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26 Nov 2008 : Column 243WH—continued

9.55 am

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): This is a vital subject, especially in areas under as much housing stress as Oxford. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech.

Underpinning all our discussion is the shortage of affordable housing in general, and social housing in particular. In welcoming the announced bringing forward of capital spending for housing, I urge my hon. Friends to ensure that some of it is in Oxford and, moreover, that the Minister looks hard at how to bring forward the planning decisions that are essential to providing the housing that we need in Oxford and in other areas.

I know that other Members want to speak, so I shall keep my remarks succinct. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow acknowledged, there has been a decline in the number of people in temporary housing. That is welcome, especially when it results from genuinely preventive work, such as mediation to help avoid family breakdown. However, that welcome fall in the headline rate cannot disguise the fact that underlying problems remain, not least because one way that councils, including Oxford, prevent statutory homelessness is by encouraging people—for example, through help with deposits—to move into the private rented sector.

It is important to understand that people who are moved into the private rented sector often see themselves as being worse off, and in many respects they are. If they are in temporary accommodation, they can expect a social rented tenancy in the future, with less chance of having to move in the meantime; but in the private sector they are all too often in temporary accommodation, on a six-month or yearly tenancy, with no priority for social housing and no long-term prospect of anywhere affordable.

The other consequence, as my hon. Friend mentioned, is that whichever form of temporary accommodation people are in, rent levels are such, especially in high-demand areas such as Oxford and London, that the disincentives to work are enormous. In February this year, of 130 households in temporary accommodation provided directly by Oxford city council, only five included someone in work. I am sure that can be multiplied across the country.

The situation gives rise to at least five big policy implications. The first is the need to consider whether
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the current requirement to give “reasonable preference” to those in temporary accommodation is fair in the circumstances. As I said, it does not look fair to those who have been forced into private rented accommodation.

Secondly, there is a need to raise standards in the private rented sector, both because the sector is important in its own right and because it houses many who would previously have been in more tightly regulated temporary accommodation, with all the shortcomings mentioned by my hon. Friend. That underlines points that I have previously made to the Minister—we look forward to showing him the situation when he visits Oxford in the near future—in particular, about the need for city-wide regulation of houses in multiple occupation and the licensing of landlords.

The third policy implication was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. It is the need to address the disincentives to work and to explore extending the sort of approach that was piloted in the Working Future project in east London. Although the project involved only relatively small numbers of people, those taking part who received the additional rent subsidy had a 40 per cent. higher rate of job entry than those in the control group, who received similar treatment but without the subsidies. Without doubt, such initiatives, along with wider reform of the benefit system, must form part of the answer.

Fourthly, and obviously—we are all stressing this point—we should build more affordable homes and accelerate social housing provision, which is long overdue. I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend: single homeless people must be included in the provision. If they are not, the consequences for lives and communities will be devastating.

Finally—this point has not been mentioned yet—I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues to bin the Chartered Institute of Housing’s ludicrous proposal to end security of tenure for council tenants, whether new or existing, which would in effect turn all social housing into temporary housing. That would be grotesquely unfair to council and other social tenants, and would be disastrous for communities, because it would create concentrated ghettos of the most disadvantaged people and deepen the spiral of worklessness, which, as I just said, is such a problem. I hope that my hon. Friend will make it clear that the Government will have no truck with that proposal.

David Taylor: Not only would the proposal create ghettos, it would run counter to 60 years of Labour party policy to provide mixed communities in local authority estates. We abandon that policy at our peril, both socially and, in particular, politically.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend underlines the point effectively. The proposal would stigmatise social housing, and concentrate and deepen social disadvantages.

Those in housing need deserve affordable accommodation of a decent standard that enables them to work and to enjoy a more secure life in balanced communities. Temporary accommodation, whatever form it takes, is at best a short-term expedient. It is never the lasting solution that communities need and tenants deserve.

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10.3 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): We seem to have a Westminster Hall housing debate roughly once a week, which is an indication both of the strong feelings among Members about constituents’ housing problems and of the continuing direction of travel in this country. Last year, of 191,000 new properties completed, only 27,000 were for the social rented sector. I suspect that the number completed this year, and therefore the number available for the social rented sector, will be much less. We are stacking up problems year on year.

Local authorities are stuck with the problem of a statutory obligation to house homeless and vulnerable people, but they simply do not have the stock with which to do it—certainly in big cities, especially London. As a result, local authorities take the only course open to them, which is to house people in the private sector. My local authority took 2005 as the cut-off date, after which new housing applicants in Islington could not get a housing association or council property. Their only option now is to enter the private sector where although rental deposits might be paid by the local authority, they themselves will have to pay the rent, either through housing benefit or by getting a job.

Last year, the housing benefit bill was £4 billion, a large proportion of which I suspect—I do not have the exact figure—went to the private landlord system. The average cost of private rented accommodation is between twice and four times that of social rented accommodation, despite the similarity of the properties—indeed, they are often ex-local authority properties. The amount of public money being poured into the private landlord system is ludicrous. Instead, it should be invested in rented housing for those in desperate housing need.

I appeal strongly to the Minister to give us just two bits of good news: first, that the absurd idea of temporary tenancies for local authority tenants will be abandoned. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made the same point. The proposal is immoral, wrong and counter to everything in which our party believes—everything we have believed in all our lives. Secondly, on Monday, the Chancellor announced a large amount of money to be spent on getting us out of the financial crisis, including a large amount for housing—£700 million, I think. I hope that the Minister will tell us that a lot of that money will go either to building rental homes or to buying properties, if of a sufficient standard, unsold on the private sector market. We must ensure that the lot of the worst off in society is not made even worse by the crisis.

In my borough, 916 households are living in temporary accommodation; 294 of them live out of the borough, which is a fairly normal figure across London. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) told us about competition between authorities housing people in other boroughs. That is crazy. We have set up a sort of competitive market in which local authorities try to devolve their housing responsibilities to private landlords and then compete for areas in which to do it. A suspiciously large number of out-borough nominations from my borough end up in Enfield or Tottenham.

Some boroughs seem able to provide housing wholly within their own borough. For example, Hackney, according to an answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), has
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not placed anyone outside the borough. Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, on the other hand, seem to place very large numbers of people outside their boroughs, although Westminster was unable to report on the exact figure, presumably because it was too big. It is completely unacceptable that a couple of boroughs—Haringey and Westminster—seem incapable of reporting the figure.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): The Haringey figure was reported yesterday in response to a parliamentary question of mine. Haringey has the largest number of children in temporary accommodation, but the figure was not reported for previous years. It has finally counted the number, but it appears that it tried to hide the figure because it is so large.

Jeremy Corbyn: And the numbers are so large because of the lack of building, and the difficulties that local authorities have had in the past with building. We must conquer that problem. However, I am not defending the numbers in private accommodation—quite the opposite.

The Minister may have had the pleasure—if that is the right word—of reading the report on the Mayor’s London housing strategy, which has an unusually long declamatory introduction from the new Mayor. However, it is woefully short of detailed proposals, except that he will have negotiations with every London borough to achieve a 50 per cent. target. It contains no word about the results of those negotiations or borough meetings—indeed, I am not sure whether any have been held yet.

The report appears to contain a series of aspirations. The Mayor says a great deal about the necessity—in his view—of people getting on the housing ladder and purchasing property, but not an awful lot about affordable homes and even less about social rented accommodation. I am sure that the Minister understands that the situation in London is desperate. In a normal constituency, such as mine or those of my hon. Friends the Members for Regents Park and Kensington, North and for Walthamstow or of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), the proportion of people who can afford to buy a property in their own community is probably less than 20 to 30 per cent. For very large numbers of people, home ownership in London is simply a pipe dream, so the only way forward is to build homes for rent.

One piece of information in the Mayor’s report that is of interest is a chart entitled, “Homeless households: numbers in temporary accommodation and lettings by region.” Last year, all regions had a larger number of social housing lets made to homeless families than there were homeless households in temporary accommodation. In the case of London, however, it was the other way round. Nearly 60,000 households were in temporary accommodation, with only 11,000 new lets during the year. That is a measure of how bad the problem is, and it is getting very much worse.

I will be brief because other hon. Members want to speak. The Minister will have seen Shelter’s proposals for dealing with housing supply in the current climate. I hope he recognises that Shelter, along with many other organisations, is sensibly proposing that we consider housing as a social priority for the whole country and that we do all we can to invest in new housing for rent at the present time. This is a debate about the supply of temporary and rented accommodation.

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My final point—I hope that the Minister will understand its importance—concerns the enormous amount of money that we are pouring into the private rented market through the housing benefit system. I am not in any way critical of people who claim housing benefit. I absolutely support such claims; it is a right and people should enjoy that right.

David Taylor: Does my hon. Friend agree that there have been some particularly egregious cases in which local authority housing departments have rented very large, expensive houses when that is not the best value for public money? That has had the effect both of wasting money and of stoking the prejudices that are often evidenced in the national press, especially in the Evening Standard, against those who are homeless or in need of affordable housing.

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, the Evening Standard and other papers seem quick to find someone who has been housed in a particularly valuable home so that they can blame the tenant for being placed there by a local authority. Such a story becomes quite unpleasant and intrudes on that person’s life. The reality is that the person probably had no choice about where they were placed. If it is a good property, that is fine, but such stories detract from the real issue, which is the cost to all of us of the private rented system. It is time for us to look at the models that successfully operate in many other parts of the world. There are better systems for registration of private and rented authorities, much better inspection and much tougher standards on the operation of them.

It is fairly clear that when one is in the ultra-commercial private rented sector, conditions are often very good. We are talking about extremely high rents in central London. The conditions are good; there are concierges, caretakers, repair teams and all the rest. However, the rented properties leased to local authorities, or rented to tenants nominated by local authorities, are appalling. Repairs are not done. The properties are often vermin-infested, dangerous and totally unsuitable for children. Is it not time that we were much tougher on regulation, and that we brought in rent regulation?

The Labour Government of 1974 managed to introduce rent regulation. Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, threatened to keep the House sitting throughout August unless that piece of legislation went through. Well done him. He showed determination to do something about the scandal of the private rented sector. I hope that in this crisis we will be prepared to make similar efforts to protect people.

The losers in temporary accommodation are vulnerable people and the children who have to move schools frequently and cannot build up a network of friends. The community also loses out because there is no stability and people cannot contribute to school governing bodies, tenants’ associations and residents’ groups and all the rest. We end up with an increasingly fractured, transient society. What we desperately need is stability through secure, affordable rented accommodation delivered mainly through local authorities, as our party has always campaigned for and proudly delivered in the past to many people in desperate housing need.

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10.14 am

Ms Karen Buck (Regent’s Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing this debate. I introduced a debate on temporary accommodation a year ago, and a number of the points remain valid. I will be reinforcing many of the issues that my hon. Friends have raised.

In dealing with the current housing situation, we seem to want to pursue a number of incompatible objectives. Individually, such objectives might be entirely reasonable, but they are not consistent with each other. For example, we want to reduce the number of households living in temporary accommodation, which is absolutely unarguable. Temporary accommodation is not a good thing, nor is it a desirable place to be. We also want to reduce expenditure on housing benefit, yet one of the strategies that we are adopting is to divert people from temporary accommodation and move them into private-sector leasing, which can be even more expensive.

We want to achieve the target of reducing temporary accommodation by 50 per cent. However, we do not want to do it in such a way that we increase overcrowding or pressure on the social housing stock. I am afraid I have to tell my hon. Friend that that is completely impossible. We want to maintain the Department for Communities and Local Government’s code of practice on the limited use of out-of-borough temporary accommodation placements. None the less, we want to cut expenditure on temporary accommodation, which has the perverse consequence of encouraging the use of out-of-borough placements.

For understandable and, in many cases, good reasons, we are in a mess. Part of the problem is that we desired to use the example of the successful and sensible decision to set a target for ending the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and apply it to temporary accommodation. We have done that in a way that has had a number of perverse consequences.

I shall run through a few points. I cannot apologise for the fact that they will be stressing the same issues that my hon. Friends have raised. We must remember that we are dealing with real human beings who are going through the homelessness process. I am sorry to say that our approach to homeless households is one that we do not adopt for anyone in need of services and support in any other area of public policy. If someone is sick, we do not say, “It does not matter how good your doctor is, because if you are sick, you will just be very grateful to have a doctor.” If someone has a child coming up to school age, we do not say, “If you are desperate to have your child educated, it does not matter how bad the education is because you will just be very pleased to have a school for your child.” Yet, when it comes to housing people who are in housing need or homeless, we adopt an approach that is fundamentally no different from the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which says that if someone is in housing need, it does not matter in what conditions they are housed because they are so desperate for a home that they will be grateful. That is the legal position adopted by local authorities when determining their duties under housing legislation.

In my surgeries, time and time again I see people from the borough of Westminster who have been told that if they make a housing application, they will be
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housed in Barking and Dagenham or Walthamstow. If they refuse the accommodation that they are offered, the case will be classed as “duty discharged”. We then end up with a situation such as this:

He said that he was living near the Harrow road,

His wife suffers from numerous health problems and is registered in Paddington. He said:

However, the property was too small for the family and was not of a decent standard. The individual in question refused the offer and the case went to review. The housing offer was cancelled and he added:

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