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26 Nov 2008 : Column 255WH—continued

26 Nov 2008 : Column 256WH

In a Westminster Hall debate a couple of weeks ago, I pressed the Minister for Housing as to when the Government will pronounce on that review. There was a suggestion that it would be before the end of the year. I take it that that will not now be the case and I urge the Minister who is here today to tell us when the review might take place.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore support rent controls for the private sector and capping rents in hostels?

Grant Shapps: No, but what is important is that we have a system of housing benefit that needs to be scaleable. It is absolutely wrong that somebody who is working may lose money each week. That situation is preventing people from getting into work and keeping on housing benefit people who do not want or need to be on it. That is at the heart of the problem.

On rent levels, the real issue, of course, is the lack of supply of housing. Rents reflect the housing available and if the Government have failed to build as much affordable housing in every single one of the last 10 years as was built in any of the years prior to that, we have ended up in this situation, where the lack of suitable housing creates a real problem. That is the situation we find ourselves in.

Several hon. Members rose

Grant Shapps: I want to finish so that we can get some answers from the Minister, but I will take two interventions and then continue.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is not the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s position, therefore, that he would cap housing benefit and thus reduce the availability of housing for people in desperate housing need, making the situation much worse?

Grant Shapps: No. People would be much better off if they could get out to work and earn more than the housing benefit. The problem is that housing benefit is too rigid in terms of its step; we need more of a sliding scale. I will be interested to hear when the Minister intends to report on that issue. The Government have conceded that there is a problem in this area. Several Labour Members are looking at me as if I am making this up, but it has been conceded by the Government. I understand that there is a review under way and I look forward to hearing its conclusion.

Mr. Andrew Smith: On the question of housing supply, which the hon. Gentleman has been stressing, does he therefore agree with those of us who want higher housing numbers to be provided for in the south-east plan, or does he agree with those authorities, predominantly Conservative, that have argued for lower supply?

Grant Shapps: I do not want to get too far off the subject. The simple facts are that, on average, 145,000 homes have been built each year under this Government, compared with 175,000 under the previous Government, meaning that over 10 years about a third of a million fewer homes have been built. If those homes had been built and were in play and in the marketplace, it is reasonable to expect that rents would be lower.

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That situation is what we need to get back to, but we cannot do it through top-down targets; we need to do it through bottom-up incentives. That is a fundamental argument at the heart of this debate and every other debate on housing that takes place here in Westminster Hall. Until the Government recognise that they cannot force the targets down on unsuspecting communities without giving them something in return—those communities need to be provided with a carrot or an incentive to build new homes—we will continue in the mess that we find ourselves in today. Labour Members are happy to complain about that mess, but they will not recognise the source or the real reasons behind the catastrophic situation in relation to temporary housing, homelessness and, indeed, the cost of housing overall.

I will end soon because I want to hear the Minister’s response, not least how he will build more homes than the Government have managed to do in the last few years. Before I finish, however, I want to ask a number of questions. First, there was an announcement of £750 million—I think that was the figure—in the pre-Budget report the other day. However, there was no description of how that money would be spent, how it would be brought forward and how it would encourage the creation of more housing. I assume that that money has already been allocated in the budget of the Homes and Communities Agency, so perhaps the Minister will take a minute to explain how that money will ease the housing crisis.

Given that we know that there has been less affordable housing built every year in the last 10 years and that the market is likely to crash this year and next, perhaps the Minister will also tell us his estimates of housing numbers in the affordable sector for this year and next.

I was interested in the comments by some hon. Members about secure tenure. There now seems to be a tradition of new Housing Ministers coming in about every three months and making some fairly outrageous statements to some newspaper, only to row back from them a few days later. We remember that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—now Minister for Europe and predecessor of the current Minister for Housing—came in and immediately made statements about throwing people who do not work out of their homes, without realising that the local authority would have to house those families if they were in priority need. Will the Minister explain whether that policy is on or off the table?

Finally, on security of tenure, will the Minister say whether that is an idea put forward by the Minister for Housing, or is it simply an idea from a think-tank?

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. Earlier this year, you ably steered the Housing and Regeneration Bill Committee, in which many of the issues that we have discussed today were initially raised. I am grateful to you for presiding over an excellent debate, albeit a sombre one—as befits the subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the debate and on the excellent way in which he advanced his argument, and I congratulate other hon. Members from both sides of the House on the quality of their speeches.

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Tackling homelessness and reducing fear about housing, as well as housing policy in general, are at the heart of what the Government want to do—they are at the top of our domestic priorities. We have achieved a lot in recent years by making substantial and sustained cuts in the worst form of homelessness; namely, rough sleeping. Hon. Members will be aware that I was able to announce last week our new rough sleeping strategy, which states our ambition to end rough sleeping once and for all by 2012. That target will be incredibly challenging and difficult to achieve, but if we have focus and determination, and if we work in partnership with local authorities and the voluntary sector, we will achieve it.

We have also ended the long-term reliance on bed- and-breakfast accommodation for families, and we are well on the way to ending it for 16 and 17-year-olds. I was pleased that hon. Members from both sides of the House acknowledged the great advances that we have made on that in the past decade. There have been reductions of more than 50 per cent. in new cases of statutory homelessness since 2004. Subsequently, numbers in temporary accommodation have fallen by 26 per cent. In 2008, the number has fallen by 11 per cent., from 87,120 to 77,510. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said that in his region—the east midlands—the target to reduce the number of households living in temporary accommodation by 50 per cent. by 2010 has already been achieved. It has also already been achieved in the south-east and north-east.

There is a lot to be proud of on temporary accommodation, but I do not want to be complacent. There is an awful lot left to be done. We are committed to reducing, as much as possible, reliance on temporary accommodation, but I am under no illusion, given the current economic circumstances, about the challenges we face. The main task for the Government is ensuring that we minimise, as far as possible, the number of people who are forced to lose their home through repossession or other means. I was taken with what the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) said about that. It is important: people are frightened that they will lose their homes, and the Government are determined to do all it takes to ensure that they do not.

The hon. Lady will be aware of the announcements in Monday’s pre-Budget report. The Government will help to protect people who are at risk of repossession by driving through support for vulnerable households via the mortgage rescue scheme, providing direct support for some individuals through support for the mortgage interest regime, and ensuring that we have fair treatment by lenders, with lenders absolutely committed to not initiating repossession proceedings within at least three months of an account going into arrears. We are committed to working with lenders to create sustainable solutions to help borrowers to stay in their homes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) mentioned something that disturbed and concerned me. She talked about a family who were renting in the private rented sector losing their home through no fault of their own, because the landlord had failed to pay the mortgage. I will work on that problem to see what can be done. I am worried that vulnerable households—through no fault of their own—may be at risk of losing their homes because landlords have not paid. I am keen to work on that problem and to put something solid in place.

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Because of the lack of certainty about the future and the disruption caused by frequent moves, which has been made all too clear in the debate, we need to do much more. About 87 per cent.—92 per cent. of families with children—are now living in self-contained temporary accommodation, with their own front door and cooking and washing facilities. However, as has been made clear to me this morning, they are not settled homes, because people do not feel at all stable or secure in them. That is why we are retaining the target to halve the number of households in temporary accommodation.

The point about cleanliness and standards in temporary accommodation was also well made in the debate. I met Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick from the university of York earlier this year, who presented me with the key findings of research into the causes and impacts of statutory homelessness for families and 16 and 17-year-olds in England. It is the first nationally representative survey of families and children who have been homeless for more than 10 years, and the first such survey of 16 and 17-year-olds. The findings are incredibly interesting.

As hon. Members would expect, the research shows greater incidences of problems with physical conditions in self-contained temporary accommodation compared with settled housing. However, interestingly, there seems to be no substantial difference between self-contained temporary accommodation and settled housing in respect of the state of repair or the levels of cleanliness when families first arrive. As hon. Members would expect, the research shows that although the homelessness system is working well, families and children have an improved quality of life once they are in settled housing. That underlines the importance of pressing forward on meeting the temporary accommodation target.

Ms Buck: Will the Minister comment on the departmental code of practice on out-of-borough placements? We are talking about settled accommodation, but being settled a long way from the community in which one has schools, employment, family and friends is an important issue. There is a code of practice, and it should be enforced.

Mr. Wright: I was going to mention that later, but as we are on the subject, there is an inter-borough agreement on the issue. It is worrying. I know that my hon. Friend has had meetings on the matter with the previous housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). In early December, I will
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meet officials of Westminster city council and I will raise that key issue along with other things that arose from a previous meeting, especially the problem of overcrowding. The matter is important. I am instructing my officials to work closely with London councils to encourage all boroughs to abide fully by the agreement. I agree that more can be done, and if I have time later in my speech I will mention the wider prospect of supply and its importance.

Key to achieving the target is prevention. We need to ensure that we do not have a reactive, ad hoc approach to producing temporary accommodation to solve the problem. Intervening at the trigger points when people might become homeless, and fully involving friends, family and the wider community to stop people reaching crisis point, is absolutely crucial. We have achieved our successes by encouraging and providing significant investment in homelessness prevention. Approximately a third of local authorities have already met the 2010 target. They have strengthened their efforts, and provide prevention services such as rent deposit schemes, mediation to help resolve family and relationship breakdowns or problems between tenants and landlords, and debt counselling. Last year, 201 local authorities operated rent deposit schemes and a further 45 were planning to put such a scheme in place. That proves that private rented accommodation is an effective housing option for preventing homelessness and providing a means of settled accommodation, when it is what the household wants.

Many hon. Members mentioned the housing benefit regime, which is crucial, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow asked a question about it last Tuesday in the House. Everyone is aware that local authorities must administer the local housing allowance, which was introduced in April 2008, in accordance with regulations. Local authorities can, and in the vast majority of cases do, take responsible decisions about providing housing for families in their area. However, as was said time and again in the debate, perverse disincentives ensure that people who are reliant on housing benefit do not work.

Questions were asked about whether the taxpayer gets value for money from the housing benefit regime. That is why there has been housing benefit reform—to ensure that we can provide value for money and improve standards. Officials in the Departments for Communities and Local Government and for Work and Pensions and others are working closely together on developing proposals to reform the way in which housing benefit subsidy is calculated and paid to local authorities for people in temporary accommodation.

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Secondary Education (Croxteth)

11 am

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to speak under your stewardship, Mr. Gale, I think for the first time.

The future of education in Croxteth, Liverpool, is very much to do with the proposed closure by Liverpool city council of the Croxteth community comprehensive school. I stress the word “community” because the school is at the centre of the community in the area. Croxteth is a post-war housing estate that adjoins the pre-war housing estate of Norris Green. It is a large chunk of north-east Liverpool. I was brought up in Norris Green myself, and I can tell the Minister that 181 pupils at Croxteth comprehensive school come from Norris Green.

Croxteth is among the 24 most deprived wards in the country. Its notoriety—it is unfortunate that I have to use that word—came to the fore with the murder of young Rhys Jones a year or so ago. It is not an area of great violence, but it has its social problems, which put it among the top 25 most deprived wards. In 1986, during the Thatcher years, unemployment there was no less than 95 per cent. among young people aged between 16 and 25. The area certainly cannot be regarded as affluent. It has been through a traumatic period recently, but one thing about the people of Croxteth is that there is community spirit, and they have kept together in the face of all the difficulties and problems that have beset them.

In letters to me, the Minister has given the impression that the decision is not for him to take. One might therefore think that there is nothing that he can do about it. However, I have come to the Chamber armed with a copy of his Department’s guide to local authorities and governing bodies, “Closing a Maintained Mainstream School”. I shall refer to certain sections of it. For example, it mentions the need for diversity in an area, stating at paragraph 5:

It states that the local authority and governing body should “consult all interested parties”, including the


I emphasise that point.

The guide goes on to state that the

and the

should be consulted, along with trade unions representing staff at the school and at any other school affected by the proposals and

Obviously I am one of those MPs, but there are 16 other MPs whose constituencies are affected by the proposals and who should be consulted. On 9 December the headmaster, Mr. Richard Baker, will bring a lobby
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to Parliament to lobby those MPs. They need to be consulted, and I suggest that none of them has been.

The proposal is to close Croxteth community comprehensive school in 2010. All the children would then be sent off to Fazakerley secondary school, some miles away. In some cases they would have to use two buses to get there. No doubt they would need new school uniforms. The effect on their education would not just be that one move, because there would be two. The proposal is that in 2012 they would return to another school, presumably in Croxteth.

A specific duty is placed on local authorities under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 to

I do not know of any parent at Croxteth comprehensive school who is in favour of Liverpool city council’s proposals.

Importantly, the guidelines also state that

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