved from one temporary home to another. Over the weekend, I spoke to a social worker about the consequences of that movement. Children are barely settled in one school before they are precipitately moved to another. The ordeal is then repeated. Mothers are shifted from families, friends and support to wherever temporary accommodation happens to be. They are then shifted again.

That is happening to those who are already the most disadvantaged families in our communities. What chance do they have after they have been through that experience a few times? The purpose behind the Bill is to make that shifting, transient way of living not merely a temporary feature of people's lives while homeless but a permanent way of life.

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If implemented, the Bill would lead to a class of children who would grow up never knowing what it is to have a secure home. That is a chilling prospect. We understand from recent debates that we all want everyone to have a stake in our society. The Bill would take us in exactly the opposite direction. It would rob people of the dignity of a secure home. I know many council tenants in Newham who still enjoy the dignity of a secure council home. They are able to criticise and make complaints to the local councillor, as they do, when things are not right. Their children will not be so fortunate.

What will happen? Under the proposals set out in the Bill, a local authority will have discharged its obligations to a homeless family if it has placed it in a shorthold tenancy of a minimum of one year. Beyond the year, the family can be evicted at any time with two months' notice. The family can never be certain that it will be able to live in the same place for more than another two months.

If, for example, there is finally an upturn in the housing market and landlords are able to start selling property, a landlord will have to give only two months' notice to a tenant on a shorthold tenancy. The tenant will then have to quit the property and become homeless again. The loss of security for an enormous number of people--taking people's housing stake away from them--is the Bill's major feature.

How can a secure family home be built if at any time that home could be lost at two months' notice? That could happen with a shorthold tenancy.

Which local authority takes responsibility when a family becomes homeless at the end of a 12-month shorthold tenancy in which the family was placed as a result of homelessness? Is it the placing local authority or the authority where the shorthold tenancy is located? That is not clear at present.

Which authority pays the housing benefit? If, as I understand, it is the Government's intention that the placing authority retains responsibility, will that remain the position if the shorthold tenancy lasts for longer than a year, for 15 or 18 months, two years or 10 years? At what point does the receiving authority take on responsibility?

A disturbing by-product of the Bill is the incentive that will be created for unscrupulous local authorities--there are a few--to export their homeless families to other areas, so that those areas, or authorities, pick up the cost of education, social services, and ultimately, at the end of the shorthold tenancy, that of rehousing.

Homelessness re-created by the ending of shorthold tenancies is not merely a remote possibility. By 1992, 5 per cent. of all households accepted for permanent rehousing by local authorities were homeless as a result of a shorthold tenancy ending, according to the statistical bulletin issued by the Department of the Environment. By 1995, the proportion had doubled to 10 per cent. It is the third most significant cause of homelessness.

A third of households had become homeless because parents or others were unable to carry on accommodating them. A further 20 per cent. became homeless because of relationship breakdown with a partner. Of this group, 10 per cent. became homeless because a shorthold tenancy had come to an end.

In the most recent figures, for the third quarter of 1995-96, there was an increase to 12 per cent. The trend is clear: the ending of shorthold tenancies is already a

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major factor in creating homelessness. It is rapidly becoming more and more significant. If the Bill is enacted, the factor will become much more significant.

We can see the revolving door starting to spin. It is that of temporary accommodation to shorthold tenancy to homelessness. The process continues. How is it possible to keep a family together under such pressure? Where is the Government's support for the family? Who will pay the price of disrupted childhoods, under-achievement at school and family breakdown that the Bill's revolving door to homelessness will create?

I do not object to shorthold tenancies for those who wish to rent accommodation for a limited period. Indeed, a shorthold tenancy is ideal in those circumstances. The damage is done, however, when shorthold tenancies, as proposed in the Bill, become the compulsory and sole housing solution. That is what is wrong.

We should be concentrating all our energies on creating more affordable rented homes where people can enjoy secure tenancies. Since 1979, construction of social housing has halved. It is no coincidence that the number of homeless acceptances has more than doubled in the same period. In 1979, there were more social housing construction starts than homeless acceptances. In 1994, there were nearly four times as many homeless acceptances as social housing construction starts. The problems will worsen while that imbalance remains.

The Bill will divide the pie, which is far too small, in a different and less efficient way. The losers will be those who are already the least well off. That cannot be right.

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