Amendments Nos. 1 and 4 are designed to help local authorities arrange temporary accommodation for homeless people to whom they owe a duty under the homelessness provisions of the Housing Act 1985. Under that Act, local authorities have a duty to house the homeless temporarily in certain circumstances. Where an authority provides the temporary accommodation itself, it will normally have no difficulty obtaining possession when the time comes for the occupant to leave, because the Act provides tht lettings of that temporary kind are not secure tenancies for the first 12 months.
There can be problems where the temporary accommodation is provided by arrangement with another landlord, such as a housing association. The landlord needs to be sure that he can get possession when necessary to house other families. The amendments, which are modelled on the equivalent provision in the 1985 Act, thus provide that a tenancy granted by arrangement with a local authority pursuant to its duties to arrange temporary housing will not normally be assured during an initial 12 month period. Amendment No. 250 adds a similar provision to the equivalent Scottish legislation.
Amendments Nos. 2, 166, 3, 45 and 46 are concerned with tenancies where the landlord is a fully mutual housing association—usually referred to as a housing co-operative. The Bill provides that such tenancies cannot be assured tenancies. We included this on the argument that a statutory regime designed to regulate the relationship between landlord and tenant has little relevance in a situation where, as is the nature of a co-operative, the interests of landlord and tenants as a whole are, in effect, indivisible.
It has none the less emerged that a small number of co-operatives are at present letting on the basis of old-style assured tenancies under the Housing Act 1980. We accepted that it would be wrong, as a matter of principle, to deprive the tenants in those cases of statutory protection that they now have. Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 45 deal with the problem by providing that an old-style assured tenancy under which the landlord is a fully mutual housing association will become, on commencement of the Act, a new-style assured tenancy.
This important amendment deals with assured tenancies. I should be grateful if the Minister will clarify certain points. He mentioned that, in certain circumstances, temporary accommodation may be provided by housing associations. However, amendment No. 45 implies that it will not necessarily be a housing association that is involved. In other words, the amendments could apply to any new landlord, and that is likely to be the case.
Lords amendment No. 4 is the meat of this group of amendments. Current legislation will result in many local authorities having no housing to offer the homeless, while still having a statutory duty to house them. It is feared that the Government are seeking to get rid of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, or at least to redefine it so that it means ruthlessness. They will then be able to fiddle the figures much as they have done with the unemployment statistics, rather than solving the problem of homelessness, which is much more important than fiddling figures.
Under existing legislation, some local authorities are already trying to transfer all their housing stock to housing associations or other organisations. The Minister recently sent out guidance to local authorities, which appalled me when I read it, and which incidentally was never raised in the Standing Committee. One of the reasons why we complain about the management of the Bill at every available opportunity is that we did not debate many of these issues in Committee, because the Government had not given us the necessary information, or else made changes after the relevant stage was over.
The guidance stated that local authorities transferring all their stock might wish to enter a private contract with another landlord for the housing of homeless people. That raises a number of questions. For one thing it means privatising the homeless, but other matters never debated in Committee also become relevant here.
Let us suppose that, after a local authority has transferred all its stock, someone appears at the local council office claiming homelessness, perhaps accompanied by a couple of young children. The local authority enters into a contract with a private landlord who says that he will take the family, but we do not know how long he will have to take them for; it may be a long time or quite a short time. The problem will be complicated in some areas where the only alternative is for the homeless people to stay with that landlord, but if he keeps them for longer than 12 months their tenancy position will change.
The Minister puts the measure forward as a way of dealing with the problem of someone who becomes homeless but should not be made an assured tenant because the landlord will want to move him on in due course. In those circumstances, what will happen to the homeless family? Will they go back to the local authority and say that they have become homeless again because of the wording of the Bill?
The Government have made it clear many times that they intend to get local authorities to give up all their council housing. Even if we agree with that, which I do not, it is nonsense to get authorities to give up housing without being able to replace it. I do not think that anyone apart from the Government believes that the private sector will replace it. We know that that sector has lost even more rented accommodation since 1980 than suggested by some of my original estimates. Well over 550,000 lets have gone in the past few years. We also know that well over half the lets in London are outside the Rent Acts, so they would not seem to have much to do with it.
A number of further problems arise from the local authority's contract with the private landlord. First, we have no indication of what he can or should charge. If he is a monopoly supplier he may be able to charge the earth, and presumably the ratepayer will have to pick up the bill. The local authority, however, may be able to choose between two or three landlords. If, as the Minister has said, the landlord will want the homeless person out, perhaps the Government propose that, before the 12 months are up, the local authority should ring up yet another landlord and say, "In a few months Mr. Brown, who has kindly been housing a homeless family, will not house them any more, because if he does he will have to take them for good—or at least under the conditions of an assured tenancy. If we are to avoid that, we need someone else to take them."
Presumably Mr. Smith, who has been approached to take the family from Mr. Brown, will say, "I don't know. Are you going to leave them with me for as long as you left them with Mr. Brown?" The family will be, at best, passed around from one landlord to another, each landlord having to foreclose within 12 months. Alternatively, the local authority will have to try to wriggle out of its responsibilities.
The Observer of the Sunday before last featured an article about a Department of the Environment report which said that some local authorities took their responsibilities to the homeless much more seriously than others. The article claimed that the Government were deliberately suppressing the report because it said that, although councils were dealing with the homeless very well, some—Westminster was cited as an example, which came as no great surprise—were finding reasons for not housing them. Others, such as Birmingham, tried to rehouse them within a day. Birmingham is of course a Labour council. That says something about the different values on the two sides of the House.
A report produced by the Department, not by me or my supporters, states that some authorities are now backsliding on their responsibilities to the homeless. The amendment will mean either that landlord and local authority will vie with each other to move the family on or that, if the authority is desperate or devious enough, that it may try to persuade the landlord to keep the family for longer than a year to obtain the greater assurance for which the amendment provides. The argument thus becomes extremely complex.
As so often in the Bill, the Government have said that this is only a small change and that the Lords have made an improvement. I shall not argue about the nature of the improvement, but, as always, the handling of the change has meant no debate in Committee or on Report, and the proposal has not been examined in depth. Now, for understandable and good reasons, the Lords have introduced a measure that will mean many homeless people either being shunted between landlords or pushed out into the street again. Alternatively, the council will try to back them by persuading a private landlord to keep them for a long time.
I think that the Bill is a disaster. I make no bones about that. Last year homelessness doubled in this country, and I have no doubt that it will double again, not least because of the Chancellor's absurd interest rates policy. He claims as an example of its working for the economy that it makes it harder to get mortgages—in other words, harder to buy. Given that it is already harder to rent, we must ask where on earth people on low incomes are supposed to rent or buy. The answer that the Government always give is that somehow or other, the private sector will resurrect itself and make up the difference and homeless people will be able to turn to the private sector. But there is no sign that that is happening.
We are being asked to accept Lords amendments to deal with that, so we need to know how local authorities are supposed to deal with homeless persons in the circumstances that I have described. No one denies that there will be an increase in homelessness. The other day I was interested to hear either the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State say that one of the problems of homelessness was young women getting pregnant in order to jump the queue. I find that suggestion offensive and insulting. The number of women in a decade in Britain who decide to get pregnant in order to jump the housing queue probably could be counted on one hand. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) may shake his head, but it is incredibly insulting to suggest that women get pregnant for that reason
Conservative Members forget that there is a duty on local authorities to tell people who is entitled to be housed. In certain circumstances, they have a duty to house women who are going to have babies. However, that does not mean that women rush out and get pregnant in order to jump the list. Even if that were the case, it is clear from the statistics that the fastest-growing reason for homelessness is mortgage repossession. One in 10 homeless families are homeless because they cannot pay their mortgage. One in 10 of homeless families are homeless because of mortgage foreclosure, compared with about one in 25 under the last Labour Government. That is the nature and extent of the problem.
Under the Bill and the existing legislation, local authorities are already moving all their tenants into the private sector. They are asking housing associations to take them over, they are setting up housing associations or, in some cases, they are looking for private landlords, who are not part of the public sector as are housing associations—at least in part. The Government have not told the councils or the people of this country—some of whom will become homeless—what will happen when people present themselves as homeless at the town hall, the town hall parcels them out to one of the contracted private landlords, and the private landlord says, "The Bill as amended says that if I keep you for too long, you become an assured tenant. I cannot risk that, so you will have to go."
Am I correct in my interpretation that the amendment relates to all landlords, and not just to housing associations? Secondly, will the Minister spell out in detail his views on how local authorities are supposed to deal with homelessness when the homeless have been contracted out to private landlords who are worried about keeping them for too long in case they become assured tenants?
I am glad that at last the word "homeless" appears in the Bill. It has only just appeared in an amendment at this very late stage. Certainly, some hon. Members, at least those on the Opposition Benches, believe that the Bill will generate homelessness, but I am glad to see that at least the word appears in the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister for a reply that I received to a question I tabled earlier this month.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Is he aware of a parliamentary reply I received from the Department of the Environment? I asked what study had been made of prospective tenants on housing waiting lists and of whether people waiting for accommodation from local authorities could pay the market rents. I received a reply from the Minister saying that no such study had been carried out. Does my hon. Friend agree that the large majority of people on housing waiting lists would be in no position to pay market rents?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, as questions quite often receive deceptive replies. I would couple the question to which my hon. Friend has referred with a question that he asked earlier to which he received a reply from the Government suggesting that there should be no more council house building in Britain.
Earlier this month I asked the Minister
What advice he proposes to give to local authorities which have no housing stock about their fulfilment of their statutory duty to house the homeless.
I remind the Minister of his reply. He referred to the guidelines that his Department issued in June and said:
This makes it clear that local authorities must make adequate arrangements to continue to meet their statutory obligations in relation to housing the homeless under part III of the Housing Act 1985. In deciding whether to give consent to large-scale disposal, the Secretary of State will need to be satisfied that such arrangements have been made."—[Official Report, 2 November 1988; Vol. 139, c. 689.]
That is a circular answer which builds a circular argument for the Government. It is not a question of large-scale disposals which may leave behind some council housing. What will happen when all the council housing has gone? How on earth will a council be able to fulfil its obligations to house the homeless, unless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) suggested—he asked the Government to clarify this—the interpretation behind the amendment is that the Government intend local authorities to make arrangements with private landlords? Is that the case, or are the Government suggesting that in future local authorities make arrangements with housing action trusts and give them the statutory obligations to house the homeless? That is not in the Bill.
If that is the case, it is clear that a hidden agenda lies behind the amendment, and the Government are beginning to offload the duties of local authorities to house the homeless on to private landlords and housing associations. That would change the offer to homeless people from that of a secure tenancy to a temporary provision and downgrade their status in society.
Will the Minister make it absolutely plain to the House tonight that the Government do not intend to downgrade the status of the homeless and to shift the bed-and-breakfast option into statutory provision? That could be a consequence of the measure. If councils have no housing for homeless people, where can they go except into bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Ministers have condemned bed and breakfast as a bad deal costing the taxpayers excessive amounts in housing benefit. Will the Minister now say that that is not the option that will be left? If a local authority is to be told that it can fulfil its statutory obligations only by supporting bed-and-breakfast accommodation, the Bill ends where it started and does not tackle the real problems of housing in our society. I hope that tonight the Minister will give us some assurance that that is not the hidden agenda behind the amendment.
I have only one question to put to the Under-Secretary of State, and I welcome him to the debate. It is particularly unsatisfactory that, for the first time for many years, we have no Minister for Housing who is a Member of the House. I know that the Secretary of State heads the Department, and it is proper that he is on the Government Front Bench. However, it is entirely unacceptable that the person entrusted by the Government with the responsibility for housing has no constituents whatsoever. He has no constituents who tell him about the plight of the homeless, who come to him homeless or who tell him about the effects of the cuts in housing benefit, about their difficulties in obtaining a move or about their conditions.
I have not checked, and I have no idea how large an estate or how large a home or homes the Earl of Caithness has—[Interruption.] It is entirely relevant, because people who live in mansions on large estates have no idea what it is like to live in damp tower blocks or inner-city slums. I know what it is like because I live in the middle of my constituency, which is one of the worst and most deprived housing areas in Britain.
I understand that the arrangements are temporary and that the Minister for Housing may be packed off elsewhere after he has done his job of getting the remaining amendments through the House of Lords. If we are to have housing legislation in the next Session, I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister will do the House and the country the courtesy of appointing a Minister for Housing who is accountable to the House of Commons and who has some idea of what the housing crisis in Britain in 1988 is like.
Would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the noble Lord, the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which may enable him to bring some practical knowledge of housing Acts, landlords and tenants and housing generally to bear on his job? Does not that make him as well qualified for the job as a member of the Bar?
I accept the hon. Gentleman's valid factual point about the Minister's qualifications, but it is entirely unacceptable that the man in charge of British housing has no constituents and is elected by no one. Recent housing legislation has been the result of the Government's failure to understand. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman saw the programme "On the Record" on Sunday—
Yes, I did; I did not see the beginning, but I watched the whole interview with the noble Lord. The U-turn, or concession, made on housing action trust votes—we shall debate that later—came only because at some time in the summer the Secretary of State, his junior Minister and others went to meet real people to talk about real issues, thereby coming to understand the folly of the Government's proposals.
As the hon. Gentleman says, that ministerial statement was made on television, not here. Does not that emphasise the hon. Gentleman's point that the Government treat Parliament with contempt, appointing unelected Ministers with responsibilities for major programmes of activity? These Ministers do not even announce major initiatives in the other place—they do so on television.
That is correct. The programme I have referred to was one of those extraordinary times when it was impossible to know whether an announcement had been made. Certainly, that was not clear to the interviewer or to the waiting public: was it a concession or an acceptance of the Lords amendment? That was not clarified until later, as I said in a point of order to Mr. Speaker.
In future, I hope for clear announcements, made in the proper way, in the right place—this Chamber.
I want to ask the Under-Secretary of State a question about Lords amendment No. 1. Amendments Nos. 1 and 4—especially No. 4—provide for two options. Present arrangements for housing the homeless, as laid down in the Housing Act 1985, are usually for assured tenancies for the first 12 months. Exceptionally, if people want to resile from that, they can create an assured tenancy in less than 12 months. What does the Minister regard as the appropriate policy for granting accommodation to the homeless? On Friday we are to debate these matters on a Government motion for the Adjournment. It would be helpful to know now whether the Government think that people who qualify for accommodation temporarily, indefinitely or permanently, because they are homeless, should be given only insecure accommodation—or the same security as anyone else.
I have a simple question for the Minister, to which I want a full and honest response. How will local authorities deal with the homeless? Is the privatisation of homelessness to be forced on us, as happened with the care of the elderly by means of a series of measures? Now, there is wholesale private care of the elderly, whereas before local authorities had the resources to deal with them.
If homelessness is to be privatised, the Minister must give us some guarantees, the more so as this is one of the few occasions in the course of proceedings on the Bill when we can discuss this subject. Friday is fine, but it is good to have a Minister here now to answer questions about the detail of the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) mentioned bed and breakfast. Is that to be housing's equivalent of private residential homes for the elderly? Parallels between the two can be drawn. These moves cannot be justified even in the Government's own economic terms. They will be wasteful and destructive of family life—so much has already been proved. I have come across this as a local councillor. Sadly, during the past two or three years Halifax has developed a real homelessness problem. In the past it had a proud record of housing people; now we have full hostels, and we have to use bed-and-breakfast and private accommodation, which is often squalid. Local authorities are left with no alternative but to use it.
The Government are using this Bill deliberately to destroy the welfare state. As an example of that, I offer a unique scheme in Halifax to rehouse young people, many of whom had offended or been in care. It was sabotaged even before it started because cuts in housing benefit made it uneconomic. My constituency contains a high-rise block of flats that could have been put to good use. In conjunction with Stoneham housing association, the council was to furnish the flats and let them cheaply to homeless people, but, because of changes in the law this April, housing benefits are no longer available, which has left many of these youngsters £4·65 short each week.
All these factors have combined to create a horrendous homelessness problem. Does the Minister intend to seek the wholesale privatisation of the homeless? He owes the House an honest answer.
Almost in the final hour of debate on this Bill, the Government have introduced the word "homelessness", thereby affording some recognition—albeit insignificant—to a growing problem.
Over the past decade, the Government have presided over a doubling of homelessness in Britain, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Those figures are calculated by the Government and local authorities and do not include people who are homeless but do not qualify as such under the Act. Another reason why the Government are trying to give the impression that they are concerned about homelessness is that it was becoming clear throughout the summer in leaks from the Department that the Government intended to consider changing the whole nature of homelessness legislation in the Queen's Speech and to replace it with the concept of rooflessness. At that point the Government came under ever more powerful pressure because of their callous attitude to homelessness.
Since July, five reports on the problem have been issued. The Audit Commission's final report has not yet been completed but the draft report is a damning indictment of the way in which the Secretary of State has handled and defined homelessness. The Commission said that the major reason for homelessness was the Government's market philosophy of housing, as shown in the Bill. It is also true that the Government, in trying to avoid the embarrassment of the report, have rushed out their own document about rural housing. That is a matter that we shall return to on other amendments.
What has been said by the Institute of Housing and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy? Those organisations completed major reports about housing this summer. On 9 November, a report was published in Housing magazine about homelessness. The report was prepared not by politicians but by professionals and it involved consultations with housing associations, local authorities, community groups and housing charities. The report comes to the conclusion that the Government's underinvestment in public housing is a major factor in the increase in homelessness in the United Kingdom. The report says:
Some means, such as 'homeless at home' schemes, exist to help reduce the use of bed and breakfast. We were also convinced that housing associations must play a more active role and offer greater assistance to local authorities in housing the homeless. Nevertheless … Government must accept responsibilities for meeting the needs of homeless people, instead of expecting local authorities with their limited administering resources, to bear the brunt. Direct action must be taken to ensure that the 50,000–70,000 extra homes a year … are actually built.
Those homes should be built in the public sector.
What is the Government's response to that call from the professional organisations involved in housing, the voluntary sector and charities? The Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a clue in his autumn statement. Inside Housing, Volume 5, No. 43 says:
The bonanza caused by the rise in council house sales will not be reinvested in housing. That is the message contained in Chancellor Nigel Lawson's Autumn Statement published this week—and it's bleak news for local authorities and those in housing need … For 1989/90 local authorities have been given a negative cash limit: the total they will be allowed to spend (£3,303 million) will be less than the amount coming in from capital receipts (£3,490 m). Actual allocations through the housing investment programme will be cut 20 per cent. in cash—and nearly 26 per cent. in real terms—compared to this year, leaving a HIP total of only £920 m.
That is the Government's response to the debate over the summer about the growing crisis of homelessness and that is why the Minister spoke so inadequately for the Lords amendments. None of the amendments will tackle the growing crisis of homelessness in Britain. The Government are creating not only an under-class, but a class of nomads who go from one hostel to another and from one bed-and-breakfast hotel to another. There is no opportunity for the single homeless or for homeless families to set down roots or to be involved in the community. The Government do not give a damn about that, because the homeless are also voteless. The crisis of homelessness denies people the opportunity to put down roots and the opportunity to have a say in the running of the country. The Government's policy of underinvestment shows a great disregard for many people in the United Kingdom. The Minister owes it us to bring forward genuine proposals this evening to deal with the growing crisis of homelessness.
The Minister need only walk with me five minutes from the House to see men and women sleeping tonight in cardboard boxes. That is London 1988, not 1888. Tonight, 7,000 young people will sleep rough in the nation's capital. They are not feckless people who are unable to seek jobs. They were persuaded by the Government and by the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to get on their bike to seek their fortunes in the capital city. They find themselves not only isolated and jobless, but without a roof over their heads. That happens not only tonight, but every night of the year—in summer, winter, or spring.
The Secretary of State does not seem to be able even to listen—or perhaps he does not like to hear about what happens to the homeless. He is responsible for the housing problem not only because of his intellectual contempt for the homeless, but because in a former life he was a private landlord. I can imagine his attitude to the homeless.
I am sure that the hon. Member realises that if one goes over the river to Waterloo, one will see many homeless men and women sleeping out every night. Many do not take one penny off the state and never have done. Some of them still manage to go to work and earn money, although they can find nowhere to live and have no prospect of doing so for months on end. There are queues for the more sheltered spaces under the arches, let alone at housing offices up and down the country.
The hon. Member is right. I shall make an offer to the Secretary of State. Will he come with me to the jobcentre in Victoria street and meet the young and middle-aged, men and women who are waiting for an odd job in hotels or, ironically, bed-and-breakfast accommodation? They work during the day and sleep rough at night, yet they go back day after day to seek a living. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that they do not receive a single penny of benefit from the community. They do not receive housing benefit, unemployment benefit or income support.
The crisis is not merely a crisis of rooflessness, as the Government put it; it is a crisis of the nation's social conscience. The Minister must take steps to meet that social crisis. Housing is an essential part of the issue, so he must come up not only with simple little phrases about dealing with homelessness, but with cash and resources to provide new housing to meet the crisis. He must do so before young people's lives are ruined. They run the risk not only of bad health caused by living rough, but of being morally corrupted. The Minister has refused to deal with the moral corruption of young men and women who are forced into immoral practices because they are unable to find jobs or houses, and the support of families and the community is denied to them.
Will the Minister give a commitment to visit cardboard city and to meet the people who seek jobs at the jobcentre in Victoria street and then sleep on Charing Cross embankment? He should see for himself the results of the bankruptcy of Conservative policies on homelessness in this country.
His good points are not in political matters. The Secretary of State simply does not care about housing. Some senior Ministers have a private concern about housing, which they do not often express. However, the Secretary of State has no public or private concern about the misery of the homeless. He does not understand the problem, he could not care less about it and he probably thinks that people could find accommodation if they really wanted to.
We are debating an amendment that has a great bearing on the position of the homeless. Homelessness could be avoided if local authorities were able to build accommodation. I have been given figures that show that the number of new public sector starts for the coming financial year will be well below 20,000 for the whole country. That means that in some places, such as my borough, no local authority building has taken place for nine years. Unless the Government change their policy on local authority finance, there is not the slightest chance of any new building taking place. Ministers respond by asking, "What about the empty dwellings?" A number of dwellings are undoubtedly empty because work is being undertaken, but all the empty dwellings put together would be a drop in the ocean when compared to the need to house and rehouse people in the public sector.
When I intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) I referred to a ministerial reply that I had received. My question was a simple one. I asked whether the Department of the Environment had undertaken a survey to find out how many people on the local authority housing waiting list were in a position to pay market rents. The whole emphasis of the Bill as regards the private sector is that all new tenancies will be subject to market rents, and it is therefore relevant to ask how many of those waiting for accommodation could pay market rents. I received the clear and simple reply that no such survey had been undertaken. That must be a matter of concern.
I do not suggest that everyone on the waiting list is desperately in need of accommodation, but the people who come to my surgery and who write to me daily about their housing problems are in a miserable plight. A young couple came to my surgery last weekend. They do not have children and they live with the wife's mother, who has other adult children living in the household. When I explained to them that the Government believed that they should be able to solve their problem by getting a mortgage and buying a place, they laughed, because they simply do not have the means to obtain a mortgage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield spoke of homelessness in this part of London. That is partly the Government's responsibility, but much of the responsibility also undoubtedly rests with the leadership of Westminster council. The way in which that council is being run is absolutely scandalous. Westminster council is in the process of selling off as much of its accommodation as possible—with or without tenants. It is trying to privatise the homelessness problem and will not take responsibility for the homeless.
It gives me no satisfaction to say that Lady Porter, the leader of Westminster council, is quite simply unfit to run a local authority. If the leadership had any understanding at all, it would be doing its utmost to fulfil its statutory responsibility for housing and would be putting pressure on the Government to allow it the finance necessary to house the homeless. Lady Porter, who almost acts as a dictator of the council rather than a normal leader of a local authority, does not seem to have any time for her Conservative colleagues, who are supposed to—[HON. MEMBERS: "They do not have much time for her, either."] Probably not. If ever a local authority needed to be investigated, it is the London borough of Westminster. Conservative Members may not be willing to echo my sentiments but I am sure that many of them—perhaps even those present now—privately accept that what I am saying is quite true. Lady Porter should not be in her present position and the sooner there is a change, the better it will be for all concerned.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that a by-election is to take place in the Victoria ward of the borough of Westminster. The subject that we are discussing—the rights of housing association and private sector tenants—is becoming an issue in that by-election. That will enable Labour to move very much nearer to taking control of Westminster council.
Leaving aside any patriotic party motive that I may have for wanting Labour to take control of Westminster, I am quite sure that it would be a godsend for all those who are now suffering in the borough, and who recognise that a change of control of the council would help to relieve their problem.
For what it is worth, the amendment provides limited protection, requiring a court order before eviction can take place. I repeat that the plight of the homeless should occupy all our thoughts. In previous debates I have spoken, like my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield, about the homeless people who will be sleeping on the Embankment tonight. They are living in conditions which are more likely to be associated with conditions in a Third world country than with Britain.
If hon. Members think that I am exaggerating, they should go and look for themselves. We shall probably be here for quite a time and it would do no harm for Conservative Members—I shall join them if they like—to take a walk to see how many of our fellow citizens will be spending a cold November night in cardboard boxes, not because they are drunk or lazy or irresponsible, but because they are in no position to organise their housing; they cannot afford housing in the capital. Some of those people—not all, by any means—have taken the advice of the Government and have come hundreds of miles to seek a job. Whether they can find a job or not, they are certainly not in a position to solve their own housing problems.
The hon. Gentleman poses an interesting challenge. He compares the First and Third worlds and that is a legitimate comparison; there are 1 million people sleeping on the pavements of Calcutta. However, I challenge him to name any major capital city in the western developed world where a similiar problem does not exist, irrespective of the character or style of the Government in power.
If the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) would stand up, I would gladly give way.
The hon. Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) may say that in India many more people live in the conditions that I have described. But it is not part of our argument that conditions are the same here as in the Indian subcontinent. I am simply saying that the plight of those to whom my hon. Friends and I have referred—albeit a small minority—is disgraceful. It should not be allowed, and in most cases it is not the fault of the individual. It arises because in places such as London people cannot find a place through a local authority or housing association or obtain a mortgage.
I do not for one moment disagree with the hon. Gentleman's general comments about the undesirability—the tragedy—of homelessness, whether in Calcutta or in London. But the problem has defeated the organisation of man and systems generally. In every major capital city of the world, the problem of homelessness exists and has not been solved.
I shall not be sarcastic in welcoming the hon. Gentleman into the debate. The hon. Gentleman and I have known each other for many years. We differ profoundly on many issues, but we have never been sarcastic to each other. The hon. Gentleman, with whom I completely disagree, has made his point in a courteous manner. I am very pleased that he has entered our debate, because hon. Members on both sides of the House should be talking about homelessness.
I think that the gist of the hon. Gentleman's argument was that the problem has defeated all Governments. But the problem of homelessness has become far more acute. The number of homeless people has trebled under the Conservative Government, and the explanation is relatively simple. Some problems are highly complex, but the reason why there are so many more homeless people—and near-homeless people who do not have to sleep in those conditions but who, like my constituents are childless and living with in-laws and may wait years to be offered local authority accommodation—is quite simple. It is because in 1979 the Government made it their deliberate policy to ensure that as few local authority dwellings as possible were built.
It should be clear to the hon. Member for Havant that reducing public sector building from 109,000 starts in the last full year of the Labour Government to a figure likely to be well under 20,000 this year means that people who cannot resolve their housing problems other than through local authority accommodation are bound to find themselves in the position that we have described.
It is important to deal with an excuse that is often used by Conservative Members. There has always been a problem of homelessness in all societies, usually focused on alcoholics, drug addicts, burnt-out schizophrenics, tramps and people who genuinely wish to be homeless. What is uniquely different about Britain and the United States today—I know of no other modern western country in a similar position—is that the problem of homelessness is increasing without being due to those causes. It is due to mortgage repossessions and so on. Britain and the United States seem unable to cope with the problem, so it is accelerating compared with countries such as those in Scandinavia where the problem has steadily decreased. That is a damning indictment of the British Government and, indeed, the United States Government.
My hon. Friend makes the position quite clear. If the hon. Member for Havant, with whom I disagree but who always puts his points in a courteous manner, will look at the advertisements in the London Standard for rented accommodation—no doubt the situation is similar in his own area—he will find that the smallest flat is likely to cost more than £100 per week, a house between £300 and £400 per week and even a single room between £40 and £50 per week. That is the position in London, and much of the responsibility for it must rest with the Government.
I hope that the Minister will explain what action the Government intend to take to ensure that local authorities with the will to deal with homelessness, unlike the London borough of Westminster, are in a position to do so. Do the Government intend to shift the responsibility to people in the private sector who will not be able to provide accommodation for the homeless on a permanent basis? The Minister's answer that no survey had been undertaken to discover whether people on housing waiting lists could pay market rents shows that the Housing Bill is not concerned with the homeless or the near-homeless and will in no way resolve the problems of the people most in need.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One way in which the Bill will make things worse is that, whatever the powers against harassment, people with regulated tenancies will be at risk because landlords and property companies will know that, if they can force those tenants out, as Rachman and his associates did the last time there was a Tory rent Act, the accommodation can then be re-let at market rents. The Bill does not apply just to new rented accommodation. All new lets will be subject to market rents.
The hon. Gentleman nods. I do not know whether he regards that situation as right and proper. He made a brave speech last night and I am happy to give way to him now. If he believes that providing accommodation through the private sector at market rents will do anything to help the people to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and I have referred, I hope that he will explain how. Those who can afford market rents can almost certainly afford a mortgage, so the people most in need will not be able to take advantage of any provision in the Housing Bill.
The House will have noted that the Secretary of State has vanished. There has been too much talk of homelessness for his liking. Whenever the subject is mentioned within his hearing, his attention begins to wander, he starts to shuffle and shift in his seat and one can be sure that very soon afterwards he will disappear. He has not disappointed us in that respect today, but he must understand that we intend to bring the House back to the issue of homelessness time and again, so he had better get used to it. If he does not like hearing about homelessness, he will be spending very little time with us in the next few hours.
In one sense, the Under-Secretary of State should be relieved that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is no longer with us. The Under-Secretary, who is to reply to the debate—we are glad to welcome him to that position for the first time in a major debate—will appreciate that he is on probation. He has been handed the poisoned chalice of housing.
They have, indeed, suffered various fates. One has been sent on his travels and relegated to the Foreign Office. The other has been sent to the Back Benches where she now languishes so undeservedly. She could certainly tell the Under-Secretary a thing or two about his right hon. Friend who until recently was sitting beside him. The Under-Secretary must surely realise how difficult his present position is.
In view of their own experiences in the past couple of years, one would expect recent Housing Ministers to have some sympathy with people whose security of tenure is being substantially reduced.
There is certainly nothing assured about the tenancy currently enjoyed by the Under-Secretary, and we shall do all in our power to make his shorthold as short as possible.
Having put the Under-Secretary at his ease, I am glad to see him beginning to rise from his torpor. I was starting to get worried and to wonder whether we were going to have a dead duck on our hands, but he is beginning to stir. The problems of the homeless may not rouse him, but reference to his own future clearly does.
Let us consider the effect of the amendments in the real world rather than in the world interpreted to the other place by the Minister of State. Some of my colleagues, or not so much colleagues as some of those representing the other Opposition parties—the Democrats, SDP Liberals or whatever the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) would like to be called—
The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) from a constantly sedentary position says, "Get on!" We shall indeed get on, but we wish that he would get up. Given his knowledge of the leisure and tourism industries, perhaps he has something to say to those in enforced leisure who are camping out under the arches without being tourists. We will get on in our own time.
Having said that, I think that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey was a little hard on the noble Lord, the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside. That noble gentleman has responsibility for vast estates in Scotland, so he may understand certain homelessness problems because of difficulties in housing his gillies—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) appears to be somewhat bewildered. A gillie is someone who looks after fish. My hon. Friend's knowledge of fish is probably limited to that which turns up in boxes, usually yellow and with a smiling captain on the front. However, there can be real problems with housing gillies in Scotland.
I have no doubt that the noble Lord will apply his real knowledge of homelessness to his duties as Minister of State. Indeed, there is some sign that he is already doing so, because amendments Nos. 1 and 4 are supposed to reassure housing associations that they will continue to have a role in providing short-term accommodation for the homeless without creating assured tenancies.
I wish to put a number of important questions to the Under-Secretary about the role of housing associations in providing accommodation for the homeless and about how they will work with local housing authorities to fulfil that role. As has been clearly illustrated by a number of my hon. Friends—and even recognised, in his own way, by one Conservative Member—the problem of homelessness is real. It has landed in the lap of local authorities, which are not being given the resources to enable them adequately to tackle it.
In addition, when they seek to meet the difficulties of the time by providing bed-and-breakfast accommodation—highly unsatisfactory accommodation for the homeless—they find themselves, as did my authority, caught in a double bind because of the rate support grant changes. One day they could rely on a certain amount of rate support grant to pay for bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but the next that money was no longer available—it cost my authority £4 million—with all the resulting difficulties in balancing the books and with the very real problem that that presented in fulfilling their legal obligations. Authorities have turned, quite rightly—mine has been doing so for several years, encouraged in rhetoric, but not in fact, by Ministers—to housing associations to meet the challenge of the times and to work together to meet the needs of the homeless.
Bearing in mind what purports to lie behind amendments Nos. 1 and 4—I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle)—one would have thought that that would be welcomed with open arms by Ministers; that the Department of the Environment would have hung out the bunting, delighted by the example of a housing association and a local authority working together to meet the needs of the homeless. However, that did not happen—surprise, surprise. I can see a twinkle of recognition beginning to show in the Minister's eyes.
My local authority entered into an arrangement with what was then the Brent people's housing association for the renovation and restoration of a disused office block in Alperton. It was a major and innovatory project which, one would have thought, would meet with approval because of its use of private capital. Not a single penny of ratepayers' money was to be used to restore that office block for use by homeless families. It was all raised on the private market by a progressive relationship between the housing association, the local authority and the developers, Belway Homes—a first-rate developer with a good track record in that area.
The project was arranged, the foundation stone laid and work began—but then what happened? The association—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State has returned to the Chamber. We must talk some more about homelessness. We must not lose the opportunity to talk about the homeless, the homeless, the homeless, the homeless. We are talking about the homeless and we shall continue to talk about the homeless—
No, give Jack his jacket and let us engage in an exercise that raised the right hon. Gentleman's consciousness on this issue. What happened to that innovative project to help the homeless, that partnership between the City of London, the local authority and the housing association? The right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet one day and, in another exercise in local authority bashing, changes the rules yet again. Despite the fact that all the money for the project was raised from private investment—something that usually meets with the Government's approval—we have been told that the development at Middlesex house will count against Brent's capital allocation for housing.
The question that I have put in writing to both the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary, and to which I still await an answer, is whether the Department of the Environment intends to exempt that project from the impact of the Secretary of State's announcement. If we do not receive that assurance we will have cast-iron proof, if proof be needed, that the amendments are an absolute sham and that there is no real intention to enable local authorities and housing associations—
Does my hon. Friend agree that the plight of the homeless is of major concern to the Opposition? If the Secretary of State had not objected to certain planning applications, a fair number of homeless people would have been housed by the builder who wanted to build adjacent to the Secretary of State's house.
It is almost as though the Secretary of State had invented the NIMBY principle—not in my backyard. There is no doubt that the proper and judicious application of his planning power could enormously assist in combating homelessness.
If we do not receive an assurance about the Middlesex house project and the difficult position in which Brent now finds itself, we will find it difficult to take at all seriously the Under-Secretary's assurances about the ostensible purpose of amendments Nos. 1 and 4.
Since the Secretary of State is here and much of the debate arising from the amendments has, understandably, been about homelessness, does my hon. Friend know whether the Secretary of State has visited any bread-and-breakfast hostels in his borough or the homeless anywhere else, including those who spend the night on the Embankment, whether covered or uncovered? If the Secretary of State has not, does that not demonstrate once again that he is callously indifferent to the sufferings of those who so concern Labour Members?
One wishes that the Secretary of State would emulate Mother Teresa in that respect. She took time off from the streets of Calcutta to visit the homeless on the streets of London. One hopes that the Secretary of State will do the same, but I fear that around the Secretary of State there clings not so much the odour of sanctity as the odour of sulphur. To believe for a moment that he is likely to come to Brent or elsewhere to visit the homeless stretches credibility to an extent that would reduce to credibility even the Chancellor of the Exchequer's explanations about how he came to be so seriously misquoted in the Sunday newspapers.
My hon. Friend's comments may be wholly inaccurate. The short absence of the Secretary of State a few minutes ago may have been so that he could go along the Embankment to Charing Cross to answer our pleas that he should familiarise himself with the problems of the homeless. However, I understand that in reality he went home to water all the little nuclear power stations he has coming up in his garden.
A likely story. One suspects that it is for a quick fix of environmentally safe nicotine that the Secretary of State departs the Chamber. One does not want to speculate why any hon. Member leaves the Chamber, but in the Secretary of State's case we have our suspicions.
I am anxious to encourage the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State to give us some assurances tonight about the relevance and impact of the Audit Commission's findings on homelessness and the role of local authorities on amendments Nos. 1 and 4. We know that the report has yet to be published. Is it not strange how many important reports these days remain unpublished and that whenever there are constructive suggestions which may embarrass Conservative Members the report remains unpublished?
We know that the Audit Commission commissioned a report on the responsibilities of housing associations to the homeless. The Under-Secretary of State purports to be concerned about that. The report highlights a growing shortage of homes for rent in both the public and private sectors as the main cause of homelessness rather than the Department of the Environment's view that it is the increasing demand for homes. That may be why the report has never seen the light of day, and I do not think that we are being entirely uncharitable, are we, Mr. Deputy Speaker?
Will the Minister consider whether the Audit Commission makes a valid point when it suggests that housing associations should play a greater role in housing the homeless? If that role is to be fulfilled, the matters which amendments Nos. 1 and 4 purport to be concerned with and the subsidies available to local authorities and housing associations for that purpose must be considered.
I note that the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has come into the Chamber. Recently he wrote to the Secretary of State pleading with him not to build new homes in his constituency in case they affected his Conservative majority. Given the hon. and learned Gentleman's serious attitude towards building homes in his constituency, perhaps he will stay and give us his views on how he will solve homelessness, at least in his constituency.
It would be interesting to hear what the hon. and learned Gentleman has to say about that, but I suspect that we may not get a response, let alone a satisfactory one.
We need to know from the Under-Secretary whether he recognises the need for the Department of the Environment to consider means of enabling authorities to continue developing leasing arrangements with housing associations and the private sector. What steps does he intend to take to give force to the recommendations of the Audit Commission and when will he publish its findings? We await the Minister's response to that and to the important questions that we have asked him.
Amendment No. 166 amends paragraph 12(1)(h) of schedule 1 to change the definition of a mutual housing association. The amendment removes the cross-reference to the definition of a fully mutual housing association which is contained in part I of the Housing Associations Act 1985. In that Act a distinction is drawn between a fully mutual housing association, which does not have to be registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965, and a co-operative housing association, which is a fully mutual co-operative but must be registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965.
The difference is that, in section 15(3) of the Rent Act 1977, a tenancy which is created by a registered housing association—one which is registered under the 1965 Act—is not a protected tenancy for the purposes of the 1977 Act. If, on the other hand, the co-operative is not registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, the tenancies will be protected. The significance of that is that under this Bill it will not be possible to create a new protected tenancy. When the Bill becomes law, there will be no more protected tenancies. A tenant will have the protection only of an assured tenancy.
It is true that, even now, a tenancy granted by a co-operative housing association, which is registered under the 1965 Act and with the Housing Corporation, will not be secure. Although the tenants are neither protected nor secure, they have the protection of the overall monitoring and supervision of the Housing Corporation and the detailed protection which exists from membership of an industrial and provident society which is registered under the 1965 Act. If there is oppression, it is possible to make a complaint to the registrar. Thus, if a tenant of a co-operative that is not a secure tenancy made a complaint, the registrar could investigate and the tenant would be afforded some protection as a result of those rights.
The consequence of the amendments is that, in future, a fully mutual association not incorporated under the 1965 Act will not be capable of creating a protected tenancy or, by virtue of paragraph 12(1)(h) of schedule 1, of creating an assured tenancy. Therefore, a tenant of an unincorporated mutual housing association would have no protection under the Rent Act 1977 or the assured tenancy provisions. That is going too far, and I wonder whether the Minister has made a mistake in the definition of a fully mutual housing association. It is difficult to understand the definition of property given in part I of the Housing Associations Act 1985. I ask the Minister to study that and say that, if necessary, there will be further revisions to the Lords amendments to make it clear that the only exemption from assured tenancies will be those granted by co-operatives registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965.
Amendment No. 1 anables housing associations to create temporary lettings for homeless families, especially where it has been decided that they have made themselves intentionally homeless. We clearly welcome the amendment.
I did not intend to speak until the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle) made a peculiarly insensitive intervention, which is in character, but as he is not present I shall not be ruder than that.
The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire suggested that the noble Earl of Caithness appreciated the plight of the homeless. I shall not disparage the noble Earl of Caithness because I do not know him and he does not know me. If he visited my advice surgery on a Friday evening, his eyes would be widened in alarm, despair and despondency at the nature of the problems that we face in the east end. The Under-Secretary must understand that Labour Members feel strongly about these problems because it is mainly in our constituencies that they are so concentrated. I should dearly like the Secretary of State to visit my advice surgery, as I have said on a number of occasions. I dealt with 30 housing cases last Friday, with which neither I, housing associations nor the council could deal.
An enormous crisis is developing in London, but the Government are oblivious to it. I do not know whether that is intentional or accidental, but the Secretary of State must experience at first hand what is happening in our capital city and other cities throughout the country.
The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) mentioned people who intentionally make themselves homeless and young women who become pregnant intentionally to obtain accommodation through the local authority. That happens, and it is the mark of people's despair. Young women think that if they become pregnant they will enhance and improve their chances of being housed by the council. They are sadly mistaken in their action, but it shows how desperate some people are becoming. Regularly, 17 and 18-year-old women with one or two children visit my advice surgery and say, "We have been put in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but we thought we would get a council flat. They have put us in Westminster, central London or Romford. We are away from the schools and our family. What can we do?" All that I can do is to console them. One feels powerless and angry about the problems created by Government intransigence and by their not allowing local authorities sufficient funds to build the accommodation that is so desperately needed. It is ludicrous that it costs far more to keep a family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation than it does for the local authority to provide accommodation. That is the economics of the madhouse and the social fact of Thatcherism.
Young women are becoming desperate and think that if they get pregnant they will obtain council accommodation. The Minister knows that that is not so, as do we. Before Conservative Members condemn them, throw their hands in the air and say, "It is their fault and responsibility," they should reflect on their problems—in between laughing. I am sure that this is a humorous aspect of the debate to Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) nods his head. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is humorous, there is something wrong with his sense of humour. It seems peculiarly perverted and sick. If he came to my advice surgery, he could see how desperate people are becoming.
It would be helpful if the hon. Member for Hallam listened. On Second Reading debate of the Rate Support Grants Bill, he showed himself to be very interested in the affairs of the London borough of Newham. We were grateful for his interest, but rather bemused about why he should be so interested. We welcome the interest of Conservative Members as long as they draw lessons from it. The lesson to be drawn from having an interest in the London borough of Newham is the enormous housing crises that it is experiencing.
I hope that, unlike the Secretary of State, the Under-Secretary will accept my invitation to visit my Friday night advice surgery. I realise that he probably has his own surgery, so I shall reciprocate by visiting his and giving him the benefit of my advice. If he does not want to accept my reciprocal offer, will he please come to Newham and see at first hand what is going on?
With the leave of the House. It is nothing short of a tragedy that every time the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) addresses the House he devalues the currency of his contribution by making personal remarks about people inside the Chamber or, on this occasion, outside it. Unlike the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), he is not funny.
I point out to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, who made allegations against my noble Friend the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside that there are three Ministers responsible for housing in the Department of the Environment—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my noble Friend the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside and myself. It is rich that the allegation was made by a member of the Social and Liberal Democratic party. Each hon. Member of that party, because of its paucity of Members, has at least 27 subjects or responsibilities to cover.
The Minister is trying to answer a valid point with an invalid one. On his own notepaper, the noble Earl of Caithness is described as the "Minister for Housing". If the Minister informed himself about my party and our disposition, he would know that we each shadow a Department. This is the end of the Session; I am finishing off the Bill because I started it. I shall then hand over to one person who will shadow the Minister and his colleagues. The work load when one person shadows seven is enormous, but we manage pretty well.
That is a matter of conjecture, not a statement of fact. I was merely making the point that I should have thought that it was worth one member of the hon. Gentleman's party concentrating solely on housing. At least we have three who are working at it.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) asked whether the amendments cover private landlords, not merely housing associations. The answer is in the affirmative. There is nothing sinister in believing that there is an important role for private landlords in helping local authorities to discharge their homelessness functions. The amendments will make that possible.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) referred to mortgage repossessions as a percentage of the total number of mortgages granted. The figure remains small. There was a rise in the proportion of building society borrowers in arrears from 0·8 per cent. at the end of 1986 to 0·85 per cent. at the end of 1987, but that was still lower than the June 1987 figure of 0·97 per cent.
I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would allow me to continue. A number of Opposition Members went wide of the specific amendments. I should like to draw hon. Members' attention to the specific amendments, which refer to temporary, not permanent, accommodation.
The Department is looking closely at arrangements for transfer to ensure that councils recognise their continuing obligations to secure permanent accommodation for the homeless. The amendments relate solely to temporary accommodation. We will have an opportunity on Friday to debate these matters in detail. We have already received four reports of significance on this subject while reviewing it and we expect another two, one of which came from the Audit Commission, as the hon. Member for Brent, South suggested.
Will the hon. Gentleman release details of his Department's report on homelessness, which I understand has been completed but has not yet been made publicly available, either in time for Friday's debate—that is obviously important—or, at the latest, in time for the beginning of the new Session, before any legislation is announced in the Gracious Speech?
I can meet the latter point but not the former. We intend to publish that report.
I return to a specific suggestion made by the Audit Commission on homelessness, to which the hon. Member for Brent, South referred fleetingly. It has been suggested that we may not wish to see local authorities fulfilling their statutory obligations towards homelessness. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no evidence that any authorities are in any way not fulfilling their statutory obligations. There is evidence via the Observer article last Sunday that there are a variety of diferent approaches to the way that local authorities deal with homelessness. That is of great concern to me and is looming large in the review before the Department. We must introduce more consistent procedures, and our review will consider that.
The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) made a preposterous suggestion that the Government intended somehow to privatise the homeless. Local authorities cannot delegate their statutory functions. Local authorities will remain responsible for securing permanent accommodation for the homeless. Much of the thrust of the Bill is to concentrate greater attention on the private sector and specifically more on housing associations. The Government believe that the development of the housing association movement—making houses available to those on lower incomes—will allow local authorities to concentrate much more on homelessness. I do not think that that is a matter of dispute between the two sides of the House.
The report from the Department of the Environment, "Large-scale Voluntary Transfers of Local Authority Housing to Private Bodies", which refers to a local housing authority's duty under section 39 of the Land Compensation Act 1973 and section 28 of the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976, states:
This might be done by entering into contracts with landlords in the area (which might well include the purchasers of the council stock) to provide the necessary accommodation. Similar arrangements would also be acceptable in relation to housing adapted for disabled people or those with special needs.
Does the Minister agree with that?
The point to which I was trying to draw the attention of the House was that local authorities are hardly, if ever, criticised by the Opposition for not dealing with the problems of the homeless. It would be ludicrous for me to suggest that all local authorities can be criticised in a general way. The Opposition must accept, if not publicly then privately, that there is a correlation between the number of empty properties, or voids, within a local authority area and the number of people who are homeless.
I did not say "direct" correlation; there must be some correlation. It would be unacceptable for the Opposition to believe that the local authorities must improve the management of the housing stock and turn round the empties within a shorter time to create a number of homes which would then come back on to the market. The Audit Commission said exactly that. It said that if empties were turned around within three weeks—the experience in London is more in line with 11 weeks—it would bring 20,000 net houses back on to the market.
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for visiting my constituency and the housing estate on which I live. The hon. Gentleman came across a problem which is the direct opposite of his suggestion. It was an estate which had been refurbished using public sector money and local authority expenditure, and which had new roofs, new heating systems and a new security system. That estate has been boarded up and it may be pulled down. Those refurbished flats cannot find lets. Young homeless people cannot afford the rents because of the changes in housing benefit regulations. Only a fortnight ago the Minister recognised that problem and agreed to come back to me with suggestions on how to deal with it.
When I agreed to go back—I am prepared to go back to the hon. Gentleman's constituency—it was with a view to the local housing authority taking steps to direct refurbishment more specifically to the needs of those people who need the houses, whether they are homeless or not.
I should like to proceed, because I have given way a number of times and am anxious that we should come to the end of our consideration of the Lords amendments.
It is strange if the Opposition do not accept the correlation between the number of empties, the speed of turnround and the number of homeless. It may sound dramatic, but if I were to say that empty council homes mock the overcrowded and the homeless, quite a number of Opposition Members would agree. If I were to say that council homes are empty through inefficiency, I should have thought that the Opposition would be prepared to accept that, but many do not. The hon. Member for Brent, South does not, so let me deal with him.
I have a statement which was made by the Labour chairman of the Hackney housing services committee, Councillor Brynley Heaven, who admits that council homes are empty through inefficiency. He continues:
Nothing is more important for a housing service than to make the best possible use of all its stock. If we can't show that we are using the homes we already have properly and efficiently, very few people are going to take our case for public investment seriously.
I could not have put it better myself.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I say that I had no intention of speaking again until I heard the Minister's appalling speech. If he carries on in this way, he will go the same way as his two predecessors. He did not even begin to answer the debate, which is about the law. It is not about the subject that will be debated on Friday. The debate on Friday about homelessness will not change the law. The questions that we put to the Minister related to changes in the law, but he totally ignored them.
The question is not about empty council houses. Every local authority agrees that there is an element of inefficiency in its organisation, just as there is an element of inefficiency in housing associations, but, on the whole, both local authorities and housing associations are efficient. At any one time, only about 2·5 per cent. of their properties are standing empty. All local authorities and housing associations accept that a small element of the 2·5 per cent. of properties standing empty is due to inefficiency; the percentage will differ from one local authority or housing association to another. However, when the Minister suddenly changed the topic, he did not tell us that no less than 5·9 per cent. of Government-owned properties are standing empty.
Sit down for a moment.
One in five of all Metropolitan police houses are standing empty. No fewer than 60 to 70 flats at Wormwood Scrubs are standing empty. They have been empty for nine years. Victorian houses with gardens and three, four or five bedrooms as well as flats that belong to the Home Office are to be bulldozed—for what? A car park and landscaping.
No. The Minister will not open his ears to the problem. When his predecessor, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), went to Southend, which has a Conservative-controlled council, she was told that, because of the Government's economic policies, Southend could not cope with its homelessness. Local authority after local authority, both Tory and Labour, has said the same to him.
I am not interested in having that argument now; we can have it on Friday. It will be a good opportunity to debate it. If the Minister wants to deal with it, he can deal with it then, but the House wants an answer to this debate.
The truth is that it was not I who changed the topic. The hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) changed the topic. They used the debate to ask questions about homelessness. I dealt with the hon. Gentleman's question in the first minute of answering the debate, but he was not prepared to listen. He was talking to his hon. Friends.
The Minister did not answer my questions. I was listening to him. All he did was answer the first point. In case he does not understand the amendment, as I suspect he does not, may I say that we are looking at Lords amendment No. 4. The Minister did not answer the questions that we asked about that amendment. He just talked about temporary accommodation. He got into difficulties when he answered my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). When he said that this has got nothing to do with privatisation, my hon. Friend rightly intervened. All of us have received information from the Department of the Environment; it implies that it is acceptable for local authorities to enter into contracts with private landlords. What does that mean if it does not mean privatising the homeless?
Before the Minister gets agitated again, let him listen to the problem so that he can begin to answer it. If a local authority is left with no housing, having transferred all of it under the existing or the proposed legislation, it still has a duty under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 to house the homeless. That is agreed, although there may be arguments about whether the Minister intends to abandon that Act or to undermine it—
If a landlord is the only landlord in the area who is willing to take the homeless and he keeps them in his accommodation for too long, he will then, as a result of the amendment, be under certain legal obligations that he will seek to avoid. Our questions to the Minister dealt with what would happen then to the homeless. Will they be moved to another landlord, and what will they do if there is no other landlord? Will they be given back to the local authority, and what will the local authority do with them if it does not have accommodation for the homeless? What will happen if a local authority, either deliberately or by chance because the landlord does not realise it, allows a family to stay in the accommodation for longer than the period provided for in the amendment?
The Minister did not address those questions. The nearest he came to it was to say that this was only a temporary problem, but that is not the point. The problem is what will happen when a council puts homeless people into accommodation, the landlord says that they will have to leave and there is no alternative accommodation for them.
The hypothetical situation that the hon. Gentleman described could arise, but in the discussions to date, with local authorities wishing to transfer all their stock and housing associations proposing to take over that stock, willingness has been expressed to provide nomination rights to local authorities specifically to house homeless applicants. That willingness would be built into their contractual arrangements.
The House is being treated with contempt by the Government. During the last few months there have been ministerial changes, procrastination and concessions that were then removed. Tonight a new Under-Secretary of State is not prepared to tell the House what is to happen to thousands of homeless people. It is not good enough for him to say that the Government are discussing with the new landlords the nomination rights that may be agreed between the various parties. We are referring to statutory rights and duties under the law to protect thousands of homeless people.
This Minister comes from the north-west. I invite him to come to Manchester and—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) wants to intervene, he should stand up. His comments on the Bill were a disgrace. If the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene and make a relevant contribution, he should stand up and I would then give way.
Again we ask the Under-Secretary of State to take point by point the questions that have been asked about amendments Nos. 1 and 4 to the Housing Bill. During the last two hours my hon. Friends have asked question after question about its implications. When we have attended public meetings and have met tenant groups, people have scoffed at the way in which this Government have said not one word about the homeless and what is to happen to them.
When, eventually, we pin the Government down to discuss homelessness, the Minister will not answer the questions. We need to know what will happen to people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation at the end of the contract. Will the Minister tell us, and local authorities that have made arrangements with private landlords, what will happen to homeless people at the end of the contract? Will they be moved on and on statutorily from private landlord to private landlord? Are the Government creating an army of homeless people?
Will the Minister have a chat with the Minister of State and give us the answers to the questions that we have asked during the past two hours?