Homelessness (London)

Part of Petitions – in the House of Commons at 11:29 am on 20th December 1985.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 11:29 am, 20th December 1985

I hear what you say, Mr. Speaker. The exchanges that we have just heard are very important. However, it is regrettable that the Government did not choose to find a somewhat more convenient time to make that statement, more convenient for Back-Bench Members who have matters to raise and for Scottish Members, many of whom will already have returned to their constituencies.

At least the Minister whom the Government have chosen to make their apologies for the homelessness in London is in the form of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, rather than the chairman of the Conservative party, the Chingford boot boy who unfortunately reduced to the level of the gutter what should have been a good debate last Wednesday on the problems of the inner cities.

In a supposedly civilised society, it should be unacceptable that anyone who so desires should be without a roof over his or her head, but within a few yards of the House may be found hundreds of people—men and women, young and old—who are sleeping rough on the streets. The Greater London council has just received an interim report by Professor John Greve of Leeds university on homelessness in London. He previously reported in 1970 and he now finds that the level of reported homelessness in London is up by 700 per cent. since then. Professor Greve's report, with others that came from the Duke of Edinburgh and the Archbishop of Canterbury's commission, show that there is incontrovertible proof of the social crisis that is facing inner cities.

Instead of approaching this problem with the same urgency that sent a task force steaming towards the Falklands, the Government have sought to rubbish all the evidence. If we believe the Government, the Duke of Edinburgh has become a Marxist, the Church of England has become the Kremlin at prayer and recent inner city riots are just isolated incidents of hooliganism. Perhaps the Government think that they can contain the growing problem by recruiting more policemen and giving them plastic bullets, clubs and water cannon. Such a response would simply add blind stupidity to the criminal negligence of which the Government are already guilty in their policies towards inner cities.

London this year has reached the depressing record of more than 27,000 households accepted by the boroughs as being homeless. That is only part of the problem. There are also over 20,000 single homeless in unsatisfactory accommodation or sleeping rough.

Hon. Members will shortly be departing for Christmas, no doubt a merry one. However, I hope that they will spend some time during the season of good will and festivity thinking of the poverty and degradation facing so many of our citizens in London and elsewhere. The lucky ones will go to bed and breakfast or temporary accommodation, where two thirds of the homeless accepted by councils end up. However, I doubt whether any Member of Parliament would consider himself or herself to be lucky in such accommodation. Conditions in bed and breakfast accommodation for the most part are squalid and overcrowded. Fire regulations are often flouted and many mothers and children suffer from ill health and severe social stress brought on by living in such appalling circumstances. The stable in Bethlehem would have offered more pleasant accommodation than many mothers and children will enjoy this Christmas.

The cost to the state of bed and breakfast accommodation is formidable. In his interim report, Professor Greve concluded that, far from representing an economical way to deal with the problem, the use of bed and breakfast hotels for homeless families is financial and economic madness. In London, the GLC figures show that the financial cost to local authorities alone of subsidising this type of accommodation for the homeless exceeded £12–5 million in 1984–85. It is estimated that this could rise to £16 million in the present financial year. However, this expenditure represents only a fraction of the financial cost to the state imposed by the use of this type of accommodation. In addition to local authority spending, huge costs are borne by central Government. Through DHSS board and lodging allowances the Government are acting on that not by building more council houses or providing more accommodation but by harassing the homeless in bed and breakfast accommodation.

In his report, Professor Greve compares the cost of housing families in bed and breakfast hotels with that of building new homes and flats for the families concerned. Taking into account only the estimated DHSS board and lodging costs, he shows that the average annual cost of keeping a couple with two children in bed and breakfast accommodation is over £13,000 compared with only £7,600 for building the family concerned a suitably sized council flat or house. That is how ludicrous the situation is becoming. If one takes into account the other costs, to the local authority and to the families themselves, Professor Greve concludes that these reinforce the financial case for giving priority to housing as against bed and breakfast accommodation … the social case for doing so is overwhelming. It might be overwhelming to all sensible people, but that excludes the Government. Their economic and social policies are taking the country towards the status of a banana republic, or, as Prince Charles pointed out, a fourth-rate country. Perhaps the Government think that he too has been recruited into the Militant Tendency.

Yesterday, in a written parliamentary answer, the Secretary of State for the Environment announced the housing capital allocation for 1986–87. I have not had a chance to study it in great depth, but as far as I can see, far from increasing the allocation to reduce homelessness, the national housing improvement figure is cut by 13 per cent. in real terms over 1985–86. The London HIP allocation for 1986–87 is £430 million, a heavy cut from the £483 million allocated in 1985–86. When the Conservative Government came into office in 1979, the HIP allocation for London was £1,563 million, but next year it will be only £430 million. That is a reduction of 72 per cent. I know that the Government's philosophy is that problems are not solved by throwing money at them, but I should like the Minister to explain how one solves London's housing crisis by a 72 per cent. reduction in HIP allowances since the Government were elected.

The Minister may say that local authorities have lots of vacant property that they could use to house the homeless. However, in London most vacancies come about because the dwelling is not fit to live in and is undergoing repair or improvement. One of the boroughs with the most empty property is the borough that the Government like to praise as a fine example. In Wandsworth, 2,000 council houses are being kept empty because the authority is trying to sell them off. The Minister may say that authorities have capital receipts, but in inner London the capital receipts are simply not there. They are accumulating in outer London areas where the problem of homelessness is not so desperate. The Government should recognise this in the HIP allocation.

The Minister cannot deny that homelessness has increased dramatically throughout the Government's period of office. I am happy to give way if the Minister wishes to deny that, but he cannot and he remains in his place. On this occasion, I do not blame him. Throughout their term of office, the Government have enforced repeated and vicious cuts on local authority housebuilding and repairing programmes. Since 1979, the amount that councils are allowed to spend on housing has been cut by over 60 per cent. Largely as a result of this policy, the Government have also presided over an increase in recorded homelessness of 70 per cent. in London and nearly 50 per cent. nationally.

The social cuts should be obvious to even the nastiest of Tory Members—I accept that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary does not fall into that category. Perhaps the economic argument is not so apparent. The Government say that it costs £6,500 to keep each unemployed person on the dole, in terms of benefits paid and revenue lost. There are 400,000 unemployed construction workers on the dole, which shows that a major housebuilding programme to tackle the housing crisis would save £2,600 million. That money is at present going down the drain to keep 400,000 construction workers on the dole. What is it, apart from an ideological hatred of the public sector, which prevents the Government from ending what is essentially a man-made scandal—homelessness?

The Minister knows my borough of Newham fairly well. He has visited it several times. We are obliged to him for that. I even offered him accommodation in one of our 110 tower blocks, but he has not taken up the offer yet. I would like to think that, when he replies, he will give the Christmas message that I would like to take back to Newham, which is that we can look forward to partnership status in 1986.

In Newham, the number of priority need clients seen by the homeless persons unit increased from 972 in 1982 to an estimated 1,680 in 1985, and Newham is by no means the worst of the London boroughs for homelessness. Those figures exlude all of the non-priority groups, most of whom are people over pensionable age, single people and childless couples. I can give a dramatic demonstration of how bad things have become in Newham. In 1981, the average nightly placement in bed and breakfast was just 1·6 people but it is estimated to have increased to 71·4 a night in 1985. The cost of bed and breakfast to the borough of Newham during the same period has risen from £9,000 in 1981–82 to an estimated £550,000 in 1985–86.

The Minster knows the borough, but how does he think that we can manage with such problems, which are also mirrored in the adjoining boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney? Those three represent the first, second and third most deprived local authority areas in England on the basis of the Department of the Environment's statistics. That is a terrible treble which the East End can well do without.

I can imagine Tory Members asking why people do not go into the private sector and buy a home. I must tell them that 75 per cent. of Newham's priority applicants for housing are on supplementary benefit. This year, we have for the first time exceeded 40,000 people in the borough on supplementary benefit. I find it peculiarly obscene that the same Prime Minister whose economic and social policies keep so many of my constituents homeless or on the dole can afford to spend £400,000 on a neo-Georgian bunker in Dulwich.

The scandal of London's homeless is getting worse and is directly attributable to Government cuts in housing investment. As the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) said in a flash of inspiration, the poor are poor because they lack money. It can equally be said that the homeless have nowhere to live because there are not enough decent homes to go around at prices which the people who need them can afford. The homeless cannot rely on the private sector because their incomes are too low.

What will the Government do to stem the rising tide of homelessness? Why have they decided not to amend the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 to give all homeless people the right to a home? How will the Government change their methods of distributing housing capital allocations to take more account of the plight of the homeless in the inner city? Who will take on the role of co-ordinating provision for the single homeless in London when the GLC has gone, given that the boroughs' grant scheme at Richmond will deal essentially with the financial business of distributing grants? Do the Government contest the assertion of many that it is cheaper to build a new council house than to keep a homeless family in unsatisfactory bed and breakfast hotels? If not, why do they not act with more financial prudence and protect the ratepayer by allowing councils to spend more on housing investment?

The Government have failed in many areas of social policy, but nowhere has the failure been more profound than in the provision of housing for the homeless. Why has homelessness in London and elsewhere increased so dramatically during the Government's two terms of office? Does the Minister know? More important for the homeless, does he care?

In view of the plight of the homeless in London and the poverty and degradation that we see around us in the inner cities, no member of the Government deserves to have a happy Christmas this year. You do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I cannot wish the Minister the same.