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29 Jan 1996 : Column 724

8.34 pm

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): I welcome the opportunity that the Bill provides to explore in detail the present housing problems and examine various alternative proposals. I agree with the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) that there should be proper scrutiny of the various proposals in the Bill, in Committee and afterwards. I say that with some comfort, because I am already serving in one Committee, so I will not be serving on the one considering the Housing Bill.

I should like to lay down two basic principles regarding housing policy, neither of which refers to tenure. In Britain, we have been concerned to advance owner-occupation, but that has not been the case even among the middle classes in some other countries in Europe or in north America.

The first principle is the right of all to a secure roof, although we might argue about the location, the cost and with whom it is shared. In that context, I welcome what has been achieved since 1990 by the rough sleepers initiative in substantially reducing the number of those sleeping rough in central London. I am concerned to hear from Shelter the suggestion that hostels in central London cannot always cope with the number of people seeking access. I hope that that problem will be addressed, and that the rough sleepers initiative will be continued, properly resourced and extended where necessary to other centres outside London.

I hope that we can be more effective in going back to first causes regarding those sleeping rough, and finding out whether it was the local authorities or perhaps their families who let them down and caused their unhappy circumstances. Many of them suffer from mental difficulties or drug or alcohol problems, and other caring or public authorities should take responsibility for them.

My second principle was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait). We must make better use of existing housing stock and areas of development, rather than constantly intruding into green-field sites. In my constituency, there has been strong resistance to the development even of private housing estates on green-field sites, and I am sure that the development of council or similar estates would also be resisted.

We have an opportunity to do that, because, for the first time in more than a century, perhaps as a tragic consequence of the recession, we have balanced development in our economy. There is no longer the constant flow of people from the north coming south in search of work, that has continued for the past century. That has certain merit in that it gives us the opportunity to look again at our housing policy.

In that respect, I welcome the view of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. It agreed with the view expressed in the Government White Paper that predated the Bill:

The CPRE continues that it is rather disappointed that the Bill

29 Jan 1996 : Column 725

Those measures are necessary; if we cannot address them in the Bill, we must do so elsewhere.

Like many Members, I welcome certain measures in the Bill. I particularly welcome those relating to homes in multiple occupation and neighbour nuisance, although I know that the two issues are not totally interrelated. Those problems do not occur only in seaside resorts, although we have heard powerful and impressive speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, North(Mr. Elletson), for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) and for Hastings and Rye.

Problems have occurred in Taunton. Rowbarton, in the northern part of Taunton, has many houses in multiple occupation. One night last autumn, there was an incident in which someone got hold of some firearms that were being illegally kept in a house, and shots were fired. The police were called, and there was much fear and concern in the neighbourhood.

Subsequently, there was a large public meeting, which I and representatives of the police and every possible public authority attended. The feeling was strongly expressed that there should be more rigorous control of some landlords. I noted with interest the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East and for Blackpool, North about the Bill's provisions in respect of landlords of property in multiple occupation. I hope that that issue will be examined as the Bill proceeds.

I welcome the exclusion from the right to buy of housing association properties in certain rural villages. I hope that Ministers will carefully consider the views of the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the Rural Development Commission on the Bill's proposed safeguards, because those organisations have raised particular concerns in their letters to us.

I have no particular brief for Shelter, which recently organised a meeting in my constituency which I, the Bishop of Taunton and the director of Shelter attended and addressed. Shelter went about things in a fairly overtly party political way--perhaps we should expect it to do so, in a pre-election year. However, I know and respect certain people in my constituency who, through the organisation South-West Housing Aid, work closely with Shelter.

A letter from Chris Holmes, Shelter's director, states:

    The cost of these changes will not only be borne by homeless families. They will cost the taxpayer too."

After the meeting in my constituency, a friend and neighbour who happens to be a Labour voter wrote to reiterate those concerns:

29 Jan 1996 : Column 726

Another constituent wrote to point out, for example, that a number of people in professional and other posts are employed on short-term contracts, which creates an insecurity of income that relates to the problems of obtaining secure housing.

I hope that the Committee will examine those important issues, because we need to be reassured, as we approach a general election, that there are not the problems that Shelter and others have alleged will arise.

I have spoken on housing matters several times since I was elected, and Opposition Members will recall my concerns. However, I am aware of the danger of intrusive substantial new housing developments on green-field sites, which is why I made an important point about that matter at the beginning of my speech. At the same time, it is offensive to us to see people sleeping rough in central London.

I hope that central Government, local authorities and voluntary organisations will be able to tackle that problem--which stems from wider issues, including the breakdown of families. The Conservative party believes in the integrity of the family, which means helping people who have suffered as a result of family breakdown and providing a housing policy and accommodation that keep families together rather than breaking them up.

8.44 pm

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): First, I must declare that I have registered interests in housing, but as far as I can see, they are not affected in any way by the proposed measure.

The Bill is a prime example of the Conservative party saying one thing and doing the opposite. It has continued to preach the virtues of owner-occupation, but the Bill, while offering the prospect of wider owner-occupation at the expense of housing associations, will create only 1,200 sales in the first year. The Bill does nothing for the 1,200 people and more whose homes are repossessed every week, who lose their status as owner-occupiers and get nothing in return.

The Government also preach the virtues of the family, but Bishop Jim Thompson, of the Church of England's social policy committee, rightly said of the Bill's proposals for tackling homelessness:

Even the Bill's title is hypocritical. It cannot properly be described as a Housing Bill when it does not provide resources for additional housing or for improving the quality of existing properties. Instead, the Bill introduces measures to deprive people of housing. It will shuffle thousands of people into temporary accommodation, restrict tenant choice, restrict the activities of councils and housing associations, and add a further sorry chapter to the Government's 16 years of neglect of social housing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) pointed out that homeless legislation has survived intact since 1977, including the whole of the Thatcher era. Even Nicholas Ridley, who was hardly a liberal, concluded that it was working well. No one outside the Tory party and its various front organisations supports the Bill, except those who hope for a cash return from it. The Bill deserves to perish, and the Government should be judged by it and perish with it.

29 Jan 1996 : Column 727

As a Member of Parliament representing a Leeds constituency who spent some years on the city council's housing committee, I can say that the Bill's effects on Leeds well illustrate my abhorrence of the measure and my condemnation of its homelessness proposals in particular. The council states:

the top group--

    In 1994/95, 17.5 per cent. of new lettings of council homes were made to homeless households in priority need; 40 per cent. were to other households on the waiting list; 41 per cent. were to existing council tenants transferring to other council housing (including those transferring by mutual exchange) and 1.5 per cent. were let as part of the National Mobility Scheme.

    In addition"--

to its balanced policy on the rehousing of people who are homeless--

The proposals in the Bill

for the first time--

Therefore, the legislation would actually make life much more difficult for the council, which already has a balanced housing policy.

The council's views are in line with the Church of England's national housing coalition, which has conducted much research on the proposals, and published that research in October 1995. Its report said:

It continues:

The report pointed out that people are not homeless as a temporary measure but, in general, on a long-term basis. It pointed out that people are not homeless from choice. They are not responsible for being homeless. People pushed out of their homes, as the report makes clear, include those who are

Homelessness is often a problem of safety and security for families, especially families with children.

The Government, of course, have only just released the guidance on which they are consulting local authorities. The Government should have thought twice before they published lists for councils that are already making their own sensible priorities on housing homeless people.

In Leeds in the past financial year, although 2,318 households were accepted as homeless, a further 3,212 were found to be homeless but without a priority need for housing. The breakdown of the figures shows that more

29 Jan 1996 : Column 728

people are housed as a priority for reasons including domestic violence, the loss of private rented housing and mental ill health, and for special reasons, perhaps because they are vulnerable young people. Anyone would agree that those categories of homeless people deserve urgent attention. Some of those categories are included in the guidance on which local authorities are being consulted by the Government.

Why is consultation taking place at that time, when the results of that consultation will come back to the Government after the Standing Committee has considered all those issues? Is that a thoughtful way to proceed? I agree that local authorities need time to reply, but they must reply by 25 March 1996, by which time the Committee will probably have finished. Surely the timing suggests that the Government's consultation is again intended to provide a rubber stamp for what they already propose to do.

The alternative of the private rented sector, which is suggested by the Government as a possible way forward, does not appear to be any answer. The Church of England's research shows that most landlords in the private sector want a deposit and guaranteed rent in advance, and they provide less security and, assisted by the Government, higher rent levels.

The Bill is a package of misery for all those who are in genuine housing need. It should be thrown out.

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