[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair] — Temporary Housing

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 26th November 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Chris Mole .]

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 9:30 am, 26th November 2008

I am pleased that we are having this debate because the issue of temporary housing affects many of my constituents. Almost every time I hold an advice surgery and see people with housing problems, someone who lives in temporary accommodation will attend. The problem has been and still is huge, particularly in London.

The housing statistics show that, by the end of 2006-07, 87,000 households were living in temporary accommodation. By March this year, that figure had fallen to 77,000, which is certainly an improvement. In some ways, we are in a much better situation than we were a few years ago, when many of the people concerned would have been in bed and breakfasts, rather than in flats or houses. We have virtually got rid of the use of bed and breakfasts—I think that about 5 per cent. of people in temporary accommodation now live in them.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important debate to the House. As we approach Christmas, homelessness and temporary accommodation is a serious matter, particularly for families with children. During the past 10 years, things have definitely improved and I congratulate the Government on their efforts in trying to deal with the problem, but there is still too much use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is, in some ways, used by my council to threaten and cajole people. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is often particularly unsuitable for people with young families because it is sometimes rat infested or damp. That type of accommodation must be stamped out completely.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I agree. The figure is down to 5 per cent., which is good, but I know that some local authorities still use bed-and-breakfast accommodation. My local authority does not and has not for some time, and I am pleased about that because it has made a positive difference.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

For the sake of accuracy, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the figures are in fact twice those of 10 years ago, even though they have fallen in the past couple of years?

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the number of people in temporary accommodation, not those in bed and breakfast. There is no doubt that there has been an increase. I understand why local authorities feel the need to use temporary accommodation and there is no question but that, in some cases, people in temporary accommodation—whether a house or a flat—live in far better conditions than those in which people in similar situations lived some time ago. However, there is still a problem. The majority of people in temporary accommodation probably live in London and only a small proportion of those—less than 25 per cent.—stay in that temporary accommodation for under six months, while about 40 per cent. stay in temporary accommodation for two years or more.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

As an occasional critic of my Government's housing policy and their attitude to local authorities, I feel that it is important to start on a positive note. The target to halve the use of temporary accommodation by 2010 was set in 2004 and has been achieved in a number of regions, particularly my region of the east midlands. However, there is still an issue in relation to those in bed and breakfast and, indeed, hostel accommodation. The majority of people in hostel accommodation are ready to move into something permanent, if only it existed.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I accept that point. Many local authorities are moving towards that target, but there are still serious problems in London and doubts about whether we can meet it. My hon. Friend made a point about hostels, but the figure of 87,000 households in temporary accommodation masks the true situation because it does not include the people whom local authorities do not accept as priority homeless and whom they do not take on. Those are generally young, single people, and they can end up in some of the worst situations and in hostels. I shall return to that point.

Clearly, we will not solve this problem without doing something about the supply side and increasing the supply of affordable rented housing through registered social landlords. I know that the Government are now making welcome moves in that direction and are considering what can be done to increase supply, but obviously that will not happen in the short term. I do not want to focus too much on the issue of new build, although that matter is obviously critical, but there is the question of the 50 per cent. target, how we can attain it and what we can do in the meantime to make conditions and costs more bearable for people who are in temporary accommodation and likely to be so for some time.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Is my hon. Friend aware that in London the 50 per cent. affordability target appears to have been virtually abandoned by the Mayor in favour of borough-wide negotiations? In any event, only a third of those properties would be available for rent; the rest would, in effect, be unaffordable for people with desperate housing need because the costs are simply too high.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I am aware of that, because it is an enormous problem for London. I am sure that it will be impossible for most London boroughs to solve their housing problems on their own. We need London-wide solutions, but we seem to be moving away from that. The consequences for people in temporary accommodation— particularly those who are in it for long periods—are fairly obvious.

I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen the insecurity that such a situation creates for people. It is not unusual for people to move from one temporary property to another. In many cases in London, people are not even moved within the borough that they come from; they are moved to another borough, miles away from family and friends. Just last week, I saw someone who has been put in temporary accommodation in Walthamstow by Hammersmith and Fulham council. That is not his first temporary place. Before that, he had been in temporary accommodation in Edmonton, although his family and friends live in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Such movement creates problems in getting children into schools and moving them from one school to another. When people are constantly being moved from one place to another, there are also consequences for them when they try to find and keep work. Some pilot schemes have been run to try to deal with that issue. Waltham Forest was one of the boroughs that ran the working future pilot, which considered what could be done to help to get people in temporary accommodation into work. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has assessed how those pilots worked and whether we might be able to extend them.

A further issue for many people who are put into temporary accommodation relates to the conditions in which they live. Again, I frequently see people who live in temporary accommodation and who have been put into the most appalling places. I sometimes wonder what checks are carried out before some of those properties are used. Last week, I saw a case in which someone had moved into a flat that had no hot water or heating, and within a week the bathroom ceiling had collapsed and there were rats in the property. Through public money—housing benefit—we are paying more than £300 a week to keep someone in such accommodation.

Another case I have recently seen involved someone who was put in temporary accommodation that, again, cost more than £300 a week. The place was a tip and was more or less unfit for human habitation. The person concerned, who was a pensioner, ended up moving out and sleeping on a camp-bed in her daughter's kitchen because she simply could not bear to stay in that place any longer.

One issue that I would like us to examine is what we can do to try to ensure that the condition of properties used for temporary accommodation is decent, because frequently it is not.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of the condition of accommodation. I represent two communities: an island community, Canvey Island, and a mainland community, and the division is about 50:50. Islanders are islanders. Sometimes the local council will threaten islanders with bed-and-breakfast accommodation that is out of borough, totally unsuitable and in very poor condition if they do not accept a place that they are offered on the mainland, which is completely outwith their community, friends, schools and so on. People are threatened and cajoled. They are told that if they do not accept the place, they will have to go into a bed and breakfast. That is intolerable in this day and age.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I am not familiar with the hon. Gentleman's local authority, but if what he says is accurate, it does not sound like how I would hope a local authority would behave in dealing with housing applicants.

An issue that I have touched on and want to return to is costs, because the rents for many properties that people are put into temporarily are unaffordable. Again, I recently dealt with someone who was moved out of a council property, for very good reasons; it was not her fault. She had been paying £84 a week rent in the council flat, but she was put into temporary accommodation outside the borough and the rent was £360 a week. For her, that was completely unaffordable. She is working, but obviously the housing benefit is not sufficient to make up the gap and she is considering whether to give up work, because otherwise she will be unable to afford to stay in the place. Time and again, we are paying out very large amounts in housing benefit—public money—for very poor-quality accommodation.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the perversity of the financial situation is underlined by the fact that, often, more is being paid out to house people in awful conditions than it would have cost to build social housing of a decent standard for people to live in, and in some cases the properties in unsatisfactory condition are council properties that were sold off?

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I absolutely agree. We need to get to grips with the financing and how we are spending so much public money on temporary accommodation.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

On that important point, research by the Supporting People programme shows that the cost of providing 50,000 bed spaces for single homeless people per year is about £250 million. That is £5,000 per bed space, which makes our right hon. Friend's point even more vivid and undeniable.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I take that point. There have been questions about what the subsidy levels should be for housing benefit where local authorities are leasing properties, and some reductions have been made. The London councils in particular are concerned that that might happen again and make it difficult for them to lease. One consequence of the pressure on the London boroughs has been competition between them to find properties in what they regard as the cheapest areas, so now people are frequently housed temporarily outside their borough of origin. If one looks at the statistics, it is obvious that certain boroughs make a practice of that and very significant numbers of the families they accept as homeless end up in temporary accommodation in another borough. That leads to some of the problems that I mentioned earlier, of security, work and schools. Moving people around in that way often leads also to problems in ensuring that they receive the council tax benefit and other benefits to which they are entitled. Such competition between the London boroughs is very unhealthy. I understood that there were agreements between the boroughs to try to avoid too much of that shopping around, but they do not seem to be working at the moment.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the over-close relationship that a number of boroughs seem to have with particular letting agencies, which almost do block lettings, apparently with very little pre-inspection or aftercare when people are moved into those properties?

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I think that is the case with certain boroughs. Not with all but certainly with some boroughs, there are those sorts of problem.

Much of what I have said about what happens to people who are placed in temporary accommodation by local authorities does not apply to single people because, in general, single people will not be accepted as priority homeless, so they end up in an even worse situation. They are forced into hostels or night shelters. Sometimes they have to rely on the charity of friends or relatives. As my hon. Friend David Taylor mentioned, 50,000-plus single homeless people have ended up in hostels. Some of them are helped by the Supporting People programme, which certainly makes a difference, but not all the people in hostels will end up being helped by that programme. For some of the people in hostels, what should be a short-term, temporary measure turns into a long-term problem because there is simply nowhere for them to move on to easily from the hostel. Again, if they are in a hostel where the rents are high and they are reliant on housing benefit, it is extremely difficult for them to get out of that place and get into their own property and into work. In addition, the conditions can be extremely poor.

I shall refer to an example from my constituency. Recently, I have been dealing with some of the tenants of a hostel called Lea Bridge house, which is owned by a registered social landlord, Chiltern Hundreds Charitable Housing Association, and managed through Paradigm Housing, an organisation in its group. It is being run as a commercial hostel, is not using the Supporting People programme and is charging market rents, although I think that the rents being charged are significantly more than market rents. What seems rather strange—I am still trying to have it clarified—is that although I am told that it is being run as a commercial hostel and market rents are being charged, the organisation appears to be treated as a registered social landlord for housing benefit purposes, so those inflated rents are paid for through housing benefit.

There are people living in that place—temporary accommodation—paying £130 a week altogether in rent and service charges. What they get for that is a tiny room, and in the room is a single bed, a small table, one chair and perhaps a small fridge. That is it—that is the total amount of furniture in the room. Everything else is shared. There are shared washing facilities, shared toilets and shared kitchens—by the way, there are both men and women in the hostel—and most of that £130 a week is paid through housing benefit.

What disturbs me even more is what happens when people who find themselves in that situation try to challenge the rent. Two of the tenants in the hostel went to rent assessment committees. In one case, the committee said that it believed that the rent increase that had been imposed was invalid and it could not adjudicate on it. In the other case, the committee decided that it could adjudicate; it found that the rent should not be £130 a week but £75 a week, and the rent was reduced. No one else's rent was reduced. The consequence was that eviction proceedings were started against both tenants. In one case the eviction has already happened; in the other, it is still proceeding. Under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, no reason has to be given for eviction because they are assured shorthold tenancies, and it is virtually impossible for tenants to defend themselves.

That is the sort of situation that results in people ending up in hostels. Their rent is far more than I believe the justifiable market rent should be, and they are living in poor conditions. When they try to do something about it—if they challenge the rent and go to the rent assessment committee—the consequence is eviction; but they have virtually no protection against eviction because of the nature of the tenancy.

When I questioned the housing association about its policy of eviction, it said:

"We do not have a policy of evicting tenants who challenge the Rent Increase Notices sent to them"— that sounds fairly straightforward. However, it continued,

"but financially we cannot afford to house tenants who are paying £75 a week. Unless tenants pay a commercial rent which is acceptable to the Association, we have no option but to replace those tenants with others who are willing to do so."

If that is not an eviction policy, I do not know what else it could be.

It concerns me that a registered social landlord can take that sort of attitude to vulnerable people living in a hostel. I appreciate that the Minister will not know the details of the case, but it is not the sort of thing that we should expect from a registered social landlord, even if things are being run as a commercial operation. I know of other hostels where conditions are probably worse and where rents are higher. Those are the sort of situations in which single homeless people find themselves.

We are right to want to build more decent, quality family housing and to help stop families having to go into temporary accommodation, but we should not forget single homeless people. They are faced with the sort of hostel that I have described—and often far worse. None of these problems will be solved without the supply side being addressed with new build and doing more to bring empty properties into use, and in London doing it on a city-wide basis, as local authorities cannot solve the problem only within their own boundaries.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. One area of supply that he has not yet mentioned is the Government purchasing blocks of flats that are unsellable because of the credit crunch and the current economic situation. I know that the Government have put quite a bit of money towards such a scheme; indeed, we discussed it in this Chamber only last week. However, I encourage them to go even further and provide more money so that local authorities, housing associations and social landlords can take that stock off the market. It will help the housing market and the economy generally, and it will certainly help homeless people.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I would certainly like to see that done. I recall that 30 years ago, when I chaired a local authority housing committee, we used to buy properties on the open market. In one instance, we bought a complete estate that had been built by a private developer who was having trouble selling the properties. It did not distort the housing market in the area, and it made a significant contribution to our being able to re-house people in decent property. I have never seen a problem with local authorities doing that.

We should consider other solutions as well as looking at the supply side. I know that housing benefit reform is being considered. As part of that process, I hope that the Government will consider the impact of housing benefit on temporary housing and what might be done to change the system. I hope that they will look at what can be done to improve the standards and conditions in which people have to live, and to ensure that if people have to live in temporary accommodation—we must accept that will happen for some time to come in London, however well we do against our targets—they can live in decent places at a reasonable cost to them and to the public purse, through what we pay out in benefits.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East 9:55 am, 26th November 2008

This is a vital subject, especially in areas under as much housing stress as Oxford. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard on securing the debate and on his excellent speech.

Underpinning all our discussion is the shortage of affordable housing in general, and social housing in particular. In welcoming the announced bringing forward of capital spending for housing, I urge my hon. Friends to ensure that some of it is in Oxford and, moreover, that the Minister looks hard at how to bring forward the planning decisions that are essential to providing the housing that we need in Oxford and in other areas.

I know that other Members want to speak, so I shall keep my remarks succinct. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow acknowledged, there has been a decline in the number of people in temporary housing. That is welcome, especially when it results from genuinely preventive work, such as mediation to help avoid family breakdown. However, that welcome fall in the headline rate cannot disguise the fact that underlying problems remain, not least because one way that councils, including Oxford, prevent statutory homelessness is by encouraging people—for example, through help with deposits—to move into the private rented sector.

It is important to understand that people who are moved into the private rented sector often see themselves as being worse off, and in many respects they are. If they are in temporary accommodation, they can expect a social rented tenancy in the future, with less chance of having to move in the meantime; but in the private sector they are all too often in temporary accommodation, on a six-month or yearly tenancy, with no priority for social housing and no long-term prospect of anywhere affordable.

The other consequence, as my hon. Friend mentioned, is that whichever form of temporary accommodation people are in, rent levels are such, especially in high-demand areas such as Oxford and London, that the disincentives to work are enormous. In February this year, of 130 households in temporary accommodation provided directly by Oxford city council, only five included someone in work. I am sure that can be multiplied across the country.

The situation gives rise to at least five big policy implications. The first is the need to consider whether the current requirement to give "reasonable preference" to those in temporary accommodation is fair in the circumstances. As I said, it does not look fair to those who have been forced into private rented accommodation.

Secondly, there is a need to raise standards in the private rented sector, both because the sector is important in its own right and because it houses many who would previously have been in more tightly regulated temporary accommodation, with all the shortcomings mentioned by my hon. Friend. That underlines points that I have previously made to the Minister—we look forward to showing him the situation when he visits Oxford in the near future—in particular, about the need for city-wide regulation of houses in multiple occupation and the licensing of landlords.

The third policy implication was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. It is the need to address the disincentives to work and to explore extending the sort of approach that was piloted in the Working Future project in east London. Although the project involved only relatively small numbers of people, those taking part who received the additional rent subsidy had a 40 per cent. higher rate of job entry than those in the control group, who received similar treatment but without the subsidies. Without doubt, such initiatives, along with wider reform of the benefit system, must form part of the answer.

Fourthly, and obviously—we are all stressing this point—we should build more affordable homes and accelerate social housing provision, which is long overdue. I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend: single homeless people must be included in the provision. If they are not, the consequences for lives and communities will be devastating.

Finally—this point has not been mentioned yet—I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues to bin the Chartered Institute of Housing's ludicrous proposal to end security of tenure for council tenants, whether new or existing, which would in effect turn all social housing into temporary housing. That would be grotesquely unfair to council and other social tenants, and would be disastrous for communities, because it would create concentrated ghettos of the most disadvantaged people and deepen the spiral of worklessness, which, as I just said, is such a problem. I hope that my hon. Friend will make it clear that the Government will have no truck with that proposal.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Not only would the proposal create ghettos, it would run counter to 60 years of Labour party policy to provide mixed communities in local authority estates. We abandon that policy at our peril, both socially and, in particular, politically.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

My hon. Friend underlines the point effectively. The proposal would stigmatise social housing, and concentrate and deepen social disadvantages.

Those in housing need deserve affordable accommodation of a decent standard that enables them to work and to enjoy a more secure life in balanced communities. Temporary accommodation, whatever form it takes, is at best a short-term expedient. It is never the lasting solution that communities need and tenants deserve.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 10:03 am, 26th November 2008

We seem to have a Westminster Hall housing debate roughly once a week, which is an indication both of the strong feelings among Members about constituents' housing problems and of the continuing direction of travel in this country. Last year, of 191,000 new properties completed, only 27,000 were for the social rented sector. I suspect that the number completed this year, and therefore the number available for the social rented sector, will be much less. We are stacking up problems year on year.

Local authorities are stuck with the problem of a statutory obligation to house homeless and vulnerable people, but they simply do not have the stock with which to do it—certainly in big cities, especially London. As a result, local authorities take the only course open to them, which is to house people in the private sector. My local authority took 2005 as the cut-off date, after which new housing applicants in Islington could not get a housing association or council property. Their only option now is to enter the private sector where although rental deposits might be paid by the local authority, they themselves will have to pay the rent, either through housing benefit or by getting a job.

Last year, the housing benefit bill was £4 billion, a large proportion of which I suspect—I do not have the exact figure—went to the private landlord system. The average cost of private rented accommodation is between twice and four times that of social rented accommodation, despite the similarity of the properties—indeed, they are often ex-local authority properties. The amount of public money being poured into the private landlord system is ludicrous. Instead, it should be invested in rented housing for those in desperate housing need.

I appeal strongly to the Minister to give us just two bits of good news: first, that the absurd idea of temporary tenancies for local authority tenants will be abandoned. My right hon. Friend Mr. Smith made the same point. The proposal is immoral, wrong and counter to everything in which our party believes—everything we have believed in all our lives. Secondly, on Monday, the Chancellor announced a large amount of money to be spent on getting us out of the financial crisis, including a large amount for housing—£700 million, I think. I hope that the Minister will tell us that a lot of that money will go either to building rental homes or to buying properties, if of a sufficient standard, unsold on the private sector market. We must ensure that the lot of the worst off in society is not made even worse by the crisis.

In my borough, 916 households are living in temporary accommodation; 294 of them live out of the borough, which is a fairly normal figure across London. My hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard told us about competition between authorities housing people in other boroughs. That is crazy. We have set up a sort of competitive market in which local authorities try to devolve their housing responsibilities to private landlords and then compete for areas in which to do it. A suspiciously large number of out-borough nominations from my borough end up in Enfield or Tottenham.

Some boroughs seem able to provide housing wholly within their own borough. For example, Hackney, according to an answer given to my hon. Friend Ms Buck, has not placed anyone outside the borough. Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, on the other hand, seem to place very large numbers of people outside their boroughs, although Westminster was unable to report on the exact figure, presumably because it was too big. It is completely unacceptable that a couple of boroughs—Haringey and Westminster—seem incapable of reporting the figure.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

The Haringey figure was reported yesterday in response to a parliamentary question of mine. Haringey has the largest number of children in temporary accommodation, but the figure was not reported for previous years. It has finally counted the number, but it appears that it tried to hide the figure because it is so large.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

And the numbers are so large because of the lack of building, and the difficulties that local authorities have had in the past with building. We must conquer that problem. However, I am not defending the numbers in private accommodation—quite the opposite.

The Minister may have had the pleasure—if that is the right word—of reading the report on the Mayor's London housing strategy, which has an unusually long declamatory introduction from the new Mayor. However, it is woefully short of detailed proposals, except that he will have negotiations with every London borough to achieve a 50 per cent. target. It contains no word about the results of those negotiations or borough meetings—indeed, I am not sure whether any have been held yet.

The report appears to contain a series of aspirations. The Mayor says a great deal about the necessity—in his view—of people getting on the housing ladder and purchasing property, but not an awful lot about affordable homes and even less about social rented accommodation. I am sure that the Minister understands that the situation in London is desperate. In a normal constituency, such as mine or those of my hon. Friends the Members for Regents Park and Kensington, North and for Walthamstow or of Sarah Teather, the proportion of people who can afford to buy a property in their own community is probably less than 20 to 30 per cent. For very large numbers of people, home ownership in London is simply a pipe dream, so the only way forward is to build homes for rent.

One piece of information in the Mayor's report that is of interest is a chart entitled, "Homeless households: numbers in temporary accommodation and lettings by region." Last year, all regions had a larger number of social housing lets made to homeless families than there were homeless households in temporary accommodation. In the case of London, however, it was the other way round. Nearly 60,000 households were in temporary accommodation, with only 11,000 new lets during the year. That is a measure of how bad the problem is, and it is getting very much worse.

I will be brief because other hon. Members want to speak. The Minister will have seen Shelter's proposals for dealing with housing supply in the current climate. I hope he recognises that Shelter, along with many other organisations, is sensibly proposing that we consider housing as a social priority for the whole country and that we do all we can to invest in new housing for rent at the present time. This is a debate about the supply of temporary and rented accommodation.

My final point—I hope that the Minister will understand its importance—concerns the enormous amount of money that we are pouring into the private rented market through the housing benefit system. I am not in any way critical of people who claim housing benefit. I absolutely support such claims; it is a right and people should enjoy that right.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Does my hon. Friend agree that there have been some particularly egregious cases in which local authority housing departments have rented very large, expensive houses when that is not the best value for public money? That has had the effect both of wasting money and of stoking the prejudices that are often evidenced in the national press, especially in the Evening Standard, against those who are homeless or in need of affordable housing.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Yes, the Evening Standard and other papers seem quick to find someone who has been housed in a particularly valuable home so that they can blame the tenant for being placed there by a local authority. Such a story becomes quite unpleasant and intrudes on that person's life. The reality is that the person probably had no choice about where they were placed. If it is a good property, that is fine, but such stories detract from the real issue, which is the cost to all of us of the private rented system. It is time for us to look at the models that successfully operate in many other parts of the world. There are better systems for registration of private and rented authorities, much better inspection and much tougher standards on the operation of them.

It is fairly clear that when one is in the ultra-commercial private rented sector, conditions are often very good. We are talking about extremely high rents in central London. The conditions are good; there are concierges, caretakers, repair teams and all the rest. However, the rented properties leased to local authorities, or rented to tenants nominated by local authorities, are appalling. Repairs are not done. The properties are often vermin-infested, dangerous and totally unsuitable for children. Is it not time that we were much tougher on regulation, and that we brought in rent regulation?

The Labour Government of 1974 managed to introduce rent regulation. Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, threatened to keep the House sitting throughout August unless that piece of legislation went through. Well done him. He showed determination to do something about the scandal of the private rented sector. I hope that in this crisis we will be prepared to make similar efforts to protect people.

The losers in temporary accommodation are vulnerable people and the children who have to move schools frequently and cannot build up a network of friends. The community also loses out because there is no stability and people cannot contribute to school governing bodies, tenants' associations and residents' groups and all the rest. We end up with an increasingly fractured, transient society. What we desperately need is stability through secure, affordable rented accommodation delivered mainly through local authorities, as our party has always campaigned for and proudly delivered in the past to many people in desperate housing need.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North 10:14 am, 26th November 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard on securing this debate. I introduced a debate on temporary accommodation a year ago, and a number of the points remain valid. I will be reinforcing many of the issues that my hon. Friends have raised.

In dealing with the current housing situation, we seem to want to pursue a number of incompatible objectives. Individually, such objectives might be entirely reasonable, but they are not consistent with each other. For example, we want to reduce the number of households living in temporary accommodation, which is absolutely unarguable. Temporary accommodation is not a good thing, nor is it a desirable place to be. We also want to reduce expenditure on housing benefit, yet one of the strategies that we are adopting is to divert people from temporary accommodation and move them into private-sector leasing, which can be even more expensive.

We want to achieve the target of reducing temporary accommodation by 50 per cent. However, we do not want to do it in such a way that we increase overcrowding or pressure on the social housing stock. I am afraid I have to tell my hon. Friend that that is completely impossible. We want to maintain the Department for Communities and Local Government's code of practice on the limited use of out-of-borough temporary accommodation placements. None the less, we want to cut expenditure on temporary accommodation, which has the perverse consequence of encouraging the use of out-of-borough placements.

For understandable and, in many cases, good reasons, we are in a mess. Part of the problem is that we desired to use the example of the successful and sensible decision to set a target for ending the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and apply it to temporary accommodation. We have done that in a way that has had a number of perverse consequences.

I shall run through a few points. I cannot apologise for the fact that they will be stressing the same issues that my hon. Friends have raised. We must remember that we are dealing with real human beings who are going through the homelessness process. I am sorry to say that our approach to homeless households is one that we do not adopt for anyone in need of services and support in any other area of public policy. If someone is sick, we do not say, "It does not matter how good your doctor is, because if you are sick, you will just be very grateful to have a doctor." If someone has a child coming up to school age, we do not say, "If you are desperate to have your child educated, it does not matter how bad the education is because you will just be very pleased to have a school for your child." Yet, when it comes to housing people who are in housing need or homeless, we adopt an approach that is fundamentally no different from the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which says that if someone is in housing need, it does not matter in what conditions they are housed because they are so desperate for a home that they will be grateful. That is the legal position adopted by local authorities when determining their duties under housing legislation.

In my surgeries, time and time again I see people from the borough of Westminster who have been told that if they make a housing application, they will be housed in Barking and Dagenham or Walthamstow. If they refuse the accommodation that they are offered, the case will be classed as "duty discharged". We then end up with a situation such as this:

"I take this opportunity to write to you and explain my situation. I am a family man of 5 children and a wife, my children are from the ages of 14 years old, 12 years old, 10 years old, 8 years old and a baby boy of 7 months old."

He said that he was living near the Harrow road,

"near to members of my family, my brothers and sisters. On the 16 of January I was asked by the court to evacuate as the landlord was not up to date with the mortgage payment, at the time I was paying rent direct to his agent...On the date of my evacuation I went to the Westminster Housing service...for advice and was asked to fill in an application for temporary homeless, and I was then put up in a hotel in east London."

His wife suffers from numerous health problems and is registered in Paddington. He said:

"My children attend a school in the Westminster area which makes this difficult for us to commute every morning. In March, the council offered us an accommodation in Victoria".

However, the property was too small for the family and was not of a decent standard. The individual in question refused the offer and the case went to review. The housing offer was cancelled and he added:

"From the 7th of July my family and I will be homeless. I was wondering if there is any way you could help in this matter".

In other words, if accommodation is not in a location or condition that families feel able to accept, the duty to them has been discharged, and they end up on the streets. In many cases a slightly perverse consequence is that they end up being supported by social services in the same local authority where the housing department has discharged the duty, at a fantastic cost. Social workers from that very local authority ring me to ask whether there is anything I can do about a family, because their housing authority has refused, and the social workers are acting as housing officers because so many families are caught in those difficult circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned out of borough nominations, which is a persistent and serious problem in my constituency. A family came to see me two weeks ago. They had lived in the Church street area of Westminster since Mr. A was born. The two younger children are in a school in Church street, and the family now commute daily from Barking to bring the children to school. Families do that all the time, having decided that the school is the one place of safety and stability in their entire turbulent family life. They commute with their children for an hour and a half in the morning and at the end of the day, at huge expense, to keep the children in a stable environment. Mr. A works near Marble Arch, and Mrs. A is the registered full-time carer for her father-in-law, who also lives in Church street. In my view such a case is in clear breach of the code of guidance applied by the local authority. It is under review at the moment so I do not know what the outcome will be, but it strikes me as a case in which the principle of the code of guidance, that families with a clear local connection and good reasons for remaining in a community should be assisted in doing so, should be applied.

In a third case, from a little while ago, a lady, Mrs. S, wrote to me:

"I used in live in Harrow Road...I was moved to Dagenham three years ago by Westminster after I separated from my husband after domestic violence...My husband, who was coming to see my son, knew that because I was isolated from my family and friends and vulnerable, he could dominate me easily...I now feel more vulnerable than ever. I asked...for help and support by transferring me back to the...area where all my friends and family are but they refused. Being a Muslim it is much more difficult to socialize in this part of London".

Of course there is a further dimension in that case, which is the housing of homeless families from black and minority ethnic communities in parts of the city where community cohesion is a real and pressing problem.

What makes the matter worse at present is the fact that several temporary accommodation leases are coming to an end, partly because of pressure to achieve the target of a 50 per cent. reduction in the use of temporary accommodation. That means that families, some of whom have already had eight different temporary addresses—in my borough there are families who have stayed in temporary accommodation for up to a decade, making the term something of a misnomer—must move yet again. A few weeks ago I was dealing with a family who were due for eviction because the lease on the property came to an end, and who had to sit all day on the pavement, with their young children and their luggage, waiting for alternative accommodation to be provided. In such cases families receive a standard letter:

"When we offered you your current home we explained that we do not own it—we lease the property from Notting Hill Housing Association who in turn leases it from the owner. As you may already know the owner wants the property back and we are in the process of ending your tenancy. This means we have to find you somewhere else to live.

We do not have anything for you at the moment but as soon as we find another home we will contact you. Unfortunately, we cannot say when this will be as we cannot predict when a suitable property will become available. We will try to find you another home before the Court ends your tenancy, however, please contact us immediately if you receive a notice of eviction from the court bailiff."

That tenancy is due to end before Christmas. I know of several others due to end on 30 December, including that of a woman who is the chair of governors of a struggling primary school, where she has been an enormous inspiration to the local area. She has been told that her tenancy will end. There is no indication of how and when alternative accommodation will be provided for her. Some of the families affected will be told to expect to have to go back to bed and breakfast—after all they have been through, including bed and breakfast in the past—because there is no comfortable match between the supply of temporary accommodation and their needs.

With all those problems, there are about 53,000 households, not including single people, in temporary accommodation at the moment, whose lives are under constant pressure of disruption. As my hon. Friends have said—I think everyone has made this point—it is at a fabulous cost to the public purse. The standard charge for our accommodation is £435 a week, which adds up comfortably to £500 million a year just for families in temporary accommodation on housing benefit.

My hon. Friends also all said that the situation means that families wanting to work face an impossible hurdle. We understand that around 90 per cent. of households in temporary accommodation are unemployed, compared to a 60 per cent. average for working age households in social housing tenancies as a whole. There is a clear gap that can be explained by no other factor than the sharply steeper rents in private sector leased accommodation and temporary accommodation. It seems strange to me that we did not want to pursue the "Working Futures" model and treat rent through the block grant system in the same way as we would treat people on social tenancies. That would enable people to go back to work.

There is much more that we can do. We need to carry on improving the standard of temporary accommodation, because although some properties are in good condition still too many are not. We need to deal with the issues of work incentives and people on housing benefit; we need to deal with out-of-borough nominations, and to enforce the code of practice in the interest of community cohesion, family stability and mixed communities. We need to review the application of the 50 per cent. reduction target for temporary accommodation. It is having a catastrophic effect on transfers for people already in social rented accommodation, and leading to perverse consequences in the private leased sector, which has given rise to all the high-profile cases on which the media have recently reported.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I thought that the hon. Lady might point out the need to deal with the supply of housing. In my borough we need about 200 more social housing units, which would help tremendously, but I do not see how we can get them. However, many local authorities are sitting on significant reserves of section 106 money, which is not being spent, but which could help to provide that supply. It could even supplement the additional money that I hope the Minister will announce.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

The hon. Gentleman is completely right. Last week we had another debate about housing in London, in which we discussed the issue of supply, so I did not want simply to repeat the same points. Of course supply is the key to the matter but, with specific reference to temporary accommodation, it seems far more sensible to capitalise the stream of housing benefit that we are pouring into the pockets of private landlords, often for substandard accommodation, and develop a hugely increased programme of temporary to permanent schemes, so that we provide stability for people in their accommodation.

Of course we want to continue driving forward supply. It is a great sadness to me that my local authority managed to achieve a figure last year of only 11 per cent. of all homes being affordable. I have no great optimism, under the present London regime, that the situation will change without what I am looking for, what I hope for, and what I am confident we shall deliver through the Government. There will be tension between local authorities and the Mayor of London. Supply is the key, but I still maintain that even within the present supply regime there are many things we can do to sort out the perverse incentives and conflicting objectives, to improve quality and work incentives and try to ensure that the vulnerable families and single people who through no fault of their own become homeless by definition, because of the way the duty is dealt with, do not have to go through the sheer hell that so many thousands experience every day in London. If we are serious about a social cohesion agenda those families must be at its heart.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I urge Opposition Front-Bench Members to exercise a little restraint to allow the Minister time to reply.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning) 10:29 am, 26th November 2008

I congratulate Mr. Gerrard on securing this vital debate and I agree entirely with the points that he made. The real problem with temporary accommodation is how long people often remain in that situation.

I also agree strongly with Ms Buck, who made a typically thoughtful and insightful speech on housing. I have exchanged views with her in many such debates, and I think that her constituency is similar to mine in this regard. She made the point that we often treat people who are homeless far worse than we would treat anybody else who is vulnerable.

Something about having a home and the nature of that home is critical to a person's identity, but all too often, because of rationing, we give people the bare minimum and make them beg for it. The fact that local authorities force people to wait on their doorsteps with their belongings around them and their children in their arms is but one example. Local authorities all over the country do it because they do not want the extra cost of a night in accommodation and because accommodation is so scarce.

I have a couple of examples from my constituency that address many of the points made by hon. Members. Miss A, a single mother with four children, has been in temporary accommodation since 1997. She has moved many times since, but has been in her current property for three years. She has medical problems, but none that would require her to be upgraded, so under the Locata system—the choice-based letting scheme—she is in band C. That means that she is in housing need, but that she has not got a cat's chance in hell of moving within the time it will take for her children to grow up. She bids every fortnight, but is getting nowhere.

Ms D lives in two-bedroom accommodation. She has been in temporary accommodation for seven years and lives with her two adult granddaughters, aged 20 and 21. The 21-year-old is eight months pregnant and has sickle cell disease, and the accommodation is in a poor state of repair.

I am afraid that I see an awful lot of cases like those. Predominantly, London Members are here today, but the problem is one that hon. Members right across the country speak about. The cases are devastating to listen to and extremely frustrating, as one knows that it will be difficult to get the people involved moved on. The problem, particularly for children, as many hon. Members have mentioned, is the frequency with which people in temporary accommodation move. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North spoke about how much travelling parents often do with their children. I have many similar examples; I am afraid that my local authority often places people in Hackney.

The difficulty is not just cost, which the hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North mentioned, but availability of accommodation. That lies at the root of the matter; it is about supply. Lack of supply creates lack of choice about where to place people, and they are often placed a long way from their homes and families, usually when they are at their most vulnerable—not necessarily when they are given long-term placements in temporary accommodation, where they may have some chance to establish themselves, but usually when they arrive at the housing department, having been evicted or having become completely homeless, and the local authority tries to decide whether it has a duty to house them. Those occasions are particularly stressful for families. Because of the lack of decent temporary accommodation, people often end up being moved long distances from where they live.

A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Walthamstow, spoke about the difficulty of keeping work while moving around, but I agree with other hon. Members that the issue is more about the combination of housing benefit and high rents, and the disincentive to work that that creates. Even though the new policies allow people a period in which they do not lose their housing benefit, most families know that, in the long term, if they are paying high rents in temporary accommodation or private accommodation in which they were not placed by the council, it is simply not worth it—and the cost to the taxpayer is enormous.

The issue of poor standards has been raised; I mentioned it in relation to one of the cases I spoke about a few moments ago. The hon. Member for Islington, North discussed some local authorities' over-closeness with particular agencies, but we must also be realistic about the fact that a lot of private landlords do not want people on housing benefit placed in their property. Most local authorities are not terribly good at administering housing benefit, especially if people go in and out of work or their circumstances change, which creates a disincentive for landlords because they know that the rent will not be paid on time. How many cases have we all dealt with in our local areas where housing benefit has been overpaid and then withdrawn for extended periods? It is unfortunately no wonder that there is a disincentive for private landlords who rely on housing benefit for their income to take people in that situation.

Mr. Smith raised a number of interesting points about quality in the private sector. Over-regulation is a danger. Particularly now, when we are trying to get private property back into use, we do not want to create an incentive to leave it empty. I am rather more attracted to the idea of landlord accreditation schemes, which a number of local authorities have begun. I wonder whether we can encourage such schemes to become more common and to raise the bar for standards.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow mentioned people in hostels. I have an example in my constituency and just this week I was discussing the issue with Octavia housing association. Four or five years ago, just after I was elected, I opened one of its hostels to house young people leaving care. It was supposed to be a supported housing centre to ensure that young people can move on to independence, but the truth, as he said, is that most never move on because there is nowhere for them to go.

I am afraid that all the problems that I have discussed come back to supply, and I shall take a few minutes to mention a couple of the issues. It is likely that the difficulties will only get worse along with the economic situation and that we will see an increase in the number of people whose homes are repossessed, the number who arrive at the council's door asking to be housed and the number who are left waiting with their belongings around them and their children in their arms, housed in temporary accommodation and then moved on and on. We know that that will happen.

The Government's priority needs to be to keep people in their homes for as long as possible. I recognise that the Government have made advances on that, and I support much of what they have said on the issue of repossessions, but I do not think that the pre-action protocol that came into force recently goes far enough.

I am disappointed that the Government have not taken advantage of the Banking Bill, which is likely to finish its progress through the House of Commons today, to update mortgage law, much of which is extremely outdated. I do not think that there is any place for remedies such as foreclosure. The Government could have amended the Bill so that the courts had the teeth to deal with the things that they want the courts to deal with, to ensure that people have a chance to stay in their homes if they can repay their debt over a long period.

I also want the Government to make it a priority to tackle commercial mortgage rescue products, which, again, will only increase the number of people arriving into temporary accommodation. I have seen this in my constituency. People are encouraged to allow their houses to be bought out at a fraction of their value, and one knows that in 12 months' time those people will be evicted and will land at the council's door. The Office of Fair Trading has recommended that the Government tackle it, but they still have not responded. Now is the time to respond. The matter is urgent, and I hope that the Government will ensure that such products are properly regulated by the Financial Services Authority.

I hope that the Minister will make it easier for housing associations and councils to buy up land now, while it is cheap, as well as suitable property, to ensure that we can house many of the people in desperate need. I recognise that the pre-Budget report included £770 million more for that purpose. Of course, £400 million of that had already been announced, but there is no reason why the Government could not front-load the money that has already been allocated in the comprehensive spending review for this area, which would also ensure that we unblocked those obstacles that are preventing housing associations from building now.

The issue for housing associations is that their social build has relied on cross-subsidy from private sales and shared equity, and we know that, at the moment, that subsidy is not coming through. Unless the Government are prepared to accept that, in the short term, each unit will require higher subsidy, there is no way that those units will be built and we will end up in a worse situation at the end of this economic crisis than we are in now.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party 10:40 am, 26th November 2008

I start by congratulating Mr. Gerrard on securing an excellent debate on a subject that I know he cares about a great deal. Temporary accommodation and homelessness is a subject that I have spent a lot of time dealing with in the last couple of years.

A couple of figures mentioned at the beginning of the debate go against the official records. The Department for Communities and Local Government says that, on 31 March, there were 78,000 homeless households in England in temporary accommodation, which is nearly twice as many as in 1997. It also says that three quarters of those households in temporary accommodation contain children who are dependants. Indeed, I published a report a year ago almost to the day that showed that there are 130,000 homeless children living in various forms of temporary accommodation, which is double the number 10 years ago.

Those are the facts. What about the reasons? It seems clear that the lack of supply has been the biggest contributory factor to those enlarged figures and the supply side has created a range of problems. It does not really matter whether one is looking at temporary accommodation, lack of social or affordable housing, or housing in general. As has been discussed many times in similar debates, for every type of housing fewer houses have been built in the last decade, which I know is as deeply troubling to many Labour Members as it is to us in the Conservative party.

The simple lack of housing provision has led to many of the chronic problems that were described today in great detail, with individual case histories being provided during the debate. As was mentioned, it is a fact that only 27,000 affordable homes will be built this year. It will be interesting to hear a projection for next year from the Minister.

One of the key issues that has emerged from this morning's debate is the problem of lack of provision for people who are not priority cases. Had I had more time, I would have outlined a case that I encountered in my surgery a few weeks ago. At 5 pm on a Friday, the local council was saying, "Sorry, we've gone as far as we can, we've gone beyond our statutory duty and we cannot help you," yet I was sitting in my surgery with a man who had nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep over the weekend other than his car, where he had spent the week beforehand. I appreciate that simply adding more people to the priority list is not an answer in itself, because it just makes the priority list larger. Once again, however, the overall lack of housing and the failure to provide supply are the central cause and problem that absolutely must be addressed by this Government, or indeed the next.

There is another problem, which is very revealing. In conversation, Charles Fraser—chief executive of St. Mungo's, which is a large London charity—told me that back in the 1980s 84 per cent. of the people living in its hostels were in work, but nowadays just 4 per cent. are in work. That problem of worklessness, which is due to factors such as a change in the profile of available jobs, creates an additional layer of difficulty, as does the fact that housing benefit means that there is a positive disincentive for people to get back into work, as was mentioned earlier. It is verging on criminal that it is more expensive for people to go out and do something productive than it is for them to claim housing benefit. On many occasions in the many hostels that I have visited, I have spoken to people who are distressed beyond belief by that situation—it is an urgent case for a priority review.

In a Westminster Hall debate a couple of weeks ago, I pressed the Minister for Housing as to when the Government will pronounce on that review. There was a suggestion that it would be before the end of the year. I take it that that will not now be the case and I urge the Minister who is here today to tell us when the review might take place.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Does the hon. Gentleman therefore support rent controls for the private sector and capping rents in hostels?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

No, but what is important is that we have a system of housing benefit that needs to be scaleable. It is absolutely wrong that somebody who is working may lose money each week. That situation is preventing people from getting into work and keeping on housing benefit people who do not want or need to be on it. That is at the heart of the problem.

On rent levels, the real issue, of course, is the lack of supply of housing. Rents reflect the housing available and if the Government have failed to build as much affordable housing in every single one of the last 10 years as was built in any of the years prior to that, we have ended up in this situation, where the lack of suitable housing creates a real problem. That is the situation we find ourselves in.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I want to finish so that we can get some answers from the Minister, but I will take two interventions and then continue.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Is not the logic of the hon. Gentleman's position, therefore, that he would cap housing benefit and thus reduce the availability of housing for people in desperate housing need, making the situation much worse?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

No. People would be much better off if they could get out to work and earn more than the housing benefit. The problem is that housing benefit is too rigid in terms of its step; we need more of a sliding scale. I will be interested to hear when the Minister intends to report on that issue. The Government have conceded that there is a problem in this area. Several Labour Members are looking at me as if I am making this up, but it has been conceded by the Government. I understand that there is a review under way and I look forward to hearing its conclusion.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

On the question of housing supply, which the hon. Gentleman has been stressing, does he therefore agree with those of us who want higher housing numbers to be provided for in the south-east plan, or does he agree with those authorities, predominantly Conservative, that have argued for lower supply?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning), Co-Chair, Conservative Party

I do not want to get too far off the subject. The simple facts are that, on average, 145,000 homes have been built each year under this Government, compared with 175,000 under the previous Government, meaning that over 10 years about a third of a million fewer homes have been built. If those homes had been built and were in play and in the marketplace, it is reasonable to expect that rents would be lower.

That situation is what we need to get back to, but we cannot do it through top-down targets; we need to do it through bottom-up incentives. That is a fundamental argument at the heart of this debate and every other debate on housing that takes place here in Westminster Hall. Until the Government recognise that they cannot force the targets down on unsuspecting communities without giving them something in return—those communities need to be provided with a carrot or an incentive to build new homes—we will continue in the mess that we find ourselves in today. Labour Members are happy to complain about that mess, but they will not recognise the source or the real reasons behind the catastrophic situation in relation to temporary housing, homelessness and, indeed, the cost of housing overall.

I will end soon because I want to hear the Minister's response, not least how he will build more homes than the Government have managed to do in the last few years. Before I finish, however, I want to ask a number of questions. First, there was an announcement of £750 million—I think that was the figure—in the pre-Budget report the other day. However, there was no description of how that money would be spent, how it would be brought forward and how it would encourage the creation of more housing. I assume that that money has already been allocated in the budget of the Homes and Communities Agency, so perhaps the Minister will take a minute to explain how that money will ease the housing crisis.

Given that we know that there has been less affordable housing built every year in the last 10 years and that the market is likely to crash this year and next, perhaps the Minister will also tell us his estimates of housing numbers in the affordable sector for this year and next.

I was interested in the comments by some hon. Members about secure tenure. There now seems to be a tradition of new Housing Ministers coming in about every three months and making some fairly outrageous statements to some newspaper, only to row back from them a few days later. We remember that Caroline Flint—now Minister for Europe and predecessor of the current Minister for Housing—came in and immediately made statements about throwing people who do not work out of their homes, without realising that the local authority would have to house those families if they were in priority need. Will the Minister explain whether that policy is on or off the table?

Finally, on security of tenure, will the Minister say whether that is an idea put forward by the Minister for Housing, or is it simply an idea from a think-tank?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 10:50 am, 26th November 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. Earlier this year, you ably steered the Housing and Regeneration Bill Committee, in which many of the issues that we have discussed today were initially raised. I am grateful to you for presiding over an excellent debate, albeit a sombre one—as befits the subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard on securing the debate and on the excellent way in which he advanced his argument, and I congratulate other hon. Members from both sides of the House on the quality of their speeches.

Tackling homelessness and reducing fear about housing, as well as housing policy in general, are at the heart of what the Government want to do—they are at the top of our domestic priorities. We have achieved a lot in recent years by making substantial and sustained cuts in the worst form of homelessness; namely, rough sleeping. Hon. Members will be aware that I was able to announce last week our new rough sleeping strategy, which states our ambition to end rough sleeping once and for all by 2012. That target will be incredibly challenging and difficult to achieve, but if we have focus and determination, and if we work in partnership with local authorities and the voluntary sector, we will achieve it.

We have also ended the long-term reliance on bed- and-breakfast accommodation for families, and we are well on the way to ending it for 16 and 17-year-olds. I was pleased that hon. Members from both sides of the House acknowledged the great advances that we have made on that in the past decade. There have been reductions of more than 50 per cent. in new cases of statutory homelessness since 2004. Subsequently, numbers in temporary accommodation have fallen by 26 per cent. In 2008, the number has fallen by 11 per cent., from 87,120 to 77,510. My hon. Friend David Taylor said that in his region—the east midlands—the target to reduce the number of households living in temporary accommodation by 50 per cent. by 2010 has already been achieved. It has also already been achieved in the south-east and north-east.

There is a lot to be proud of on temporary accommodation, but I do not want to be complacent. There is an awful lot left to be done. We are committed to reducing, as much as possible, reliance on temporary accommodation, but I am under no illusion, given the current economic circumstances, about the challenges we face. The main task for the Government is ensuring that we minimise, as far as possible, the number of people who are forced to lose their home through repossession or other means. I was taken with what Sarah Teather said about that. It is important: people are frightened that they will lose their homes, and the Government are determined to do all it takes to ensure that they do not.

The hon. Lady will be aware of the announcements in Monday's pre-Budget report. The Government will help to protect people who are at risk of repossession by driving through support for vulnerable households via the mortgage rescue scheme, providing direct support for some individuals through support for the mortgage interest regime, and ensuring that we have fair treatment by lenders, with lenders absolutely committed to not initiating repossession proceedings within at least three months of an account going into arrears. We are committed to working with lenders to create sustainable solutions to help borrowers to stay in their homes.

My hon. Friend Ms Buck mentioned something that disturbed and concerned me. She talked about a family who were renting in the private rented sector losing their home through no fault of their own, because the landlord had failed to pay the mortgage. I will work on that problem to see what can be done. I am worried that vulnerable households—through no fault of their own—may be at risk of losing their homes because landlords have not paid. I am keen to work on that problem and to put something solid in place.

Because of the lack of certainty about the future and the disruption caused by frequent moves, which has been made all too clear in the debate, we need to do much more. About 87 per cent.—92 per cent. of families with children—are now living in self-contained temporary accommodation, with their own front door and cooking and washing facilities. However, as has been made clear to me this morning, they are not settled homes, because people do not feel at all stable or secure in them. That is why we are retaining the target to halve the number of households in temporary accommodation.

The point about cleanliness and standards in temporary accommodation was also well made in the debate. I met Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick from the university of York earlier this year, who presented me with the key findings of research into the causes and impacts of statutory homelessness for families and 16 and 17-year-olds in England. It is the first nationally representative survey of families and children who have been homeless for more than 10 years, and the first such survey of 16 and 17-year-olds. The findings are incredibly interesting.

As hon. Members would expect, the research shows greater incidences of problems with physical conditions in self-contained temporary accommodation compared with settled housing. However, interestingly, there seems to be no substantial difference between self-contained temporary accommodation and settled housing in respect of the state of repair or the levels of cleanliness when families first arrive. As hon. Members would expect, the research shows that although the homelessness system is working well, families and children have an improved quality of life once they are in settled housing. That underlines the importance of pressing forward on meeting the temporary accommodation target.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Will the Minister comment on the departmental code of practice on out-of-borough placements? We are talking about settled accommodation, but being settled a long way from the community in which one has schools, employment, family and friends is an important issue. There is a code of practice, and it should be enforced.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I was going to mention that later, but as we are on the subject, there is an inter-borough agreement on the issue. It is worrying. I know that my hon. Friend has had meetings on the matter with the previous housing Minister, my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint. In early December, I will meet officials of Westminster city council and I will raise that key issue along with other things that arose from a previous meeting, especially the problem of overcrowding. The matter is important. I am instructing my officials to work closely with London councils to encourage all boroughs to abide fully by the agreement. I agree that more can be done, and if I have time later in my speech I will mention the wider prospect of supply and its importance.

Key to achieving the target is prevention. We need to ensure that we do not have a reactive, ad hoc approach to producing temporary accommodation to solve the problem. Intervening at the trigger points when people might become homeless, and fully involving friends, family and the wider community to stop people reaching crisis point, is absolutely crucial. We have achieved our successes by encouraging and providing significant investment in homelessness prevention. Approximately a third of local authorities have already met the 2010 target. They have strengthened their efforts, and provide prevention services such as rent deposit schemes, mediation to help resolve family and relationship breakdowns or problems between tenants and landlords, and debt counselling. Last year, 201 local authorities operated rent deposit schemes and a further 45 were planning to put such a scheme in place. That proves that private rented accommodation is an effective housing option for preventing homelessness and providing a means of settled accommodation, when it is what the household wants.

Many hon. Members mentioned the housing benefit regime, which is crucial, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow asked a question about it last Tuesday in the House. Everyone is aware that local authorities must administer the local housing allowance, which was introduced in April 2008, in accordance with regulations. Local authorities can, and in the vast majority of cases do, take responsible decisions about providing housing for families in their area. However, as was said time and again in the debate, perverse disincentives ensure that people who are reliant on housing benefit do not work.

Questions were asked about whether the taxpayer gets value for money from the housing benefit regime. That is why there has been housing benefit reform—to ensure that we can provide value for money and improve standards. Officials in the Departments for Communities and Local Government and for Work and Pensions and others are working closely together on developing proposals to reform the way in which housing benefit subsidy is calculated and paid to local authorities for people in temporary accommodation.