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22 Oct 2002 : Column 159—continued

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does the Minister agree that one of the problems facing the New Forest is that Whitehall-imposed rules prevent the district council from using its housing budget to build new homes? Instead, it has to renovate its existing housing stock. It cannot deploy its budget to secure more affordable homes. That might be appropriate for northern metropolitan councils that have long neglected their stock, but it is quite inappropriate for a beacon council in the south-east.

Mrs. Roche: It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman say that—he would not have taken that line during the Conservative years. Let me make some progress, and I shall deal with some of those issues.

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As we know, the solutions to the problem must involve policies, such as those for planning, transport, education, health and regeneration, but this is not just a question of bricks and mortar; we are talking about sustainable communities, yet there is no reference to them in the Liberal Democrat motion. The hon. Member for Bath congratulated us on some things, but he claimed that we had failed to take early action on affordable housing. If he examines our record, he will see that the truth is otherwise. For example, we have already made excellent progress towards delivering our commitment to ensure that every home in the social housing sector achieves decency standards by 2010, and I shall deal with that in a little more detail.

Bob Spink: The hon. Lady will recall the joy in the country when the Government announced earlier this year that they would do away with families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation within 18 months. [Interruption.] I am genuinely trying to be helpful. Is she aware that about 36 families with children are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Castle Point? Will she explain the caveats that the Government have now entered into that policy? Will she urge her ministerial colleagues to ensure that they deliver on that much-needed policy?

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. We are all worried about the problem of homeless families with children living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is why we have set the target. I assure him that I will deal with the problem in a little more detail, because it is so important. I certainly share his view of its importance as my constituency is in London, where the problem is particularly acute, but it also exists in other parts of the country.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): My hon. Friend has just touched on making affordable housing decent, but does she recall that the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who previously had responsibility for this issue, told the House that she would review the regulations governing overcrowding, many of which date back to 1935? Will the Minister assure us that that undertaking will be honoured, that the review will be conducted and that legislation will be introduced to bring the current rules into the 21st century?

Mrs. Roche: I know of my hon. Friend's concerns, and I will look into the issue and write to her about it.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The problem of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, the scale of which has trebled over the past four years, is a real concern to everyone. There is also the problem of rough sleepers. Either now or when the Minister responds to the debate, will she clarify an answer that she gave to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about how many rough sleepers were living on the streets in London. She replied:

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That does not sound correct. Will the hon. Lady consider that answer and, if necessary, give us a revised answer?

Mrs. Roche: I remember the answer well. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, Ministers take their replies to questions extremely seriously. I took the answer to which he refers especially seriously. As far as we are aware, the information is accurate for that age group. It is based on the figures, especially street counts. When young people are found to be sleeping rough, the police and social services are alerted straight away. I know from my contact with the rough sleepers unit how seriously its members take these issues.

When I refer to the rough sleepers unit, I am talking about admirable men and women who most nights of the year are on the streets of London speaking to people and trying to get them into proper accommodation. I have the greatest respect and admiration for them. I have seen the work that they do. The written answer sets out the best information that we have. If it alters in any way, I shall let the House know.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Will the Minister give way?

Jeremy Corbyn : Will my hon. Friend give way to someone on the Labour Benches?

Mrs. Roche: How could I resist Islington? First, however, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). When I have given way to my hon. Friend, I shall make some progress.

Mr. Hancock: I am grateful to the Minister for showing her normal courtesy.

So that we can follow the debate more closely and understand the Government's latest position on this important issue, will she give us their current definition of affordable housing and tell us who will be able to afford it?

Mrs. Roche: I was going on to deal with that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that what is affordable in Bath will be very different from what is affordable in Burnley, for example, or other places. The problem is different in London and the south-east. There are other areas of high demand where other issues arise. In the north, particularly, there are issues of abandonment. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said, it is extremely important that the House comes together to consider these issues seriously.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am glad that my hon. Friend finds Islington irresistible.

As my hon. Friend knows, I represent an area of enormous housing stress. There is a massive boom in prices and a terrible shortage of affordable accommodation. Is she prepared to have regard to local authorities such as Islington that are deliberately selling vacant street properties, land and existing council buildings to private developers? Islington is doing so partly to subsidise lower council taxes, but also to encourage estate transfer for refurbishment. Does my hon. Friend recognise that such a loss of

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accommodation removes the dream of a family in a high-rise block with children of living in a house with a garden, which is something that we would all want?

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend is a neighbouring constituency Member, so I am aware of his experience in these matters. It is worrying if homes that could be made available are being lost. It is clear that all local authorities in London and elsewhere have a tremendous responsibility.

I was talking about what we have been doing so far, including the action that we have taken on decency standards. By 2005–06, we shall be spending #5.9 billion on housing compared with the planned spend of #1.5 billion in 1997–98. We will—

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mrs. Roche: Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to make a little progress.

We shall be setting out a comprehensive long-term programme of action that will meet the different needs of north and south. It will include a major boost for social housing and link policies on housing, planning, transport, education, health and regeneration. I know that we are enjoying a degree of consensus, but I have to say that such a programme is necessary because the Conservative Government did not do enough to meet the housing needs of the current generation, let alone future generations.

Half a million homes were repossessed between 1990 and 1997. In 1992 alone, more than 1 million households suffered negative equity. Between 1979 and 1997, mortgage rates averaged 11 per cent. Mortgage rates are now less than half the average under the Conservatives. There is still a great deal to do, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the background.

Chris Grayling: The Minister reminds us of the record, but does she accept that, since 1997, compared with what happened under the Conservative Government, a dramatic reduction has occurred in the construction of affordable housing?

Mrs. Roche: I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman can say that, given the amount of money that we have put into housing. We also inherited a #19 billion social housing repair backlog and a cut in investment in new affordable housing. In 1996 more than 2 million homes in the social housing sector were substandard.

I will now take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), but then I must try to make progress.

Lynne Jones: My hon. Friend is right to point out that the Labour Government have trebled investment in housing since 1997, but that was from an all-time low. A better comparison might be made with earlier years, in particular with spending under previous Labour Governments. She says that we are well on target to meet our aims on decent homes, but will that target be met at the current rate of progress? That has been called into question by researchers such as Christine Whitehead and Alan Holmans of Cambridge university.

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