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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 26 November 2008

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Temporary Housing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Chris Mole .]

9.30 am

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am pleased that we are having this debate because the issue of temporary housing affects many of my constituents. Almost every time I hold an advice surgery and see people with housing problems, someone who lives in temporary accommodation will attend. The problem has been and still is huge, particularly in London.

The housing statistics show that, by the end of 2006-07, 87,000 households were living in temporary accommodation. By March this year, that figure had fallen to 77,000, which is certainly an improvement. In some ways, we are in a much better situation than we were a few years ago, when many of the people concerned would have been in bed and breakfasts, rather than in flats or houses. We have virtually got rid of the use of bed and breakfasts—I think that about 5 per cent. of people in temporary accommodation now live in them.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important debate to the House. As we approach Christmas, homelessness and temporary accommodation is a serious matter, particularly for families with children. During the past 10 years, things have definitely improved and I congratulate the Government on their efforts in trying to deal with the problem, but there is still too much use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is, in some ways, used by my council to threaten and cajole people. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is often particularly unsuitable for people with young families because it is sometimes rat infested or damp. That type of accommodation must be stamped out completely.

Mr. Gerrard: I agree. The figure is down to 5 per cent., which is good, but I know that some local authorities still use bed-and-breakfast accommodation. My local authority does not and has not for some time, and I am pleased about that because it has made a positive difference.

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): For the sake of accuracy, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the figures are in fact twice those of 10 years ago, even though they have fallen in the past couple of years?

Mr. Gerrard: I assume that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the number of people in temporary accommodation, not those in bed and breakfast. There is no doubt that there has been an increase. I understand why local authorities feel the need to use temporary accommodation and there is no question but that, in some cases, people in temporary accommodation—whether a house or a flat—live in far better conditions than
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those in which people in similar situations lived some time ago. However, there is still a problem. The majority of people in temporary accommodation probably live in London and only a small proportion of those—less than 25 per cent.—stay in that temporary accommodation for under six months, while about 40 per cent. stay in temporary accommodation for two years or more.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As an occasional critic of my Government’s housing policy and their attitude to local authorities, I feel that it is important to start on a positive note. The target to halve the use of temporary accommodation by 2010 was set in 2004 and has been achieved in a number of regions, particularly my region of the east midlands. However, there is still an issue in relation to those in bed and breakfast and, indeed, hostel accommodation. The majority of people in hostel accommodation are ready to move into something permanent, if only it existed.

Mr. Gerrard: I accept that point. Many local authorities are moving towards that target, but there are still serious problems in London and doubts about whether we can meet it. My hon. Friend made a point about hostels, but the figure of 87,000 households in temporary accommodation masks the true situation because it does not include the people whom local authorities do not accept as priority homeless and whom they do not take on. Those are generally young, single people, and they can end up in some of the worst situations and in hostels. I shall return to that point.

Clearly, we will not solve this problem without doing something about the supply side and increasing the supply of affordable rented housing through registered social landlords. I know that the Government are now making welcome moves in that direction and are considering what can be done to increase supply, but obviously that will not happen in the short term. I do not want to focus too much on the issue of new build, although that matter is obviously critical, but there is the question of the 50 per cent. target, how we can attain it and what we can do in the meantime to make conditions and costs more bearable for people who are in temporary accommodation and likely to be so for some time.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that in London the 50 per cent. affordability target appears to have been virtually abandoned by the Mayor in favour of borough-wide negotiations? In any event, only a third of those properties would be available for rent; the rest would, in effect, be unaffordable for people with desperate housing need because the costs are simply too high.

Mr. Gerrard: I am aware of that, because it is an enormous problem for London. I am sure that it will be impossible for most London boroughs to solve their housing problems on their own. We need London-wide solutions, but we seem to be moving away from that. The consequences for people in temporary accommodation— particularly those who are in it for long periods—are fairly obvious.

I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen the insecurity that such a situation creates for people. It is not unusual for people to move from one temporary property to another. In many cases in London, people
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are not even moved within the borough that they come from; they are moved to another borough, miles away from family and friends. Just last week, I saw someone who has been put in temporary accommodation in Walthamstow by Hammersmith and Fulham council. That is not his first temporary place. Before that, he had been in temporary accommodation in Edmonton, although his family and friends live in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Such movement creates problems in getting children into schools and moving them from one school to another. When people are constantly being moved from one place to another, there are also consequences for them when they try to find and keep work. Some pilot schemes have been run to try to deal with that issue. Waltham Forest was one of the boroughs that ran the working future pilot, which considered what could be done to help to get people in temporary accommodation into work. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has assessed how those pilots worked and whether we might be able to extend them.

A further issue for many people who are put into temporary accommodation relates to the conditions in which they live. Again, I frequently see people who live in temporary accommodation and who have been put into the most appalling places. I sometimes wonder what checks are carried out before some of those properties are used. Last week, I saw a case in which someone had moved into a flat that had no hot water or heating, and within a week the bathroom ceiling had collapsed and there were rats in the property. Through public money—housing benefit—we are paying more than £300 a week to keep someone in such accommodation.

Another case I have recently seen involved someone who was put in temporary accommodation that, again, cost more than £300 a week. The place was a tip and was more or less unfit for human habitation. The person concerned, who was a pensioner, ended up moving out and sleeping on a camp-bed in her daughter’s kitchen because she simply could not bear to stay in that place any longer.

One issue that I would like us to examine is what we can do to try to ensure that the condition of properties used for temporary accommodation is decent, because frequently it is not.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of the condition of accommodation. I represent two communities: an island community, Canvey Island, and a mainland community, and the division is about 50:50. Islanders are islanders. Sometimes the local council will threaten islanders with bed-and-breakfast accommodation that is out of borough, totally unsuitable and in very poor condition if they do not accept a place that they are offered on the mainland, which is completely outwith their community, friends, schools and so on. People are threatened and cajoled. They are told that if they do not accept the place, they will have to go into a bed and breakfast. That is intolerable in this day and age.

Mr. Gerrard: I am not familiar with the hon. Gentleman’s local authority, but if what he says is accurate, it does not sound like how I would hope a local authority would behave in dealing with housing applicants.

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An issue that I have touched on and want to return to is costs, because the rents for many properties that people are put into temporarily are unaffordable. Again, I recently dealt with someone who was moved out of a council property, for very good reasons; it was not her fault. She had been paying £84 a week rent in the council flat, but she was put into temporary accommodation outside the borough and the rent was £360 a week. For her, that was completely unaffordable. She is working, but obviously the housing benefit is not sufficient to make up the gap and she is considering whether to give up work, because otherwise she will be unable to afford to stay in the place. Time and again, we are paying out very large amounts in housing benefit—public money—for very poor-quality accommodation.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the perversity of the financial situation is underlined by the fact that, often, more is being paid out to house people in awful conditions than it would have cost to build social housing of a decent standard for people to live in, and in some cases the properties in unsatisfactory condition are council properties that were sold off?

Mr. Gerrard: I absolutely agree. We need to get to grips with the financing and how we are spending so much public money on temporary accommodation.

David Taylor: On that important point, research by the Supporting People programme shows that the cost of providing 50,000 bed spaces for single homeless people per year is about £250 million. That is £5,000 per bed space, which makes our right hon. Friend’s point even more vivid and undeniable.

Mr. Gerrard: I take that point. There have been questions about what the subsidy levels should be for housing benefit where local authorities are leasing properties, and some reductions have been made. The London councils in particular are concerned that that might happen again and make it difficult for them to lease. One consequence of the pressure on the London boroughs has been competition between them to find properties in what they regard as the cheapest areas, so now people are frequently housed temporarily outside their borough of origin. If one looks at the statistics, it is obvious that certain boroughs make a practice of that and very significant numbers of the families they accept as homeless end up in temporary accommodation in another borough. That leads to some of the problems that I mentioned earlier, of security, work and schools. Moving people around in that way often leads also to problems in ensuring that they receive the council tax benefit and other benefits to which they are entitled. Such competition between the London boroughs is very unhealthy. I understood that there were agreements between the boroughs to try to avoid too much of that shopping around, but they do not seem to be working at the moment.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the over-close relationship that a number of boroughs seem to have with particular letting agencies, which
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almost do block lettings, apparently with very little pre-inspection or aftercare when people are moved into those properties?

Mr. Gerrard: I think that is the case with certain boroughs. Not with all but certainly with some boroughs, there are those sorts of problem.

Much of what I have said about what happens to people who are placed in temporary accommodation by local authorities does not apply to single people because, in general, single people will not be accepted as priority homeless, so they end up in an even worse situation. They are forced into hostels or night shelters. Sometimes they have to rely on the charity of friends or relatives. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned, 50,000-plus single homeless people have ended up in hostels. Some of them are helped by the Supporting People programme, which certainly makes a difference, but not all the people in hostels will end up being helped by that programme. For some of the people in hostels, what should be a short-term, temporary measure turns into a long-term problem because there is simply nowhere for them to move on to easily from the hostel. Again, if they are in a hostel where the rents are high and they are reliant on housing benefit, it is extremely difficult for them to get out of that place and get into their own property and into work. In addition, the conditions can be extremely poor.

I shall refer to an example from my constituency. Recently, I have been dealing with some of the tenants of a hostel called Lea Bridge house, which is owned by a registered social landlord, Chiltern Hundreds Charitable Housing Association, and managed through Paradigm Housing, an organisation in its group. It is being run as a commercial hostel, is not using the Supporting People programme and is charging market rents, although I think that the rents being charged are significantly more than market rents. What seems rather strange—I am still trying to have it clarified—is that although I am told that it is being run as a commercial hostel and market rents are being charged, the organisation appears to be treated as a registered social landlord for housing benefit purposes, so those inflated rents are paid for through housing benefit.

There are people living in that place—temporary accommodation—paying £130 a week altogether in rent and service charges. What they get for that is a tiny room, and in the room is a single bed, a small table, one chair and perhaps a small fridge. That is it—that is the total amount of furniture in the room. Everything else is shared. There are shared washing facilities, shared toilets and shared kitchens—by the way, there are both men and women in the hostel—and most of that £130 a week is paid through housing benefit.

What disturbs me even more is what happens when people who find themselves in that situation try to challenge the rent. Two of the tenants in the hostel went to rent assessment committees. In one case, the committee said that it believed that the rent increase that had been imposed was invalid and it could not adjudicate on it. In the other case, the committee decided that it could adjudicate; it found that the rent should not be £130 a week but £75 a week, and the rent was reduced. No one else’s rent was reduced. The consequence was that eviction proceedings were started against both tenants. In one case the eviction has already happened; in the other, it is
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still proceeding. Under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, no reason has to be given for eviction because they are assured shorthold tenancies, and it is virtually impossible for tenants to defend themselves.

That is the sort of situation that results in people ending up in hostels. Their rent is far more than I believe the justifiable market rent should be, and they are living in poor conditions. When they try to do something about it—if they challenge the rent and go to the rent assessment committee—the consequence is eviction; but they have virtually no protection against eviction because of the nature of the tenancy.

When I questioned the housing association about its policy of eviction, it said:

that sounds fairly straightforward. However, it continued,

If that is not an eviction policy, I do not know what else it could be.

It concerns me that a registered social landlord can take that sort of attitude to vulnerable people living in a hostel. I appreciate that the Minister will not know the details of the case, but it is not the sort of thing that we should expect from a registered social landlord, even if things are being run as a commercial operation. I know of other hostels where conditions are probably worse and where rents are higher. Those are the sort of situations in which single homeless people find themselves.

We are right to want to build more decent, quality family housing and to help stop families having to go into temporary accommodation, but we should not forget single homeless people. They are faced with the sort of hostel that I have described—and often far worse. None of these problems will be solved without the supply side being addressed with new build and doing more to bring empty properties into use, and in London doing it on a city-wide basis, as local authorities cannot solve the problem only within their own boundaries.

Bob Spink: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. One area of supply that he has not yet mentioned is the Government purchasing blocks of flats that are unsellable because of the credit crunch and the current economic situation. I know that the Government have put quite a bit of money towards such a scheme; indeed, we discussed it in this Chamber only last week. However, I encourage them to go even further and provide more money so that local authorities, housing associations and social landlords can take that stock off the market. It will help the housing market and the economy generally, and it will certainly help homeless people.

Mr. Gerrard: I would certainly like to see that done. I recall that 30 years ago, when I chaired a local authority housing committee, we used to buy properties on the open market. In one instance, we bought a complete estate that had been built by a private developer who was having trouble selling the properties. It did not distort the housing market in the area, and it made a significant contribution to our being able to re-house people in decent property. I have never seen a problem with local authorities doing that.

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We should consider other solutions as well as looking at the supply side. I know that housing benefit reform is being considered. As part of that process, I hope that the Government will consider the impact of housing benefit on temporary housing and what might be done to change the system. I hope that they will look at what can be done to improve the standards and conditions in which people have to live, and to ensure that if people have to live in temporary accommodation—we must accept that will happen for some time to come in London, however well we do against our targets—they can live in decent places at a reasonable cost to them and to the public purse, through what we pay out in benefits.

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