May I begin by apologising to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the House and colleagues on both Front Benches as a long-standing constituency engagement means that I will have to leave the Chamber temporarily soon after I have made my contribution?
I welcome the opportunity to speak after the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), although I do not share his memories of the Committee on which I also served in 1996: I do not remember that it was quite as golden as he presented. However, I agree that the problem of homelessness will not be solved exclusively by bricks and mortar as there must be a genuine multi-agency approach to people who, for various reasons, find themselves homeless. I welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the fact that local authorities must take responsibility for young people leaving care, for people leaving prison and individuals who suffer from domestic violence.
Regarding people leaving prison and asylum seekers, I should like to refer to the contribution of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). The figures he cited are right, and the Association of London Government has, I imagine, furnished every Member of Parliament with the relevant information. At the moment there are more than 46,000 households in London in temporary accommodation, and 6,000 households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That increase in homelessness does not have to do with asylum seekers or local authorities already giving priority to people leaving prison before the legislation comes into effect. As the ALG makes abundantly clear, the main reason for the increase in homelessness placements is the fall in available supply. The ALG states:
The supply of affordable housing available to local authorities for new lettings in 1999/2000, including nominations to housing association stock
fell by 10 per cent. on the previous year's figure and was by far the lowest figure since the mid 1980s. The extremely comprehensive and interesting report by the London Mayor's housing commission states:
Average house prices are one and a half times higher in London than the UK average … The average price of a London two-bedroom dwelling in 1999 was £161,000, in central London nearly £274,000 … The average gross London salary was £28,800 in 1999. However, for London as a whole 57 per cent of employees earn less than £24,000 a year and in several boroughs this proportion rises to 70 per cent.
On rents, the report states:
Average London market rents in the third quarter of 1999 were at a level of £85 per week for a room, sharing or bedsit to over £200 for a one bedroom dwelling and £285 for a two bedroom dwelling. For two-bedroom accommodation maximum rents of £3,000 are also to be found in the capital.
Those costs are caused by an influx of people into London, which, as a great centre for the economy, has experienced the vast rise in house costs that I have detailed.
I welcome the Government's approach with regard to the new categories, which will have to be the responsibility of local authorities. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that much better use must be made of existing housing stock in London. I have cited figures on families in temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast, but they are, in a sense, merely the tip of the iceberg. It has been estimated that there could be as many as 112,000 people in London who are either without permanent homes or living in completely unacceptable housing conditions that are caused by vast overcrowding and abysmal maintenance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred to properties in his constituency that are uninhabitable because the landlord does not maintain them. Some of my constituents are living in conditions that are even worse than those described by my hon. Friend. Again, that is the case because landlords have failed to maintain the properties. Many of the people in question are elderly and some have severe disabilities. They almost invariably live on their own and are suffering conditions of absolute squalor, but we, the taxpayers, must pay via housing benefit the rents that they are being charged. It is unacceptable that the taxpayer should pay vast sums to landlords whom I deem not only to be corrupt but also to be slum landlords, when our constituents have to live in completely unacceptable conditions. In my view, such conditions would have been unacceptable in the 18th century, and they are certainly unacceptable in the 21st century.
In common with other hon. Members, I offer my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning my congratulations, but I urge him to examine and encourage local authorities, under the aegis of the Mayor's housing commission, on the potential for incorporating the empty homes out there—104,000 are estimated to exist in London—via the Empty Homes Agency. I know that there are many reasons why the houses are empty. It is not unusual for them to be unoccupied because the families whose properties they have become cannot agree about the price or the sale. A wide range of reasons exist, but there is a serious crisis in London. All agencies will have to work together to settle London's housing crisis, not only in the medium and long term, but in the immediate short term.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will take another, final issue into consideration: housing benefit. The West Hampstead housing association has furnished me with a report that shows that changes have been made with regard to responsibility for housing benefit that have impacted especially on registered social landlords. I urge my hon. Friend and colleagues in the Department of Social Security to re-examine housing benefit. In some instances, it is in a mess because the administration of the scheme has been put out into the private sector. I ask the House to note that my local authority, Camden, has received more than one charter award for the excellent housing benefit service that it provides in the borough of Camden. Perhaps that service could be a model for other local authorities that are having serious difficulties in respect of housing benefit. The existing framework has basic housing benefit structures that warrant swift examination and genuine joined-up government by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Social Security. We cannot afford to lose any venues in London that might now or in the immediate future afford the possibility of decent homes for the thousands of people who see no chance of ever obtaining such homes.