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6.27 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury): I congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on his commendable maiden speech. As he said, his predecessor Barry Jones was much liked in all parts of the House. I suspect that we would all agree that had Labour not been in opposition for 18 years, Barry would almost certainly have served on the Treasury Bench at some point. He was a good friend and it is good news that he is now in the other place, or soon will be. It is always a mystery how people are spirited there. They are gazetted, and are given such wondrous names that one has to catch up with who they are.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside's speech was a model of a maiden speech and I look forward to hearing from him in the future. He will discover that he and other colleagues will get ragged incessantly by English Members of Parliament who are concerned that Wales, and indeed Scotland, seem to get a disproportionate amount of the UK cake, notwithstanding the fact of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. However, all that is for another day.

I am conscious that today is a day on which one should not make long speeches, because I see many hon. Friends who wish to make their maiden speeches. Many of them are as knowledgable as—if not far more knowledgable than—me on the subject of housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne)—who I hope will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—was a special adviser to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and me when we were Environment Ministers.

For a long time, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) was a special adviser to the Conservative group on Oxfordshire county council. There is considerable expertise on the Conservative Benches and it is significant that so many of my hon. Friends wish to make their maiden speeches on this subject. That

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demonstrates the commitment that the Conservatives have had to housing since the time of Disraeli, and our belief in one nation.

This is obviously a very worthy Bill, but it is difficult to work out what will be different in housing policy once the Bill is enacted.

Clauses 1 to 3, which are the main thrust of the Bill, require local authorities to develop a positive, proactive homelessness strategy, but I suspect that most local authorities already do that. Certainly, Conservative- controlled Cherwell district council in my area has long had such a strategy. Its initiatives include a "move on" policy, to allow the—mainly young—people living in supported housing who have demonstrated an ability to live independently to move into permanent social housing.

The council participates in a countrywide scheme with the drugs action team and other statutory and voluntary organisations to provide housing for individuals who have successfully tackled their drugs misuse, facilitating their rejection of drugs and possibly an offending life style. A registered social landlord, with the council's support, has sought funding from the Housing Corporation for the development of emergency accommodation for single homeless people, with day care provision.

We are setting up a women's refuge in Banbury. The council, working with the community mental health trust, is providing some flats in the new social housing in Bicester for people with a mental health problem, and a similar scheme is being developed for new social housing development in Banbury.

I am sure that the Government would welcome all those initiatives. We have had a large-scale voluntary transfer in Cherwell, where people were given a choice of staying with the district council or going to a housing association, Banbury Homes. As part of the strategy, Banbury Homes, too, has some excellent initiatives. It has a scheme whereby 19 young people aged 16 to 25 reside in a foyer in central Banbury. To qualify for one of the eight bedsits or 11 flats, they have to agree to some form of education and training.

The foyer scheme has led to many young people not only finding decent housing but taking up educational opportunities that they would otherwise have missed. One youngster said:

Banbury Homes provides a safe and secure environment at Cotefield house, where vulnerable families are given the support and encouragement that they need to rebuild broken lives. It is of especial benefit for people fleeing domestic violence.

Banbury Homes also runs a north Oxfordshire tenancy support project, helping both its own and Cherwell district council's tenants to deal with financial and social problems that are making it difficult for them to maintain their tenancies. There are about 650 tenants in Cherwell with significant rent arrears, and the project is designed to help them, because, as Banbury Homes says, those arrears are often just a symptom of other underlying problems. It tries to link them to the various support services to help tackle the root causes.

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Banbury Homes runs a rent deposit guarantee scheme, which has helped about 600 people to find accommodation in the private rented sector by guaranteeing a deposit. The tenant benefits and the landlord is given some security.

Housing authorities such as Cherwell district council are, quite properly, doing everything that the Government want them to do. What more is to be required of them? Is it intended that the Bill should seem to be doing more than it actually does? Clause 5 covers the

It is designed to get away from a points system. Cherwell district council is already away from a points system and into bands.

The reality is that it is very difficult to get council accommodation in Cherwell—I suspect that this is true everywhere—unless someone is a high-priority case. Cherwell has about 2,000 families on the housing waiting list, and about 200 vacancies a year in social housing. For the vast majority of families who apply to the council, the only route is into private rented accommodation, with the support of housing benefit. Those people are concerned that they are then deemed to be adequately housed and cease to be anything approaching a high-priority case.

I welcome clause 11, which makes it easier to appeal to the county court, because it was ridiculous for tenants or those concerned about their housing to have to appeal to the High Court, especially as it is increasingly difficult to get legal aid. That put access to justice beyond many people's reach. Clause 8 was introduced on similar grounds. I welcome all those worthwhile tidying-up provisions, but it is unclear how the Bill will make it easier for people to have access to affordable social housing.

What does the Bill do that responsible authorities such as Cherwell district council, in conjunction with housing associations such as Banbury Homes, are not already doing? Is not the danger that the Bill will give the impression that the Government are seeking to do something on which they cannot deliver, and that it will raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled?

I do not make this as a party political point. Recent research carried out by Cambridge university suggests that 80,000 to 85,000 new affordable homes are needed each year to meet extra demand, and that we are currently providing only about half that number. Providing such homes is an incredibly expensive exercise, not least at a time when it is increasingly difficult to find land on which local authorities or, more realistically, housing associations can build.

By the judicious demolition of five pairs of postwar prefabs in the centre of Banbury, Banbury Homes is creating 16 new two and three-bedroom homes. Such an initiative requires the most enormous amount of delicate negotiation with existing tenants, planning authorities and the Housing Corporation, which provides the funding.

I ask the Minister, in her wind-up, to make clearer to the House, in a couple of sentences, what the Bill will do that responsible local authorities and social landlords are not already doing. How will it improve people's ability to move into social accommodation, and what real changes will it make to people's lives? If the Bill does not make real improvements, although it may give the impression of doing something, it will not deliver very much.

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6.40 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I congratulate the new ministerial team on their appointment and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on his maiden speech, which demonstrated a powerful commitment to his constituency. He also paid a moving tribute to his predecessor, and in particular to the efficacy of his efforts with his casework. I wonder whether, now that he no longer has a constituency of his own, my former hon. Friend might be interested in a little outsourcing; I am sure that I could come to an arrangement with him.

We have heard contributions from both sides that have shown a clear consensus about the underlying principles of the Bill, especially the requirement for local authorities to develop homelessness strategies alongside their housing strategies, the emphasis on prevention and the development of choice-based lettings.

I also welcome the ending of the arbitrary requirement for local authorities to provide accommodation for two years only. Although that rule was more often breached than practised, it none the less sent out an unwelcome message to homeless people and others in housing need that the Government were not prepared to put their housing needs centre-stage, or to recognise the vulnerability that accompanies homelessness.

It is a great credit to the Government that they have reintroduced the Bill into the House so quickly, and I hope that we will be able to give it a swift passage. However, the sky over the Liberal Democrat Benches seems to be darkening with anoraks, and I think I hear the sound of distant thunder—so I shall be relieved when we have been able to see the Bill through and put it into action.

The election campaign was a sobering experience for me in that it revealed housing need. In the four previous years, housing issues were by far the most frequent and serious of all the casework problems that I experienced, but in the campaign I found to my surprise that in dealing with the people who had found their way to my surgery, I had not necessarily been dealing with the worst housing problems. Behind almost every third door that I knocked on—certainly in the needier parts of my constituency—I found yet more cases of housing need.

I therefore welcome the opportunity to set the Bill in the context of the issues of housing supply that have to be addressed. Over a number of years, and under different Governments, there has been an unsustainable fall in the supply of affordable and social housing. In places such as London and the south-east, and in some other parts of the country as well, we are reaching a crisis point in the provision of social housing. Something must be done to tackle that problem.

Of course, I welcome and appreciate the fact that there has been a dramatic increase in housing investment through the comprehensive spending review. That is working its way through. Unlike the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), I do not look back on the past four years of the Labour Government as a dismal record. The money has been increasing, and housing has moved up the ladder of political importance, with the targets being set—within the framework for ending child poverty—for reducing the number of children being brought up in substandard housing.

Particular emphasis has also been put on improving the condition of the housing stock. That is welcome, but that emphasis addresses the needs of some parts of the country

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more than those of others. There is no doubt that some parts of the country have a real problem with the chronic substandard quality of their accommodation. However, the problem that areas of low demand, often in the north, are experiencing are not the same as those that face London and the south-east. It is now time to shift—or rather, to balance—the emphasis towards addressing those needs.

Between 1995 and last year, the number of new lettings by councils and housing associations fell from 51,650 to 36,100. Therein lies the problem: until we reverse that decline in letting we shall go on having to deal with all the problems of unmet housing need outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson).

Unfortunately, and in parallel to that, the provision of private rented accommodation for families on low incomes has been halved. There are several reasons for that, and they all have to be dealt with. One reason is the absolute chaos that faces people in private rented accommodation when they make a claim for housing benefit. There is no doubt about that, and it has been mentioned before.

My local authority of Westminster privatised its housing benefit service using Capita, and the system went into free fall a little over a year and a half ago. Although the volume of cases in arrears has now fallen substantially, scarcely a day goes by when I do not find yet another case of someone receiving a notice seeking possession, or even being evicted, because of non-payment of housing benefit. Private landlords, unlike registered social landlords, simply will not stand for that.

That is definitely one of the reasons, but it is not the only reason—another reason is London's economic success. Landlords who five to eight years ago, during the slump in the housing market in the mid-1990s, were renting to families on lower incomes and housing benefit, no longer need to do so. They can rent their property at the higher end of the market and receive a substantial private rent. The whole nature of the private rented accommodation market has changed.

In addition, property that was being used as hostels for homeless families and others in need is now being converted to backpackers' hostels, and used for other purposes connected with the tourist trade. The supply of that form of accommodation has now almost dried up. One of the great challenges that we face, alongside that of increasing the supply, is making good that shortfall in private rented accommodation and giving people an alternative, particularly those who move in and out of London on a short-term basis for work and other reasons.

The drop in such provision is unsustainable, and is doing vast damage to our communities and incredible damage to the individuals who, as a result, have to go through the hell of living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate discussed some of the conditions in which people are living.

Two years ago, the Dixon inquiry into the conditions that led a severely mentally ill man to kill a young policewoman in east London, revealed what pressure cookers the bed-and-breakfast hostels and hotels are turning into. Families with young children are living next door to people with severe and enduring mental health

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difficulties, and the pressure under which they live leads to further mental stress, emotional breakdown, the breakdown of relationships and many related problems.

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