My Lords, it is unfortunate that the amendments tabled on this important subject by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, should have been reached so late at each successive phase of our consideration-in Committee, on Report and now at Third Reading. It is unfortunate because the House is less full than it might have been, and it is much more difficult at this stage of the evening to win a vote on an amendment opposed by the Government. If it is unfortunate for her, though, how much more unfortunate is it for homeless and vulnerable people all across the country? They will be deeply grateful to her for the passion, determination and eloquence with which she has pursued this subject, and we ought also to thank her.
We face a housing crisis in this country, and that crisis is deepening. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for the letter that she wrote to a number of us following a debate on Report on squatting. She herself has acknowledged that while the nature of the case means that it is difficult to know precisely how many people may be squatting in this country, the best estimate by academics, homelessness organisations and people who provide advice services to squatters is that there are no fewer than 10,000 people squatting and possibly as many as 50,000. Those are large numbers and those statistics, uncertain as they are, underline the gravity of the issue all the same.
What are the Government doing to respond to this problem? It so happens that today the Government have published the national planning policy framework. It is an important document with an extended two-page section in which the Government offer their thoughts on,
"Delivering a wide choice of high quality homes"- words that may sound a little hollow to those who are homeless and those who are squatting. However, there are good intentions in the document. It is a vigorous exhortation to all concerned to act to increase the supply of housing in this country. There is a section at paragraph 51 that is very relevant to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness:
"Local planning authorities should identify and bring back into residential use empty housing and buildings in line with local housing and empty homes strategies and, where appropriate, acquire properties under compulsory purchase powers".
If local authorities were to act on that exhortation, that would be helpful. I would be grateful if the Minister would say how much more the Government intend to do to translate that aspiration and exhortation into an effective and practical reality. I am concerned that even where local planning and housing authorities will wish, as I am sure they will, to increase the supply of housing available for people in desperate need and to follow the particular advice that I have just quoted, it may not be easy for them because their resources have been much reduced and we are now just entering a phase in which local authorities are having to face the first and biggest part of a reduction of some 30 per cent in available resources. If they decide that they would like to use compulsory purchase powers, it is not clear to me how they are going to be able to afford to do so.
The Government's broader economic strategy has, unfortunately, squeezed both growth and confidence, as the Chancellor was driven to recognise last week. The upshot is that the housing market is pretty well dead in the water. People do not have the confidence to apply for mortgages and bankers do not have the confidence to offer them, so house builders cannot find a market. While the private sector of housing development is stagnant, the Government have seen it as appropriate drastically to reduce funding for social housing construction. In the face of a rising population and rising demand, particularly at the lower end of the market, we are seeing reduced supply. The consequence is that rents are rising, and in the face of rising rents the Government have also judged it right to cut housing benefit severely.
The Government have also introduced their new policy for council tax benefit-a fixed budget for each local authority to limit the total that it can spend on the benefit. Our late friend and colleague, Lord Newton of Braintree, whom we all miss so much, spoke on that very topic in our debates on the Welfare Reform Bill. He asked what the position would be if there was a fixed budget for council tax benefit in a local authority area but a factory closure meant that it had to be spread across a larger number of people. He said that it was mad-that was the word that he used-and I think it is.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is absolutely right to pull us up on this and to insist that, in the face of these circumstances and against the background of these other policies, now is not the time to criminalise people who may be driven by circumstances to fairly desperate actions, and to squatting in particular. It is not the time to criminalise them if they squat in a residential premise that has been unoccupied for 12 months and for which there is no planning application. She is also right to ask the Government, at the very least, to postpone implementation of this clause until they have conducted a thorough consultation with people across the country and on the ground who understand these issues. It is of course late. However, if the noble Baroness decides to test the opinion of the House, I will enthusiastically support her.