I supported the Government two years ago when they forecast how many houses they would build and how much money they would spend. However, I would not have reneged on that promise: we would have gone on to build those properties. If the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is patient, I shall comment later on how we would pay for social housing.
In 1977, more than 162,000 public sector homes were completed across Britain. We will be lucky if the figure reaches 50,000 this year. For the past four years, social housing output has averaged only 60,000—which is at the bottom end of the Government's estimate of need, ranging from 60,000 to 100,000. The situation will be even worse next year. According to the Budget outcome, the Government have halved their expenditure on housing in the past two years. They have estimated that there will be 51,000 new social lettings—which is 9,000 fewer than the Government's lowest estimate of housing need.
The Government seem to be alone in estimating housing need at 60,000. Even the former chief housing economist at the Department of the Environment—who until 1994 was the official Government expert on such matters—now thinks that the Government have got it wrong. Is the Minister saying that everyone but the Government has got it wrong? It seems incredible that it is almost 20 years since the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was enacted, but apparently no lessons have been learnt about tackling the long-term problems of homelessness.
The Government continue to take a short-term approach. They are driven by an obsession with the headline figure of the public sector borrowing requirement to the exclusion of almost any consideration of the long-term benefits of investment in good-quality housing. The Government have hit the safety net for home owners and for private tenants and they now intend to hit the safety net for the homeless.
The review of access to social housing was not, of itself, a bad idea—and under different circumstances I might have welcomed it. However, it was clear from the context in which it was announced that it was less about tackling the housing crisis than about reinforcing Ministers' prejudices. Those prejudices include the belief that local authorities are bad, that home ownership is the only answer, and of course we have all heard about "back to basics". It is time that the Government stopped looking for scapegoats for those problems and started to look for solutions.
It was brought home to me very clearly before Christmas what damage the Government have done by attempting to scapegoat groups of people. A charity in my area, which provides assistance and accommodation for young homeless people, conducted an appeal before Christmas. It found hate mail in its appeal envelopes, reflecting politicians' often repeated claim that all young homeless people are wastrels. It is not so, but that is what happens when one maligns groups of people.
If the Bill succeeds, it will be the final undoing of the 1977 legislation. Last summer's judgment by the other place in the Awua case has not altered the way in which most local authorities deal with homeless families. The Government's proposals most certainly will.
The Bill represents a golden opportunity to move forwards, not backwards, from the 1977 Act, but it appears that that opportunity will be lost. Liberal Democrats will fight tooth and nail to defend the Act that Stephen Ross took through the House with all-party support.