I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington, (Mr. Corbett) for initiating this debate. I very much regret that I could not be here to listen to his speech and to speeches made earlier by my hon. Friends.
The debate centres on the deepening housing crisis that confronts the country. We have heard from many hon. Members representing constituencies throughout the country about the housing crisis that afflicts the inner cities of west Yorksire, Bradford — my own city — Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool and many others. The crisis is directly due to the failure by the Government to devote public expenditure to combat the housing crisis and to a lack of political commitment and priority.
It is extraordinary that at this time of a deep housing crisis, when millions of people are in acute housing need, particularly in inner cities, tens of thousands of construction and building workers are unemployed and we have mountains of building bricks. I hope that as a result of the debate the Government will reconsider their housing policies, which have resulted in the recent lamentable house building programmes since 1979. Under the last Labour Government, in one year as many houses were built as have been built under this Administration in three years. The scale of the housing problem has magnified since the Government first came to power in 1979.
Since then, still more problems have been created. Year by year there has been a reduction in rate support grant, which helps local authorities to combat the housing crisis in their own areas. There has been a massive reduction in improvement grants, which enable local authorities and others to improve homes and bring them up to acceptable standards. Most recently, there was the imposition of VAT on those who are willing and keen to repair and improve their homes. Those Government policies make it much harder to combat the housing crisis.
I should like to dwell on one specific aspect of the housing crisis—the problems that many of the poorest single people and childless couples face, especially with regard to the availability of furniture grants, which are administered by the Department of Health and Social Security. You may suspect, Mr. Speaker, that I am straying out of order. I hope that that will not be so, because I hope that the Minister will take the view that the Department of the Environment, in its role as the Ministry responsible for overall housing policy, should concern itself with the effect that the rule is having upon the housing needs of the poorest sections of our community. I hope that the Department of the Environment will also exert pressure on the Department of Health and Social Security to abolish that rule, which I and many charities and agencies involved in the housing crisis believe is contributing significantly to the difficulties that we face. The rule to which I refer prevents single people and childless couples who are qualified to claim a grant from getting that grant if, in the view of the Department of Health and Social Security, suitable alternative furnished accommodation is available.
In a recently prepared paper the Campaign for Single Homeless People referred to a case which can be duplicated up and down the country, especially in our inner cities. It said:
After years of homelessness and living in unsuitable, expensive bed and breakfast, she has finally been offered a council flat. She goes along to the DHSS office to ask for the furniture grant she needs to move in. Since she has been unemployed for over six months she qualifies, but the DHSS office, if it is following its instructions, will ask her to go away and get up to 15 refusals from landlords. If she manages to do this DHSS can still tell her to try any address they know about —usually the most sub-standard bed and breakfast in town, which has vacancies most of the time because anyone who can, leaves as soon as possible. No-one could blame the claimant if she has given up by now. Either she will give up the tenancy, and go back to the cycle of temporary, unsuitable housing and homelessness or she will try to live in an empty flat on bare boards. Of course the DHSS office may not bother following its instructions. Many just refuse single claimants straight off. Because the rules give DHSS officers so much discretion, decisions are often different for claimants in the same situation at the same office.
I have a constituent who is in exactly that position. The local authority, which is anxious to rehouse her large family, has nominated her through a housing association for an empty council flat. She has accepted the tenancy and would like to furnish it. That would be extremely convenient to the local authority, which could then rehouse the rest of her family in suitable, available accommodation. However, because the DHSS is refusing that grant, she cannot furnish the flat and is in great difficulty. That story could be told by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends about constituents in a similar situation.
That problem relates to public expenditure. Taxpayers, because of this stupid rule, are being asked to finance something which is expensive to them and wholly unnecessary in practice. The CHAR briefing cites another claimant who is caught in the trap of this rule It says:
a claimant in inner London could be paying up to £98 a week in a hotel, with a total entitlement of £106·85 a week and be refused a furniture grant to enable them to move into a council flat at perhaps £25 a week which would reduce their entitlement to £51·80.
In public expenditure terms, this rule is extremely costly to the taxpayer. It is ludicrous in terms of local authority house planning, because it undermines local authority house building plans, programmes and policies. It is extremely discriminatory, because it discriminates against the poorer sections of society — the single homeless and couples without children. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister to consider the social and financial implications of the rule. Because of his overall housing responsibilities and his responsibilities for planning housing, I urge him to have discussions with the DHSS about the effect of the rule and to persuade it to do what it can to abolish the rule as quickly as possible.
I understand that the rule is being reviewed by the DHSS. I hope that the information which must be in the Minister's Department will be made available to the DHSS so that steps can be taken to remove it. All the housing agencies involved see the rule as one of the biggest obstacles that they face in trying to secure proper and satisfactory housing for those in most need.
I hope that as a result of tonight's debate the Minister will reflect and reverse the Government's housing policies and take one modest step by suggesting urgently to the DHSS that it should abolish this stupid rule as quickly as possible.