Mr. Raynsford: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one point: strategies will vary enormously from area to area. He slightly oversimplified the matter by saying that one would be able to draw a line between north and south and see fundamental differences between the two regions. He would be the first to recognise that areas in the south have problems of low demand; one example is Hastings, just along the coast from him, which has had well-publicised problems of that nature. Equally, some areas in the north have considerable pressures. However, I agree in general with his analysis that there will be significant variations between strategies in different parts of the country. That is all to the good and it is why we are encouraging strategies so that local authorities can develop an approach to homelessness that is appropriate for the needs of their area.
I hesitate to take us back into the territory of statistics but two statistical points must be made. Despite the best efforts of the hon. Member for Eastbourne, the DETR figures that he was so pleased to quote show clearly and conclusively that when his party left office, local authorities had accepted 110, 000 homeless people in priority need categories. The latest figure is 108,000. I have said many times that that is too high and that we have much more to do in tackling the problem. It is simply untrue that we have more homeless households now than we inherited from the previous Government. That is a straightforward statistical point.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham fell into a similar trap in trying to interpret the figures on rough sleepers that were issued last week. I hope that he will not mind if I put the record straight. He quoted a figure of 286 rough sleepers in London at the end of the previous Government's term and implied that because there are now 546 rough sleepers in the capital, the number had, in his words, almost doubled. He is confusing unlike with unlike. The figure of 286 was based on head counts of people sleeping rough in a few selected parts of central London and did not cover the whole of the London area. Under the head counts instituted in June 1998, as a result of the Government's policy on rough sleepers, the number in London at that time was 620, which in June 2000 had reduced to 546. On a comparable, like-for-like basis there is therefore evidence of a reductionnot enough and there is still a great deal to be done, but it is a reduction. There were no comparable figures for London or, indeed, the whole of Britain. That was one of the reasons why, when in opposition, the Labour party wanted a more comprehensive strategy on rough sleepers. We supported the previous rough sleepers initiative, which did good work, but it was targeted at a limited number of selected areas. We take a more comprehensive approach.
Mr. Waterson: I am not sure what the Minister's point is. Is he claiming that this Government are more efficient at counting the number of rough sleepers? If so, that is not a great step forward. Otherwise, does he accept that, however one approaches the counting of rough sleepers, there is a substantial margin for error, even in the figures that he claims are more reliable?
The Chairman: Order. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have had ample opportunity to place their different figures on the record. I hope that, having done so they will move on.
Mr. Raynsford: I shall happily move on, Mr. Stevenson.
I found an aspect of the speech made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne slightly surprising. In all his comments on yesterday's announcement about additional help for authorities that are meeting the needs of and accommodating homeless people, including asylum seekers, in private-sector accommodation, he did not acknowledge that it was a good thing that an extra £25 million had been secured to help local authorities. It was rather extraordinary that he referred to it and made party-political points, but could not bring himself to say that it was a good thing to provide extra help for authorities that have been under pressure.
That shows the difference between our two parties. The Conservatives are only too happy to identify and talk about problems, but when it comes to practical measures to deal with them, their party
Mr. Loughton: Surely the Minister would agree that it would have been even better to have given that £25 million three years ago, rather than three months before a likely election.
Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Member for East Shoreham
Mr. Loughton: No.
Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham wants me to run through the investment figures since the election, I will happily give them to him and point out the increased investment that the Government have made through the capital receipts initiative, then the spending review and now the spending review 2000. However, I will not rise to that, as I fear that I would be out of order if I did so.
Ms Buck: Does my hon. Friend remember that the first additional support for inner London authorities that were coping with those pressures was announced, I think, in June 1997? A number of different initiatives have helped the boroughs of Kensington and Westminster in my constituency over the past four years.
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I well remember the Committee stageit may have taken place in this Roomof the Bill that released capital receipts and honoured our election commitment to increase funding for local authorities. That was an early indication of our commitment to tackling the problems. We have made substantial progress since then and increased spending by a series of different measures, culminating in the spending review 2000, which has added substantially to investment for both the improvement of existing stock and a new generation of social housing.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne made perfectly fair points about the increased number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We recognise that that is a problem, which is why we have acted through the additional financial help that I have described. We have also recognised the need for a more strategic approach by local authorities with more emphasis on the prevention of homelessness. Clause 18 is about a multi-agency approach to ensure that there is more effective preventive work as well as more effective help for those who become homeless.
Mr. Waterson: I hope that the Minister will deal in some detail with the point that I made about asylum seekers. In his multi-agency approach, does he include his colleagues at the Home Office, who seem to be a major factor in a major part of the problem?
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has not given me an opportunity to get into my stride; I am trying to answer the various points. Of course I take my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office very much into account. We work extremely closely with them, and they are fully aware and supportive of the measures announced yesterday. Equally, we have been in close contact with them about the measures that they have taken to tackle that serious problem.
There is no secrecy about the figures, which I am happy to put on record. In 2000, there were 76,000 new applications from asylum seekersup by 4,800 from 71,160 applications in 1999. It is a large number, but not as high as the figure suggested by the hon. Member for Eastbourne. My right hon. and hon. Friends at the Home Office had to tackle the appallingly inefficient system inherited from the previous Conservative Government, which had resulted in a huge backlog. The number of decisions taken by the Home Office increased from 33,700 in 1999 to 110,000 in 2000. The Government have taken action to speed up the processes, ensure that initial decisions can be taken quickly and reduce outstanding applications.
All that evidence demonstrates that the Government are tackling the problem with determination. We do not pretend that all the problems have gone away; we acknowledge their existence, and we are working to deal with them. The same applies to empty homes: yes, there are too many, but if the hon. Member for Eastbourne had quoted Mr. Ashley Horsey more fully, he would have revealed that the Empty Homes Agency warmly welcomed the Government measures. In common with any pressure group, the Empty Homes Agency rightly says, ``Can do better; should do more'', but it recognised that the Government had shown some promise. The hon. Gentleman missed out various passages, so neglected to mention that the Empty Homes Agency welcomed the changes in the rules on capital allowances for flats over shops to help to bring them into greater use. The reduced rate of VAT on properties being converted to residential use is another example.
Mr. Loughton: Will the Minister quantify those two examples: how many flats will be brought into use over the five-year period, and how many houses derelict for more than 10 years will qualify for VAT exemption?
Mr. Raynsford: This is not a Finance Bill debate and the announcements to which I referred were made only recently. These are early days. The Conservative Government could have taken those measures, but did not. The present Government have taken them and they will make an impact, as the Empty Homes Agency acknowledges. The Opposition spokesman chose not to cite that passage in his selective quotation from the newspaper. It is typical of the Conservatives to use selective quotes to give a pejorative impression about the Government's performance rather than any attempt to establish the truth.
Mr. Loughton: Perhaps I can selectively quote the Minister's colleague, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who quantified the flats-above-shops relief as likely to affect no more than 5,000 properties over five years and who was unable to provide a figure for the 10-year derelict VAT exemption because its impact would be negligible. Before trumpeting those great measures, should the Minister not admit the truth that they are tiny scratchings off the tip of the iceberg?
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