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3 Apr 2001 : Column 56WH

Bed-and-breakfast Accommodation

1.29 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise some very serious concerns about the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families.

The Government have adopted robust measures to reduce homelessness, and have rightly committed themselves to reducing by two thirds the number who sleep rough on our streets. The rough sleepers initiative has shown that significant extra funding can enable the rough sleepers unit to make considerable progress towards achieving that target. I welcome the Government's commitment in that regard, and I have initiated today's debate because I want a similar target to be set in another area of housing policy.

The extended use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families with children is an aspect of housing policy that shames us all. In Tower Hamlets, the local council currently accommodates about 1,200 homeless households. As a result of initiatives undertaken by its Labour administration, almost half those households are housed in temporary accommodation in the borough. They, at least, have the small comfort of an assured shorthold tenancy near the supportive network of family and friends. The lot of a further 300 or so who are housed in similar assured shorthold tenancies outside the borough is not so good, but at least it is better than that of the remaining 300 or so households who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Anyone who has taken time to visit such accommodation will recognise that it is inappropriate to house vulnerable adults there for extended periods. It is important to recognise that we are not talking about a room with a view and a friendly landlady serving a full English breakfast with a wry joke about the weather. Often, those who flee domestic violence have to share a cramped space and inadequate facilities with people with mental health problems, or problems involving alcohol, drugs or substance abuse. It is deplorable that families with vulnerable young children and impressionable teenagers are often forced to live in such an environment. The detrimental impact on a child's health, welfare and educational opportunities is undeniable. The stress for parents is unimaginable, and the problem is one that more and more families face.

According to recent figures, the publication of which has coincided with this debate, the number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is rising again. Some 10,000 households across England are in such accommodation, more than 7,000 of which are in London. That highlights the capital's problems in dealing with this issue. Moreover, several thousand other households are in bed-and-breakfast annexes.

In Standing Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) tabled new clause 16 to the Homes Bill, which would have established targets for reducing the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I am not entirely sure what the Minister's view was at that time, but today we ask him the same question: are the Government willing to set targets for reducing the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation?

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I accept that the commitment will place significant additional burdens on local authorities and I knew that the chance of new clause 16 being incorporated was very slim. In the nicety of parliamentary language, it was described as a probing amendment. I want to take a moment to probe the harsh realities of life for every child who went to sleep last night surrounded by the mayhem and insecurity that often characterise bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We have an opportunity now to do something about that. Despite recent performance improvements, many local authority homeless persons' units are still a long way from being able to complete assessments within the six-week period specified in the code of guidance. Many families with children for which local authorities accept a duty are not, even then, immediately moved into assured shorthold tenancies and many vulnerable adults must remain in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for up to a year before they are found alternative accommodation.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I wonder whether my hon. Friend has come across cases such as that of my constituent, Jane Dennis, who came to me having been told that she could expect to wait up to two years in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and is currently expected to wait another nine months. I have a letter from a locum psychiatrist describing her depressive illness, which includes

Ms King : I thank my hon. Friend for breathing life into the examples that I was giving, explaining the stress suffered by many people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, particularly children, and the damage that occurs to the relationship between parents and children. My hon. Friend's illustration bears out the fact that prolonged stays in such accommodation are simply unsuitable.

The figures for the average length of time spent by families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation are not readily available. However, anecdotal evidence from hon. Members' advice surgeries, such as that outlined by my hon. Friend, as well as the eagerness with which many families accept temporary accommodation in cold, damp, expensive and poorly furnished flats of their own, reveal the extent of the problem.

There are problems with the approach that I advocate. I know that the introduction of tougher guidance demanding quicker assessment will not work without extra investment in services for homeless people. I know that those services are already over-stretched and would risk judicial review if they did not promptly move successfully assessed applicants out of

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bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I know that the targets do not distinguish between families with children and vulnerable single adults, whom we also want to move into more suitable accommodation more quickly. I know that the targets fail to take account of the desperate shortage of affordable housing and temporary accommodation in London. I also know that the Government are committed, as no other in the past 20 or 30 years, to increasing investment in social housing. I know that if children are not moved out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, we fail them miserably and perhaps damage them for life. We must overcome those problems.

If the Government have succeeded in reversing the decline in the investment in social housing, the next step is to improve the service for homeless people. If, when setting targets, Ministers take the opportunity to allow local authorities more freedom to lease private sector accommodation and to improve the temporary social housing grant regime for registered social landlords, we can end the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for anything other than a reduced four-week assessment period.

I have learned during the past four years not to expect Ministers to cave in to impassioned pleas from a couple of Back Benchers in an Adjournment debate. That is astonishing, but I have learned that lesson. However, I am an optimist and I hope that my exceptionally right hon. Friend the Minister will at least assure us today that he will give sympathetic consideration to developing a series of targets--stepping stones to the abolition of prolonged use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I hope also that he will examine Shelter's proposals to increase the amount of temporary accommodation, particularly in London.

Britain is rich enough and the Government are bold enough and compassionate enough to consign bed-and-breakfast accommodation to the past. I trust that the Minister will do everything in his power to do that within the next three years.

1.42 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) for raising this important matter and for the way in which she presented a strong case for more effective action to tackle the problem of homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I share her concern about the large number of households that are in that position and the human impact that she graphically described, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Both my hon. Friends have been assiduous in pressing the issue during this Parliament. I have no hesitation in agreeing with my hon. Friends that the number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is too high and must be reduced. The constraints and limitations of living in one or two rooms, with bed and breakfast only, can have a debilitating effect on family life and particularly the development of young children. We must discourage that.

The Government have a clear policy on the use of temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families with children. It should be used only as a last

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resort when nothing more suitable is available and its use should be limited to the minimum possible time. That is stated clearly in our statutory guidance to local authorities on the discharge of their responsibilities to homeless people.

Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is used by local authorities as one way of discharging a legislative duty to secure accommodation for homeless households. In many cases, an authority owes an interim duty to homeless families while it completes inquiries to determine whether a substantive duty is owed under legislation. The authority may decide that the applicant does not have a priority need or is found to have become homeless intentionally or not to be without alternative accommodation. In such cases, the authority will not have a substantive duty and the use of temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a short period is understandable. It is less appropriate as a discharge of the substantive duty to provide accommodation for homeless households that have been accepted as the responsibility of the local authority. However, I know that some local authorities have to use it for that purpose. I would be particularly concerned if authorities were using temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation when that could be avoided.

Homeless families are generally placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation because no better options are available. Having said that, not all authorities facing serious pressures are making extensive use of bed and breakfast. Indeed some, including my own local authority in Greenwich, have avoided bed and breakfast even though they accommodate substantial numbers of homeless households. Often that is because they have been more successful in directly re-housing homeless households into permanent housing, or they have secured better alternative forms of temporary accommodation. We should remember that those in bed and breakfast are just a small proportion of the total number of households placed in temporary accommodation pending the availability of a more settled housing solution.

The problem is concentrated in a relatively small number of areas. At the end of December 2000, only 36 local authorities in England reported 50 or more homeless households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Those 36 authorities accounted for 7,980 of the total of 9,860 households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Of those 36 authorities, 25 were in London, five in the south-west, four in the south-east, one in the north-west and one in Yorkshire and Humberside. That reinforces my hon. Friend's point that the problem is heavily concentrated in London.

The London borough of Tower Hamlets, which covers my hon. Friend's constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, is one of the inner London authorities that had more than 50 households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation--a total of 145 at the end of December 2000. I am pleased to say that Tower Hamlets council is working hard to keep that number as low as possible. While the total number of households in temporary accommodation in Tower Hamlets increased by about 806 during the period from December 1997 to December 2000, the numbers in bed-and-breakfast

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accommodation decreased by 19, and in December 2000 represented just 9 per cent. of the total number of homeless households for whom the authority had accepted responsibility. That is much better than the London average, which is 15 per cent.

The picture in Regent's Park and Kensington, North is not so happy because my hon. Friend's constituency straddles two boroughs. Kensington and Chelsea has the highest percentage of all homeless applicants placed in bed and breakfast. At the last count it was 68 per cent. The City of Westminster had the fourth highest percentage with 36 per cent. of homeless households accepted by the local authority being placed in bed and breakfast. That is an indication of how the pattern varies between areas and how, despite considerable pressures, some authorities can do much better than others to minimise the use of bed and breakfast. Tower Hamlets has also made good use of its own housing stock to meet the needs of 39 per cent. of its households in temporary accommodation; that compares with an average of just 16 per cent. across London generally.

Having accepted entirely the case that my hon. Friends have made that this is a serious and highly regrettable problem and having described the concentration of the problem in a limited number of areas, I come to the obvious question of what can be done to ensure that the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation is reduced to an absolute minimum. The best solution is to minimise the incidence of homelessness in the first place. That is easier said than done. The causes of homelessness can be complex and personal. One cannot wave a magic wand to ensure that all homelessness is eradicated immediately. However, the Government are doing a great deal and will do a great deal more to prevent homelessness.

The Homes Bill, on which both my hon. Friends served, is currently under consideration in another place. It will require local housing authorities to have a homelessness strategy and ensure that adequate provision of accommodation and support is available to those who cannot avoid homelessness. That will require a multi-agency approach, involving not just the local housing authority, but the social services authority and public, private and voluntary bodies whose activities can contribute to meeting the strategy's aims.

Some authorities already operate this sort of strategic and multi-agency approach, and we expect others to consider doing the same without waiting for the Bill to be enacted. Having said that, we expect the Homes Bill to reach the statute book soon to make clear our commitment to more effective and strategic responses to the challenge of homelessness throughout the country. Local authorities are best placed to tackle the problems of homelessness on the ground, but they need the tools to do the job. A supply of affordable accommodation is clearly the key and the Government are acting to achieve it.

Ms Buck : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and would not expect him to be able to make a clear commitment now. Can he assure me, however, that the Government are always open to representations from local authorities and others about high development costs, especially in central London? Shared ownership and social housing development for larger family units--dear to the hearts of Labour Members--is

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difficult, so we must engage in continuing discussions to find ways of making such developments economically feasible.

Mr. Raynsford : I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks. We are mindful of the pressures and open to representations from Members of Parliament, local authorities and other interested parties--from any area--with proposals to tackle the highly difficult and complex problems that I have described. I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied, by the end of my remarks, that the Government are taking the necessary steps to achieve our shared objective--to reduce dependence on bed and breakfast for accommodating homeless households.

The underlying problem that has produced the current pressures on many authorities is the chronic under funding of social housing by previous Administrations. The Conservative Government presided over a massive decline in housing investment, and the level of resources provided to local authorities halved between 1992-93 and 1997-98. We have more than reversed that decline: the resources for local authorities in 2001-02 will be about twice the amount made available on average each year by the previous Government during their last five years in office. We shall increase resources further in the subsequent two years.

The Government took action at an early stage to reverse the decline through the capital receipts initiative, which provided an extra £1.3 billion for housing investment in the years from 1997-98. Following the comprehensive spending review in 1998, a further £3.3 billion was provided for housing investment. In last year's spending review, we added another £1.6 billion to housing budgets.

Much of the increase in funding will be directed at tackling the backlog of repairs in existing local authority stock arising from years of neglect. It is estimated that that will cost £19 billion. Improvements in the condition of the stock can free up additional lettings and assist authorities to meet the pressures of demand that they face. Authorities can also reduce the numbers of dwellings that are unpopular because of their poor condition or need for major renovation to make them acceptable as modern living accommodation. It is an uphill task, but we have begun in earnest and are making good progress.

However, a significant part of the additional resources from last year's spending review were provided for investment in affordable housing through the Housing Corporation's approved development programme. Funding is set to increase to more than £1.2 billion by 2003-04--almost double current levels. We cannot expect that to translate into an equivalent doubling in the output because of the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North alluded, namely the pressure on land and construction costs in London and the high cost of acquiring property. Indeed, the costs of development in London are substantially higher than in other areas, which means that any additional provision is likely to reduce the overall number that can be achieved on average throughout the country. However, we are substantially increasing investment to help tackle the problem.

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We are also providing £250 million during the next three years through the starter home initiative to assist key workers to purchase homes in areas where high prices would otherwise prevent them from living within a reasonable distance of the communities that they serve. Many of those people would not actually face the horror of homelessness, but the fact that they have an alternative means that some of the pressures on local authorities to provide accommodation will be eased. That all contributes to meeting needs.

The situation is particularly acute in London, where pressure on all forms of accommodation is intense. That is an unfortunate consequence of a bustling capital city operating in a thriving economy. The main difficulties for those seeking affordable homes are the buoyant housing market and the shortage of affordable housing. We have increased the resources available for housing investment. In London, the Housing Corporation's approved development programme has been increased by £20 million this year to just under £300 million and is set to rise to over £540 million by 2003-04.

In the immediate term, the London Housing Partnership should help London authorities to access additional properties that can be used to provide permanent housing for homeless households on a London-wide basis. Under that scheme, resources are used to create a pool of accommodation to be provided or brought back into use through purchase and repair schemes. Each London authority has access to a share of the accommodation pool, relative to its housing need. Last year, a total of £40 million was made available for the programme, funded partly from the approved development programme and partly by a top slice of the regional allocation of the housing investment programme. The programme has been expanded in the current year, with the Housing Corporation contributing approximately £90 million.

I have outlined several measures that the Government have put in place since 1997 to reverse the decline in housing investment and tackle the problem of an insufficient supply of affordable housing. Unfortunately, the measures will take time to come to fruition and have a practical effect. In the light of the continuing pressures in London and the south-east, we are looking to work closely with the Housing Corporation and the local authority associations to consider the scope for other initiatives that could have an immediate effect on reducing the need to use bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families.

I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North will accept the Government's absolute commitment to tackling the problem that they highlighted in the debate and our determination to explore all the available options to ease the pressure on families that have to endure the unpleasant and disagreeable conditions that too often exist in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Question put and agreed to.

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