The incident occurred in Windsor. The Minister does not understand that the accommodation is in Windsor and other local authorities use it. The argument is not about which councils place such families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Is the Minister really saying that Conservative councils do not use bed-and-breakfast accommodation? The argument is quite simply that local authorities—whether Labour, Tory or Liberal—are forced to use inadequate and inappropriate bed-and-breakfast accommodation because of the Government's policies.
The leader of the Conservative group in Hammersmith, Councillor Peter Prince, has some interesting suggestions. He says that there is nothing wrong with paying £100 rent per week for a two-bedroomed flat—and that it is all right. Can hon. Members say how ordinary people on average incomes are supposed to pay £100 per week rent for a two-roomed flat? He said something far worse, which I should like the Minister to think about.
In Hammersmith and Fulham, 19 people from Belfast who were threatened by the Provisional IRA have suddenly turned up. Two of the children had been kneecapped, one in both knees, with similar treatment to elbows and ankles. Quite rightly, Hammersmith and Fulham council put those people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It had experience of other cases, knew the dangers of sending them back and realised that it must help them.
However, Conservative Councillor Peter Prince said they should he sent hack to Belfast. That was not only inhumane but also seems effectively to be saying to the Provisional IRA that it can carry on policing Northern Ireland because it is doing a good job. That is what the Conservative party is saying.
I have encountered people in Hammersmith who are not in council accommodation but are running from both the Provisional IRA and the Unionist paramilitaries. What do I get from the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office? He says:
Hence, while I have every sympathy for the problems faced by local councils
in cases of this kind, he cannot help. As a result of the crisis in Northern Ireland, local authorities in Britain must either provide bed-and-breakfast accommodation, send the people back or provide housing out of their own stock. What will the Minister do about that?
I have argued for many years that the Northern Ireland Office needs a policy to deal with people who are driven out in that way. I have every sympathy with Southend council, which has the same problems as Windsor, Slough and others. Indeed, Southend and the Conservative-controlled London Boroughs Association and Association of District Councils say that they cannot cope without using bed-and-breakfast accommodation—because of the Government's policy.
How does the Minister think that a family copes with education, health and family stress when they have to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and when the Government have no policy on homelessness? In 1978, a total of 53,110 homeless families were accepted. In 1987, the figure was 118,710. The sharp end of the problem is something that I never dreamt I would live to see in this country: men, women and children sleeping in cardboard boxes in the streets and parks of our towns, in both Tory and Labour areas. If the Minister and his hon. Friends really believe that that is the Labour party's fault, let me tell them that no one else believes it. Other people know that the housing crisis has been caused by the present Government. The Minister should not try to dodge that by blaming local authorities for the existence of empty properties.
Let us get the figures nice and clear. At present 2·5 per cent. of local authority properties are empty, compared with 3·1 per cent. of housing association properties. Both those figures are pretty good, and should be treated with a degree of flexibility. The figure for the private sector is 4·2 per cent. And who is the worst offender of all? The Minister. Nearly 6 per cent. of properties owned by the Government are empty. Houses and flats with three, four and five bedrooms, valued at £150,000 to £200,000, have been empty for up to nine years. The Government, who have known about it for years, are to knock them down to make way for car parking and landscaping around Wormwood Scrubs prison.
One in five police houses is empty, as are prison houses, defence houses and houses owned by London Regional Transport and other regional organisations. What the Minister likes to do is blame local authorities—to starve them of cash, undermine their morale and erode local democracy and to try to pretend that that solves the problem. He knows very well, however, that the problem lies at the Government's door.
Horsham council actually gave an empty council house to none other than the Horsham constituency Conservative party to use as an office. I understand that it had to offer something because this was part of an improvement area—but an empty council house as an office? Are we joking?