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17 Oct 2006 : Column 208WH—continued

Ms Keeble: The figures for housing completions are a matter of record, and we all know what they are. However, I draw from two experiences. The first was the leader of an inner London council having to house destitute people under a Conservative Government who were vicious in their determination to try to ignore the plight of the homeless. The other is having to deal with a Conservative-controlled council that is equally brutal in how it deals with a number of my homeless constituents. It is a matter of recognising housing need and of properly assessing and meeting it. The Labour
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party, in government and in local authorities, has a record that the Conservatives could never hope to match, much less beat.

As I said, however, despite the Government’s many achievements in tackling homelessness, I still see too much of it. Not only that, the homeless people that I see are often the most vulnerable and the most in need of support; the very people whom I would expect to be helped by the state. Homelessness may have reduced, but it has intensified in nature. I shall deal with four particular issues. I know that some of my hon. Friends wish to raise other concerns, so I shall not stray on to that territory.

The first is the need to get families with children out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation; the current rules must be tightened. Another is to stop councils making the unacceptable decision that people intentionally have made themselves homeless, and especially to ensure that a proper assessment is made of vulnerability among adults. The third is to stop diverting the homeless into private sector accommodation that is often completely inappropriate to their needs. The last is to end the single room rent. Underlying all that is the need for more social housing to rent. I welcome the recommendations of the Select Committee, as well as the commitment by the Chancellor to increase spending, which he sees as a key part of the spending review.

I start with getting families out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We have seen a welcome reduction of 80 per cent. in the overall numbers since March 2002. Government guidance is that bed-and-breakfast accommodation should be used to accommodate families with children only as a last resort and only for six weeks. Although it might be possible for some councils to interpret that in a reasonable fashion, that is not the case in my constituency.

My understanding of “last resort” or “emergency” is that someone’s house has burned down, or that everything else has been tried and failed. Yet in Northampton, I find that the threat of bed and breakfast seems to be used routinely to deter people from applying for social housing, and it is still used routinely for families who face what might be termed predictable homelessness; families who have been served with notices to quit their private sector rented accommodation because the landlord wants to sell the property, or lone parents with children who are evicted by grandparents or friends who have given a month’s notice of their impending homelessness and who have time to find a more acceptable alternative.

I shall give some examples of what is meant by bed and breakfast. In one instance, a young lone parent in my constituency was placed in a bed-and-breakfast hostel where, as she complained to me, a relative of the owner rifled through her belongings. She felt unsafe and left, and was promptly branded as being intentionally homeless; she was therefore refused further help with housing. She had suffered a compound series of issues in her previous life, so by any reasonable standard she should have been regarded as vulnerable and in priority need. It would be hard to interpret what had happened to her as intentional.

Another example was of someone being refused housing by a local authority but being helped by social services; there was a particular need to ensure parity of
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treatment between the two groups. A Muslim widow with seven children was placed in a bed-and-breakfast hostel that had no cooking facilities. Because of that restriction, she had to walk across town each day to a community centre in order to cook a meal for her children and then walk back with the cooked meal.

Finally, only last weekend a woman with three children came to my advice surgery. She was being evicted by her landlord because he wanted to sell the property. She had nowhere to live and went to the local council, which said that she would have to come back on the day of the eviction and that they would probably put her in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in a town about 20 miles away. Not only would that have made it virtually impossible to sort out her accommodation needs, it would mean disruption for the children; they would not receive schooling and they would also lose their friends. When she was eventually placed in a single bed-and-breakfast room in a hostel in Northampton, she saw it as a real concession; never mind that that she was in a bed and breakfast, with all its attendant difficulties. Frankly, that is being bullied.

The Government have to be much more specific about the circumstances in which families with children are placed in bed and breakfast, and about the facilities that they should have. They should ensure that the rules apply equally to families placed in accommodation by the housing authority under homelessness legislation and those placed in hostel accommodation by social services under the Children Act 1989. By whichever route they get there, the same standards should apply.

If it is not possible to be more specific about the circumstances, the Government should take the bold step of completely ruling out bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families. I realise the difficulties that that would create, but we cannot have families with children being placed in unacceptable accommodation. That is unacceptable, as is the default route whereby, instead of being dealt with under homelessness legislation, those concerned are dealt with by social services under the Children Act; that is because they do not have the same safeguards.

Although the pressure on the numbers of families in bed and breakfasts is welcome, it is one of the causes of the dramatic increase in families in temporary accommodation. In my own region of the east midlands, the numbers have more than doubled since 1997, and the evidence from Shelter on the position of those families is acute. As some of my colleagues want to speak about that, I will leave further description of that problem to them.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that those who suggest that much of temporary accommodation is of good quality are wrong? The experience of my constituents and, I suspect the constituents of most hon. Members, is that the least good accommodation is generally used for temporary accommodation and most people’s experience is very negative.

Ms Keeble: I completely agree. The problem of instability is profound and has a huge impact on families.

A further issue is that of decision making in terms of intentionality and the difficulty that homeless people
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have challenging those decisions. For example, there is a woman whose case I have already raised with the Minister’s Department—I have not yet had a reply—who is disabled, has mental health issues and is a former care leaver who walks with difficulty and uses crutches. She was judged to be intentionally homeless because of an eviction for rent arrears, which she says was due to problems with housing benefit. I have been through the circumstances carefully with her and it seems that her explanation is entirely credible. She is presently living in a privately rented room above a pub. The landlord wants to evict her not, I hasten to say, because of problems with the rent, but for quite different reasons. Her single room is up several flights of stairs and, bearing in mind she walks with crutches, there is no lift and the kitchen is down a flight of stairs, with the toilet and bathroom—her washing facilities—up another fight of stairs.

In order to avoid going up and down to the kitchen, she eats what she is able to cook in her room, which is not very healthy. The problems of getting to the toilet are more acute—I will not go into the details out of respect for her privacy. This woman has survived a pretty horrendous time in and out of care and subsequently a number of other difficult circumstances in her life, yet she is coping remarkably well. I am surprised that she copes at all, despite the fact she feels very depressed about the conditions in which she is forced to live.

There are, of course, procedures that should have ensured that that woman was not left in that position. She is supported by a number of organisations so it is not just me who has heard her story. It is hard for someone in her position to challenge the local authority, especially when there is no one to take on housing cases funded by legal aid in Northampton and decisions simply go unchallenged.

Intentionality officially accounts for just under 10 per cent. of homelessness refusals, but those cases often involve the most vulnerable people who have difficultly challenging flawed or inconsistent decisions. A great deal more work needs to be done to ensure that there is consistency within the decision making process and that decisions are taken properly. The vulnerability of people should be properly assessed and they should be given a real opportunity to challenge decisions. That process might already appear to exist on paper, but in reality, certainly for many of my constituents, it simply does not happen.

I would also like to refer to the diversion of homeless families into private sector accommodation. I have pressed the Government on that a number of times because it is a real problem for my constituents. Although the Government’s intentions are clear, they are not being translated into action on the ground. I still find that constituents who face homelessness are encouraged to go into private sector housing and claim housing benefit before their vulnerability is assessed, instead of making a homeless application. A young couple came to see me who were homeless and vulnerable; the mother of a former care leaver and a young man evicted by his mother with a young child and a second expected. They were diverted away from making a homelessness application towards a private sector tenancy, which they ultimately took. When I last heard from them they were on their second private sector tenancy and facing difficulties because they could only get six-month tenancies and therefore have to keep moving.

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Another woman was diverted away from making a homelessness application despite being a victim of domestic violence. She was unable to manage the rent for a private sector tenancy—housing benefit does not now routinely cover private sector rents—fell into debt, was evicted for non-payment of rent, and was judged to be intentionally homeless because of the eviction for rent arrears. She was then refused further help. Some of my constituents who are now routinely caught in that situation are paying £50 per month and more on top of their housing benefit for their private rented accommodation with no security of tenure beyond six months. People who are forced to move from one short tenancy to another find it difficult to get work and finding that extra money out of benefits it very difficult. My constituency has very high levels of employment, including among women, so it is not an issue about people wanting to work. If people cannot work it is because of the practical difficulties in their way.

The single room rent means that single people under the age of 25 can only claim housing benefit for a single room. That is perhaps the last matter hanging over from the Conservative Government and is long overdue for change. Research from the Department for Work and Pensions shows that 87 per cent. of all single room rent claimants face a shortfall because of the low level at which the single room rent is paid, usually around £35 per week.

I wish to pay tribute to the YMCA in Northampton for its outstanding work on that and other issues relating to single homeless people in the town. I am concerned about the possibility of funding cuts to what is a life-line service for many young people in my constituency. Not only is the single room rent forcing young people into debt, it is perpetuating the continuation of a sub-standard category of housing that should have disappeared long ago. A home shared by friends is a far cry from a property where each room houses a different person. There are a group of private sector landlords who subdivide and let their properties to maximise their housing benefit receipts: a type of benefit farming that traps the most vulnerable and marginalised in the worst housing whether they are young, single people or homeless families. A change in the rules on the single room rent would help prevent at least part of that.

This debate comes 40 years after the historic screening of “Cathy Come Home”, which led to establishment of Shelter, and its outstanding campaign on behalf of homeless people. This Government have worked closely with Shelter on many housing issues and have transformed the rights and realities for many families at the bottom of the housing ladder. Despite the great progress that has been made under this Government, my judgment is that a lot of “Cathys” are still out there somewhere with their children, drifting in and out of bed and breakfasts, temporary accommodation and the occasional private sector tenancy. Those who are more resilient have managed to get a home of their own, but for the most vulnerable, there are still wide holes in the safety net and I ask the Minister to ensure that they are closed so that all of the “Cathys” can finally come home.

11.18 am

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this important debate. While I respect her
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temptation to take a side swipe at the Tories—we can all respect that—I think that homeless people are better served by raising this debate above the tiresome, tribal debates and squabbles that often take place; homeless people deserve that.

I also entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s concluding remarks regarding the single room rent. From my own experience of my west Cornwall and Isles of Scilly constituency of St. Ives, I know that there is a significant problem with the setting of local reference rents generally. Because of the methodology used, they are often set significantly below the rate that the private sector charges for properties, certainly in my area. That leaves many people who are on low incomes, earning and non-earning, facing a significant shortfall between the housing benefit that they receive and the rent that they are charged, in an environment in which private rented accommodation especially is scarce and extortionately expensive compared with incomes, at least in my area, which has the lowest incomes in the country.

The debate is about homelessness and I want to deal with two matters. One relates to the gathering of the data—the basis on which we take decisions or Government policy is decided. I had an exchange of letters with the Minister for Housing and Planning a year ago, querying the figures given by the Government at that stage. The theme that I want to develop and the question that I want to ask is whether the Government believe that homelessness is the result of dysfunctional people who have simply failed themselves and that accommodation does exist, or whether there is a malfunctioning of the housing system and the housing market, which I argue is more likely, particularly in an area such as my own.

The impression given, certainly in the exchange that I have had with Ministers, is that homelessness is a problem of data collection and definition. There is a rather patronising centralist view that somehow those stakeholders out in the sticks are not competent enough to establish and operate strategies to deal with the problems. All the correspondence and dialogue that I have had points to a failure of the Department, whether Ministers or officials, to accept that there might be a malfunctioning of the housing system and the housing market that results in pressures throughout the system such that those who are dropping out at the end are in fact properly functioning people who simply cannot be housed because insufficient housing is available for them and their circumstances are not a result of a failure in themselves.

In commenting on this issue, especially with regard to my constituency, I should congratulate a large number of voluntary sector projects in particular. One in which I was involved from the very early stages is called Breadline; it is just up the road from me in Bread street in Penzance. Since 1986, that project has provided very significant help to homeless people and unemployed people in the Penwith area. The YMCA has some hostel accommodation, particularly for younger single people, in the Penwith area. Penwith Housing Concern provides support, advice and counselling, particularly for those who have suffered substance and alcohol misuse.

The Salvation Army undertakes its own quarterly count and provides us with extremely helpful figures on
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the people with whom it makes contact and provides support for, and works with other agencies in a very professional manner in the Penwith area. It has recently secured another hostel to assist and relieve the problem locally. Of course, there is also Shelter, with which I was involved before I was elected as an MP, and many other organisations. There are also the local authority professionals in this sphere, for whom I have a very high regard as well.

In setting the backdrop to my comments on this issue, I should say that I undertook a survey of estate agents in March/April last year, about 18 months ago. I asked very simple straightforward questions regarding how properties had been sold, to whom they had been sold and the prices and the estate agents’ estimates, as they are in the best position to give estimates, of the change in house prices and the change in the nature of the market. I found that, in the whole of west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, twice as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. People locally will be not surprised at that; in fact, they will be surprised that first-time buyers are able to buy and get that toehold in the market at all, given the house prices. I will not bore hon. Members with statistics—those can be trotted out on many occasions and I can supply them to people—but certainly the average house price in the area vastly outstrips local wages. According to one’s source, the average house price is anything from seven to 10 or 12 times local wages. That is not a surprise and it is not a surprise that large numbers of properties are purchased for recreational and investment purposes by people who want to enjoy them as holiday accommodation and for their own leisure and investment.

I am not involved and nor am I interested in the politics of envy. People are of course entitled to buy properties for recreational and investment purposes if that is their desire. However, we need to consider a range of policy issues relating to the impact that that is having and whether we need to change policy, particularly in the area of planning use class orders, to constrain the numbers of properties that can be purchased and converted from permanent to non-permanent residency.

Hon. Members, including you, Mr. Taylor, may be asking yourselves, “Well, what has second-home ownership to do with homelessness?” This is the very point that I want to make. Second-home ownership is having a very direct effect in this regard. If the market is significantly influenced by extremely wealthy people—wealthy compared with locals—who can intervene in the market and in fact set the whole tone of it, and if the price regime is largely generated or led by that development, it will inevitably have an impact on families who, 20 or 30 years ago, might have anticipated that they would have a chance of getting into the market. They now cannot and they are looking for the very scarce accommodation available through either the public or the private sector for rent. Particularly in the private sector, such accommodation is not only scarce but extortionate in price.

Further to the survey that I undertook last year, I undertook a survey this summer and found that five times as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. That is just 18 months after my original survey. Again, the findings are not a
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surprise. In St. Ives, for example, an estate agent told me that 60 per cent. of properties were sold to second-home buyers and 0 per cent. to locals. Many people will not be surprised by that outcome, but perhaps it is a surprise and very disturbing to people here to hear that that is the dysfunctional way in which the housing market operates in my area.

Down on the Lizard peninsula, an estate agent told me that 65 per cent. of properties were sold to second-home buyers and 0 per cent. to locals. [Interruption.] I do not know whether you can still hear me, Mr. Taylor, given the intervention from a phantom driller off to my right—that is not a political statement. I am trying to show a significant connection, relating to how the housing market works for thousands of people, who are unable to express their demand, desire and need for housing in the market place, as they might well have been able to a generation ago, even in an area as difficult as Cornwall.

Mr. Love: Was not one of the findings of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission that the activities in question were localised in very small areas in the south-west? Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting, as a consequence, that we should intervene in the market place to restrain, somehow, the level of activity in the housing market?

Andrew George: Absolutely. I do not argue that the problem is a nationwide one. It is clearly localised to Cornwall, parts of south-west England and Norfolk, the Lake district, Somerset and some other places. It is not inconceivable, and it would certainly be acceptable in my view, for the Government to provide local authorities with the tools, if they wanted to use them. It would be appropriate only in areas such as those I have described, where second-home purchases have a detrimental impact not only on the housing market but on such matters as community infrastructure and the viability of schools. There is clearly an opportunity, as the Affordable Rural Housing Commission suggested in its report, not for the Government to intervene themselves but for them to provide local authorities with the tools to do so where appropriate.

In view of the time, I want to return to the issue of homelessness, and to provide a backdrop to show why, surprising as it may appear, homelessness, which is assumed to be an urban phenomenon affecting only metropolitan and inner-city areas, has significantly affected an area such as mine in west Cornwall for the past 10 to 20 years. It has certainly not gone away. Our problem is, first, that the Government do not accept the level and seriousness of the problem in my area.

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