Homelessness

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th January 1988.

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Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton 12:00 am, 20th January 1988

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what sums he has allocated to local authorities for the relief of homelessness in the current financial year and the next.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

Gross provision for local authorities' capital expenditure on housing will rise from £2,920 million in the current financial year to £3,048 million next, an increase of 4 per cent. It is for local authorities to decide what resources to devote to the homeless, but the Government have urged that priority should be given to those in special need, and £25 million of the special supplementary allocation announced in December last was targeted on authorities with the greatest homelessness needs.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

Has not the cost of housing the homeless rocketed over the past year to well over £100 million? Has not the Government's response been much too late and much too little? My borough, which is in the top 20 boroughs with housing problems, according to the Department's survey, has allocated all its available homes to homeless families at the expense of desperate waiting list families and it has not received an extra penny from the Government. Are not the Government hopeless with the homeless?

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

While there has been a reduction in local authorities' allocations, from £136 million in 1987–88 to £129 million in 1988–89, that is more than offset by the increase in capital receipts available to local authorities. Overall, local authorities' capital spending will increase by 4 per cent. Many councils have only themselves to blame for such a high cost of meeting their obligations to the homeless. Often they place the homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation needlessly when there are cheaper ways to deal with the problem. Authorities should be spending more of their receipts from the sale of council homes on bringing empty properties back into use. It is a scandal that 112,000 council homes are lying empty of which about 28,000 have been vacant for more than one year.

Photo of Mr James Kilfedder Mr James Kilfedder , North Down

As a considerable percentage of the homeless people in Britain, and as many as 50 per cent. of the young homeless in London, come from the Irish Republic, will the Minister seek to raise at the next meeting of the Anglo-Eire Conference the question of conditions in the Republic which force so many in the Republic to seek sanctuary in Britain, where indeed they are welcome? Will the Minister also raise the question of a financial contribution towards accommodation in Britain for those young people?

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the notice of my right hon. Friend. However, I must stress that it is for a local authority to decide how to carry out its statutory duties regarding the homeless.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Will the Minister concede that her reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) was an insult to the many homeless people in London who are forced to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or, where they are denied such accommodation—as many are—are forced to sleep on the streets of this capital city? My council received only £800,000 towards its costs for bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Will the Minister assure the House that in future the full extra burden of bed-and-breakfast costs on local authorities will be met by the Government, instead of the Government imposing penalties on councils that seek to alleviate the problems of homelessness?

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

It is for local authorities to decide how to accommodate the homeless people for whom they accept responsibility. Our code of guidance advises the use of bed and breakfast accommodation only as a last resort. That accommodation is extremely expensive. On average it costs £30 per family per day and it is particularly unsuitable for families for any length of time. It is very surprising that some authorities such as Camden, Brent and Tower Hamlets use bed and breakfast accommodation extensively, while others, such as Greenwich, which suffer similar problems, manage to avoid it.

Photo of George Young George Young , Ealing Acton

Does my hon. Friend recall the thoughtful speech made by the Minister for Housing and Planning at the party conference? He said that he was considering an extension of the transferable discount scheme to make more impact on tackling homelessness in London. When does the Department hope to come to a conclusion on an extension of that scheme?

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

I remember the comments that my hon. Friend made at the party conference. We are still considering that proposal.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

In view of the reply that the Minister gave me just before Christmas, that it was no longer the function of local authorities to build, is it not the case that there will be far more homelessness and more people living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? The Minister criticises local authorities for putting homeless people into bed and breakfast accommodation, but where are they expected to go — on the pavement? It is absolutely essential that local authorities should once again be able to build accommodation for people who cannot afford mortgages. The only way that such people can have decent accommodation is through the local authorities.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

Local authorities must make far better use of their existing housing stock. As I said earlier, local authorities now have more than 112,000 empty properties, and no fewer than 25 per cent. of those have been empty for more than a year. The number of local authority properties empty for more than a year is nearly three times the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We have sought to help local authorities to take empty properties back into use through the estate action scheme. We have approved schemes totalling nearly £5·5 million for some 1,200 dwellings since August 1986, and, more recently, through our £25 million supplementary allocations.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

Is my hon. Friend aware that the London borough of Camden, with its problems of homelessness, has admitted to paying out between £1 million and £5 million to the owners of bed and breakfast accommodation for accommodation that has never been occupied? What steps does she propose to stop that ineptitude, and worse, occurring in other Labour-controlled London boroughs?

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

I am aware of the press reports about the bed-and-breakfast problems in Camden. We are now awaiting the borough's official report on the matter. Clearly there has been a significant waste of ratepayers' money. Might I also add that that authority has more empty properties within its total housing stock than families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Indeed, 423—or 40 per cent.—of its empty dwellings have been empty for more than a year. Rent arrears in Camden were £4·4 million at the latest count. Those figures show that if Camden made better use of its housing stock by sorting out its housing management system it would be able to meet its responsibilities for homeless people without resorting to bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

The Minister's reply was a disgraceful insult to homeless people and to Conservative and Labour local authorities. Local authorities have a smaller percentage of their properties empty than have the Government, who have three times as many empty properties. When will the Government bring those properties into use? Local authorities have fewer empty properties than have housing associations or the private sector. What will the Minister do about that? What will she do about the fact that it is cheaper for the country to build a new home — the Government have cut housebuilding by two thirds since 1979 — than to keep a family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a year? When will she alleviate the crisis of homelessness in Britain?

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne

Government Departments own residential property for operational reasons, and they need to preserve their operational flexibility. Those Departments with significant numbers of empty dwellings are urged to bring them back into use, and, when they are no longer needed, to sell them as quickly as possible. Where they have no immediate operational need for them, but where disposal is not practical, they are encouraged to let them temporarily to local authorities or housing associations to help with the problem of homelessness.

I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) to the Housing Bill. All the Bill's proposals will benefit homeless people and those in poor quality housing. I urge the hon. Gentleman to support the Bill.