Christmas Adjournment

Part of Royal Assent – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 19th December 2006.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 5:12 pm, 19th December 2006

The emblem of a benevolent and sympathetic society is that we care for vulnerable people and protect them. If we can do nothing else here, we as Members of Parliament should be thinking of vulnerable people at this time of year.

I sincerely thank the Prime Minister for his help and intervention in the children's hospice funding crisis that arose this year. He gave £27 million to fill the short-term funding gap, which was a very good thing for him to do. He is also totally behind the continued review of the long-term funding of children's hospices, so that we can ensure fair funding for those important institutions.

I want to discuss two groups, the homeless and children with special needs. Homelessness is a major problem. It is timely to address it as we canter towards Christmas, with all its wonderful joy and brilliant gaiety—but for some it can be a lonely, cold, forbidding and often deeply depressing time, and we must not forget those people.

We have just seen the 40th anniversary of the BBC's screening of "Cathy Come Home". Shortly after that first screening came the formation of Shelter, a wonderful organisation with great, good and dedicated people working in it. It is time to take stock. Like Shelter, I want to focus on the key issues of concern surrounding homelessness. There has been a systematic failure to invest in social housing for rent. The main problem was not the right to buy council houses—an excellent policy that I supported—but the failure to invest the proceeds of those sales in replacement social housing for rent.

During the '60s and '70s, more than 100,000 social houses were built each year, but in the last decade only about 20,000 such houses have been built each year, which is an unsustainable level. That problem needs to be addressed. It lies at the root of Britain's housing crisis and explains why 1 million children are growing up homeless or in damp, cold or overcrowded accommodation. The evidence shows that bad housing has a devastating impact on the education, health and life chances of those children, leaving them at risk of permanent social exclusion later in life. That is damaging not only to them, but to society at large, which is often denied the positive contribution that they might otherwise make.

The Communities and Local Government Committee endorsed Shelter's campaign to persuade the Treasury to deliver at least an additional 20,000 social rented homes above the current levels being achieved. Hopefully, that will be set out in next summer's comprehensive spending review. I have been arguing for more social housing in Castle Point for10 years, but no action on that has been taken by those responsible, and I continue to argue the case for my patch. We must also take seriously the Barker review on housing. It has many important conclusions, and it provides a strategy to cut the number of homeless households trapped in temporary accommodation. We must establish policies that will ensure genuine successes and advances in that area over the next two or three years.

The current homelessness facts are frightening. More than 94,000 vulnerable, homeless households, involving 130,000 children, are currently trapped in unsuitable temporary accommodation. Homeless children in temporary accommodation miss on average a quarter of their schooling. Shelter found that living in overcrowded conditions damages children's educational prospects. Almost half of parents described their children as often unhappy or depressed, and said that their education had suffered as a result. Of course, that is common sense; it is not rocket science.

About 500,000 households, including 905,000—almost 1 million—children, are living in overcrowded conditions. That must be tackled. According to a Shelter survey,90 per cent. of families living in overcrowded conditions felt that the overcrowding was damaging their children's health. More than three quarters of the households had no member working, either because health or mobility problems prevented that, or because of insecurity in respect of accommodation, or because of the poverty trap which stops some people getting low-paid jobs. Shelter estimates that the additional cost to the public purse associated with the use of temporary accommodation is about £500 million.

These concerns must not be confused with those to do with the protection of our precious green belt, or with the defending from new threats of expensive flatland development, which is an issue in many constituencies, particularly in the south-east—such development is, of course, designed for profit rather than to tackle genuine social housing needs. We must also find better ways to bring into use those houses that are empty and not in use.

I do not seek to score any political points; homelessness is too important for that. In recent years, the Government have started to make progress in tackling homelessness, and they have done some very good things. My contention is that that progress has been a little slow and I would like them to move faster. I know that there is cross-party support for that. The Government have strengthened the legal safety net for homeless people. They have required local authorities to take a more strategic, preventive approach to reduce the number of people forced to sleep rough and to reduce the length of time that homeless families with children are placed in unacceptable bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

However, at the same time there are massive pressures from immigration. The number of homeless households in temporary accommodation has almost doubled from 41,000 in 1997 to almost 100,000 today. The average length of time that a homeless household spends in temporary accommodation before being rehoused has increased from 98 days in 1997 to 267 days now. The proportion of people who spend more than a year in temporary accommodation has increased from 11 per cent. in 1997 to 24 per cent. now. We need further action quickly.

A social exclusion unit report entitled "Breaking the Cycle" identified the number of homeless households as one of the five key factors holding back progress in tackling social exclusion. The Treasury's child poverty review also highlighted the importance of tackling homelessness if the Government's child poverty objectives are to be met. The "Every Child Matters" Green Paper also identified homelessness as one of the key factors associated with poor outcomes for our children. Christmas is coming, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the goose certainly is getting fat. We must think of those in need and resolve to do something next year to tackle the problem more firmly.

I want to make three important points about vulnerable children. First, we must ensure that those who need statementing for special educational needs get that service quickly, with minimum delay, frustration and bureaucracy. In England, the average proportion of children statemented for SEN is 2.9 per cent.; in Essex, we statement only2.4 per cent. If we had the English average, another610 Essex children would be statemented. As a decent MP, my question is: why are those children not being statemented? Are we betraying them; are their needs being denied? As I see it, there are only two explanations. Either there are far fewer SEN children in Essex than the English average, which strikes me as statistically improbable; or Essex is failing parents and betraying our most vulnerable children. If the latter is the case, it needs to be exposed and stopped. Through this debate, I am demanding clear answers from the Department for Education and Skills, and from Essex, as to why this anomaly exists, and what will be done to deal with it if we are—as I strongly suspect we are—betraying our most vulnerable children.

My second point on vulnerable children is that we must value and support, in deed as well as in word, our schools for those with moderate learning disabilities. We must make parents aware of the availability of such schools and of what they can offer special children, and we must encourage choice and referrals. Essex has again been found wanting in this regard. It is trying to strangle the county's few remaining MLD schools by stealth. In recent years, the number of referrals to MLD schools has fallen dramatically: not by half or by 75 per cent., but by even more than that. Parents are being given misleading or no information, which means that they cannot make an informed choice. Sometimes, mainstreaming is right for special children; at other times, they need special schools and MLD schools. Parents, not councils, know best what is right for their children.