Housing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:46 pm on 29th October 2003.

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Photo of Ms Oona King Ms Oona King Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 2:46 pm, 29th October 2003

That is precisely the point. The accommodation of the last family that I mentioned, with 16 people in two bedrooms, is of course regarded as statutorily overcrowded, and another family on the Tower Hamlets waiting list who require five bedrooms also currently live in accommodation that is classed as statutorily overcrowded. However, my hon. Friend is exactly right: all the other cases that I have mentioned do not count as statutorily overcrowded.

I am sure that the lack of progress is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North initiated a review of the current statutory definition of overcrowding. As has already been said, the definition ignores babies and expects living rooms to be permanently available for people to sleep in. For the benefit of my hon. Friends, I should add that 70 years ago, the Labour party described those very same standards as intolerable in the 20th century, and a Labour Member of Parliament said that this House

"ought not to let it go forth that we regard it as a satisfactory state of affairs that people should normally have to sleep in living rooms."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 19 February 1935; c. 54.]

That was 1935, yet the same standards are still with us.

The review of those standards that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North initiated gave hope to overcrowded families in Tower Hamlets that the Government were turning their attention to their needs. However, after she moved on to the Department for International Development, no progress was made with that review.

Since then, we have been told that overcrowding will be addressed through the new housing health and safety rating system. Unfortunately, the HHSRS cannot provide that review, not only because the number of hazards due to overcrowding and a lack of space are likely to be dwarfed by the number due to factors such as fire risk, damp and cold, but because the HHSRS inevitably involves a subjective assessment of conditions in a property. I hope that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but the only objective yardstick against which environmental health officers can measure hazards that arise from overcrowding and lack of space is the room and space standards in the current statutory definition—the very same definition that the Minister with responsibility for housing described as outdated. That is why I hope that the Minister will follow her predecessor's lead and signal that she is prepared to consider updating that definition, as that would give hope to families in my constituency.

The Housing (Overcrowding) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Love does not give overcrowded families the right to insist that they are prioritised for rehousing ahead of homeless families, yet the fear that that might happen has delayed the Government's movement. A remedy of that nature is specifically excluded from the Bill, because it is recognised that it might have unacceptable outcomes. However, local authorities already accept that such families have a right to a larger home, and in so doing they apply higher overcrowding standards than the statutory minimum. All that we are asking, therefore, is that the Government recognise that standard in law.

A modernised statutory definition will not add to the burdens on local authorities, but will help us to see more clearly what the problem is and where it exists.

If I thought that we could solve the problem of overcrowding with current or predicted resources, I would be less concerned about updating the statutory definition. However, despite the fantastic increases in Government investment in housing, we are still nowhere near doing that. Tackling overcrowding does not yet have the priority that it deserves. We are making huge investments: over the next three years we shall increase the total housing resource to £11 billion, we are on target to reduce the number of non-decent social homes by 1 million by 2004, and, through the transfer options, we are unlocking huge amounts of investment in social housing. I congratulate the Government on that. Tower Hamlets has had a welcome and much-needed 300 per cent. increase in investment in social housing, but it needs more.

I suggest to the Minister that the forthcoming housing Bill offers the chance to give decision makers an incentive to move overcrowding up the agenda. Across southern England, updating the standards would help to energise our campaign to end child poverty. Let us not forget that 48 per cent. of this country's children in poverty live in inner London. I know that many in the rest of the country do not believe that—they think that all the streets are paved with gold—but it is a fact. If we are to meet the Government's target of dealing with child poverty, we have to tackle one of the biggest issues that faces those children—overcrowding. It has to be moved up the agenda. That would help black and Asian families, who are seven times more likely to experience overcrowding than their white counterparts. Once one has faced up to a problem, one can begin to tackle it, and retaining a statutory definition that is so outdated and so rarely breached only helps us to convince ourselves that overcrowding is not a problem and does not need to be tackled. We need to set a new threshold—a gold standard—to aim for. The bedroom standard used in the survey of English housing is that standard, and the forthcoming housing Bill will provide the perfect opportunity to put it on the statute book.

I shall briefly offer some solutions. Admitting the scale of overcrowding is the first step in tackling it. The next is building affordable homes in the numbers that are needed. I have argued previously that the only way to tackle the housing crisis is to double our output of affordable homes. That would mean doubling our investment again, and I know that the money cannot be found immediately, so I suggest helping to generate an immediate increase in the number of council and housing association lettings. We need some short-term emergency measures to free up family-sized accommodation for families suffering severe overcrowding.

During a debate in June, I suggested an expansion of the seaside and country homes scheme. In the Minister's reply, he told me that Housing Organisation and Exchange Mobility Services, which manages the scheme, has begun working with Girlings Retirement Options to give elderly people further options. I would be grateful for details as to how that has progressed.

Since the local restriction of right to buy, cash incentive schemes have become really popular in Tower Hamlets, with the result that more tenancies, including four four-bedroom tenancies this year, have been returned to the council to be re-let. A cash incentive is a cheap and efficient way to help tenants of social housing to become home owners. It empowers tenants by giving them choice over the size of their new homes. Please may we have more? The money for that has been cut, and although Tower Hamlets has subsidised it, we need it to be increased.

My last point concerns occupation. As well as there being many people who want to leave London, we have the advantage that a surprisingly high number live in homes that are not fully occupied. In London, 28 per cent. of council and registered social landlords' stock is officially under-occupied. The present incentive—between £500 and £1,000 for each bedroom—is not adequate; we need to increase it if we are to get people out of those properties. I should be grateful if the Minister would write to me on the points that I have drawn to her attention. We desperately need to tackle the terrible problem of overcrowding now.