Many hon. Members have spoken about the release of capital receipts, and I think that the Minister also mentioned it. I hope that he will be able to assure us that that matter has a high priority. At a time when the nation has a housing crisis it is utterly ridiculous to sit on millions of pounds that could be put to good use. The money was raised by local authorities on the understanding that they would be able to reinvest it. That has not happened and the freezing of the funds is causing considerable distress. The money is there for a purpose for which it is not being used.
I wish to speak about the people who are at the bottom of the pile. I have the pleasure of being chairman of Stonham housing association. Most hon. Members attend their surgeries on Saturday mornings. At one time that was a fairly relaxed affair. However, every surgery that I attend becomes harder and more distressing. People come to me with the seemingly insoluble problem of having nowhere to go. I am sure that all hon. Members have met such people in their surgeries. Women about to go into hospital to have a baby do not have the slightest idea where they will go when they come out. What greater stress could one impose upon a person?
In general, the Stonham housing association picks up the debris of the nation, those who are at the bottom of the pile. We provide accommodation for about 10,500 people a day and we provide for all those whom Christians in every street sympathise about but do not want to do anything to help.
I have been in the House for some years, and in housing debate after housing debate I have heard Ministers from both parties say we should be doing various things. For example, they have said that they will ensure that houses belonging to the services—the armed forces and the police—are brought into occupation, as we do not need so many empty houses. I am sorry to say that nothing much has happened.
I hope that the thoughts that the Minister shared with us tonight will bring about some fundamental changes. Unless they do, organisations such as Stonham, the Salvation Army and many others that take care of the sad people in the community will close.
My organisation is satisfied that our finances will just about get us through another year. But unless there is some improvement in the complicated and nonsensical bureaucracy that has crept into the housing system, we expect that many organisations will have to close because there will be no money.
In London there are 75,000 single homeless people, and there is cardboard city. One does not have to go far from here to see the homeless. When I am on my way home I find old ladies sleeping in the bushes just down the road. It is sickening, and no hon. Member could find any funny feature in it, as it is horrifying.
The problem is not entirely caused by lack of money; we have to care about what happens to these people. If the various types of empty accommodation that hon. Members from both sides of the House have mentioned were used, we would not have a housing list, We would not have the misery that exists at present. We would not have people shuddering because a hostel might be put next door to them, and they are worried that it would not be attractive for their street, or that it might affect the value of their property.
Even in my constituency, in Cheltenham, there are many empty properties. I am not making a political point, but the town is under the control of the Liberals. People come to my advice bureau and tell me that they walk round the town and see empty houses and flats owned by the local authority.
Local authorities have much to answer for. They are so dilatory about carrying out the repairs and maintenance which would enable properties to be occupied that absurd situations arise. Young people with three children are put on the top floor of a 10-storey block. The mix of people in such blocks of flats sometimes causes indescribable trouble. Anti-social behaviour between neighbours increases week by week and sadly it often ends up with someone going to prison.
A lot can be done without the investment of vast sums of money, because we have already allocated millions of pounds for housing which could be better invested than it has been in the past.
Stonham, other similar organisations and thousands of voluntary workers give their time to nurse the mentally ill, who would otherwise go to prison because the hospitals that used to accommodate them are no longer available. All those people are being looked after by volunteers and a splendid professional team which has a right to expect to be paid. Unless we and my hon. Friend the Minister can find some better way of caring for people and paying the bill, there will be nowhere for even the sick to go.