That is a familiar canard. The rate of empty property in local authorities is lower than it is in housing associations and in the private sector, and substantially lower than it is in the rest of the public sector, where Government Departments predominate.
A housing crisis is building in Britain. Any conscientious Member of Parliament who carries out regular constituency surgeries will have seen the evidence. Those hon. Members who profess to be unaware of the growing housing crisis, the housing time bomb that is ticking away, must be uniquely advantaged and live in the most prosperous parts of the country, because elsewhere a growing tide of humanity is condemned to a miserable, depleted and distorted existence because people do not have proper housing.
Undoubtedly the most tragic victims of the housing crisis are the homeless. Let no one say that there is no homelessness crisis in Britain. Last year, 117,550 families were accepted on to homelessness lists. That means that 337,369 people are homeless. Even that figure is dwarfed by the 242,000 families that applied for the status of being homeless. Homelessness is not a problem only in London. It is a problem in Gateshead, where homelessness has risen by 27 per cent. in the past year. In Colchester, it has risen by 48 per cent. and in leafy Salisbury by 52 per cent.
Those appalling figures do not include the most distressing manifestation of homelessness. The young people who are forced to beg by day and to sleep on our streets by night are not included in the figures, yet they are part of the daily experience of everyone who walks the streets of our major cities, particularly our great capital city. They are a blot on the face of this country and in particular on the Government's record. It is a sight that we had assumed had been pushed unmourned into the less salubrious pages of our history. Faced with that problem, the £250 million spread over two years which was announced in the Autumn Statement is no more than a drop in the ocean. It is totally inadequate to deal with the size and the seriousness of the problem of homelessness.
This problem has not arisen by accident. Homelessness is simply the most visible sign of a wider, deeper housing failure. A housing failure is not just an ordinary failure of Government policy; it is a failure by the Government to fulfil one of their basic duties to the people. There is something peculiarly shocking about the failure of a rich, self-proclaimedly civilised country that fails to provide a decent roof over the head of each of its citizens.