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Mr. Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was kind enough to refer to the amendment in my name. I should be grateful to know whether the Government support the view that local authorities should be required to meet housing need before housing demand. I shall give an example that prompts my concern.
Local authorities own land. There is often pressure on them to sell it to realise the value of the land. Land is often needed for social housing, whether it is owned by the council or by a registered social landlord. I often get the impression that the Government are putting pressure on local government to get rid of housing and land. The result is that housing for those who need it, which does not bring the dowry that housing built by developers might bring, is squeezed out because land is developed for houses for those who may love them, but do not need them. Second and third homes should never be a priority when housing need remains unmet. When about 14,000 people are on the waiting list, as they are in Southwark, we should not be developing land in the borough for second or third homes.
I have a question about the perfectly acceptable Conservative amendment No. 18. Under the Bill, or under the amended Bill if the amendment is accepted, will local authorities have to take into account the circumstances of people who, because they are single adults or are not rough sleepers, are not priority homeless? I offer two examples of people in my constituency who have fallen through the net in the past three months. The first was a young, single woman, aged 21, who was sleeping in a car. She was training as a nursery nurse. She did not have housing priority as a homeless person. As she could find nowhere to live, her training was at risk; training and undertaking placements when one has to sleep in a car every night are hardly an easy life style. During the wet and cold winter period, she was extremely vulnerable.
The second case involved a young man, aged 19, who was also sleeping in a car, in Camberwell. He was holding down a cleaning job for four hours a day--his first job. He was unable to live in his home with his mother and her new partner because the partner would not accept him. He was unable to stay at his girlfriend's home because he had once committed self-harm there--a suicide attempt, or a call for help. Understandably, the family were nervous about that and told their daughter, "No, you can't have your boyfriend here".
Neither of those people had priority for local authority housing, nor did they qualify under the rough sleepers initiative, because they were not unemployed and had not been rough sleepers for six months. We must ensure that we do not leave that category of people in such a predicament.
When I went back to the local authority, it accepted, to its credit, that the case of the young man was a priority. As someone whose father and uncle had committed suicide and who had himself attempted self-harm, he should have been categorised as vulnerable and thus given priority need status. Thankfully, he has now been awarded that status--at my request--and has been given accommodation while his needs are assessed properly.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) describes his amendments as uncontentious. As he is a member of a party that, in government, was almost singlehandedly responsible for the huge explosion in the number of rough sleepers on the streets of London and for the large number, within that group, of people with serious mental health problems, and as that party constantly turned its face away from creating any rights for people with disabilities, I find much of his argument unbelievable. I am delighted that perhaps he is beginning to acknowledge that those matters warrant everyone's consideration. As in so many matters that have to do with compassion, the Conservatives are late to the party, but if they have arrived, that is good.
Mr. Loughton: The hon. Lady can be forgiven as she was not a member of the Standing Committee, but perhaps she will acknowledge the figures that were eventually accepted by Ministers. Between 1991 and 1996, under the Conservative Government's rough sleepers initiative, the number of rough sleepers in central London alone fell from more than 1,000 to 286. Does she agree with those figures? If so, her argument is completely bogus.
Ms Jackson: I did not serve on the Committee, but I have read all the Hansard reports of its proceedings, and it seems to me that what was essentially wrong with the previous Conservative Government still characterises the Conservatives' approach. They still get bogged down in putting their faith in figures that, in the main, compare unlike with unlike, which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) were so keen to do. No, I do not accept the reading of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham of the policies that the Conservative Government instituted to try to tackle the problem that they had created--too little, too late and, in my view, grudgingly.
I am astonished by the hon. Gentlemen's grudging response to what the present Government have done, and especially to the work of the rough sleepers initiative. If they are worried about this issue, they should offer firm thanks to Louise Casey and that initiative, who are on target to reduce rough sleeping in the capital by two thirds by the date that they have set.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham argues that the additional funding that the Government have given should be returned to local authorities when the RSI winds up in 2002. That would simply increase the burdens of rough sleeping that are borne, in the main, by only four boroughs in this city. We should consider ways to prevent, not encourage, rough sleeping.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are holes in the fabric. They result from the previous Government's failure to replace, or to allow local authorities to replace, housing stock that had been lost, and their failure to allow local authorities to enter into partnerships or even to repair and maintain their existing stock. We have too few affordable properties in this city. In the medium and long term, steps must be taken, but there is also a need in the short term.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey does not need my advice, but he might be interested to know that organisations that have received contracts from the rough sleepers initiative tell me that an increasing number of young people who are coming into the centre of London--thank God, no longer from other parts of the United Kingdom, but certainly from the outer London boroughs--are under the misapprehension that if they take up rough sleeping they will be prioritised for housing. We must make it abundantly clear that that is not, nor will it be, the case. The purpose of the rough sleepers initiative was, rightly, to prioritise the most vulnerable of those who are on our streets. The initiative is working effectively and well, and that is the strong view of the majority of those long-established charities that have worked in the area for many years.
However, in London at least, there will have to be an integrated policy that takes account of the fact that, in many instances, rough sleeping by people who are particularly vulnerable, either as a result of mental illness or physical disability, is not a problem exclusively of bricks and mortar. It is also a problem of maintaining people when they eventually achieve a form of permanent housing.
In my constituency it is not unusual for a person who has been rough sleeping, and for whom one has eventually managed to find permanent housing, to run away when the first electricity or gas bill arrives, because they cannot yet take absolute control of their life. It is not unusual for those in the older category of rough sleeper especially--many of whom have been in the armed forces, so they have been used to camaraderie and a life in which the individual does not necessarily have to take day-to-day responsibility for living--to be overwhelmed, when they are in their own property, by the sheer loneliness. Someone said to me the other day, "You look at a wall at 4 o'clock in the morning and there is no one to talk to; I go back to the street."
For that reason, there is great need for a pan-London strategy, to ensure not only additional affordable housing but additional support. I am not arguing, and those organisations that already have excellent schemes in place would not argue, that the most vulnerable people must have someone living in their flat or bedsit 24 hours a day, to ensure that they know how to turn the gas off and the light on, pay the bills and wash themselves. I am arguing that there are schemes that work well and that, as has been said at other stages of the Bill's progress, it is important that central and local government start to disseminate across a much wider field examples of best practice so that we do not go through the pointless, time-wasting and expensive process of reinventing the wheel. Equally, to
In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I do believe that there will be difficulties for local authorities, because in some there will be an element of nimbyism. They may not necessarily want people who have been rough sleepers, who may be recovered alcoholics or recovered drug users, in their locality but, speaking exclusively from the perspective of a London Member of Parliament, we simply must ensure that there is a cohesive, integrated strategy that ensures that we never again have people with nowhere to rest their head other than a shop doorway, and that those who are mentally ill are properly supported: a long-term strategy that ensures that we create truly integrated communities where local authorities, registered social landlords and anyone and everyone that we can attract into this field will provide the housing that, at least in London, we desperately need.