Shelter has warned that the Government's proposals to remove the right of the homeless in England and Wales to permanent housing will mean a return to the "Cathy Come Home" era of appalling neglect of the homeless. Will the Minister give a clear and definite commitment that in his forthcoming consultation document on Scottish homelessness, there will be no reduction in the rights of the homeless but a positive agenda for tackling the root cause of homelessness in Scotland—the dramatic decline under this Government of quality, secure and affordable housing for rent in the public sector?
There will be wide-ranging consultation, and we expect the paper to pose questions on all the main points relating to homelessness legislation. At this stage, I do not rule anything out or anything in, but we give top priority to homelessness. It is a key strategic priority and we have an extensive drive to bring empty housing in Scotland back into use.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) referred to Shelter (Scotland), but I draw the Minister's attention to the other side of the problem—the homeless who live rough, about whom this Government have forgotten. The Government do nothing for them. Every year in winter, we read newspaper reports about homeless people who have been frozen to the ground and have to be scraped off to be buried. That is a sign of the Government's commitment to the unfortunate people of Scotland who have only cardboard homes and papier-mâché dreams.
We made it clear that statutory responsibility lies with district authorities, and the hon. Gentleman should make strong representations to his own district council. The number of people living rough is quite different from the number applying for housing as homeless or who are homeless. Only a relatively small number—well below 1,000—live rough, but nobody should live rough; everybody should have a house, to which they are entitled. It is the duty of a local authority to make that provision. In Scotland, £426 million is being provided to local authorities through the housing revenue grant allocation.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government have a housing record of which they can be proud, having built 20,000 housing units every year since 1979? Is not it outrageous that local authorities in Scotland—particularly those that are socialist-controlled —have thousands of empty housing units? Should not they be urged to rectify that ridiculous anomaly?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Since 1979, no fewer than 257,000 new houses have been built; a proportion of those have been in the public sector. Local authorities have built no fewer than 30,000 houses. We have given guidance to local authorities urging them strongly to bring their empty houses back into use. There is a wide variation between different authorities in Scotland. Some of them undoubtedly can do a great deal more.
Does the Minister recognise that many elderly people are now under-occupying their four and five-apartment homes and that homelessness could be helped if the Government embarked on a system of building sheltered housing for the elderly, with wardens and security so that they are not worried? That would help the homeless problem in many ways, one of them being that young couples could use the four or five-apartment homes which are under-occupied at the moment.
I strongly support the building of more sheltered housing in Scotland by local authorities, housing associations or the private sector. I agree that they have a major role to play. But this year Scottish Homes will be expected to do much more and it will have a lead tenancy arrangement under which empty private property is leased to housing associations for letting to homeless families. The hon. Gentleman's points are valid.
The hon. Lady is referring to the nearly 300,000 houses that have been bought by sitting tenants. Of course, if those tenants had not bought them, they would have continued to live in those particular houses. I have already said that 257,000 houses have been built since 1979, and a great many more will be built in the future.