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6.16 pm

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): May I begin by apologising to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the House and colleagues on both Front Benches as a long-standing constituency engagement means that I will have to leave the Chamber temporarily soon after I have made my contribution?

I welcome the opportunity to speak after the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), although I do not share his memories of the Committee on which I

8 Jan 2001 : Column 751

also served in 1996: I do not remember that it was quite as golden as he presented. However, I agree that the problem of homelessness will not be solved exclusively by bricks and mortar as there must be a genuine multi-agency approach to people who, for various reasons, find themselves homeless. I welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the fact that local authorities must take responsibility for young people leaving care, for people leaving prison and individuals who suffer from domestic violence.

Regarding people leaving prison and asylum seekers, I should like to refer to the contribution of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). The figures he cited are right, and the Association of London Government has, I imagine, furnished every Member of Parliament with the relevant information. At the moment there are more than 46,000 households in London in temporary accommodation, and 6,000 households in bed-and- breakfast accommodation. That increase in homelessness does not have to do with asylum seekers or local authorities already giving priority to people leaving prison before the legislation comes into effect. As the ALG makes abundantly clear, the main reason for the increase in homelessness placements is the fall in available supply. The ALG states:

fell by 10 per cent. on the previous year's figure and was by far the lowest figure since the mid 1980s. The extremely comprehensive and interesting report by the London Mayor's housing commission states:

On rents, the report states:

Those costs are caused by an influx of people into London, which, as a great centre for the economy, has experienced the vast rise in house costs that I have detailed.

I welcome the Government's approach with regard to the new categories, which will have to be the responsibility of local authorities. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that much better use must be made of existing housing stock in London. I have cited figures on families in temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast, but they are, in a sense, merely the tip of the iceberg. It has been estimated that there could be as many as 112,000 people in London who are either without permanent homes or living in completely unacceptable housing conditions that are caused by vast overcrowding and abysmal maintenance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred to properties in his constituency that are uninhabitable because the landlord does not maintain

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them. Some of my constituents are living in conditions that are even worse than those described by my hon. Friend. Again, that is the case because landlords have failed to maintain the properties. Many of the people in question are elderly and some have severe disabilities. They almost invariably live on their own and are suffering conditions of absolute squalor, but we, the taxpayers, must pay via housing benefit the rents that they are being charged. It is unacceptable that the taxpayer should pay vast sums to landlords whom I deem not only to be corrupt but also to be slum landlords, when our constituents have to live in completely unacceptable conditions. In my view, such conditions would have been unacceptable in the 18th century, and they are certainly unacceptable in the 21st century.

In common with other hon. Members, I offer my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning my congratulations, but I urge him to examine and encourage local authorities, under the aegis of the Mayor's housing commission, on the potential for incorporating the empty homes out there--104,000 are estimated to exist in London--via the Empty Homes Agency. I know that there are many reasons why the houses are empty. It is not unusual for them to be unoccupied because the families whose properties they have become cannot agree about the price or the sale. A wide range of reasons exist, but there is a serious crisis in London. All agencies will have to work together to settle London's housing crisis, not only in the medium and long term, but in the immediate short term.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will take another, final issue into consideration: housing benefit. The West Hampstead housing association has furnished me with a report that shows that changes have been made with regard to responsibility for housing benefit that have impacted especially on registered social landlords. I urge my hon. Friend and colleagues in the Department of Social Security to re-examine housing benefit. In some instances, it is in a mess because the administration of the scheme has been put out into the private sector. I ask the House to note that my local authority, Camden, has received more than one charter award for the excellent housing benefit service that it provides in the borough of Camden. Perhaps that service could be a model for other local authorities that are having serious difficulties in respect of housing benefit. The existing framework has basic housing benefit structures that warrant swift examination and genuine joined-up government by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Social Security. We cannot afford to lose any venues in London that might now or in the immediate future afford the possibility of decent homes for the thousands of people who see no chance of ever obtaining such homes.

6.25 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I should declare an interest as a solicitor, although I have practised only rarely in conveyancing. In fact, I have dealt with only one conveyance in my life as a qualified solicitor. Unfortunately, the sale was completed a week before the purchase, so we had to pay a hotel bill for my client in the interim period. I was then moved on to criminal law, where it was thought that I would do less damage.

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I should like to comment on part I, which deals with home buying and selling. All hon. Members would support any sensible measures that improve efficiency in house buying and selling. However, one or two of the Government's proposals concern me greatly. My first concern is the increased costs that might result from the survey requirement in the seller's pack, and my second relates to the criminal proceedings that the Bill can initiate.

There are various estimates of the cost of the seller's pack. Local searches cost about £140 and drainage searches will probably cost another £40. When coupled with the price of the seller's survey, those charges are likely to amount to a minimum cost of some £500 for the seller's pack. Of course, that does not take into account the cost of preparing the pack, which could easily amount to another £200. To be of any value to the purchaser, the pack must be carefully and properly prepared, so the average seller is likely to face an immediate cost of some £700 merely to put the property on the market.

That is entirely contrary to the basic principle of no sale, no fee, which has survived and operated pretty well for the past 20 or 30 years. Many people who are professionally involved in the house-selling process believe that the cost will act as a major disincentive to sellers across the market. Those at the lower end of the property ladder might be especially affected. Every first-time buyer becomes a first-time seller, all of whose money could be locked up in the equity of his or her property, assuming that some equity exists. A person in that position might find it difficult, if not impossible, to meet the cost of the seller's package without the guarantee of finding a buyer.

Currently, the cost of a sale will arise only on its completion, when proceeds are available to be used for payment. People who might be especially hit include those who are forced to sell because of financial difficulties. Such people could be husbands or wives who are left in possession of a property after the desertion of their spouse. Others who might be especially hit include those who sell their property after losing their job, those on benefits and elderly people whose only asset is their home. For such people, £700 is an awful lot of money to find up front. Unless estate agents are prepared to say to sellers, "We will guarantee this and will find the money", a great number of people will have an acute problem. The Government should consider that matter carefully.

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