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6.36 pm

Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough): I welcome the Bill. I welcome the general provisions that will help the private rented sector. I welcome also the provisions that will herald a clampdown on disruptive and noisy tenants. In addition, I welcome the greater powers that will be available to the Housing Corporation. All these proposed measures will be of great benefit to my constituency.

I reserve my greatest welcome to the measures that apply to badly run Department of Social Security hostels. There will be great rejoicing in my constituency following the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. My constituency is well known to hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is a decent family resort, whose future depends upon tourism.

I had not heard much about DSS hostels until February 1993, when my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) asked me whether I had had any problems with them. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) is acknowledging the same experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne first raised the matter by means of an Adjournment debate in February 1993. I told him that I had not heard of any problems in my constituency but, by amazing coincidence, the following Saturday an old lady came into my surgery and told me about her experiences with a former hotel adjacent to her flat that had become a hostel. Her experiences were pretty dreadful.

As spring turned into summer, the trickle of complaints that I had been receiving turned into a torrent. My postbag began to swell. People would stop me in the streets of Scarborough to ask me whether there was anything that I could do to help. Mounting concern was expressed by the

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borough council, the hoteliers association and the police. I canvassed colleagues in the House and, as a result, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North(Mr. Elletson) and I decided to commission a national survey. It was the most comprehensive report that had ever been carried out on English and Welsh tourist resorts and the way in which they have been affected by badly run DSS hostels. We consulted the housing, tourism and environmental departments of nearly every single coastal resort. We spoke with the forces of law and order. We asked national tourist organisations what their experiences had been. We questioned local hoteliers associations. We conferred with the Department of the Environment, the Department of National Heritage and the Department of Social Security. We consulted leisure companies whose interests lay in tourism.

After several months' work, we were able to present the report to the Prime Minister, at the end of January 1994. It makes distressing reading, for in it is a catalogue of drunkenness, assault, drug dealing, drug abuse, muggings, social security fraud, thieving, organised crime, appalling language, fighting, damage to property--[Interruption.] Opposition Members may think that this is funny, but they should come to Scarborough and Blackpool and see for themselves instead of making glib comments. We have not heard one policy from them this afternoon. I shall give way to the hon. Members for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) or for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) if they want me to.

We also included in the report a request that consideration be given to changing the "use class orders", to oblige hostels to apply for planning permission in future. I acknowledge with grateful thanks the role that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration played in helping us to secure that objective. In March 1994, we won the backing of the Prime Minister for planning permission regulations.

In addition, the Prime Minister promised to look carefully at the case for the licensing of existing hostels. The case for a licensing scheme was cast into hideous focus by the Richmond fire, which took place in May 1994. I awoke in the early hours of the morning to be told of the grim tragedy that had overwhelmed my constituency, when a tiny baby and a young woman were killed in that terrible fire. I pay particular tribute to the firefighters who, by their efforts, saved many more lives while putting at risk their own. It remains a source of bitter regret to me that in the meantime I have not been able to stop North Yorkshire county council from sacking those same firefighters and throwing them on to the scrap heap.

Twenty long months have passed since then, and the evidence that had been gathered through the eyes and ears of my constituents can now be supplemented by hard facts, which I present to the House tonight for the first time. It was Parliament that decided, in the form of housing benefit, to pay for the accommodation of young people who leave home at 16. It should come as no surprise that some young people decide to drift to Scarborough, Blackpool, Eastbourne and Bournemouth. Indeed, they are encouraged to do so by advertisements. This particular advertisement was for Reynolds Court hotel, in Eastbourne. It reads:

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In Norfolk, another advertisement appeared in a famous housing magazine, which went as follows:

presumably with satellite television and in-house movie channel included.

    Act now. You choose. Stay homeless in the city or get a life."

That advertisement speaks for itself.

I commend the actions of Scarborough borough council, whose extremely professional approach to the problem has helped to keep the problems caused by badly run DSS hostels within relative limits. It was the first to use its existing powers of registration. That is why we know that in Scarborough there are 560 DSS hostels. It conducted a survey of the Westville hotel, a well-known DSS hostel--fortunately, it has closed down--in a picturesque little square near Scarborough station. Out of 18 tenants, only five had previous addresses in Scarborough. The rest had come from Wakefield, Leeds, South Shields, Hull, Pontefract, "no fixed abode" and Her Majesty's prison. In other words, two thirds had come from conurbations out of town.

Throughout the campaign, no Member of Parliament representing a seaside constituency had asked for Government restrictions on where people should move or where they can make a living for themselves, but why should small towns such as Scarborough, Blackpool and Bournemouth take more of their fair share of the homeless, when there are empty council houses in Labour-controlled authorities from one end of the country to the other? Even more important, why should a married couple in Scarborough, Blackpool, Bournemouth or Eastbourne, who have been waiting patiently for years for a council house, perhaps for a secure roof over their head before they start a family, go to the back of the housing queue because of some teenage priority waltzing into town? That is wrong.

The drift to the coast can be confirmed in the increase in housing benefit payments. In the four years to 1994, housing benefit payments in Middlesbrough, which is near Scarborough, increased by 30 per cent., whereas in Scarborough the increase was 58 per cent. In Manchester, the increase was only 19 per cent., whereas in Blackpool it was 60 per cent. In Glasgow, the increase was only 18 per cent., but in Margate it was 64 per cent. In Bristol, the increase was a meatier 45 per cent., but in Weston-super-Mare, which is in the same area, it was 70 per cent. In Liverpool, the increase was 29 per cent. In Newquay, it was 80 per cent. Those figures speak for themselves.

There was also an increase in the number of people signing on. In the five years to 1994, the number signing on in Scarborough increased by 62 per cent. In Weston-super-Mare, the increase was 103 per cent. In Margate, the increase was 124 per cent. In Southend, it was 169 per cent. In Eastbourne, it was 196 per cent., and

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in Worthing, it was 235 per cent. Those are not anecdotal figures, as some in Whitehall would have us believe. There are undue concentrations of unemployed young people drifting to the coast, where there is little or virtually no chance of getting a job. It is unfair to ask resorts to shoulder more than their fair share.

The most unbearable manifestation is the badly run DSS hostel, usually owned or managed by unscrupulous landlords. They are the real fat cats, with their noses firmly in the housing benefit trough. They are the landlords who cram unfortunate tenants like sardines into their hotels. They are the landlords whom I want to drive into the sea and out of business for ever. The badly run DSS hostels can be small former guest houses with five or six tenants, or they can be large former hotels with up to 100 tenants. The effect of just one badly run DSS hostel can be devastating in a town such as Scarborough.

These are just a few of the complaints that I have received from the Scarborough Hotels Association in the past 12 months. Opposition Members must listen very carefully before they vote against the Bill. The complaints included loud music, children crying and screaming, fights and violence, windows smashed, rubbish in hotel gardens, smelly drains, using the garden as a toilet, men holding a dog out of a window, damage to crescent gardens, repairing cars in the street, children being injected with hypodermic needles, guests being accosted, violence in the local store, abuse to guests and hoteliers, obscene suggestions to lady guests, and, finally, guests leaving the hotels, never to return. That is where the problem lies, as it sets up a cycle of despair, a vicious circle, because the hotelier who lives next door does not get any guests the next year, so he in turn has to convert his premises into a DSS hostel, thus establishing the cycle of despair in towns such as Scarborough.

Badly run DSS hostels are often the centre of organised crime and violence. We do not get many murders in Scarborough, but in 1994 we had three, and two of those were directly attributable to badly run DSS hostels. The national crime figures are even worse. They paint an ugly picture that points to drug-crazed youths stealing to feed their vile habits. In the four years to 1994, the national average of convictions for shoplifting increased across the country by 8 per cent., but in coastal resorts, the increase was 47 per cent. The national average for theft from cars increased by 9 per cent., but in coastal resorts, the increase was 30 per cent. The national average for trafficking in drugs increased by quite a terrible 71 per cent., but in the resorts the increase was 101 per cent.

As usual, the devil is in the detail when we look at the figures, because convictions for trafficking in drugs in Eastbourne increased by 81 per cent. In Worthing, they increased by 100 per cent. In Ramsgate, they increased by 165 per cent. and in Scarborough, they increased by a staggering 350 per cent.

These badly run DSS ghettos are no seasonal feature of our cold English winters. They are a permanent and profoundly corrosive feature of life at the seaside. Anyone who imagined for a moment that Members of Parliament such as my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, North, for Bournemouth, East, for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and myself would sit idly back and watch the British tourism industry die a slow and agonising death because of such places would be sadly mistaken.

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That is why that group of hon. Members representing British resorts--Tories to a man--are grateful for the support that has been given by our hon. Friend the Minister. That is why we are glad that we have made a sufficiently good case for a tougher scheme, allowing local authorities to cut the cancer out of badly run DSS hostels and thus to arrest the decay that has already eaten at the fringes of our great tourism industry. Some of England's finest jewels will thereby be preserved for generations to come.

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