[Mr Mike Hancock in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:56 am on 29th June 2010.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North 11:56 am, 29th June 2010

We have heard some excellent speeches from Opposition Members this morning, and I hope that we will hear more. I will try to be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on giving us that opportunity.

London has always been a city of mixed communities. In constituencies such as that of Mr Field, mine and those of other hon. Members, we see the historical product of that mixture. Properties were built by Peabody and Octavia Hill, and the 19th century housing associations. They recognised that there were slum conditions in London and that the poor have always lived in different parts of London. We are in danger of engineering a set of solutions that fly in the face of the centuries-old history of London by making London, particularly central London, safe for millionaires to live in.

We had a mixed stock of housing in our cities, and that stock has changed, but the supply of properties has not changed. The buildings are still there, but the people who live in them are different. For example, Westminster has 14% less social housing than in the 1980s. In Sutton, there has been a 7% fall in the number of social housing properties, and in Wandsworth, remarkably, there has been a 22% fall in the proportion of social housing properties. Some of the people living in ex-social housing properties bought their properties, and rightly so. Good luck to them. Understandably, they took the opportunity, and then sold and moved, so those properties are now in the private rented sector. My hon. Friend Stephen Pound, who has left the Chamber, said that some people living in ex-local authority homes are paying rent of £400, £500 or £600 a week when their neighbours are paying only £100 a week.

We have heard about the employment trap being almost a justification for such policies, but let us not forget that rents cause the employment trap. Those who are living in private rented accommodation and facing a rent of £400, £500 or £600 a week obviously find it difficult to work, although despite that many do. If they had the benefit of a social rented unit, as many of them used to have, they would not face the employment trap and the disincentive to work. Indeed, all the records show that unemployment and worklessness in social housing was far lower 30 years ago than nowadays because all sorts of social housing-housing association and local authority property-is residualised due to the reduction in stock.

We now blame tenants and those who live in those homes but, in many cases, they would have been social tenants if the available capacity were the same as 20 or 30 years ago. We retreat to the policy that was actively encouraged during the 1980s of shifting large numbers of people not just to outer London, but in some cases to bed and breakfasts in Margate or to social housing in Birmingham, regardless of all the local and community connections people might have had. What a desperate legacy we are still dealing with for families who were, by definition, going through the homelessness gateway and therefore vulnerable. They had children, disabilities or caring responsibilities, and we are still dealing with some of the consequences of cramming people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation and shattering their local connections in order to implement a harsh homelessness policy.

This policy is absolutely insane. Although I have been critical in the Chamber about the Labour Government's failure to build enough social houses, they did-rightly- look at ways of reducing homelessness. The number of households accepted as homeless has fallen steadily over the past 15 years. Over the past year, a duty of homelessness was accepted for 36,000 households-9,000 over the last quarter. That number is down.

Looking at homelessness prevention we see that last year, 123,000 households were diverted from making a homelessness application. Fine. We all agree that keeping people in their homes and providing them with an alternative would be a sensible thing to do. However, where were those 123,000 households diverted? More than 60% were diverted to the private rented sector. We have achieved a reduction in homelessness by placing people in the private rented sector. Now we are saying to those people that we can no longer put them in the private rented sector in most places, so what will happen? They will be homeless. They will make an application and, under present law, there is a duty to accept them as homeless, so what is the answer?

Earlier, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster came up with an answer: the coalition Government will change the law. I predict that they will change the law so that local authorities no longer have a duty to house homeless applicants; Westminster council has made it clear that it supports that position, as has Hammersmith council. Local authorities could not house those people because if they did, the entire policy on housing benefit reduction would be shattered. Therefore, the Government will change the law to allow all homeless households to be housed only in the private rented sector. They will remove all forms of local connection. But what will be required? How will the Minister answer that? Will households be required to find alternative accommodation anywhere in England, or will it just be anywhere in London? That question goes to the heart of the implications of the policy.

The Government propose to cleanse lower-income people, many of whom work, from large parts of London. That is the core purpose of the policy; it has no other purpose. Those households will have to live somewhere-unless they do not have somewhere to live. In 1997, one of my first cases as an MP was helping a family whose children were living in a bus. I predict that one consequence of this policy will be that families will sleep in their cars, on waste ground or on the streets. We probably will have disorder; there will be catastrophic overcrowding and we will see people living in the streets. Of course, we will also see people shipped away to the north of England.

What is the sense in a policy in which, on the one hand, the Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions says, "Let the workless come to London to find jobs," but on the other hand, the workless are driven out of London to where the housing is? Such a policy is intellectually incoherent and, above all, morally indefensible.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

If the last two speakers want to speak they will have to be generous to each other as we have less than 10 minutes.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 12:04 pm, 29th June 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, who has an outstanding record on this issue. As he says, "Here we go again." The fact that 11 Labour Back Benchers are present shows the strength of feeling and the importance of this issue. Mr Field also regularly attends debates on this subject, although I note that he and his new Liberal Democrat friends have not so far been in a position to defend the changes to housing benefit. We wait with interest to hear what the Minister says.

I sponsored a debate on the issue about two months ago in which I kept to my usual two themes: first, to urge the then Government to build more social housing in London, which they were beginning to do, and secondly to draw attention to the social cleansing that has been going on for some years in my borough of Hammersmith. I will not talk about that today, but it is a template for what could happen elsewhere. There are many clubs in the armoury, from demolition to sales or the refusal to build any new social housing, and in many ways that has set the agenda.

Even that picture, however, looks rosy compared with what we see now. Not only have there been changes in the Budget, which I will come to in a moment, but we have had clear statements of intention from the Minister responsible for housing. I referred to them earlier, although Tom Brake declined to comment, as he declined to comment on anything else. I know that he is a decent individual, so perhaps it was from embarrassment at what his Government are doing.

When my hon. Friend Ms Buck asked the housing Minister on 10 June whether he would confirm that

"new tenants-people in housing need coming off the housing waiting list, as he described-will enjoy the security enjoyed by existing tenants", the reply was that Government policy

"may include looking at tenure for the future."-[Hansard, 10 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 451.]

As we know from the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, there are about 45,000 new tenancies in London a year, which represents 6% or 7% of tenancies over the term of a Parliament. The policy could mean that a quarter of social tenancies in London disappear. It effectively means that social housing, whether assured or secure tenancies, will become a bin-end, a type of housing that is being phased out. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North said-she has an exemplary record in raising these issues-the product of the past 20 or 30 years has been increasingly to use the private sector for housing.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I wonder if my hon. Friend has had the same experience as me-I expect he has. A woman with three children came to see me in my surgery. They had nowhere to live, and I told her that there was no social housing and that she had to go into the private sector. She replied, "But it's so expensive, Emily, what can I do?" I said, "Don't worry. You can get housing benefit." She said, "What about when I go to work?", and I said, "Don't worry; you'll still get housing benefit to top up your salary when your children go to school." I now feel as if I have betrayed her by pushing her into the private sector when housing benefit is about to be taken away.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I suspect that my hon. Friend is more compassionate than I am. Tenants come to me who have three or four kids and they are living in a one-bedroom flat. They say that the council is blackmailing them and telling them that they will never be rehoused unless they give up their secure tenancy and take an assured shorthold tenancy in the private sector with what are, as has been pointed out, inflated rents. I say, "Stick it out because once you're there, they can do whatever they like with you. At least you have a permanent tenancy at the moment." That is a hard thing to tell people who are living in extreme housing need.

The system of direct lettings gets people off the housing waiting list by placing them in highly insalubrious private accommodation, and getting them into undesirable relationships with the private landlords who are found in local authorities such as Hammersmith. Schemes to avoid homelessness by keeping people in private sector tenancies, the use of private sector letting-a relief after the old bed-and-breakfast system-and, as my hon. Friend has just said, the removal of rights to permanent housing, have forced people into insecure housing in the private sector and meant that a time bomb has built up.

The response of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives has been to reduce the sum of money available. Let us forget figures of £100,000; no one is in favour of that or of £2,000 a week. We are talking about £400 or £250 a week. I have been told that so far my borough has identified 750 families who will have to move, I think, out of the borough. There are very few suitable properties, although I think that yesterday we heard the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions say-I shall check Hansard for the exact quote-that he wanted people to find the right level of housing, the right level of housing for people who live in London. So people move outside the M25 or live in a slum. Many of my constituents already live in a slum, because of the pressure on housing in the private sector, and that will increase. To pillory people and to say that they are unemployed, feckless and so on is, as my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy said, absolutely wrong.

Shelter has said:

"The vast majority of housing benefit claimants are...pensioners, those with disabilities, people caring for a relative or hardworking people on low incomes, and only 1 in 8 people who receive housing benefit is unemployed."

Those are the people the Conservative party and the Liberal party are seeking to victimise-they cannot escape that. I look forward to what the Minister will say, but he has a very difficult task today.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 12:10 pm, 29th June 2010

It is fair to say that housing is one of the biggest issues in my constituency, if not the biggest, and I am very pleased to be able to take part in the debate. Having a decent place to call home is something that many of us take for granted, but for thousands upon thousands of Londoners, the housing crisis in London can be described only as a living nightmare.

In my constituency, the biggest problem is that there simply are not enough reasonably priced homes to go around. In parts of Lewisham East, average house prices are 10 times average salaries. For many young people and public sector workers, home ownership is a distant pipe dream. Even the council's housing list offers little hope. The list stands at 17,000 households but, in contrast, about 1,400 properties become available to rent each year, so for each family that moves into a suitable property, another nine will be disappointed. For larger families, the wait for a suitable property can seem to take for ever.

In some parts of the country, overcrowding could be sorted out by using homes better, such as by matching the size of a household more closely to the size of the property, but even if under-occupation was completely eradicated in London, we would still be left with a huge problem. Private sector cross-subsidy for new affordable housing has not delivered the number or type of the new homes that are so urgently needed.

This issue is not about giving people a cushy place to live, but about giving kids the chance to do well at school and giving mums and dads the type of home life that prevents them from going nuts and enables them to go out and get a decent job. I could not quite believe it when the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested in last week's Budget that one of the ways he plans to limit spending on housing benefit is by restricting tenants' access to appropriately sized homes. Will the Minister recognise the devastating impact that overcrowding has on the lives of my constituents and will he assure me that the Chancellor's zeal for reducing spending on housing benefit will not result in even more misery than there is at present? I cannot help but think that the coalition's proposals to do away with housing targets and its weird obsession with so-called garden grabbing will just result in fewer homes being built in the capital. What assurance can the Minister give that that will not be the case?

The issue is not just building more homes, however, but investing in the homes that we do have. As Tom Brake said, a number of arm's length management organisations in the capital are crying out for investment. In my local authority area, Lewisham Homes is being inspected to determine whether it has reached the required standard to unlock £154 million of capital funding over the next five years. Other round 6 ALMOs in Lambeth and Tower Hamlets will undergo similar inspections in due course. Given the Chancellor's remarks about the importance of capital expenditure in the next few years, will the Minister reassure me and residents of properties provided by Lewisham Homes that the Government will look favourably on the investment needs of homes in London, and will he honour the commitment made to Lewisham by the previous Government?

Will the Minister also commit to looking beyond the decent homes standard and finding a flexible way for tenants to have the ability to set local priorities for investment? I have lost count of the number of times that people have said to me, "I have a perfectly decent kitchen, thank you. What I want is a lift that works." The scale of the investment required in London's social housing must not be underestimated, and nor must the long-term implications of not investing.

Housing is an issue that does not get enough airtime. It is also something that the new coalition Government seem not to understand. Last week, various news outlets were reporting the impact that housing expenditure can have on the nation's public health, but for those of us who are familiar with the state of London's housing needs, that was not news. I sincerely hope that the new coalition Government will do all that they can to improve London's housing conditions and to ensure that the type of homes that Londoners need are built. I for one will do all that I can to make sure that they do.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Thank you very much; good timing there. I call Ian Austin, and thank him for giving up some of his time to allow colleagues to speak.

Photo of Ian Austin Ian Austin Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 12:14 pm, 29th June 2010

Not at all, Mr Hancock.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing this fascinating debate, which has been marked by passionate, knowledgeable and expert contributions from my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and my hon. Friend Ms Buck. We heard a brilliant speech by my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander, as well as expert contributions from other hon. Members.

I want to pick up on a point made by Tom Brake. Of course savings must be made. We understood that, which was why we set out plans to halve the deficit in four years. The question, however, is when we make the savings, how quickly we make them and whether we make them in areas of expenditure that drive growth and get the economy moving again. Labour Members believe that we need more investment in social rented housing, not less, and that was why housing in London was such a priority in the £1.5 billion housing pledge that we announced last year to get the economy moving.

Will the Minister tell us when we shall know what is happening to the homes that we planned to build in London before the election? The Treasury announcement on 24 May about spending cuts required the Homes and Communities Agency to make savings of £230 million as part of a wider package of savings in the Department for Communities and Local Government totalling £780 million for this financial year-a financial year in which, if we had been in power, cuts would not have been made. Will he tell us what proportion of the £100 million to be saved from the affordable housing programme will be taken from the HCA in London? Will he also tell us what proportion of those savings will be met by the cancellation of homes planned for London under the kick-start programme? In total, 17 schemes were planned for the capital, and this is a very important issue, not just for families stuck on waiting lists who are desperate to get a home of their own, but for developers and people working in the construction trade.

We had planned the biggest council house building programme in two decades, but the new Government's announcements have put at risk 194 of those homes on a dozen sites across London for which we had earmarked £15.5 million. Will the Minister tell us which of those developments will be going ahead? Given that the Mayor has gone back on his pledge to build 50,000 affordable homes for London over three years and that he is abolishing the policy that half of new homes should be affordable, given that Shelter's former chief executive, Adam Sampson, has said that the Mayor's policies

"perpetuate the wealth and class divisions in the nation's capital", and given that London borough waiting lists have risen by 20,000 in the two years to April 2009, will the new Minister say what stance the Government will now be taking on the Mayor's London housing strategy?

Every home lost in the recession has been a tragedy for the family involved, but repossession levels have run at a fraction of those in previous recessions because we took action to help Londoners who were struggling to meet mortgage payments. We helped 25,000 families and provided £2.8 million for local authorities to establish loan funds. Will the Minister give an assurance that that area of expenditure will be saved from the cuts that the new Government make?

When we came to power in 1997, estimates suggested that almost 2,000 people were sleeping rough in London. By this year, we were within touching distance of ending rough sleeping once and for all. The only announcement that the new Government have made in this area has been an utterly trivial point about the way in which figures are counted, but today, however the calculation is done-whatever measure is used-it is clear that the number that we inherited has been cut dramatically. Most figures suggest that it has been cut by three quarters.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

It would be wrong not to give considerable credit for the improvements made in relation to rough sleeping since 1997. However-and this is not just the anecdotal evidence of a central London MP-things have been getting markedly worse in the past couple of years. I accept that there is a big duty on the present Government to ensure that we bring back some of the significant improvements made in the aftermath of 1997, but it would be wrong not to put on record the fact that there have been and there are increasing problems with rough sleeping. We need a new initiative to build on some of the successes, but things have been getting worse.

Photo of Ian Austin Ian Austin Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

What we need is a commitment by the new Government that they will continue the investment and initiatives that the previous Government were putting in place.

There are certainly major challenges ahead, not least in connection with rough sleeping among people who have come to Britain from eastern Europe. First, the Labour Government set out an ambitious plan to cut rough sleeping by two thirds, so I want to know whether the goals and targets that we established will survive the election of the new Government. Secondly, many vulnerable people with multiple needs are struggling to get the support and services that they need. Although Homeless Link requested that all party manifestos included a commitment to tackle multiple needs, the Labour party's was the only one to do so. What action do the new Government propose to take to help people with multiple needs?

Thirdly, we need to increase homeless people's access to the NHS, because homelessness is often about not only housing, but health. Fourthly, we need to renew our efforts to tackle rough sleeping by people with no recourse to public funds. We need to ensure that those with the right to work can do so and that those who cannot are able to return home. Finally, and most importantly, we need to increase homeless people's opportunities to get skills and work so that we change not only where they live, but their whole lives.

The Labour Government got Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Department of Health to work together more closely than ever to co-ordinate efforts right across the Government to tackle homelessness and end rough sleeping. Will the Minister tell us whether it will continue under the new Government and how his Department will develop it? Will there be ministerial leadership and cross-government co-operation so that we can end the scandal of rough sleeping for good?

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

You do not have long, Mr Stunell, but here goes it.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government 12:21 pm, 29th June 2010

Okay, I will do my best. Hon. Members will appreciate that it will be difficult to answer in detail the many points that have been raised.

I congratulate Jeremy Corbyn, who has been a tireless campaigner for improved housing in London. He does himself an injustice when he describes himself and other hon. Members present as the usual suspects. Housing need is a matter that people rightly feel real passion about, and hon. Members from all political parties have invested a lot of personal commitment in tackling it over the years. I do not, therefore, want to downplay or minimise the importance of the debate in any way, and I thank those Members who have contributed. I see from the record that many of them also made speeches on 2 March, and although their language was perhaps slightly less hostile, they were equally firm in challenging the then Government about Ministers' performance.

The hon. Member for Islington North rehearsed very well the issue of housing stress, which we see in London and in other inner cities, although it is particularly evident in London. I will not review the figures and statistics that he gave, but Members can perhaps take them as having been read and accepted by this Government. The hon. Gentleman and, indeed, all Members posed a number of difficult questions, and I do not deny that they are difficult. If they had been easy, I have a feeling that the Labour Government and the Labour Mayor would have solved them in the boom time, rather than leaving them for the coalition Government to try to solve in the bust time. However, we will do our best. Let me make it clear that increasing the supply of housing, including affordable housing, is a priority for the Government.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

I will, but doing so obviously reduces the number of questions that I can answer.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

I am grateful to the Minister, and I recognise that his time is limited. Given the commitment that he has given to increase the supply of housing, including social housing, will he tell us what advice he has received about the impact that decisions taken by the Government to date-notably, the freezing of the Homes and Communities Agency investment budget and changes to the planning system-will have on housing supply?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

Certainly, if I get to that part of my speech, I will answer the point. The right hon. Gentleman has a superb, lifelong record on this issue, and I welcome his contribution.

The fact is that there has been a significant gap between the supply of, and demand for, new homes for decades, and housing supply has failed to keep up with the growing population. Of course, that is particularly the case in London. The Government will create a framework of incentives for local authorities to deliver sustainable development, and that will commence at the earliest opportunity. Local communities will really benefit from delivering the housing that they want and need. Our incentive scheme is designed to encourage local authorities and communities to increase their aspirations for housing and economic growth and to take more control over the way in which the local community is developed.

In a short time, the Government have moved to free up the housing market, with the suspension of home information packs. We have also protected spending on social housing as well as we can, and that remains a Government commitment. That is why we are using £170 million from the £6 billion of savings to reinvest in social rented housing-I emphasise that it is social rented housing-which was, unfortunately, not properly funded under the outgoing Government. Although decisions about the allocation of that £170 million have still to be made, it seems likely that something in the order of 40% will be invested in social rented housing in London. That will require a partnership between councils, the Mayor of London and the Government.

Many such matters are now devolved to the Mayor of London, and some decisions about allocations are very much matters for him. Members will be well aware that his London plan is facing examination in public, and I have a feeling that those who are sitting around this table will want to make sure that their views are clearly expressed to the inspector during that examination. The Government intend to the give the Mayor responsibility for the Homes and Communities Agency in London to help provide the flexibility to meet the housing needs of local communities in the city.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I am conscious of the time, but I want to raise an issue that many of us are concerned about. Can the hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that the Government do not intend to change the homelessness legislation to implement the housing benefit cuts?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Lady is obviously some sort of psychic, because I was about to say that homelessness remains a significant problem in London. As has been said, three quarters of homeless households in temporary accommodation in the country are in the capital, and the Government are committed to addressing homelessness head-on. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing announced last week that the Prime Minister had agreed to a cross-departmental approach to tackle the problem of homelessness and rough sleeping. Many people around this table will know that my right hon. Friend has a strong personal commitment to tackling homelessness. The new ministerial taskforce met for the first time on 16 June, and its members will work together to determine how the policies for which they have responsibility can help to address the complex problems that cause people to lose their homes. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Order. It is clear that the Minister has declined to take any more interventions because of the shortness of time.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

Thank you, Mr Hancock. I am trying to give Members the information that they asked for, and I have two and a half minutes to do it in.

I was asked about bringing empty homes back into use. That is clearly one possible way of tackling the housing shortage in London, and I am leading active work in the Department to make progress on the issue.

My hon. Friend Tom Brake asked about progress on decent homes. The money for local authority social housing and decent home programmes for the current year has already been released and is not in doubt. Money for future years will be considered in the comprehensive spending review. I will write to him specifically about the Sutton arm's length management organisation, as I think that he asked me to.

I want to challenge some of the gospel of pure hypothesis, which I heard from two Opposition Members. Let me tell Glenda Jackson, whom I admire a lot, that other parts of the country-some of us come from outside London-already have local caps, alongside local reference rents, on housing benefit. I can tell her-[Interruption.]

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Order. The Minister is trying to answer the points in the debate. I cannot hear him, so Members will not be able to hear them either.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

Several Members strongly made the point that they wanted their concerns about the detailed application of last week's announcements conveyed to the Department for Work and Pensions. I give an assurance that those concerns will be relayed, exactly as Members have asked.

To pick up the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Field, let me say that the consultation should take full account of the views of London boroughs and London Members. I am quite willing and ready to give that assurance.