Homes Bill

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Mr. Robert Ainsworth: Hon. Members have raised some important points. I hope to give the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham some assurance. I am grateful to him for not pressing the amendment. Section 189(1)(c) of the Housing Act 1996 specifies categories of people in priority need of accommodation so we are not ignoring the problem: the categories are already listed in the Act.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the appropriateness of accommodation. I assure him that good practice guidance will include suggestions from the LGA report, one of which was that local authorities keep a register of properties suitable for people in wheelchairs or others with disabilities.

Mr. Loughton: That was one of the recommendations that I highlighted. I do not dispute what the Under-Secretary says, but we are talking at cross-purposes. Section 189 of the 1996 Act refers to definitions of priority need for accommodation, but we are debating clause 18, which is about authorities drawing up homelessness strategies. If priority needs had been recognised within the strategies in the first place, there would be no need for a preventive measure. Citing the 1996 Act does not address my central concern.

Mr. Ainsworth: People in priority need must be taken into account. They are already mentioned in the 1996 Act so they will be at the front of consideration when local authorities draw up their strategies. [Interruption.] It is already covered.

Mr. Don Foster: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Waterson: I hope that you will agree to a short stand part debate, Mr. Stevenson. Clause 18 deals with homelessness strategies, so it might be more appropriate to adopt a strategic view of what it says rather than pass rapidly on through it. We have already debated what should be included in the strategy and which bodies or organisations should be consulted.

Local authorities will face problems in formulating strategies. They will not be dealing with an ideal world, but with real problems faced by authorities today. Strategies will vary dramatically. It is almost possible to draw a line across the country and create two wholly different worlds of homelessness and housing—those who have a demand problem and those who have the opposite problem. I have already mentioned how long people must wait for housing in my constituency.

It is quite clear that the Government are panicking about rising homelessness figures. In last week's debate on the Bill—I do not want to rake over old coals—the Minister for Housing and Planning was forced to admit that homelessness had risen under this Government. In a spectacular own goal, having risen to correct the figures that I had quoted, he produced even higher figures. The figure for total priority homeless acceptances in 1997-98 was 102,650. The latest figure produced by the Minister was a staggering 108,000—a rise of nearly 6,000.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Will the hon. Gentleman now put on the record the number of priority homeless applicants who were accepted by local authorities in 1996, the last year in which the Conservative party was in power, rather than suggesting in this preposterous way that the Labour party inherited a figure after already being in government for a year?

Mr. Waterson: It is no good the Minister throwing around $10 words like ``preposterous''. The figure is rising under his stewardship, and it is rising even faster than we thought.

Mr. Raynsford: Answer the question.

Mr. Waterson: The Minister is making a different point, which he is perfectly entitled to do, and more than capable of doing when he has his bite at the cherry. There is nothing he can say to contradict my figures, which show that during his stewardship there has been an increase of nearly 6,000. Consequently, the Government have panicked and only yesterday announced an extra £25 million to assist local authorities to house homeless households. Ministers have belatedly woken up to their failure to tackle homelessness.

It is quite instructive to look at the press release published by the Minister yesterday. It is headed:

    ``Raynsford welcomes extra money to help homeless''.

It talks about the £25 million being made available from April 2001 to assist local authorities and interestingly talks about local authorities being under increasing pressure

    ``in part due to the increase in homeless households who are asylum seekers given leave to remain in Great Britain, or former-asylum seekers.''

Clearly, despite some of the rhetoric that we heard in earlier sittings, asylum seekers remain a significant problem. They are a problem in London, of course. The hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and I have crossed swords on this before, but we both agree that it is a factor. The Association of London Government seems to consider it quite a significant factor. There is also a knock-on effect. There is a major problem on the south coast in places like Eastbourne, which no one has yet addressed. Increasingly London boroughs, which we accept are under great pressure, are entering into private arrangements to accommodate asylum seekers in small guest houses and holiday lets. I have raised this more than once with the Home Secretary and his fellow Ministers. It was supposedly to be addressed by a consortium approach through the LGA, but so far nothing has happened to resolve it.

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

Mr. Waterson: Let me just make this point. It is absolutely disgraceful, and I am sure that the h Lady, would agree that despite all the understandable pressures on some London boroughs—Newham is a good example, or a bad example, depending on how one looks at it—they are still following that course without taking the preliminary and essential step of informing the recipient borough or council. That puts an unfair burden on the range of services available in that area.

Ms Buck: I just want to return to the point about asylum seekers. I wholly accept that the increase in the number of asylum applicants with whom local authorities are dealing is a factor in the demand. However, the accommodation problem in London and the south-east is caused by a long-term and sustained collapse in the supply of social housing. If he accepted that—and the fact that it is a responsibility that goes back for the best part of 20 years—we might have scope for common ground and a reasonable discussion.

Mr. Waterson: We are debating the issues in the fourth year of a Labour Government. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and I have quoted the falling figures for new social housing produced under the current Government. Those figures make the situation clear and I do not need to dwell on it.

It is interesting that the first point that the departmental press release makes relates to the problem of asylum seekers. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North is right to say that there is a problem with supply of social housing. The good briefing from the ALG also covers that point. I see the hon. Lady waving at me—I assume that she wants to intervene.

Ms Buck: I was actively involved in pressing the Government to provide local authorities in central London with some form of assistance with asylum seekers. The reason that it is an issue is that local authorities are in many cases accommodating asylum seekers in the private sector, where we face an escalating problem of cost. That is why we need additional assistance. The Audit Commission has been actively involved in helping us to identify that the issue of rental accommodation in the private sector is the core of our problem. We need to recognise that.

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Lady is describing, probably unwittingly, the fault of a market. It is certainly not the fault of Conservatives that this country has a record number of asylum seekers—more than 75,000, and if one adds dependants the figure is heading towards 100,000. That is the result of a plain lack of so-called joined-up government—a phrase of which, funnily enough, we have not heard much of late, probably because it has so manifestly failed to be provided. It is no earthly good the Minister trying, with the best intentions in the world, to solve the problems of homelessness, particularly in large cities and such places as Eastbourne, if his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Office are simply not doing their stuff.

I make no apology for mentioning Eastbourne; I use it as an example. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a deprived inner city area, yet the latest figures, which were debated with great concern by my local council only the other day, show that since April last year, 171 families or people have been housed in bed and breakfast accommodation, compared with 76 the year before and 50 the year before that. That is an enormous rise for a modest-sized south-coast resort, leaving aside what may be happening in other parts of the country.

If homelessness strategies are to mean anything, the Government must have a proper strategy of their own. Under the current Government, the supply of social housing has gone down while the homelessness figures have gone up. As the current edition of Housing Today reports, in an article entitled ``Labour's minimal impact on empties'':

    ``New Labour's record on reducing the number of empty homes has been dealt a serious blow after figures showed practically no movement four years after coming to power.''

I am expecting the Minister to leap up at any moment and challenge the DETR figures.

Mr. Raynsford: I challenge the hon. Gentleman to read the rest of the article.

Mr. Waterson: I will not read the whole article, unless the hon. Gentleman insists. However, he is welcome to borrow my copy if he wants to read it all out.

DETR figures show that the total number of empty homes fell by just 4,300 to 762,700 between April 1997 and April 2000. The article goes on

    ``the number of empty properties owned by councils and housing associations actually increased during the period.''

If the Minister will not accept my arguments on the issue, will he accept those of Mr. Ashley Horsey, the chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency and a person well known to all of us? He is quoted, I assume accurately, in the article as saying:

    ``Over the four years that the current Labour government has been in power, and with speculation of a spring general election rising, the end of term report from the Empty Homes Agency on the government's efforts to tackle empty homes would have to be `has shown some promise, but only limited progress to date. Must try harder'.''

We therefore have a strategic picture of falling social housing provision, growing homelessness, growing numbers of asylum seekers—which the Minister accepts as a major, if not the principal, factor in many areas—and a failure to tackle the problem of empty properties. It is no earthly good the Government lecturing individual councils and local authorities about implementing strategies if they are so wholly at sea in terms of their own strategy—or lack thereof. When the strategies start to emerge, it will be extremely interesting and instructive to see how varied they are and whether there are dramatic differences between those of councils in the north and in the south. Such differences are, again, based on supply and demand as much as anything else, as the hon. Lady confirmed in an intervention.

11.45 am

We welcome homelessness strategies, as I think does every organisation involved. I hope that good councils already have a form of strategy, for their own consumption, which will just need to be dusted off and revamped to comply with the Minister's requirements. However, we must remember the situations that councils face as a result of the blatant failure of the Government's homelessness policy at almost every level.

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