§ 1. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
When the Government will publish a national homelessness strategy. 
§ The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers)
We have announced the establishment of a new directorate within the Department to co-ordinate action to tackle homelessness. I have asked it to report to me as a matter of urgency on the steps that need to be taken to address this issue.
§ Simon Hughes
The House and the country will be glad that the Homelessness Act 2002 gives us the basis for moving forward, and we welcome the Government's initiative in that direction Will the Secretary of State confirm that the record number of homeless families in temporary accommodation who are waiting for a permanent home will form part of the discussions between him and the Treasury about funding the strategy? Will he assure us that in cases of family breakdown, those who leave the family home, particularly because of fear of violence, will immediately be accommodated safely, rather than having a harrowing wait before they find alternative secure accommodation?
§ Mr. Byers
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome for the Homelessness Act. I was pleased that it was the first measure introduced after the general election last June and that it got Royal Assent last week. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we amended the Bill as it was going through the House to ensure that, where a relationship breaks down, the interests of children are put first, which is a positive change. The hon. Gentleman 134 points out that, for a variety of reasons, the number of families in temporary accommodation is increasing, which is a matter for real concern. Young children are being denied life chances because they do not have somewhere that they can call their home. In facing the challenges in housing, we must ensure that we can deliver for those young children.
§ Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
Who will be responsible for monitoring the efficacy of the homelessness strategy? Will it be the homelessness directorate? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any national strategy will incorporate what would work most efficiently within the Greater London area, which is a pan-London strategy in partnership not only with the Association of London Government but with the Greater London Authority?
§ Mr. Byers
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the situation in London, particularly as it is clear that individual housing authorities alone cannot solve the deep-seated housing problems faced by London. There has to be a pan-London approach to the issue, and that is something that the newly established directorate is looking at carefully. We will be monitoring the strategy ourselves, but a variety of voluntary organisations will be looking closely at how we are delivering this important part of my Department's agenda. I believe that in this Parliament housing will move towards the top of the political agenda.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
Does the Secretary of State accept that if he had spent a bit more time putting roofs over the heads of families who need them and less time giving house room to the likes of Jo Moore, we would not now have a situation in which the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has increased by 152 per cent. and the number of empty council houses in England has increased by 6,000 since 1997? What has he got to say about that sort of record?
§ Mr. Byers
The increase of 6,000 in the number of empty homes sounds significant, but what the hon. Gentleman did not say is that there are 750,000 empty homes in the United Kingdom, so perhaps 6,000 is not too many. As he should know, in last year's Budget we introduced measures to bring empty properties back into use, such as 100 per cent. capital allowances to convert space above shops into flats and a reduced rate of 5 per cent. for VAT on the cost of renovating homes that have been empty for over three years. We are taking action to deal with empty homes; the Conservative party in government did absolutely nothing.
For the record, this Department and this Secretary of State are going to deliver on the housing agenda. As far as I am concerned, it is one of the top priorities, and Opposition Members will see the results in the very near future.
§ Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)
While I welcome the homelessness strategy, I hope that it will not apply to people whom councils have spent months trying to evict. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that when councils get rid of such tenants, they will not get in somewhere else through the back door as a result of the strategy?
§ Mr. Byers
My hon. Friend makes an important point. His constituency is just south of mine on the River Tyne, and we share similar problems, even if one football team is doing better than the other.
Local authorities are being far more robust in dealing with tenants who make the lives of their neighbours hell. Those tenants are moving out of council housing into private accommodation, and a growing number of private landlords are taking on tenants who have been evicted. In many well-established streets up and down the country, private tenants are being installed, often on housing benefit, who make life hell for private owners. We want to consider a licensing system for private landlords so that they will have to deliver on their responsibilities.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
In considering his homelessness strategy, the Secretary of State will wish to think about the number of rough sleepers, which has been artificially massaged down. Is he aware of the press release issued by the Transport and General Workers Union on behalf of independent charities, which alleges that the rough sleepers unit used public money to pay for rough sleepers to stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and states that outreach workers were pressurised into not declaring the full number of rough sleepers? It also alleges that rolling shelter beds were left empty for a month before the count, and that four hostels had dining rooms turned into bedrooms—all to massage the figures down artificially. Will the Secretary of State announce today that he will hold an inquiry into that, and if he will not, will he accede to the request from Shelter and the Simon communities to hold a meeting to discuss the allegations?
§ Mr. Byers
What the hon. Gentleman has not said is that the methodology used in the rough sleeper count was constructed not by this Government, but under the Conservative Government in 1996. The voluntary agencies that conducted the survey followed the methodology agreed by that Administration. The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but those are the facts. He does not like the facts to get in the way of his prejudices, but we all know that the Conservative approach to rough sleepers was well stated by a former Cabinet Minister who spoke about the inconvenience of coming out of the opera and having to step over people sleeping in the doorway. For the Tory party, rough sleepers are an inconvenience to be ignored—[Interruption.]