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26 Nov 2008 : Column 249WH—continued

In other words, if accommodation is not in a location or condition that families feel able to accept, the duty to them has been discharged, and they end up on the streets. In many cases a slightly perverse consequence is that they end up being supported by social services in the same local authority where the housing department has discharged the duty, at a fantastic cost. Social workers from that very local authority ring me to ask whether there is anything I can do about a family, because their housing authority has refused, and the social workers are acting as housing officers because so many families are caught in those difficult circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned out of borough nominations, which is a persistent and serious problem in my constituency. A family came to see me two weeks ago. They had lived in the Church street area of Westminster since Mr. A was born. The two younger children are in a school in Church street, and the family now commute daily from Barking to bring the children to school. Families do that all the time, having decided that the school is the one place of safety and stability in their entire turbulent family life. They commute with their children for an hour and a half in the morning and at the end of the day, at huge expense, to keep the children in a stable environment. Mr. A works near Marble Arch, and Mrs. A is the registered full-time carer for her father-in-law, who also lives in Church street. In my view such a case is in clear breach of the code of guidance applied by the local authority. It is under review at the moment so I do not know what the outcome will be, but it strikes me as a case in which the principle of the code of guidance, that families with a clear local connection and good reasons for remaining in a community should be assisted in doing so, should be applied.

In a third case, from a little while ago, a lady, Mrs. S, wrote to me:

Of course there is a further dimension in that case, which is the housing of homeless families from black and minority ethnic communities in parts of the city where community cohesion is a real and pressing problem.

What makes the matter worse at present is the fact that several temporary accommodation leases are coming to an end, partly because of pressure to achieve the target of a 50 per cent. reduction in the use of temporary accommodation. That means that families, some of whom have already had eight different temporary addresses—in my borough there are families who have stayed in temporary accommodation for up to a decade, making the term something of a misnomer—must move yet again. A few weeks ago I was dealing with a family who were due for eviction because the lease on the property came to an end, and who had to sit all day on the pavement, with their young children and their luggage, waiting for alternative accommodation to be provided. In such cases families receive a standard letter:

That tenancy is due to end before Christmas. I know of several others due to end on 30 December, including that of a woman who is the chair of governors of a struggling primary school, where she has been an enormous inspiration to the local area. She has been told that her tenancy will end. There is no indication of how and when alternative accommodation will be provided for her. Some of the families affected will be told to expect to have to go back to bed and breakfast—after all they have been through, including bed and breakfast in the past—because there is no comfortable match between the supply of temporary accommodation and their needs.

With all those problems, there are about 53,000 households, not including single people, in temporary accommodation at the moment, whose lives are under constant pressure of disruption. As my hon. Friends have said—I think everyone has made this point—it is at a fabulous cost to the public purse. The standard charge for our accommodation is £435 a week, which adds up comfortably to £500 million a year just for families in temporary accommodation on housing benefit.

My hon. Friends also all said that the situation means that families wanting to work face an impossible hurdle. We understand that around 90 per cent. of households in temporary accommodation are unemployed, compared to a 60 per cent. average for working age households in social housing tenancies as a whole. There is a clear gap that can be explained by no other factor than the sharply steeper rents in private sector
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leased accommodation and temporary accommodation. It seems strange to me that we did not want to pursue the “Working Futures” model and treat rent through the block grant system in the same way as we would treat people on social tenancies. That would enable people to go back to work.

There is much more that we can do. We need to carry on improving the standard of temporary accommodation, because although some properties are in good condition still too many are not. We need to deal with the issues of work incentives and people on housing benefit; we need to deal with out-of-borough nominations, and to enforce the code of practice in the interest of community cohesion, family stability and mixed communities. We need to review the application of the 50 per cent. reduction target for temporary accommodation. It is having a catastrophic effect on transfers for people already in social rented accommodation, and leading to perverse consequences in the private leased sector, which has given rise to all the high-profile cases on which the media have recently reported.

Bob Spink: I thought that the hon. Lady might point out the need to deal with the supply of housing. In my borough we need about 200 more social housing units, which would help tremendously, but I do not see how we can get them. However, many local authorities are sitting on significant reserves of section 106 money, which is not being spent, but which could help to provide that supply. It could even supplement the additional money that I hope the Minister will announce.

Ms Buck: The hon. Gentleman is completely right. Last week we had another debate about housing in London, in which we discussed the issue of supply, so I did not want simply to repeat the same points. Of course supply is the key to the matter but, with specific reference to temporary accommodation, it seems far more sensible to capitalise the stream of housing benefit that we are pouring into the pockets of private landlords, often for substandard accommodation, and develop a hugely increased programme of temporary to permanent schemes, so that we provide stability for people in their accommodation.

Of course we want to continue driving forward supply. It is a great sadness to me that my local authority managed to achieve a figure last year of only 11 per cent. of all homes being affordable. I have no great optimism, under the present London regime, that the situation will change without what I am looking for, what I hope for, and what I am confident we shall deliver through the Government. There will be tension between local authorities and the Mayor of London. Supply is the key, but I still maintain that even within the present supply regime there are many things we can do to sort out the perverse incentives and conflicting objectives, to improve quality and work incentives and try to ensure that the vulnerable families and single people who through no fault of their own become homeless by definition, because of the way the duty is dealt with, do not have to go through the sheer hell that so many thousands experience every day in London. If we are serious about a social cohesion agenda those families must be at its heart.

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Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): I urge Opposition Front-Bench Members to exercise a little restraint to allow the Minister time to reply.

10.29 am

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing this vital debate and I agree entirely with the points that he made. The real problem with temporary accommodation is how long people often remain in that situation.

I also agree strongly with the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who made a typically thoughtful and insightful speech on housing. I have exchanged views with her in many such debates, and I think that her constituency is similar to mine in this regard. She made the point that we often treat people who are homeless far worse than we would treat anybody else who is vulnerable.

Something about having a home and the nature of that home is critical to a person’s identity, but all too often, because of rationing, we give people the bare minimum and make them beg for it. The fact that local authorities force people to wait on their doorsteps with their belongings around them and their children in their arms is but one example. Local authorities all over the country do it because they do not want the extra cost of a night in accommodation and because accommodation is so scarce.

I have a couple of examples from my constituency that address many of the points made by hon. Members. Miss A, a single mother with four children, has been in temporary accommodation since 1997. She has moved many times since, but has been in her current property for three years. She has medical problems, but none that would require her to be upgraded, so under the Locata system—the choice-based letting scheme—she is in band C. That means that she is in housing need, but that she has not got a cat’s chance in hell of moving within the time it will take for her children to grow up. She bids every fortnight, but is getting nowhere.

Ms D lives in two-bedroom accommodation. She has been in temporary accommodation for seven years and lives with her two adult granddaughters, aged 20 and 21. The 21-year-old is eight months pregnant and has sickle cell disease, and the accommodation is in a poor state of repair.

I am afraid that I see an awful lot of cases like those. Predominantly, London Members are here today, but the problem is one that hon. Members right across the country speak about. The cases are devastating to listen to and extremely frustrating, as one knows that it will be difficult to get the people involved moved on. The problem, particularly for children, as many hon. Members have mentioned, is the frequency with which people in temporary accommodation move. The hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North spoke about how much travelling parents often do with their children. I have many similar examples; I am afraid that my local authority often places people in Hackney.

The difficulty is not just cost, which the hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North mentioned, but availability of accommodation. That lies at the root of the matter; it is about supply. Lack of supply creates lack of choice about where to place people, and they are often placed a
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long way from their homes and families, usually when they are at their most vulnerable—not necessarily when they are given long-term placements in temporary accommodation, where they may have some chance to establish themselves, but usually when they arrive at the housing department, having been evicted or having become completely homeless, and the local authority tries to decide whether it has a duty to house them. Those occasions are particularly stressful for families. Because of the lack of decent temporary accommodation, people often end up being moved long distances from where they live.

A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Walthamstow, spoke about the difficulty of keeping work while moving around, but I agree with other hon. Members that the issue is more about the combination of housing benefit and high rents, and the disincentive to work that that creates. Even though the new policies allow people a period in which they do not lose their housing benefit, most families know that, in the long term, if they are paying high rents in temporary accommodation or private accommodation in which they were not placed by the council, it is simply not worth it—and the cost to the taxpayer is enormous.

The issue of poor standards has been raised; I mentioned it in relation to one of the cases I spoke about a few moments ago. The hon. Member for Islington, North discussed some local authorities’ over-closeness with particular agencies, but we must also be realistic about the fact that a lot of private landlords do not want people on housing benefit placed in their property. Most local authorities are not terribly good at administering housing benefit, especially if people go in and out of work or their circumstances change, which creates a disincentive for landlords because they know that the rent will not be paid on time. How many cases have we all dealt with in our local areas where housing benefit has been overpaid and then withdrawn for extended periods? It is unfortunately no wonder that there is a disincentive for private landlords who rely on housing benefit for their income to take people in that situation.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) raised a number of interesting points about quality in the private sector. Over-regulation is a danger. Particularly now, when we are trying to get private property back into use, we do not want to create an incentive to leave it empty. I am rather more attracted to the idea of landlord accreditation schemes, which a number of local authorities have begun. I wonder whether we can encourage such schemes to become more common and to raise the bar for standards.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow mentioned people in hostels. I have an example in my constituency and just this week I was discussing the issue with Octavia housing association. Four or five years ago, just after I was elected, I opened one of its hostels to house young people leaving care. It was supposed to be a supported housing centre to ensure that young people can move on to independence, but the truth, as he said, is that most never move on because there is nowhere for them to go.

I am afraid that all the problems that I have discussed come back to supply, and I shall take a few minutes to mention a couple of the issues. It is likely that the difficulties will only get worse along with the economic situation and that we will see an increase in the number
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of people whose homes are repossessed, the number who arrive at the council’s door asking to be housed and the number who are left waiting with their belongings around them and their children in their arms, housed in temporary accommodation and then moved on and on. We know that that will happen.

The Government’s priority needs to be to keep people in their homes for as long as possible. I recognise that the Government have made advances on that, and I support much of what they have said on the issue of repossessions, but I do not think that the pre-action protocol that came into force recently goes far enough.

I am disappointed that the Government have not taken advantage of the Banking Bill, which is likely to finish its progress through the House of Commons today, to update mortgage law, much of which is extremely outdated. I do not think that there is any place for remedies such as foreclosure. The Government could have amended the Bill so that the courts had the teeth to deal with the things that they want the courts to deal with, to ensure that people have a chance to stay in their homes if they can repay their debt over a long period.

I also want the Government to make it a priority to tackle commercial mortgage rescue products, which, again, will only increase the number of people arriving into temporary accommodation. I have seen this in my constituency. People are encouraged to allow their houses to be bought out at a fraction of their value, and one knows that in 12 months’ time those people will be evicted and will land at the council’s door. The Office of Fair Trading has recommended that the Government tackle it, but they still have not responded. Now is the time to respond. The matter is urgent, and I hope that the Government will ensure that such products are properly regulated by the Financial Services Authority.

I hope that the Minister will make it easier for housing associations and councils to buy up land now, while it is cheap, as well as suitable property, to ensure that we can house many of the people in desperate need. I recognise that the pre-Budget report included £770 million more for that purpose. Of course, £400 million of that had already been announced, but there is no reason why the Government could not front-load the money that has already been allocated in the comprehensive spending review for this area, which would also ensure that we unblocked those obstacles that are preventing housing associations from building now.

The issue for housing associations is that their social build has relied on cross-subsidy from private sales and shared equity, and we know that, at the moment, that subsidy is not coming through. Unless the Government are prepared to accept that, in the short term, each unit will require higher subsidy, there is no way that those units will be built and we will end up in a worse situation at the end of this economic crisis than we are in now.

10.40 am

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing an excellent debate on a subject that I know he cares about a great deal. Temporary accommodation and homelessness is a subject that I have spent a lot of time dealing with in the last couple of years.

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A couple of figures mentioned at the beginning of the debate go against the official records. The Department for Communities and Local Government says that, on 31 March, there were 78,000 homeless households in England in temporary accommodation, which is nearly twice as many as in 1997. It also says that three quarters of those households in temporary accommodation contain children who are dependants. Indeed, I published a report a year ago almost to the day that showed that there are 130,000 homeless children living in various forms of temporary accommodation, which is double the number 10 years ago.

Those are the facts. What about the reasons? It seems clear that the lack of supply has been the biggest contributory factor to those enlarged figures and the supply side has created a range of problems. It does not really matter whether one is looking at temporary accommodation, lack of social or affordable housing, or housing in general. As has been discussed many times in similar debates, for every type of housing fewer houses have been built in the last decade, which I know is as deeply troubling to many Labour Members as it is to us in the Conservative party.

The simple lack of housing provision has led to many of the chronic problems that were described today in great detail, with individual case histories being provided during the debate. As was mentioned, it is a fact that only 27,000 affordable homes will be built this year. It will be interesting to hear a projection for next year from the Minister.

One of the key issues that has emerged from this morning’s debate is the problem of lack of provision for people who are not priority cases. Had I had more time, I would have outlined a case that I encountered in my surgery a few weeks ago. At 5 pm on a Friday, the local council was saying, “Sorry, we’ve gone as far as we can, we’ve gone beyond our statutory duty and we cannot help you,” yet I was sitting in my surgery with a man who had nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep over the weekend other than his car, where he had spent the week beforehand. I appreciate that simply adding more people to the priority list is not an answer in itself, because it just makes the priority list larger. Once again, however, the overall lack of housing and the failure to provide supply are the central cause and problem that absolutely must be addressed by this Government, or indeed the next.

There is another problem, which is very revealing. In conversation, Charles Fraser—chief executive of St. Mungo’s, which is a large London charity—told me that back in the 1980s 84 per cent. of the people living in its hostels were in work, but nowadays just 4 per cent. are in work. That problem of worklessness, which is due to factors such as a change in the profile of available jobs, creates an additional layer of difficulty, as does the fact that housing benefit means that there is a positive disincentive for people to get back into work, as was mentioned earlier. It is verging on criminal that it is more expensive for people to go out and do something productive than it is for them to claim housing benefit. On many occasions in the many hostels that I have visited, I have spoken to people who are distressed beyond belief by that situation—it is an urgent case for a priority review.

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