Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: It would help if the Minister would listen to such simple figures in the first place. Perhaps it would help if we made sure that we were both looking at the same column. I gave the figure in the first column on total acceptances, which was 102,650 in 1997-98. That struck us as a fair comparison. I skipped the figure immediately below that, but at the bottom of the column, before a gap, the figure for 1999-2000 is 105,520. Is that right?

Mr. Raynsford: Absolutely correct. The hon. Gentleman is asking us to believe something rather curious: that the last year of the Conservative Government was one in which Labour was in power for 11 out of the 12 months. Does he seriously suggest that the Conservatives should take responsibility for a period of 11 months out of 12 in which they were not in power?

Mr. Waterson: We can argue how many angels dance on a pinhead for as long as Mr. Gale's pension lasts. I was making the serious point that those figures have increased under the present Government. On any view, there is a difference between 102,000-odd and 105,000-odd; take one from the other and one is left with a figure of about 3,000. Does the Minister accept that? Indeed, he cannot not accept it because it is there in black and white. Once he accepts it, we can move on.

Mr. Raynsford: I may have misheard the hon. Gentleman this morning, but I heard him say that the figure was 102,000 in the financial year 1996-97.

Ms Karen Buck (Regents Park and Kensington, North): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: Let me pursue this rather important technical point.

That figure refers to the last year in which the Conservative party was in power—it lost power in May 1997. I accept entirely that 1996-97 is a fair comparison. As the hon. Gentleman will know if he checks carefully, the number of homeless households accepted by local authorities in the last 12 months of the Conservative Government was 110,800. For the latest 12 months—I shall not go as far back even as 1999-2000—the figure is 108,000, which is rather higher than the 105,000 figure cited by the hon. Gentleman.

During that time, there has been an overall reduction, but—the hon. Gentleman has heard me say this again and again—the figure is far too high. I am not happy about the current level. I am not happy about the fact that 108,000 homeless households were accepted during the past 12 months. However, it is an untruth to suggest that the number of homeless households accepted by local authorities under this Government is higher than the figure for the last year when the Conservative party was in office. The final figure when they left office was 110,800. We are not doing worse that that. I accept that we need to do a lot better, but the figures are clear and they do not support the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Mr. Waterson: No one, least of all me, suggests that the Minister is happy with those figures. I have never said that. In an attempt to make his case, the Minister has now revealed that the figure is 3,000 higher than the higher figure that I quoted this morning. He must accept that, under his stewardship, the figures are rising. Does he accept that?

Mr. Raynsford: I have accepted openly that the homeless figures are too high and that there has been an increase in recent months, but the impression that the hon. Gentleman has tried to give—that there has been an increase since Labour came to power—is wrong. Since we came to office, the overall number of homeless acceptances remains below the level that we inherited. It is far too high—I do not make any pretence about that—and I want to get it down. But the figure when the Conservative party was last in office was 110,800, which is higher than the current level of homelessness. For the hon. Member for Eastbourne to pretend otherwise is not an honourable approach.

The Chairman: Order. The Minister was in order until that last point, but I am sure, on reflection, that he would not wish to suggest that the hon. Gentleman is dishonest.

Mr. Raynsford: I accept that entirely, Mr. Gale. I withdraw that comment. However, to imply that the number of homeless households under Labour during the latest 12 months is higher than the for the last 12 months of the Conservative party's term in office is simply not correct.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the Minister for withdrawing that remark.

I think that we should stick to the facts. I am not trying to imply anything, nor am I inviting anyone to infer anything. I am simply looking at the figures. We seem to agree about the figures except that we now have an updated figure that is even higher--it is double the figure of 3,000 that I quoted this morning. Those figures are going in the wrong direction. The Minister accepts that, but it is happening under his stewardship. On that basis, is he contesting the related point that I was making that the figures in London are the highest for 20 years? Does he disagree with that figure?

Mr. Raynsford: Yes, I do. The latest figures show that there were 28,260 acceptances in London over the latest 12 months, which is about the same as in 1994, when there were 28,690. My mathematics makes that six years, not 20. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that his latest attempt to use the figures is as misleading as his earlier attempts. However, I do not believe that we should linger too long on the figures. I have said that the figures are too high. I believe that we need to take steps to reduce them. That is what the Bill is designed to do.

2.45 pm

Ms Buck: Would it assist my hon. Friend in engaging with the Opposition's late conversion to the homeless cause if I told the Committee that statistics show that between 1979 and the peak of homeless acceptances in 1992, homelessness increased threefold, and that in 1992 the total number of homeless acceptances reached 142,000? In that context, the present debate about figures is important but not significant.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I think that it is right now to turn from figures and concentrate on policies to tackle—

Mr. Loughton: Very wise.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman may want to reconsider that sedentary remark.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Would the hon. Gentleman agree that we ought not to get into a game of competitive concern about the homeless? All Governments are bound by the economic circumstances that they find themselves in or that they have created; all Government Departments are bound by collective decisions made about the allocation of resources; and after a time all Government Departments would like to do things that they have not been able to do—as the hon. Gentleman discovered on VAT harmonisation on greenfield and brownfield sites. If we always interpret that as relative concern about a problem, we lose a great deal of sense in our politics. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree; the comments are not directed at him.

Mr. Raynsford: I am happy to agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we should focus our attention on policies that would secure an improvement. That is exactly what I seek to do. However, it is important that we should be scrupulously accurate in our use of statistics, and we should not bandy about allegations that cannot be substantiated.

In addition to the national issues that I have described, homelessness will always be brought about by local and personal factors. Those factors can be tackled only at the local level, and local authorities are best placed to co-ordinate efforts to tackle homelessness and to prevent it locally. That is why the Government's proposals for homelessness reform, set out in the Green Paper, included a policy of requiring local authorities to take a more strategic approach to tackling homelessness and the prevention of homelessness. Such a strategic approach will be effective only if it harnesses the efforts and activities of all the organisations operating in the authority's area that provide services and assistance to homeless people.

A partnership approach is central to our proposals. We require local housing authorities to take a multi-agency strategic approach to preventing and responding to homelessness. Our proposals set out the basis for such a strategy and require that it should be kept under review.

Many agencies are involved with homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless, and it is important that the agencies work together to avoid duplication or gaps in provision. Local housing authorities should work with other authorities and agencies to conduct reviews and draw up strategies. We have in mind social services authorities or departments, health authorities and other health services, and those administering housing benefit, among others.

Registered social landlords will also be central to the development and implementation of homelessness strategies. In some areas, they provide the majority of social housing, and the transfer programme is increasing their importance.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to the large-scale voluntary transfer programme, which began as an initiative of local government. It was adopted and supported by the previous Government and we maintain a similar view. We believe that it can provide a useful means of attracting additional investment into areas where it is needed, and it contributes to the objective dear to our hearts of ensuring variety and pluralism in the provision of social housing rather than dependence on monopoly provision, which was one of the characteristics of the past. This opportunity is important; the difference between the parties is that our approach is voluntary. We believe that local authorities and their tenants should be free to pursue the option, should they want to, which I think was the view of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. The noises from Opposition Front Benchers imply that a Conservative Government would seek to transfer forcibly all council housing to other landlords. That is the impression that has been conveyed, but the hon. Member for Eastbourne may want to correct it.

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