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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): One of the Bill's welcome features is the aspiration, in part II, that greater choice should be available to homeless people and to tenants. However, one of my reservations about the Bill is that it might reduce choice. Although I raised that issue with the Minister in an intervention, he rather dismissively asserted that there would be more choice.

I have not simply plucked the issue out of the air. On Friday, I took the trouble to visit Mr. Greg Spawton, the housing needs manager at New Forest district council, and he raised precisely that issue with me. Subsequently, he has confirmed the points that he made in an electronic-mail message to me, from which I shall quote. [Interruption.] One of the advantages of such electronic communications is that a hard copy can be had if one perseveres with the machine long enough to retrieve one.

Under the heading "Use of the Private Rented Sector", Mr. Spawton says:

The housing officer might be wrong, and my analysis might be wrong. However, the Under-Secretary should explain why that analysis is incorrect when he winds up.

A further welcome aspect of part II is the new categories of people to whom there will now be an obligation to provide housing, especially 16 and 17-year-olds, people leaving care, people fleeing domestic violence and those with an institutionalised background. The problems affecting such people are currently not being properly addressed. We know that from walking down the Strand or Victoria street in this city, or from going to any other town in the United Kingdom. Particularly proximate to my constituency are the people selling the Big Issue in Bournemouth, who will explain the nature of the problem. We also know about the problem from our constituency case loads and our constituency advice bureaux.

I welcome the aspiration that provision should be made for such people, but that will not be unreservedly welcomed by the local authorities that will have to discharge the responsibility. They are struggling to discharge their existing obligations, never mind the problems that will attend a widening of the net. The increase in resources foreshadowed in the explanatory notes to the Bill--some £8 million for all local authorities--will be insufficient to address the problem. My experience in the New Forest is that current resources are insufficient to address existing obligations, never mind those that will be added to them.

Mr. Love: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that local authorities such as his are struggling because during nearly 20 years of Conservative government no council houses were built?

Mr. Swayne: I shall come to why local authorities are struggling, and it is not the reason that the hon. Gentleman gives.

The new aspiration will also be unwelcome for many of our constituents who are already on the housing needs register. I cannot be alone in having a considerable

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mailbag of letters from people who are continually frustrated because they perceive--an important word--that they have had to make way in the housing queue for people whom they regard as less deserving.

Let us consider how the anger and frustration of those people might grow if their perception were that they, who had done nothing wrong, had to give their place to those from an institutional background--for example, offenders requiring resettlement. Of course it is right to address the problem of resettling offenders, but it would be unwise to do so without providing the resources capable of achieving that aim without breeding the resentment that already exists within the present settlement.

New Forest district council is a beacon council and is considered to be among the best at managing its housing resources. Its housing investment programme has been placed in the best category available for such programmes for four years. The Government office of the south-east wrote to New Forest district council recently about its housing strategy, stating that

We know what we are talking about when we quote the experience of New Forest district council in dealing with these problems.

I went to see local housing representatives on Friday, and I was alarmed by the statistics that they quoted, such as the alarming growth in the number of applications to be classified as homeless, the number of people accepted as homeless and the number of people on the housing needs register, set against the fairly flat performance in terms of the number of vacancies available. Most striking, however, was the growth in the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation over recent years. New Forest district council has been proud of its record in this respect: in 1998, the number of people in such accommodation was reduced to nil. The figure is now 120 household placements, and is projected to reach 160 by the end of this financial year.

Let us consider what will happen when the new obligations are imposed. This year, under guidance from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, New Forest district council is already accepting all 16 and 17-year-olds on to the housing needs register. In other words, that is being done in accordance with the provisions of the Bill before it has become law. That has had a significant effect on the number of people requiring bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In 1998-99, four 16 and 17-year-olds were accepted, and in 1999-2000 there were eight. So far this year, there have been 23. That is a measure of the increase in demand in only one of the categories being considered, and it shows the potential for a significant increase in the amount of bed-and-breakfast accommodation required.

Government policy is undermining the entirely laudable aspirations of the Bill. New Forest district council has used its capital resources to fund about 200 new properties over recent years. That is not nearly enough to meet its existing obligations, never mind those about to be placed on it. However, because of the way in which the Government are now dictating that the council must allocate its major repairs allowance, its ability to fund new houses will be reduced by about half. It will struggle to produce between 90 and 100 new homes. At a time when the Government are increasing the obligations placed on local authorities, New Forest district council's ability to deal with the problem is being halved.

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It is a matter of good fortune that local councils such as mine have a housing stock that has been well maintained over a number of years, and are therefore able to put more resources into grants for new build rather than into the maintenance of declining stock. It is, therefore, quite wrong that such councils should be subjected to the same straitjacket as councils in very different circumstances, with a very large housing stock requiring radical modernisation. Different rules should apply to us: it should be horses for courses.

It is outrageous that the decision whether to modernise the kitchens in the existing New Forest housing stock, or whether to build new houses for people who have no houses at all, should not be made by local councillors and officers in the New Forest who know the needs of the people there and are accountable to them. It is inappropriate for those decisions to be made in Whitehall or in Westminster, as they are now. That policy will do more to undermine our ability to deal with homelessness in the New Forest than the Bill can possibly do to assist us. I hope that the Minister will reconsider this wrong-headed policy.

7.19 pm

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I welcome the Bill for several reasons, one of which is that it specifically links homelessness with social services needs and recognises the appalling legacy that was inherited in 1997 of the large number of young people sleeping on the streets of London, with all the associated problems. That part of the Bill is a great step forward, and I strongly endorse and welcome it. The points that I want to make largely concern inner London and my constituency in particular.

The debate has been in two parts, because of the two sorts of housing problems in this country. There are enormous problems involving under-occupied, badly maintained, rundown estates, largely in the north and the north-east, where there is a lack of take-up of local authority housing and it is very difficult to sell a house.

The flip-side concerns inner-city constituencies such as mine, where unemployment is, generally speaking, above the national average and, according to the Department's own index, there is far greater poverty than in most parts of the country--six of the 10 most deprived areas of the country are in inner London, including Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington--yet private sector housing is massively expensive. One cannot buy a flat of any kind in my constituency for less than about £100,000, and a three-bedroom house is completely unaffordable for anyone on anything like an average--even a London average--income.

That problem has been countered in the past by council developments, some in large-scale and inappropriate estates and some in smaller and much more sensitive estates. Some of the estates in my constituency are models of good planning, management and practice. I commend the councils that developed the good and popular estates. My hon. Friend the Minister has visited many of them and will be aware of the high standards of design. However, like everywhere else, we have enormous difficulties with large, system-built estates, mainly from the 1960s, which are in very poor condition and have enormous debt problems. At the time of the previous general election, the estimate for the repair needs of the

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major estates in Islington was nearly £500 million. One estate alone requires £40 million of repairs to bring it up to an acceptable living standard.

I am glad that the capital receipts have been released and that the Government have managed to find quite a lot of money for estate improvements. The new roofs and windows and improvements in staircases and security systems are beginning to make life more tolerable for the people living on those estates.

Cuts in the local voluntary sector by the Liberal Democrat council, causing the loss of youth clubs, do not help. I do not mean this in a cheap, partisan way. I mean, seriously, that the council, whatever party runs it, has a responsibility to ensure that there is joined-up thinking. Young people growing up in overcrowded flats will inevitably not want to spend time at home in the evenings. They want to be out and about with their mates, and if there are no youth facilities or clubs and the community centres are closed, they will get into trouble.

I am sorry to say that last year Islington had 80,000 recorded crimes, several murders and many knife attacks and incidents of street violence. I am well aware that youth clubs will not solve all of that, but joined-up thinking, recognising the interrelationship of housing, youth and unemployment problems, will begin to make a difference.

There is a longer-term issue. The housing list in Islington is between 8,000 and 10,000, depending on how the calculations are done. The figure is broadly similar for most inner-London boroughs. The number on the transfer list is probably greater. The number of children growing up in seriously overcrowded, poor-quality flats is enormous. Any teacher could tell us about their under-achievement in school and their behaviour problems. Likewise, growing up in bed-and-breakfast or hostel accommodation leads to health, behaviour and education problems.

We should be careful about categorising who gets housed. Do we house people in desperate housing need; those in housing need because of illness; those who are ill in any case; those who are homeless unintentionally or, so-called, intentionally; or asylum seekers and refugee families?

If people are housed temporarily in hostel or bed-and-breakfast accommodation, or any kind of short-term leased accommodation, an aura of instability is created for the children. They change schools often, and I suspect that in some cases they fall through the school net altogether, because they move from hostel to hostel so often that the parents find it impossible to get them into a school. We are not talking about millions or even thousands of children, but a significant number of children's education is being wrecked by the policy of regularly moving people between hostels and other temporary accommodation.

I have often spoken to my hon. Friend the Minister about the longer-term strategy for the new building of housing in inner London or the right of local authorities to purchase existing properties, converting them if necessary, to house people on the waiting list and in housing need. Unless we expand the affordable rented sector in inner London, the schemes that the Prime Minister and others have been talking about--of specialist housing for teachers, nurses, fire officers, police and others--will have to be extended in a year or two

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to hospital cleaners, postal workers, plumbers, gas maintenance workers and so on and on. We have to provide more affordable rented housing for ordinary people in London as it is, never mind how it might change in the future. I ask the Government seriously to consider providing yet more money to local authorities to invest--I stress the word--in good-quality housing for the ordinary people who live in central and inner London.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) spoke eloquently about housing benefit. Islington used to run its housing benefit service through its neighbourhood offices. The system was never perfect, but at the end of the day a problem could be solved because one could get hold of the relevant official and sort it out. The system was then centralised and it got worse because one could not get hold of the right official, and the number of people not getting their housing benefit went up.

The council then privatised the service and handed it to ITNET, which regularly posts enormous profits, and the situation got worse, so it appointed a consultant to liaise between it and ITNET to discuss the problems, which then got still worse. The fraud inspectorate was sent in. Thousands of people have been told that they are in housing arrears when they are not, and many people in private rented accommodation have been evicted through absolutely no fault of their own, but through the sheer incompetence of ITNET to deliver a service that, being publicly paid for, should be publicly administered.

The misery caused by the company in both my borough and Hackney is legion. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister once again to intervene and put whatever pressure he can on the local authority to cancel the contract, get rid of ITNET and put in someone who can run the service for the benefit of those who really need it.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has read the excellent report presented to the Mayor of London, entitled "Homes for a World City". On page 84, it lists the number of people in temporary accommodation--bed and breakfast, short-term accommodation and so on--in London. The figure has increased over the years. Paying extortionate rents to bed-and-breakfast and slum landlords is costing the public purse a great deal.

I do not begrudge paying housing benefit, because I strongly believe that a welfare state should support people in need, but we would be better off investing the money in purchasing homes for people to live in, rather than lining the pockets of bed-and-breakfast landlords and millionaires who are making a fortune out of the public purse through the housing benefit system. In some cases, after investing only £150,000 or £200,000 to convert a property into half a dozen flats, a private landlord can get all that money, or more, back in less than two years. That is a pretty good return on an investment--if one happens to be a private landlord.

I hope that when the Committee considers the Bill, it will re-examine the provision of housing throughout London and the south-east. I also hope that, in his reply, the Minister will give us some crumbs of comfort to the effect that the Government are prepared to reconsider the need for further investment by local authorities in local authority housing. I hope that they will provide a level playing field for housing transfer, rather than saying to

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local authorities, "There's capital available from the Housing Corporation if the properties go to a registered social landlord, but if they stay with you, there's no money available." That is not a fair choice. We need to provide decent housing for everybody. Surely that is what a welfare state should be about.

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