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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on securing this important debate. I shall endeavour to respond to the issues that he raised.

We can agree that, as the hon. Gentleman said, more and more people are receiving assistance from local authorities under the homelessness legislation, and that homelessness is not a problem in his borough of Southwark alone. Indeed, it is a problem not only across London but nationally, because increases have been recorded in all regions in recent years. I am sure that despite his remarks to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), he recognises that some of those increases are the result of strengthened legislation. More people are being helped who might not have been given priority in the past. However, I accept that that does not entirely account for the growth in numbers.

We are clear about the extent of the problem—it is growing and we are taking positive steps to tackle it. Ishall not repeat the hon. Gentleman's litany of statistics—human misery expressed in numbers—but I must correct him on one figure. He cited a 10 per cent. increase between 2001–02 and 2002–03, but that is wrong—the real increase was 3.5 per cent. Rather than dealing with the detail now, I will write to him to explain that error, which has entered the public domain.

I want to pick up on the second half of the hon. Gentleman's contribution. The important thing is what we do about the problem. The Government are not shying away from it—we want to tackle it head on. I believe that we have a good track record to date. First, we have successfully reduced the number of people who sleep rough—those who are literally roofless—by no less than two thirds. In 1997, we inherited housing legislation—the Housing Act 1996—which reduced the rights of homeless people. We have strengthened the safety net for homeless people so that more people are eligible for local authority help, and widened the help that local authorities provide.

In the short term, that has meant local authorities accepting more people as homeless and has therefore added to the numbers in temporary accommodation.
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Many of those people would have been left to fend for themselves under the previous legislation. More vulnerable people than ever are being helped and that includes those who are mentally or physically disabled. The consequence of the increase in the number of people who are helped is a growth in households in temporary accommodation. Of course we are greatly concerned about that, and we have acted quickly to end the scandal of households having to raise children in bed and breakfast hotels.

It is interesting to note that, on 31 December 2002, some 2,230 families were living in bed and breakfast. That means approximately 3,600 children living in bed and breakfast accommodation. By 31 March 2004, the figure was zero. We had eliminated the problem of children and families having to live in bed and breakfast hostels. As the hon. Gentleman said, those are statistics. However, they are important: the statistics express human misery and I am delighted that we are considering a figure of zero.

We acknowledge that some local authorities' services have been bogged down in the process of deciding whether a household asking for help is homeless under the legislation rather than concentrating on the help that could be offered to avoid homelessness. That means that households are being accepted as homeless and moved into temporary accommodation in circumstances where homelessness might have been prevented. The protection that the legislation offers, although greatly welcome, has become the only option, rather than the safety net that it should be.

I am glad that proactive local authorities have changed their culture to develop a range of appropriate options for everyone who asks for advice. By helping someone to rebuild relationships with their family or friends, stay in education or work or deal with a drug or alcohol problem, homelessness can be prevented. We support those approaches and services that provide the right help at the right time, backed up by a robust safety net for vulnerable people. The hon. Gentleman described that as losing the battle, but I am pleased that every local authority now has a strategy in place for preventing homelessness, and that we are beginning to achieve reductions in homelessness acceptances, with London leading the way. Here, reductions in the past two quarters—that is how recently the change began to bite—were 9 per cent. compared with last year and 5 per cent. elsewhere. I believe that we are turning the corner. That is making a huge difference.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): It has taken seven years.

Phil Hope: As I said earlier, we have been widening the net in the past seven years to allow more people to be helped. More vulnerable people are being helped. It is crucial to deal with prevention to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place as well as rightly tackling the provision of more accommodation to meet needs.

Bob Russell: Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope: No, because I have only three minutes left to respond to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.
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We have provided significant additional funding for local authorities and voluntary sector agencies to support delivery of their homelessness strategies, doubling previous spending plans. London has received more than half of the resources available nationally, because we recognise the unique problems that it faces. We have doubled the investment in affordable housing, and London is receiving more than 40 per cent. of the national allocation; that is some £2 billion in the current spending review period. We have also increased the investment in new provision of housing, and these prevention initiatives will together turn around the problem of homelessness.

The hon. Gentleman raised several points on this issue, and I should like to say a little more about funding. This year, the homelessness and housing support directorate allocated £45 million to local authorities in support of their homelessness strategies. A further £14 million has been allocated to voluntary organisations, and London received the lion's share. Indeed, Southwark's allocation was one of the highest in London, receiving more than £1 million from the directorate in each of the past three years. Of course, money is not the only answer. This is about people working together, and the partnership work that has been done on rough sleeping has been hugely successful. Rough sleeping levels are now less than half their 1998 levels, and there have been notable successes.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned empty homes. In London, the London Housing Board's discretionary funding pot for private sector renewal is funding an empty property website in the West London sub-region, and other sub-regional schemes to help to bring empty properties back into use. We have introduced a range of fiscal incentives, and in particular a VAT reduction, to encourage the renovation of long-term empty homes. We have also provided funding for the Empty Homes Agency, an independent housing charity, to work with local authorities to implement effective empty property strategies. We have published comprehensive guidance for local authorities and property owners on unlocking the potential of empty property. We will follow that up later this year with more specific guidance for Departments and the public sector. I hope that, through those measures, we have demonstrated our commitment to tackling the pernicious effects of empty homes.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the question of benefits in relation to the homeless sector in London. He will know that the London homeless services team was set up specifically to address the needs of homeless people across London with regard to welfare benefits. I shall not take him through all the details, but the team works with 80 outreach organisations across London, often using a van, and it sees about 700 customers a month. The Southwark homelessness unit offers a direct access benefit-related service to a case load of more than 400 street homeless people and in excess of 100 hostel dwellers. These are good examples of joint working between the Department for Work and Pensions and local boroughs to tackle the relationship between homelessness and the benefit system.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the New York project. The Government are well aware of the excellent work of the Times Square project there, and have been very supportive of it. We have also encouraged
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innovative projects such as that in England. In particular, we are closely involved with the Crisis urban village project, and we await with interest the next stage of its development. I take his remarks on this issue very much to heart, and we are grateful for his involvement in some of these developments.

The hon. Gentleman made a particular point about temporary accommodation. While there are more people in such accommodation now, it is important to remember that the people who have been helped have been rehoused as a result of the stronger homelessness legislation. The vast majority—more than 80 per cent.—are housed in self-contained homes in the private or social sector. We accept, however, that that number reflects a shortage of suitable housing, and we are determined to tackle that issue, too. That is why our priority for action over the next three years is to increase the number of new social rented homes.

I have mentioned prevention, so I shall say no more about that at the moment. I want to talk about the importance of building more homes. The hon. Gentleman mentioned using a particular method of construction as a way of delivering new homes. He will remember that, at our conference in Brighton this year, the Deputy Prime Minister put out a challenge to the housing sector to try to build homes for £60,000. We then heard about some imaginative schemes involving the use of surplus public land. That is the kind of innovative thinking that is going on right now on modern methods of construction, but of course we need more money to supply quality affordable housing. We are already investing £1.4 billion in more affordable
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housing for London over the periods 2004–05 and 2005–06. Let me tell the House what that means: this year and next, 10,000 more homes for rent for homeless and poorly housed families; 4,000 homes for low-cost home ownership; and 8,000 homes for key workers. That is a total of 22,000, and we are not going to stop there.

The recent spending review has announced significant additional funding, which will provide nationally an additional 75,000 social rented homes and 40,000 homes for essential public sector workers and low-cost home ownership over the three years to 2007–08. We have also provided resources to reduce nationally the number of non-decent homes—we had a debate about that earlier—by 1 million. We are determined to continue that good progress.

We have had a short but important debate, and I hope I have shown that investment is being made in additional homes. I hope I have also shown through the statistics not only how people's lives are being affected but that the Government are taking this action seriously and that we have had a lot of good success in tackling rough sleeping and children living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We have a prevention agenda that is beginning to show results. With our investment in new affordable housing, we are setting the right agenda for reducing homelessness in London and across the country.

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