Photo of Mr Andrew Love

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton, Labour/Co-operative)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision relating to the definition of household overcrowding standards and the housing needs of those living in overcrowded accommodation.

Put at its simplest, the Bill is intended to modernise confusing and outdated legislation, and to strengthen the protection available to people living in severely overcrowded conditions. Additionally, it will place a duty on local authorities and central Government to tackle overcrowding by providing homes that such families so desperately need.

Although the current definition of overcrowding is set out in the Housing Act 1985, it was carried forward from the Housing Act 1957, which itself consolidated a standard that originated in the Housing Act 1935. Overcrowding standards have therefore remained unchanged since that time—despite assurances from the then Minister that the standard laid down need not be regarded as the ultimate ideal to which we should work.

Since that time, and until the late 1980s, the number of overcrowded households fell steadily year on year. In the past decade, the acute shortage of affordable accommodation has meant that many families have found themselves severely overcrowded but with little possibility of a move to larger, better-quality, family-sized accommodation.

Official statistics on statutory overcrowding are not collected, but the survey of English housing provides an estimate of overcrowding based on the number of households living in conditions that are one or more bedrooms below the defined bedroom standard. The survey estimates that around 500,000 households are overcrowded, of which about a third are in the capital.

Overcrowding therefore features heavily in my constituency case load. Just last week I had a case of a family of six living in a two-bedroom housing trust property that is in a very poor state of repair. The family consists of a young woman who has three children. There are two daughters aged five and three and a son aged nine. There are also two other family members—a brother of 17 and a sister of 15. They are not deemed statutorily overcrowded; indeed, they do not even come close. It is not unusual for three, four or five children to have to bed down on mattresses and blankets on the living room floor. Surely it must be unacceptable that families are forced to live in conditions that most of us would consider Dickensian.

Just how low the standards are set can be judged by the minimum size for a habitable room—50 sq ft, which is regularly described on property details as a child's bedroom, although frankly, one could not swing a cat in it. None the less, according to the current standard, such a room can sleep two adults and a child under one year old.

As with homelessness, the problems of severe overcrowding are most intense in central London. Let us take the case of Mr. and Mrs. A, who are clients of a local housing aid centre and have three daughters and two sons aged between 15 and 21. On becoming homeless, they were offered temporary accommodation in the private sector, which was described as a four-bedroom property. However, the bedrooms measured 2 m by 1.5 m, and the living room, which was meant to accommodate the whole family, was approximately 3 m by 3 m. As a result, the total floor space of their accommodation was around 160 sq ft, which falls far short of the 400 sq ft that should be allocated even under the very low standards of existing legislation.

Many families experience severe effects on their health, welfare and well-being as a result of overcrowding. According to recent research, there is a high prevalence of skin disorders and infectious diseases. Owing to a lack of space, children are at much greater risk of having accidents, and the stress of living in such cramped conditions can place a severe strain on family relationships. Children's education is being seriously undermined by lack of space: sharing bedrooms makes it hard to read or do homework, and disrupted sleep patterns mean that they do not get the rest that they need. All of that results in their falling behind at school.

The profile of severe overcrowding shows that black and minority ethnic households are far more likely to be affected. Although only one in 50 white households live in overcrowded conditions, the figure increases to one in seven among minority ethnic households. Alarmingly, it can be as high as one in four for families from parts of the Indian subcontinent. According to the recent Cantle report, severe overcrowding was a contributory factor to the housing stress and social exclusion experienced by ethnic minority communities in all the major cities in the north of England that were hit by civil disturbances in the summer of 2001.

The problems of overcrowding standards have been recognised by the Government, who have said that they are reviewing the options for updating them. That is to be welcomed and exactly what my Bill would achieve. While I am at it, I also welcome the progress that the Government have made in tackling homelessness and improving the quality of social housing. However, delivering a decent home for all cannot be achieved without addressing the stress experienced by families living in overcrowded accommodation. Otherwise, it will prove difficult, if not impossible, to deliver on the Government's commitments on child poverty, social exclusion and family welfare.

The Housing Act 1985 lays down two legal definitions of overcrowding: the room standard and the space standard. If either or both are breached, the dwelling is statutorily overcrowded. That occurs under the room standard when two people of opposite sex who are not married or a cohabiting couple must sleep in the same room. However, all living rooms, including the kitchen, are included as bedrooms. There is no limit on the number of people of the same sex who can share the same room, and young children are excluded.

That standard would be replaced under my Bill by a new bedroom standard modelled on that used in the survey of English housing, and is based on a very simple formula. Rooms available as living rooms or kitchens would not count. Any single person aged 21 years or more would be allocated a bedroom, and young people aged between 10 and 20 would be allocated a bedroom together only if they are of the same sex. Two young people under the age of 10 of different sexes could be paired in the same room. The new bedroom standard would take account of the changing nature of family life, recognising the needs of adults, children and infants alike by identifying a suitable number of bedrooms for their use.

The current space standard is based on the number of people who may sleep in a dwelling of a particular size. Children are partially or totally excluded from the count. As a result, four children under the age of 10 could share a room without statutory overcrowding occurring. Under my Bill, all children would be counted in deciding whether overcrowding occurred. That would ensure proper recognition of the impact that they have, in the same way as adults, on overcrowding.

Under the 1985 Act, local authorities are allowed to undertake surveys of overcrowding in their areas. A report on the nature and extent of the problem can then be drawn up, from which proposals could be made to the Secretary of State on providing the required number of dwellings. Sadly, no such report appears to have been drawn up and no specific action has been taken. Clause 4 of my Bill would require local authorities to undertake a periodic survey of overcrowding in their areas and to estimate the number of dwellings necessary to abate that overcrowding. The clause would also require the Secretary of State to take such reports into account in determining the overall allocation of funding for new, affordable accommodation.

Finally, I reiterate that the Bill would bring overcrowding standards into the 21st century and place a duty on local authorities and the Government to tackle overcrowding through the funding of investment in the homes that these families so desperately need. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Love, Ms Oona King, Ms Karen Buck, Joan Ruddock, Mr. David Kidney, Mr. David Curry, Peter Bottomley and Mr. Adrian Sanders.