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8 Nov 2004 : Column 674

Homelessness (London)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Margaret Moran.]

10.6 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): I appreciate the opportunity to raise the issue of homeless people in London. I am grateful that the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), is in the Chamber, and I wish the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who would normally have been holding the fort, best wishes during her maternity leave.

I do not intend to raise the matter in a confrontational way because it is hugely important not only to my constituency but to all London boroughs and constituencies. I hope that I can make constructive suggestions that might inform Government policy. I am conscious of the fact that the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is conducting a review on homelessness, and I hope that my speech will be regarded as a contribution to that debate. I would be grateful for a later opportunity to pursue matters that I raise with Ministers bilaterally. I shall state what I believe to be the gravity of the situation before putting on record some telling and worrying statistics—they are not mine, but generally agreed statistics from Government sources—and making my proposals.

Like most hon. Members, each year I review the balance of the work that comes my way as a constituency MP. I have just done that again as we approach the end of the Session. The largest single issue that arises, as it probably has been for each of my 21   years in this place, is housing and homelessness. People come to me because they have inadequate housing or cannot get decent housing. That problem consistently occurs in inner London and urban areas. My honest view is that homelessness is a ticking time bomb for more and more of London and for more Londoners. The statistics are serious. Homelessness is the most serious crisis facing many Londoners and London families. The Government and councils of all persuasions—I am not making a party-political point—are losing the battle against homelessness rather than winning it, despite the strenuous efforts made by previous Administrations, especially this one and the previous one.

If we do not house people properly, their health becomes worse, their ability to learn or work is reduced and their personal and social problems escalate—we all pay the price of that. In a capital city of increasing wealth, as London is, and in a country of increasing wealth, one in 100 households do not have a permanent home. Such a record has not existed for a considerable time. Although many people are doing well, more and more are being left behind. Irrespective of what may have been tried and tested, my fear is that unless there is a more urgent response, the Government will stoke up a set of huge social problems.

There have been many debates on housing and homelessness—indeed, we spent the past few hours discussing those very issues—but this is the first specific debate on homeless people in London since the first year of this Parliament, and I am glad to return to it.
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I want to give some figures, which I understand are fully agreed. The number of households accepted as homeless by the 33 local authorities in London increased from 24,570 in the first year of the Labour Government in 1997–98 to 31,530 in 2002–03, the last year for which figures are available. There was an increase of 10 per cent. in that last year. In the same period in my borough, the figure went up from 893 to 1,671. Those are the people for whom the councils accept they have a duty to provide housing. The figures mean that 1 per cent. of households in London are not permanently housed.

One of the most worrying trends is the number of young people, and the increase in the number of young people, who have been accepted as homeless. For that purpose, young people are 16 and 17-year-olds, who are all regarded as in priority need, and 18 to 20-year-olds who have been care. In 1997–98, the number of homeless young people was 305, 66 of whom were in my borough. In the past full year, the figure was 2,038, 106 of whom were in my borough—a phenomenal increase of more than 500 per cent. in young people who were accepted as vulnerable.

There has been a relentless increase in young homeless people in almost every borough. In Lambeth, the figure was 36 in 2000 and 194 in 2003; in Tower Hamlets, it was six in 1999 and 99 in 2003; and in Camden it was nine in 2000 and 118 in 2003. As I said, the number also increased in my borough. The problem is not sectoral but Londonwide.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reason for the increase in the figures is not an increase in the number of people who suffer housing distress? The Government have a marvellous record, having reduced the number of rough sleepers to a third of what it was when we took office. The figures look so alarming because the definition of homelessness has been stretched. Had that definition applied when I was a young man, half the population would have been defined as homeless. The figures look so alarming because the definition of homelessness now includes people who are under-housed. The problem is not an increase in the number of homeless people, but a widening of the definition.

Simon Hughes: I do not accept that. There have been redefinitions since 1997, but they were not significant. There is plenty of evidence to support my case, including my constituency experience. Shelter's evidence to the Select Committee inquiry sets out the factors that cause homelessness. Some 17 per cent. of parents and 12 per cent. of friends are no longer able to offer accommodation, and 18 per cent. of homelessness cases—the biggest group—are due to violent relationship breakdown. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that those people are justifiably looking for new housing. Some 7 per cent. of cases are due to non-violent relationship breakdown; 7 per cent. to mortgage arrears; 2 per cent. to rent arrears; 12 per cent. have come to the end of their tenancies; 17 per cent. are caused by other reasons; and 9 per cent. are caused by the loss of other rented or tied accommodation.
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My constituency experience, and that of most of our colleagues, is that more people are becoming homeless. Why? It is because we are not building anything like enough property. If Members talk to the Mayor of London, the Greater London authority or any borough they will see that we are building less than half the property that we need. The most recent figures for London show that 5,209 additional homes were completed with Housing Corporation funding. In the same year, however, 7,823 homes were lost to the rented sector as a result of the right to buy. We are therefore losing homes rather than gaining them.

Paul Flynn: They are not lost.

Simon Hughes: They are lost to the rented sector as a result of the right to buy. If the hon. Gentleman looks at all the trends across London, he will see that the position is the same in my borough, where 185 homes were completed with Housing Corporation funding, but 974 were lost to the rented sector. The number of people who are deemed intentionally homeless has gone up, because the definition is interpreted more tightly, not in a more relaxed way. People coming to my surgeries are priority cases under any definition—they are vulnerable, they cannot work, they are mentally ill or emotionally distressed, and they may be suicidal—but they have been turned down, so we have to appeal. It is not always easy, however, to have them accepted as homeless. The reality is that those people are initially taken out of the figures.

We are short of new housing and other accommodation in London, partly because people no longer live in extended households of grandparents, parents and children, and they need their own home. When relationships break down, for example, they want their own place. Work by the Mayor and studies of London show that that we have been building about 15,000 new homes a year, but we need at least 30,000, and have done so ever since the Government took office.

I began by saying that I initiated this debate more in sorrow than in anger, but it is not the case that the position is getting better, as the problem is becoming significantly worse. I accept that there are fewer rough sleepers, but if the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and other Members talk to people who know about homelessness in London they will discover that some rough sleepers are now staying with friends and family. They are sleeping on the floor and living in other people's accommodation, and are known as the hidden homeless. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the figures or the evidence given to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, he will see that the numbers have gone up. I shall give a final set of figures. The number of households in temporary accommodation—people housed in bed-and- breakfast hostels and hotels—has gone up in London from 24,060 in 1997–98 to 59,170 in 2002–03. In London, the average time spent in temporary accommodation before someone who is accepted as homeless is given a permanent home has gone up from 91 days in 1997 to 391 days in 2003. A couple with a child, a couple who have been accepted as vulnerable or a family are now likely to spend more than a year in temporary accommodation, whereas six or seven years ago they would have spent a few months
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there. People from the street and others are among the figures, so there is a true crisis. If the hon. Gentleman does not accept that, I invite him to look at the cases that I deal with in my surgery. He can sit with me, and see the people who come through the door—they are from all walks of life and backgrounds, and are of all classes, creeds, colours and ages. The problem, however, is getting substantially worse.

I wish to make a final point about statistics before putting my proposals to the Minister. From a previous debate in which Ministers were generous to my colleagues I know that we still have a huge number of empty properties. The most recent figures show that there were 89,000 empty homes across the capital, and we must be more vigorous in getting those empty homes back into use. We could all come up with our own answers, but I want to put five proposals to the Minister.

First, we need a new and more urgent drive to identify and fill empty properties. That is always a difficult challenge, but we must do much better. It is a scandal that such properties should be empty, and we could appropriate them for use without appropriating ownership.

Secondly, I propose the use of quick-build homes, such as those pioneered by Urban Settings, to deal with the immediate crisis. A Polish company constructs buildings—they are like Portakabins stacked on top of each other—off-site and puts them on-site. It can provide warm, dry, safe, secure and respectable accommodation, and for many people that is far better than nothing. It is not a long-term solution for many, but it is a solution for some.

Thirdly, there should be additional funding for councils. We could talk to any of the 33 local authorities in London and to the Housing Corporation about a massive programme of new build in London, particularly of three and four-bedroom homes. If those are built, all the overcrowded people in homes with one and two bedrooms could move to homes with the three and four bedrooms that they need, releasing one and two-bedroom properties for single people, couples, couples with one or two children, or smaller families.

Fourthly, I commend to Ministers the example of New York, which I visited last December. I suggest the urgent acquisition and conversion of hotels, as in New York, or other buildings in the middle of London to house the homeless and the low-paid. Common Ground is a brilliant project that has been going for 10 years—it was founded in New York and has spread across part of the eastern United States. It does not have the stigma of a homeless hostel, because although half the people there are homeless, the other half are low-paid workers. It has done a brilliant job. Crisis, Shelter and other organisations have been talking to Ministers about a similar project in London. That would make a huge difference.

Lastly, in my constituency, in Blackfriars road, there is a place called Wedge house, which is the Department for Work and Pensions benefit office where homeless people in London go for their benefits. It cannot cope, and within a year or two the DWP wants to get rid of the site. I hope that Ministers will seriously consider the idea of two one-stop shops—one south of the river, one north, and both quite near the centre—where homeless people can go to have all their benefits, housing and
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health needs sorted out. That would offer a first point of reference instead of their being shuttled from one place to another, which is hardly satisfactory if one has nowhere to lay one's head.

I conclude with a factual point. The other night I saw someone at my surgery—a single person who was pretty inadequate. I spent two and a half hours—this is not a criticism—waiting for an answer from the Shelter hotline. At 9.30 at night, it said that there was absolutely nowhere in London available. That is the circumstance that many people now face.

I believe that solutions to the growing crisis are possible, but they require the political will to implement them. London local councils cannot cope on their own. The fact that the number of rough sleepers has gone down does not mean that homelessness is not a growing issue in London for more and more people every day. I hope that there can be new, positive and truly effective initiatives.

10.22 pm

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