Adjournment (Christmas)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:31 pm on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 6:31 pm, 19th December 1990

As a Liberal, I can partly answer for my hon. Friends, but as only partly a Scot, I probably cannot give an adequate response. In any event, the debate is about other things. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) knows that the remedy lies not with us but with the Government. They could set up a Scottish Select Committee but have not done so and they could secure a debate on the subject any time by the arrangement of business.

The motion that we are debating will allow the House to rise from tomorrow until 14 January. If we required ourselves to stay here until the homeless were housed and the badly housed were properly housed, we might be here for quite some time. I do not think that we would be here indefinitely, because we would have solved the problem, in that a major factor is that the Government walk away from the problem of the homeless and the badly housed too often. They allow people to go on suffering.

On Saturday this week in my constituency, yet again, for the fourth time in recent years, the charity that used to be called Crisis at Christmas and is now called Crisis will open Christmas shelters and about 1,000 people will come off the streets for several days of warmth, food, general rehabilitation and reclothing. In the past few days, I have invited the Prime Minister and the newly appointed Minister for Housing and Planning to come to meet the homeless at Crisis. The Minister has accepted and will come on Monday. I welcome that. I understand that the Prime Minister would like to come, but so far has been unable to arrange a time to do so. I hope that he can, even if it is on one of the few days after Christmas rather than the few days before Christmas.

If Ministers come, they will realise anew what they know in their minds and in logic, which is that we in Britain have failed thousands of people in respect of housing for far too long. This is the leading sentence in the editorial in The Times today: The plight of the homeless is a clear test of John Major's social conscience. It also quotes Mother Teresa, who spoke for many when she said that the sight of people sleeping rough in Europe was, to her, worse than its counterpart in the Third World. The Government keep on saying that they have a commitment to give everybody a decent home. The former Secretary of State for the Environment, now the chairman of the Tory party, said so only a year ago, but the figures get worse. There are certainly 5,000 people—there may be more—who sleep rough all the time, about half in London and half elsewhere. That is a 50 per cent. increase in two years. There are certainly 43,000 people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, put there by the 100 local authorities which have accepted liability for housing them.

Acceptances of people as homeless have doubled in the past 10 years. There are 200,000 people homeless and alone, and 300,000 people homeless and in temporary accommodation—possibly as many as 1 million. The figures rise inexorably. By that I imply that a short-term alleviation by providing hostel space for up to 1,000 people will make hardly any significant dent in that trend.

The reasons for homelessness do not change. The Library has provided me with a collection of information which confirms that, since 1979, the reasons why people become homeless have remained much the same. Some 40 per cent. do so because relatives or friends can no longer accommodate them, and 15 per cent. because of a breakdown in relationship with a partner. A growing number do so because of mortgage arrears—this doubled between 1979–89. Some 80 per cent. are accepted because there are dependent children or a pregnant woman in the household.

Over the past 10 years, we have gone on doing things that make the problem worse. We have reduced the number of new homes that we build, we have built for demand and not for need and we have not changed the planning laws as we might have done. The right-to-buy policy, which was recently criticised again by the bishops, has taken housing away from the rented sector. We have forced local authorities to hold on to capital receipts that they are willing to spend.

In the Housing Act 1988, we deregulated what were market rents and as Opposition Members, including myself, predicted, we forced rents up and thereby forced many people out of being able to afford them. Now, we do not allow social security to pay for people in expensive rented property or let them have the money that they need to pay a deposit for rented accommodation. Homelessness is rising, and the prediction made by the permanent secretary at the Department of the Environment to the Public Accounts Committee only a few days ago confirmed that it will increase by another 15 per cent. this year.

More homes are being repossessed. More were repossessed in the past six months than in the whole of the previous year. Rent increases are rising and for many people that is added to the poll tax bill. At the same time, 100,000 council properties and 600,000 private properties are empty. The Government recently said that they would prevent private leasing—a remedy that we know is cheaper than bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

I do not doubt that every single one of the 650 Members of Parliament could regale others with tales of people who come to us saying that they are without housing or badly housed. I shall cite only one example. A couple with six children—five boys aged between 5 and 14 and a baby girl —live, as they have done for 11 years, in a council flat in Walworth, a mile and a half from here. They have been trying to get out from that small substandard and damp flat. It may be that, with the last baby, they are statutorily overcrowded. They were recently offered a desquatted property, but that was subsequently resquatted and is therefore no longer available.

Tens of thousands of people are not homeless or on the streets, but are housed in conditions that a civilised society should not permit. There are remedies. It is possible to find solutions and implement them. We could repeal our vagrancy legislation. We could alter the rules that bear on the rented sector. We could prevent the poverty trap from affecting those who find themselves just above housing benefit and benefit levels generally. We could alter planning rules so that local authorities are able to insist that a certain proportion of any housing development is used to provide homes for rents at affordable levels. We could remove mortgage tax relief from those who are higher rate taxpayers and use the money for other purposes.

We could ensure that those who are without homes are able to receive social security payments in advance so that they do not have to survive for weeks without money. We could make it a requirement that empty property is let without affecting its ownership. Notice of intention to let could be served on private and local authority owners alike. We could retain private sector leasing but try to ensure that no abuses took place. We could extend our obligations to ensure that the young are housed by law rather than leaving discretion with the local authority.