Although I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, I do not welcome the fact that for the fourth time in this Parliament we are debating the issue of homelessness. I look forward to the day when homelessness will have no place in this Chamber or in the cities and towns of this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) has referred to homelessness as a scar on the face of society. While agreeing wholeheartedly with his sentiment, I disagree with his analogy, because over time scars heal, but during this Government's tenure of office the number of households accepted as homeless has tripled, to stand at 150,000. That represents 400,000 adults and children. According to the Shelter briefing, which I am sure all hon. Members received in time for the autumn statement, almost 63,000 of those families will spend this Christmas in unsuitable temporary housing, such as bed and breakfast hotels and local authority hostels.
There are enough learned documents around to prove the dangers for children in bed and breakfasts—quite apart from the economic costs. In London, the cost of keeping a family in bed and breakfasts is estimated at £14,500 a year. The damage done to children is almost inestimable. Children in bed and breakfasts tend to catch illnesses far more easily and to have greater difficulty in learning and in creating real social relationships. The borough in which my constituency lies has 1,900 families with no homes of their own; that figure does not include the number forced to use voluntary hostels or squats or cardboard boxes for shelter.
There is no doubt that the plight of the homeless is a matter of concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House, but a former leader of the Conservative party once said that it is not enough for people merely to say that they care; their actions must support their words. The Government's actions so far have failed to alleviate, let alone eradicate, the evil of homelessness.
Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer unveiled a number of proposals in his autumn statement designed to boost the housing sector—proposals to which the Minister referred today. One proposal was to purchase 20,000 empty homes. Another was that councils would be allowed to spend the capital receipts that they earn between now and December 1993. That was done, the Chancellor said, to make a real contribution to housing families in need.
What was the background against which the announcement was made? Twenty thousand homes are to be purchased, but last year 75,000 homes were repossessed. Capital receipts will be released from now until December 1993, but more than £8 billion in capital receipts have already been accumulated. So the Government can buy 20,000 homes, yet they allow the seizure of 75,000.
This is a time of deep recession, when people are much concerned that they may have no jobs, when—to quote Shelter—the rate of mortgage repossessions in England alone is running at 200 a day and when loans more than 12 months in arrears had risen by June 1992 by almost 25 per cent. to more than 110,000. So the Government, on the most optimistic estimate, are giving £1·75 billion in capital receipts but are blocking the £8 billion that councils have already raised from the right to buy.
On top of all this, the Government tell councils, which have the prime responsibility for housing those in need, that they will give them less money next year to discharge their duties than they did this year—that has always been the trend while the Conservative party has been in power. Spending on housing in real terms fell from £11·6 billion in 1978–79 to £5·5 billion in 1991–92—a reduction of £6·1 billion.
The Government claim that they care about the homeless, but in the next breath they say that it is not for central Government to generate the growth in the housing sector which the homeless so desperately need and in their third breath they announce that they will bring in spending measures that will prevent local government from generating growth.
Homelessness under this Government has become an epidemic, and it is eating away at the fabric of society. How much potential is wasted in the doorways of the shops lining the Strand? How many doctors, teachers and business men could have grown—could still grow—out of the people who have no home of their own and hence no opportunity? What can be said of a Government who deny them that opportunity?
The Conservative manifesto states:
The opportunity to own a home and pass it on is one of the most important rights an individual has in a free society.
But what of those denied the right to live in a home, never mind own one? A right to clean, decent, affordable housing should be guaranteed, and if all else fails it is incumbent on the Government to safeguard that right. If solving the problem of homelessness means Government intervention before lunch, breakfast and dinner, so be it. Homelessness will not be solved by the reintroduction of restrictions on capital receipts, due to come into effect in December 1993. Nor will it be solved by the restrictions on council spending due to come into effect in April 1993. Nor will it be solved by unemployment, by recession or by the slump to which no end is in sight—