§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ainger.]9.30 am
§ Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (con)
I am delighted to have secured this important debate on a subject that is of deep concern to every single constituency Member of Parliament. We confront it all too regularly. It is one of many examples of matters in which the Government have failed to live up to their rhetoric.
In many ways homelessness was an issue that demarcated the differences between the Conservative party and the Labour party in the mid 1990s. It was an area on which then Opposition MPs were constantly attacking the Government's record, and grand promises were made—not least by the current Prime Minister, who promised a society where we would not spend millions of pounds on bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families, but would spend it on housing those people.
In fact, since 1997 the number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has trebled. Every time I walk past a Big Issue seller I remember that Opposition rhetoric against the previous Government and think of the irony in the fact that, six years after Labour came to power, the sellers are still there, selling the same publication on the street corner to raise awareness of the same issue, and I ask myself, what went wrong?
Homelessness is a huge issue but in many cases it is invisible. It is not just a matter of the relatively small, albeit still disturbing, number of rough sleepers on our streets. The real problem is very much like an iceberg—we often see just the tip but beneath the surface there is a huge additional problem. It is the problem of those who lose their home for different reasons—the problem of those who seek help and end up in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, out of sight of most of us, with very little hope and very little chance of an easy way back into good long-term accommodation.
I find that one of the most difficult of our many tasks as constituency Members of Parliament is that of dealing with families—people who are deserving cases—who need housing and need a new option for housing, but for whom I know, especially given the realities of the constituency that I represent, there is very little hope of their achieving that. This is definitely an area where the Government should feel utterly ashamed of their lamentable record.
The scale of the problem is huge. The detailed figures are stark. In 1997, 102,000 households were found to be unintentionally homeless and in priority need. By 2002, that figure had risen to 125,000. There was an even bigger jump in the number of households intentionally 2WH homeless and in priority need—from 4,900 to 9,400. That is a huge jump; later I shall mention some of the circumstances that contributed to that.
§ Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
I apologise to you, Mr. McWilliam, for arriving just after the commencement of speeches. Does the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) think that the 1.5 million affordable homes sold under the right to buy over the 18 years of Conservative Government were a major contributory factor to the problems that he is highlighting?
§ Chris Grayling
Actually, no I do not. I shall discuss the supply of affordable households in a moment, because there is no matter in this whole issue where the Government have more to be ashamed of than the provision of affordable housing, where, since 1997, the provision of new housing has dropped at a startling rate.
There are some particularly problematic issues within those overall figures of which the House should be aware and should have at the back of its mind as we debate the subject. Some groups suffer disproportionately from homelessness. Although, given the balance of the population, most people affected are white, the rise in homelessness among some of our ethnic groups has been particularly startling. In 1997, 6,900 Afro-Caribbean homeless households in priority need were accepted by local authorities. In 2002, the figure had risen to 12,000—a 100 per cent. increase in five years. Other ethnic groups witnessed a 50 per cent. increase in the same period, from 5,000 households to 9,000. If asked, groups that specialise in this issue and represent homeless people will say that today, particularly in London, this problem disproportionately affects our ethnic minorities; we should be mindful of that when we address the issue.
Another stark piece of information that I found when reading the background statistics was that the causes of homelessness, and the suffering from homelessness, tie in very closely with some of the most vulnerable groups in our society. Again I refer to the figures for the past five years. In 1997, local authorities accepted 5,220 homeless households in priority need that contained a household member vulnerable through physical handicap; in 2002, that figure was 6,890. In 1997, authorities accepted 6,910 homeless households in priority need that contained a household member vulnerable through mental illness; in 2002, it was 10,680. In the same period, acceptances of homeless households in priority need that contained a young person increased from 3,100 to 6,900. Therefore the people who are affected, and who are being affected on a greater scale year by year, are vulnerable groups—the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, and young people who have run into family problems. We need to really understand the problem and we need to tackle the problem particularly for those vulnerable groups, because they are the least capable of dealing with the situation.
Those patterns reflect a real social challenge. This is not just an issue about availability of housing; it is actually about social breakdown and real challenges that exist in our society. The homelessness problem will not be addressed simply by building houses; it can only be addressed by far broader policies, especially those that focus on the family.
3WH To pick up on the remarks of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), the provision of housing, the infrastructure of housing and the real shortage of housing lie at the heart of the problem. He mentioned affordable housing. In fact, the construction of affordable housing is one of the present Government's great failings. They have made plenty of announcements but matched them with precious little action. Yesterday I did a search on the website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to see what it said about affordable housing. I discovered that since June 1992, the Government have made 43 different news announcements about affordable housing. The search engine did not allow me to search further back, but if one extrapolates on that basis, Labour Governments have probably made the best part of 150 to 200 announcements over the past five years about their plans on affordable housing. That is impressive stuff; there is lots of interest in the subject.
We constantly see big news stories about the Deputy Prime Minister's vision for solving the housing crisis. In the past 12 months alone there has been a series of announcements and big stories. I did a search for newspaper headlines on the subject in the last 12 months. They included, "Prescott says homes plan will need 'phenomenal' cash amount"; "Prescott makes promise of 200,000 homes, but maintains green belt will be safeguarded"; "Prescott plan for 200,000 homes"; "Taskforce aims to boost supply of low-cost homes", and even the rather endearing, "Four-homes Prescott mocks Middle England".
However, the reality is stark and clear and it is a definitive example of where this Government are all talk and precious little action, because between 1992 and 1997 we built 326,983 affordable homes, reaching a peak of 70,000 a year, but after 1997 the level of new build plummeted. Between 1997 and 2002, that 326,000 figure under the previous Parliament had fallen to a total of 188,760. In 2002—03, only 31,000 new affordable homes were built, compared with almost double that number in the run-up to the last general election.
§ Mr. Love
According to the interim report on the review of housing supply, the right to buy is a contributory factor to the problems that I mentioned. The report also displays a graph, showing that in 1979 local councils were building about 120,000 homes a year, but by 1994 they were building none. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that is a contributory factor to the shortage of affordable accommodation?
§ Chris Grayling
In view of the party that the hon. Gentleman represents, I am surprised that he has the brazen gall to stand up and use such an example, when his Government have presided over a halving of the construction of affordable homes in the affordable home sector in the past five years. The hon. Gentleman is right to use the analogy of local authorities, but what the Conservative Government did was to move responsibility for the provision of affordable housing from local authorities to new bodies such as housing associations. I do not know about the hon. Gentleman, but I certainly believe that the housing associations operating in my constituency are good, specialist organisations that deliver within the limitations placed 4WH on them by central Government and the financial constraints that they face. Generally speaking, they do a good job for the people they look after and provide homes for. I have nothing to be ashamed of in the creation of an affordable housing sector comprising specialist housing organisations that do a good job for people. The hon. Gentleman has every reason to be ashamed of the record of his Government, who are associated with such a lamentable performance in the provision of affordable housing.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is outrageous of Labour Members to blame the current homelessness problems on us when the Government have had nearly eight years to sort out the problem? If the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) thought it wrong to build no new houses in the council house sector, his Government have had more than seven years to sort the problem out. Why have they done nothing about it?
§ Chris Grayling
It is yet another example of what we saw before and after the 1997 election—all talk and no action.
§ Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)
Is it not a matter of concern that, apart from the Parliamentary Private Secretary, the only Labour Member present is the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love)? Is it not also a matter of concern that only the Labour Members who are adhering to the Whips' brief are being allowed out today? I believe that inquiries should be made to ascertain whether the other Labour Members have been locked up somewhere to keep them away from the Palace of Westminster.
§ Chris Grayling
Thank you for that reminder, Mr. McWilliam. I have great admiration for the hon. Member for Edmonton for having the nerve to come and defend his case here.
§ Mr. Love
I understand that the Housing Bill is in Committee this morning, which will occupy the time of a considerable number of Labour Members who are interested in the subject. May I return to the graph in the review, which shows clearly that in 1997 housing associations were building fewer than 20,000 affordable homes a year? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the failure to replace council house building with housing association building in those 18 years was a major contributory factor to the failures of today?
§ Chris Grayling
I am always reluctant to correct a parliamentary colleague, even one on the other side of the political fence, but I simply draw his attention to the written answers provided by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister last week. They show that in 1996—97, 53,840 affordable houses were built by registered social landlords, in comparison with 2001—02, when only 30,605 were built. Those are official Government figures, which were provided last week.
What of the immediate future? A pretty stark picture is painted by the housing charity, Shelter, which suggests that all the plans in place for the current 5WH financial year allow about £1.4 billion to be spent on the provision of new affordable housing. However, Shelter believes that total output will be about 46,000 affordable homes this year at most—still fewer than the number provided pre-1997. Despite all the Government rhetoric of recent months, they are still not matching levels of construction achieved by the previous Government. It beggars belief that a party that makes so much noise about the need to provide affordable homes in this country has such a terrible record in government.
What are the Government doing? I was enlightened by looking through the Government's strategy for homelessness document, "More than a Roof". For me, it summed up everything that is wrong about the Government's philosophical and practical approach to a whole range of activities, not just this particular problem. Let me cite that document.A radical change that will be brought about by the Homelessness Act is the new requirement for every local authority to review its homelessness problem and develop a homelessness strategy for its area. Addressing all forms of homelessness, these strategies should be in place within a year of the Act coming into force and renewed…every five years…
The Homelessness Act will require housing authorities to take local homelessness strategies into account in carrying out their functions. In practice, homelessness strategies need to be closely allied to, or included within, authorities' housing strategies. In addition, it will place a new duty on social services to work with housing authorities in formulating a homelessness strategy"— presumably another homelessness strategy. It continues:There also needs to be closer co-operation between housing associations and local authorities on tackling homelessness. The Housing Corporation, Local Government Association and National Housing Federation have agreed to work together to improve this as outlined in their 'Framework for Partnership'.It also states:'Homelessness strategies: a good practice handbook' produced by Randall and Brown includes advice on conducting reviews and developing strategies. Local authorities should consult with other relevant public bodies, voluntary organisations, homeless people and others, and include action that they expect them to take in their strategy.In other words, it is gobbledegook. All the Government seem able to do in response to a problem is to require local authorities to have a strategy and to create all sorts of tiers of bureaucracy, meetings, debates and documents. Throughout government, one can find endless debates, discussions and committee meetings; seldom can one find genuine tangible action that makes a difference.
§ Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
I agree with much that the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, on the homelessness strategy, I attended a meeting in Kingston Guildhall where the draft homes strategy of the borough was discussed. I was delighted to see a range of people taking part, offering all sorts of new ideas as the strategy was formed. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about resources and the dearth of affordable homes being built, but he should not decry the positive role that a homelessness strategy can play.
§ Chris Grayling
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was a local councillor. My experience then and from observing local councils subsequently suggests that far too much effort is put into the creation of 6WH strategy documents across a range of policy areas, but they are seldom of any real practical benefit in delivering services on the ground. The Government's plans for more strategy documents must be assessed in comparison with the actual delivery record. On the basis of statistics on the provision of affordable housing, it seems to me that there is a woeful gap. What emerge from the central Government are great initiatives, but little tangible action.
That point is reinforced by the annual residential development in London report, carried out by London Residential Research. It says that determining the key players in London's affordable housing policy is complicated by "rampant initiativitis". I am afraid that that is all too often the problem in preventing delivery. Ultimately, the focus is on various initiatives to set out complicated strategies, but the reality of what is needed on the ground is simple, clear and understandable action.
§ Chris Grayling
My experience in my own constituency—I am coming on to that, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me—suggests that some Government decisions that affect the housing corporations are in practical terms detached from the realities on the ground. In some cases, they can obstruct those realities. I have had several conversations with the housing associations in my own area. The hon. Gentleman will be aware—he has the next-door seat—that one of the recent big issues for them has been the rapid rise in the price of land.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
My hon. Friend has identified the kernel of the problem. Does he agree that the problem is twofold? The first problem is the Government's policy of rent restructuring, which deliberately holds down rent in the public sector, and the second problem is the rapidly rising price of houses, which means that the funding gap for public sector bodies—whether they are registered social landlords or any other housing provider—makes it much more difficult for them to provide social housing units.
§ Chris Grayling
Absolutely. I concur with what my hon. Friend says, and no doubt he will wish to amplify those issues during his concluding remarks.
The problem of rising land values drives at the heart of question about initiatives asked by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). As the system requires bidding and the submission of complicated proposals in many parts of the sector, the price of land has gone up by the time that people have gone through the bureaucracy of getting money. Registered social landlords in my constituency found on several occasions that the price that they expected to pay for land jumped massively simply because of the time that it took them to go over the hurdles that central Government placed in their path before they could buy the land. we simply allocated grant to RSLs and gave them discretion to use their own initiative and do the best job for the people of 7WH their area, we might well find that that delivered a much better result. All too often the Government "know best" and set hurdles for RSLs, but RSLs in my constituency have not been able to build some of the housing that they could have built simply because of the slow and complicated process through which they must go to secure funding.
The other problem faced by RSLs is the fact that Housing Corporation rules on the formulae applied to land values are sometimes too constrained to recognise the price of land in the south-east, especially on the fringes of London. RSLs in my area have faced enormous problems when trying to buy land on which to build because the rules and the formulae with which they must deal do not take account of their local situation. Such problems should not arise.
§ Chris Grayling
I fundamentally disagree, and I shall not take up too much time on the hon. Gentleman's intervention because I want to give other hon. Members the chance to speak.
I conclude my remarks by highlighting three issues that the Government should address. First, their asylum policy must recognise this country's housing pressures. Most people involved in homelessness say that the number of people coming into this country exacerbates the problem. That matter does not sit on the Minister's desk, but he should talk about it with his colleagues elsewhere in government. This country's housing stock cannot continue to absorb the number of new people who come here every year.
Secondly, if we were to reinvest money secured from extending the right to buy for the provision of more affordable housing, it would deliver a strong additional dimension to the capital that we could spend on affordable housing. I have no qualms whatever about defending that.
Thirdly, there is clearly a huge social dimension to homelessness. I am talking about not only families who find themselves in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but people who end up as rough sleepers on the streets. Statistics show clearly that the breakdown of families is a key factor behind that. The Government's policy must address family breakdown. There is only a limited amount that they can do, but they should do what they can to turn the tide in the other direction.
It is the duty of us all to tackle the problem. There are not necessarily easy answers, but solutions must be found. The Government did not accelerate work to tackle the problem after 1997; they decelerated work, and now they are paying the price. They raise huge amounts in tax, but fewer affordable houses are being built on the ground than in 1997. More and more people do not have a permanent roof over their heads. On housing, as on so many things, all that the Government are doing is taxing, spending and failing.
§ Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on selecting the topic of the debate because the House should spend more time considering such an important issue. He talked about how we tend to view only the tip of the iceberg, and I shall focus my remarks on older homelessness in this country, which is often overlooked and neglected. I note that the one statistic that the hon. Gentleman did not give during his detailed contribution was the number of people who are accepted as homeless on the grounds of age.
Three words best sum up the older homeless: invisible, hidden and isolated. Those words are encapsulated in the tragic story of Alexander Fallon. Mr. Fallon died in 1987 at Kings Cross on that fateful night when fire engulfed the underground station. He was 72 years old when he died. He was homeless and had probably been begging for the price of a drink or a packet of cigarettes. For 16 years, Mr. Fallon was known simply as body No. 115. Behind that number is a story that finds echoes in the stories of many other homeless older people in this country.
Mr. Fallon's world fell apart in 1974 when his wife died of cancer. He sold his home because of the memories that it generated and moved to London where he eventually ended up on the streets due to a range of circumstances. The journey from people having a roof over their heads to being roofless may take many years—research suggests that it takes up to nine years to complete the passage from having a stable relationship and accommodation to homelessness. There are nine years in which to pick up the warning signs and act, so clearly more could be done upstream to prevent homelessness from occurring.
Sleeping rough may not be a lifestyle choice that many of us would consciously make, but, at some level, it seems that those who are on the streets or unofficially homeless are escaping something in their lives that is, for them, even worse. For some, the root cause of homelessness may be traced back to a broken and disturbed childhood, and for others it comes from the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, as in the case of Mr. Fallon, or the break up of a long-term relationship. Stressful events in adulthood, low income, mental health issues and alcoholism can all be factors that trigger that journey from home to street.
Over the past few years I have taken an interest in, and supported the initiatives of, the UK coalition on older homelessness. A visit to its website gives some of the key facts and figures about the scale of homelessness among older people. Official statistics record that in 2002, 4,390 people were accepted as homeless on the grounds of old age. In the same year, as has already been said, 10,680 were accepted on the grounds of mental health. Unfortunately, we do not know how many of those who were accepted on the grounds of mental health were older people. We do not have a reliable figure for those who were accepted on grounds of age because although guidance is given on the age that should be used to count such people, there is no guarantee that that is the basis that each local authority uses—some use the age of 50, and others use the age of 60. Nevertheless, based on figures from the Department's website for the first three 9WH quarters of 2003, the trend remains upward for registrations of homelessness on the grounds of both old age and mental health.
The vast majority of older homeless people are hidden. According to a study by Dr. Maureen Crane of the Sheffield institute for studies on ageing, as many as seven out of 10 of those who sleep rough stay in isolated or hidden spots. Other research shows that 834 people aged 50 years or over, including 43 people aged 70 years or over, slept rough in London at some time between April 1999 and March 2000—the Minister will note that March 2000 is the second part of the period of the study. One of the depressing things that I found when examining the matter is the dearth of data and research—both official and otherwise—to help us to understand the extent of the problem.
Many older people sleep rough for a longer time than others. A survey carried out in 1996 found that 65 per cent. of people sleeping rough who were aged over 50 had been doing so for more than five years, while 25 per cent. of younger people had spent a similar period of time on the streets. It is estimated that up to 21,000 older people are living in short-stay hostels throughout England. Many older people self-refer to bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Again, research by the Sheffield institute found that as many as 26,900 older people live in bed and breakfast. In all, 48,000 older people are living in inappropriate accommodation. They are hidden out of sight and out of mind—one could call them the unofficial homeless.
Official statistics are in short supply. Is it really good enough that the only official statistic on older homelessness is the number of people accepted as homeless on the grounds of age? What plans does the Minister have to audit the number of older people living in hostels and other temporary accommodation, and to improve generally data collection on the issue?
If the studies are right, homelessness will not simply disappear because we build more affordable housing—even the right sort of housing. We have to understand and work on the psycho-social causes of homelessness. According to the report, "Lessons from Lancefield Street", which looked at the experience of an outreach centre run by St. Mungo's in west London, various needs come together, often masking one another. Not surprisingly, rough sleeping can accelerate the normal ageing process, so older homeless people in their 50s have health problems associated with much older people. The study found that the most immediate need of older homeless people was help with their physical health problems, such as bronchitis, mobility difficulties and scabies. Physical health complaints, which were more prevalent in men than women, were closely followed by mental health problems, with women suffering more than men. Heavy drinking also featured highly, particularly among men.
In preparing for the debate, I was grateful to St. Mungo's for sending me details of its outer London older people's outreach service, which started in January 2003. The outreach service has found that many agencies—from housing and mental health to support services—do not consider that it is their responsibility to deal with rough sleepers, partly because those agencies traditionally have little to do with rough sleepers and no experience in how to work with them and partly because of the fact that rough sleepers can be difficult, costly and 10WH very time consuming to work with. Virtually all services, particularly in outer London and elsewhere away from central London, are geared towards those who are already in housing. That lack of experience is a particular concern when homeless older people are admitted to hospital.
Will the Minister say what steps are being taken by his Department and the Department of Health to ensure that the right resettlement and care solutions are put in place, as part of the single assessment process before a person's discharge? In particular, will he outline how the supporting people initiatives will link into the arrangements for hospital discharge, to ensure that vulnerable older people with multiple needs get access to the right housing and care? Older homelessness is in great part a health issue but not yet a health priority. Will the Minister say what discussions his Department has had with the Department of Health about access to mental health services for older people, particularly counselling and psychological support?
It is not surprising that many older rough sleepers, who may have tried in the past to get a service from their local authority and failed, believe that they are wasting their time and give up. Indeed, the outreach service told me about a 74-year-old who had been to his local homeless persons unit 41 times to try to secure accommodation and had been fobbed off or ignored, or he simply got fed up with waiting all day and had left.
I hope that, in responding to the debate today, the Minister will say how the Government are tackling homelessness among older people. What assessment has been made of the local authority homelessness strategies that were referred to earlier to find out whether they are adequately addressing the needs of older people? Although I entirely take the point made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell that strategies can be a substitute for action and not deliver results, it is important that we ensure that the strategies that are produced do not miss the point and that, in fact, they galvanise people into action and deliver real improvements to services and housing across the board. Will the Minister therefore consider giving further advice, support and guidance to help local authorities to develop services and practice for that particularly vulnerable group?
I began with the case of Mr. Fallon. For 16 years, Mr. Fallon was a just a number. His family did not know where he had gone. The truth is that there are many thousands of homeless elderly people on the streets and in inappropriate accommodation across the country who do not even register on the radar, even as a number.
§ 10.3 am
§ Tony Baldry (Banbury) (con)
Oxfordshire is not all dreaming spires, market towns and leafy lanes. Oxfordshire has real social problems. One such problem is homelessness, which can happen to anyone and at any age.
I understand that the charity, Crisis, believes that the cause of 80 per cent. of people becoming homeless is either that they split from their partners or that they are thrown out of their homes by parents or step-parents. Clearly, that is just as likely to happen in a shire county, such as Oxfordshire, as in inner London or one of the other inner-city areas, yet funds for the homeless are 11WH frequently focused on the inner cities. I suspect that that is almost certainly because of visibility: walk down almost any street in London and one might see rough sleepers; walk down the high streets of Bicester or Banbury and one is far less likely to see someone sleeping rough.
Rough sleeping is only part of the homelessness challenge and, as such, all Government initiatives, from the Homelessness Act 2002 to the more recent communities plan, recognise that the two problems must be tackled separately. Yet in spite of that recognition, north Oxfordshire's homelessness strategy is not being matched by central Government moneys. That is manifested in different, often indirect, ways. Consider the Government's 2002 strategy paper entitled, "More than a Roof". It stated that one of the primary reasons for homelessness isthe overall supply of affordable housing…in some parts of the country demand is pushing prices up beyond the reach of a larger proportion of the population…causing more people to apply for social housing".Of course it is welcome that Ministers recognise the importance of affordable housing as a means to tackle homelessness, but somehow north Oxfordshire has been left out of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's calculations of affordable housing allocations. The Deputy Prime Minister needs to do his maths again.
There cannot he many other counties in the south-east that are experiencing, to paraphrase Ministers, housing demands that are pushing prices up beyond the reach of local people. Every three months, it seems that the Halifax and other property price surveyors point to Oxfordshire for having house prices that are rising disproportionately higher than those in London—30 per cent. faster in some months—leaving the average house price in Oxfordshire at about £180,000. That is far more than many local people's purses can stretch to. It makes many of them dependent on affordable housing, yet the ODPM has forgotten much of north Oxfordshire when allocating such housing.
Banbury, for instance, is not seen as a growth area by the Government and not a single house will be built in the town from the £22 billion allocated last year for affordable housing by the Deputy Prime Minister. Cherwell district council is losing its £2.5 million subsidy for accommodation over the next three years. That brings us to the specific funding concerns for local authorities.
I note that in answer to a parliamentary question in November of last year, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), explained:
Local authorities also receive funding for their homelessness responsibilities through the local government finance settlement. The funding is paid as general grant and it is for local authorities to decide on their spending priorities taking into account their statutory responsibilities".—[Official Report, 17 November 2003; Vol. 413, c. 534W.]Local government funding is already stretched, especially in south-east counties, such as Oxfordshire. I am sure that hon. Members will have heard colleagues who represent south-east constituencies outline the atrocious unfairness of local government funding in that 12WH part of the country. The plain fact remains that counties such as Oxfordshire get a raw deal from the Government.
Oxfordshire witnessed a 13 per cent. rise in council tax last year, and the rise will probably be half as much again next year—all in an attempt to match funding lost from south-east counties to authorities in the north of England. The Audit Commission recently judged that there is a fundamental flaw in local government grant system and that grant redistribution has left the south with lower grant increases and higher council tax rises, while those in the midlands and the north had higher grant increases and lower council tax rises. The Audit Commission has also asserted that there is a clear association between Government grants and the level of council tax.
Local authorities are simply unable to provide further funding to help the homeless. Cherwell district council is already under intolerable pressure to meet the targets of the Homelessness Act 2002. Furthermore, there is little scope for the district council to address the wider problems of homelessness beyond actually finding accommodation for those in need. The 2002 Act asked all local authorities to devise a strategy to tackle the problem in their areas. Cherwell district council has come up with an excellent strategy which focuses primarily on temporary accommodation for single homeless people. That we are talking about single people in separate properties is worth remembering, given the substantial rise in the cost of buying or renting a house in Oxfordshire. The district council has received about £122,000 to implement that strategy.
Given the request of the 2002 Act that strategies should be submitted, however, something strange is happening with the way in which the local authority is receiving that money. I understand that, in the first instance, Cherwell was asked by the Government to bid for funding, but its bid had to be submitted before its homelessness strategy. That places a question mark over how closely the ODPM's directorate is examining each authority's specific strategies. In 2003, despite the ODPM homelessness strategy, no bids were requested. Instead, local authorities were given the same sums as in the previous year. That funding was of course welcome, but what is happening to the homelessness strategies that the 2002 Act demanded? Cherwell submitted a bid for next year but has been allocated one third less money than it needs. I suspect that more money has been given to inner city authorities—which is doubly frustrating in light of the comparative underfunding of Cherwell through local government grants.
What will happen after 2005 is a mystery. Ministers have made no announcement and, to the best of my knowledge, no funding for local authorities has been earmarked. Many homelessness projects depend on stability. Homeless people need stability, but without stable funding such stability is a chimera.
Two excellent projects in north Oxfordshire benefit from around £80,000 of local authority investment. The 24/7 scheme run by the Banbury Young Homeless Project has six houses for young people and is an impressive initiative run by someone who previously did similar work in south London. When I last met that project's co-ordinator, I did not get the impression that the needs of the young homeless in north Oxfordshire were any less than of those in south London.
13WH Figures on the rising number of homeless people under 25 are particularly dispiriting, so it is imperative that funding increase. As a first step, Ministers should give reassurances as to what will happen from 2005 in respect of the strategies that they have requested. The Foyer project, also funded by Banbury district council in conjunction with Banbury Homes Housing Association, houses the young homeless from age 16 to 25. That project brings together a wide range of public and voluntary organisations and draws on the resources of local businesses in offering basic training in abilities often taken for granted—such as literacy, numeracy and computer skills. Those opportunities are especially important to young people because the district council's remaining money is used to fund preventive measures. I am especially impressed by BYHP's school projects, which provide 16-year-olds with briefings about the reality of homelessness to help to raise awareness.
Preventing homelessness must be balanced by more resources to help persons who, for reasons invariably beyond their control, find themselves without a home, as part of a move to deal more with people rather than just places. Much of the Government's attention seems directed at making sure that local authorities simply provide houses. There is a danger of overlooking wider needs. I recently met two people on the 24/7 project. Both struck me as bright and able. One had a clear idea of what he wanted to do next and was shortly to start an apprenticeship with a local employer. BYHP had helped him considerably to achieve that goal.
The other individual was a young girl whom BYHP is also helping, but she was not so clear about her future. There will come a time when she will have to seek help from other organisations. It would be better if those bodies could be involved from the start. It is difficult for many 17-year-olds to decide what they want to do later in life, but that would be far easier with a support base of all the agencies. Shelter's 2003 survey of local authority homelessness strategies not only reported a lack of resources but emphasised the importance of each agency locally communicating effectively and understanding fully what needs to be done. Likewise, the Audit Commission concluded that links should be made, to make sure that services are co-ordinated—including between learning and skills councils, child and young people partnerships, primary care group and trust plans and health improvement programmes. Those are just some of more than 20 agencies that need to work together effectively and efficiently in preventing homelessness and giving every opportunity to those who are homeless.
The Minister will no doubt allude to the vast-sounding sums that the Government have produced for the communities plan. That money is a start, but attention needs to be paid to process. The Chartered Institute of Housing, Crisis, Shelter, Local Government Association and Audit Commission are on record as saying that Government funding is inadequate to meet the demands of the 2002 Act—which is another example of the Government putting new legislation on the statute book but not following up the rhetoric with funds. The money available is also inadequate to address the needs of rural communities, which are increasingly overlooked by Government grants because of the misconception that all is leafy in Oxfordshire. There should also be a change in process to meet long 14WH term needs—especially of the young homeless, whose numbers are increasing throughout the country—and to tackle homelessness comprehensively.
§ Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)(LD)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this important debate. The first half of his speech made a valuable contribution to setting out the extent of the problem. I agree with his pessimistic picture. Although the Government have had some success in the past year or so in respect of bed-and-breakfast numbers, since 1997 the statistics show a large increase. I am sure the Minister agrees that the figure is still far too high.
The hon. Gentleman, however, skirted round the statistic of most concern in my constituency and no doubt in his—the number of people in temporary accommodation. That is the real crisis in homelessness and the true measure of the Government's failure. Government measures are beginning to have some impact on bed-and-breakfast figures, but the number of people in temporary accommodation is alarming. The figure from Shelter for today's debate is 93,900—the highest ever. The Minister cannot be proud of that shocking statistic—and that is without addressing overcrowding, the homeless at home and other forms of hidden homelessness, particularly among the elderly, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) referred. I hope that the Minister will not deny that the massive problem of homelessness has not got much better. Some figures suggest that it has got worse. We need to begin an educated debate about how to tackle that issue.
The Government have a mixed record. Some of their initiatives have been really good. One still sees people sleeping rough on the streets of London and occasionally in my constituency, but their numbers have reduced.
§ Chris Grayling
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) who, as a member of the last Conservative Government, was responsible for the rough sleepers initiative?
§ Mr. Davey
I did not know that, but I am certainly happy to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, who is one of the more—I choose my words carefully—constructive Conservative Members, even if he does not admit to his mistakes over privatisation. It is true that the rough sleepers initiative has been boosted under the present Government, even beyond the extent thought possible by the right hon. member for North-West Hampshire.
We can congratulate the Government also on having a lot of vision. It would be welcome if part of that vision comes true. There is much needed building in the Thames gateway, and other plans, such as those for Milton Keynes, are welcome. However, the Government are weak on practical issues, and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell spent a long time analysing their failure to build affordable new homes. He was right to do so, as that is the core of the Government's failure. They have put a lot of money into 15WH renovating homes and introducing the decent homes standard, but in making sure that accommodation is better for people who have homes they have prevented the industry from building homes for homeless people. They made a deliberate political choice, and they should admit its consequences.
Action has been slow in other areas, including the problem of empty homes. The fact that the Chancellor set up the Barker review six and a half years after the Government came to power to ask what we should do about the supply of homes says it all. The Government came to office without a clear idea about how they would tackle the housing shortage and the homelessness problem. They introduced a few eye-catching initiatives, but they did not make a fundamental analysis of what was wrong. I welcome the Barker review—the interim report was a challenging interpretation of the problem, and I very much look forward to the final report, in which recommendations which will doubtless appear alongside a proposed budget. I hope that Kate Barker will be given a free remit, and will not be restrained by Her Majesty's Treasury or the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister from making courageous proposals. A new tax break system has been suggested as a way of encouraging institutional investment in the private rented sector, and many people accept the merit of such a proposal. However, if that is all that the review amounts to, it would be a waste, given the work that Kate Barker has done. Her study is urgently needed, so I hope that she will come up with same radical proposals.
Some of the Government's other initiatives have not been effective. Unlike the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, I shall criticise one specific initiative. The starter homes initiative was supposed to help key workers. In the last Parliament my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam and I came to Westminster Hall with many of our colleagues to talk to the Government about key workers' housing problems in London and the south-east. We did not, however, expect the Government to introduce a policy that promoted demand. We all accept that the problem is with supply, but there is not a problem with demand. There is a lot of demand for housing, and it does not need to be stimulated. We have to deal with the problem of supply. The failure of the starter homes initiative shows the poor analysis of the problem. There has been a lack of take-up because the initiative makes almost no difference. A few thousand pounds here or there may help a little, but only at the margins, and it does not enable us to grapple with the main problem.
I agree that there is no point in having a confetti of initiatives if the analysis of the problem is wrong. The Barker review is important, because hopefully it will focus effort on getting more houses. If we do not do so, we will—I shall refrain from using a colloquial phrase—not make progress. We all feel passionately about the issue because we deal with the problems in our surgeries. I hold two surgeries a week, and there is not one at which I do not see someone with a housing problem, often a homelessness problem. They come for many reasons—the family may have been split up; parents do not want their grown-up children to live with them any more; they may have rent arrears; or the landlord is selling up. On Monday, I dealt with a case in my surgery in which a 16WH lady was facing eviction by a registered social landlord because she has two cats. The tenancy agreement says that she should not have cats without written permission, but other tenants in those blocks of flats in Tolworth have cats and dogs, for which they have written permission. However, she has been unable to get such permission, although I hope to intercede, either to secure it or make sure that any eviction process is suspended. There are therefore a plethora of reasons for people being homeless, and in our surgeries we must tackle those many problems.
I am slightly critical of the analysis of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell of the origins of the problem, and am more supportive of the Government's view. The causes of homelessness in the past few years are different from the causes of homelessness a decade or more ago, when the housing market was in freefall. There were repossessions, people lost their homes and were thrown out on the street because they could not meet the mortgage repayments as a result of high interest rates under the Conservative Administration. That is not the root cause of the current problem. The economy has been ticking over quite nicely, so land and house prices are high. In a way, our homelessness problem is a problem not of failure but of success, and can be seen in many other successful economies. California, for example, has a massive homelessness problem—people who are not in work or do not have highly paid jobs cannot afford housing because the price of land and houses in a successful economy is high. The problem is therefore different now, so we may need to think of different solutions.
I shall rattle through the rest of my speech to make sure that I give other hon. Members a chance to contribute to our debate. We need to examine positive options. For example, we need to look far more urgently than the Government are currently doing at the option of using empty homes. They have produced a consultation paper about empty home management orders, but they are not moving quickly enough. They have not, for example, used the Housing Bill that Parliament is currently considering to introduce those orders. I recommend that the Minister read the 2003 annual review produced by the Empty Homes Agency. The section on statistics at the end shows that 82 per cent. of people think that local authorities should be given the power to lease and bring back to life empty properties that are currently inhabitable. There is great support for action to deal with empty homes, which are, and are perceived to be, a scandal.
Using the private rented sector much more is the right approach, as Kate Barker has intimated. There are two groups of people in housing need who could be assisted by the private rented sector. The first group consists mainly of younger people in their 20s and 30s who are starting their working lives and careers. They are not yet sufficiently established to be able to buy a home, but want high-quality housing. Such housing, which I sometimes call it condominium-type accommodation, could be provided by the private rented sector, but private developers tend not to go into that area. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done some interesting work near York and shown that properties can be built for that group. The landlord and developer can get a commercial return from affordable rented accommodation for such people, and tenants can use it 17WH as a stepping stone as they move forward in their career. Not enough of that property is being built, which is why the Barker review and the tax proposals on institutional investment may offer a way forward.
The second group consists of people who are unlikely ever to be able to afford a home, even under the right-to-buy scheme. There is a lack of Government subsidy for Government or council schemes to build homes for that social sector, and the Government need to take a far more active approach. The planning system could be used to deal with the problem. Planning authorities tend to be reactive, but we want councils to be proactive and designate land as housing zones. If a developer wants to build the housing that is needed, they should give his proposals a fair wind. Local authorities should be encouraged to give a lead, because if they took a more proactive approach—some already do, but there are far too few of them—there would be a major leap forward.
I want to conclude my remarks on the changing analysis of homeless by raising an issue with which I am currently trying to grapple and on which I should be grateful for the benefit of the Minister's thoughts. There is a certain type of homelessness that, on one level, we welcome. Antisocial tenants may have created such mayhem that their landlord, whether a social landlord or a private landlord, eventually feels that he has to evict them. We are debating in other places and at other times the need to crack down on antisocial tenants. My concern is how we do it. I carried out a four-hour filibuster in a Committee considering a private Member's Bill to stop the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) pushing forward a proposal to withdraw housing benefit from antisocial tenants.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair):
Order. Confession may be good for the soul, but the word "filibuster" does not exist in any "Erskine May" that I have ever read.
§ Mr. Davey
Thank you for that instruction, Mr. McWilliam. I shall try to keep this confession short.
The problem with the approach taken by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead is that the sanction would be random and would hurt people who were not behaving in an antisocial way. As the Government were considering implementing it, it would apply to offenders coming out of prison who, as we all know, are much more likely to reoffend if they are homeless and without jobs. The Government's approach to housing benefit sanctions would have made severe social problems even worse. I am glad the proposal has been dropped.
We still have to face the question of how to deal with matters when tenants need to be evicted because of their antisocial behaviour. I am trying to grapple with the issue myself. I believe the Government should put in place, with the Housing Corporation and others, much stronger guidance to make sure that through earlier intervention, antisocial behaviour is prevented from getting out of hand so that it does not reach the eviction stage. When eviction is necessary, as part of the cure and to shake up someone whose behaviour has got out of hand, other options should be available post eviction so that the underlying causes of the antisocial behaviour are dealt with.
18WH It is in no one's interest that the eviction of antisocial tenants should lead to more antisocial behaviour, making the problem worse and making the whole community suffer even more. This aspect of homelessness is not often debated, but we need to get our heads round it and develop policy to deal with it. It is a tough issue, but we should not avoid it.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)(con)
I am grateful to be able to wind up the debate on behalf of the official Opposition. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate. The sad fact is that this is but one in a series of debates in the five years that I have been Front-Bench spokesman on housing, and while we discuss the problem in the Chamber, the problem is getting worse. I hope that the Government will not just talk about it but get a grip of it and see what can done.
For every homeless person, every homeless family, every homeless child, there is a story of human misery involved, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) so aptly reminded us, particularly those of us who represent a constituency with a high proportion of elderly people, as I do and as I assume the hon. Gentleman does. Of all the constituencies in the country, Cotswold has the third highest number of over-85-year-olds.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who has taken an overnight flight to be present. His speech reminded us that even in constituencies that one would assume to be relatively prosperous, such as his and mine, there are pockets of hidden homelessness that are problems of human tragedy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell went through the figures in detail. They are undoubtedly getting worse: 36,260 households were accepted for housing by a local authority. That is 8 per cent. higher than a year ago and translates into 145,000 homeless people in this country, which is a tragedy and a scandal for a modern advanced country such as ours. My hon. Friend was right to point to the fact that hidden in those figures is a disproportionately high number of black and ethnic people—some 23 per cent. of that figure—and as my hon. Friend noted, the proportion is rising fast.
Although the Minister will no doubt trumpet the fact that the number of people sleeping rough on our streets has dropped and the number of people in bed and breakfasts has dropped marginally in the past year, there is still an increasing homelessness problem. Whether the homeless sleep rough on our streets, or whether they sleep in bed and breakfasts, hostels or unsuitable accommodation, the problem is getting worse, particularly in the capital. It is estimated that half a million Londoners live in overcrowded conditions and again, the situation is getting worse because London is one of the few areas where the population is growing.
The number of households in the capital—this is one of the most dreadful statistics—increased by 184,000 or more than 6 per cent., yet over the same period we built only 58,000 extra houses. The number of households, and especially the number of households with children, is increasing, yet the number of houses that we are building is not keeping up with that growth. This failure 19WH was recognised in the recent report by the Labour-dominated Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee, which reached a damning verdict on the Government's affordable housing record. According to the Committee,more and more people cannot afford to buy or rent a home.The Institute for Public Policy Research, the think-tank not notably supportive of the Opposition but supportive of the Government, admitted recently thathousing poverty is not the most extreme form of social inequality in Britain".We all received a brief from Shelter for this debate. One of the most damning statistics in the brief is that more than 100,000 children in England become homeless every year. If that is not a tragic statistic, I do now know what is. Half a million households are officially overcrowded, including 300,000 families with children. We must do something about those figures. I have not come just to berate the Government and read out these dreadful figures. I have a few suggestions for the Government. Some are old chestnuts and some are new ideas that I have come up with in the course of the debate.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
Don't be cynical. Even if one of these ideas helps one those poor homeless families, the debate will have achieved something. I hope we will not play politics with such a serious subject.
The administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit has recently been transferred from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to the Department for Work and Pensions—about time too, as it was dreadfully administered under ODPM. There was almost one change a week. I am alarmed that the Government are trialling a new method of housing benefit called social housing allowance, which will take an entire area and designate the rent for a particular house in it. I posed a series of questions about that. I believe that it will cause some people to move out of their house because they will not be able to afford the rent. We need to look carefully at how we administer housing benefit and council tax benefit. We should not keep changing it, as that creates difficulties for those who administer it and who are desperately trying to help the poorest and most needy in our country.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
The hon. Gentleman is right. The benefits used to form part of the rate support grant administered by the ODPM. It will now form a separate budget line in the Department for Work and Pensions.
20WH The second old chestnut in such debates is the use of brownfield land. There are huge quantities of brownfield land out there. The Government will no doubt proudly recount the fact that they are meeting the 60 per cent. target. The only reason they are meeting the target is that they are not building enough houses. I call on them with urgent vigour to consider acquiring more brownfield land, to examine the grant regime, to consider bringing back the reclamation grant, and to look at where they lost the European gap funding. I know that English Partnerships is doing some useful work in the Thames gateway. Perhaps the Minister will tell us something about that.
Mention has been made of empty homes, of which there are 729,000—down a little on the figure a year ago. More could be done, but not by compulsory leasing, as the Government trumpet. That is not the way to deal with empty homes. People should be encouraged to let them. There are a huge number of flats above shops. If we had some proper regeneration schemes to regenerate town centres, people would want to live in those flats above shops. If we come up with fiscal and other incentives for institutions to let their flats above shops, we might be doing some good.
We need to encourage the private rented sector—half a million people live in the private rented sector in this country. The problem is that every time housing legislation is introduced, it becomes more expensive for private landlords. Much of that legislation may be worthy in itself, but we need to examine the risk and reward.
We need to examine the working of the Housing Corporation. I do not believe that it is providing particularly good value for money—we need to consider the ratio between affordability and the capital cost. Above all, however, we need to look at how effective the Housing Corporation is at levering in private sector finance. We need to be more imaginative with our key worker strategies. We need to come up with better partequity ownership schemes, and perhaps we should consider subsidised mortgage schemes, which would give those key workers portability to other local authority areas.
The starter homes initiative, as has been mentioned, has been a spectacular failure. Surely we can beef that up. There are huge amounts of public land in this country. It is unacceptable that some health authorities have public land near hospitals and yet they cannot attract the nurses and auxiliary workers that they need. Surely we can build key worker housing on some of that land. Many other Departments, such as the Ministry of Defence, have huge public land banks. We need to be more imaginative in how we use that land. Much of that land is brownfield anyway, so if we cannot encourage the public sector to release and get brownfield land into a proper state so that is ready for development, I do not know what we can do in the private sector.
We need to consider urgent research into safe, modern building methods. I have been sceptical about some modern building methods, but if the Government were to do some proper research and assure us about some of those modern building methods, which are used effectively in other parts of the world, we could build a large number of houses more cheaply and quickly.
21WH Of course, we need to look at good design—for too long we have built poorly designed houses. It is not acceptable to build public sector housing for a 30-year life. As for density, the trouble with the Government's proposals is that they are prescriptive. In certain areas, we could build much denser housing—Kensington and Chelsea probably has densities of about 70 or 80 houses per hectare, whereas the Government's density target is only 30 per hectare. In my constituency, however, 30 per hectare is far too dense—perhaps that should be per acre.
We need to address skills shortages in the construction industry. We need much more training in the construction industry, and we may need to consider bringing in limited skills from some of the countries aspiring to join the EU. They will come here anyway, so let us control it and make sure that we get the skills that we want.
The Government have begun to tackle the problem of planning gain. The problem is that they think of the developer as a milch cow that will go on providing ever more resources. We need to use those resources more effectively and more consistently from one council to another. It is possible to commute the section 106 payment for provision of social housing. In most cases, we should require the developer either to build those houses on the development that he is building at present, or to build the social housing elsewhere. After all, the developer can build social housing far more cheaply than anybody else, particularly when he has an incentive to do so.
We need to look at mobility schemes to free up social housing and encourage people to move. The average tenancy in London is 20 years and rising—of course, that is because the rent is subsidised and people cannot easily move. We need mobility schemes, however, to encourage people who want to and can move out of the public sector, or who want to move to a bigger or smaller house as their life circumstances change, to do so.
We should encourage local authorities to be more inventive with their reserves from large-scale voluntary transfer. My suggestion to my local authority the other day that it should build some houses outside the local authority's area was met with a howl that that would not be possible. Why not? If there is a shortage of housing in Cherwell or Cotswold, why not build a few houses in Swindon, and let the key workers live in Swindon and work in Cirencester if there is a shortage of nurses and teachers?
Finally, on the right to buy, we hear an awful lot of nonsense. Those 1.5 million houses that were mentioned in today's political football did not disappear—they were over and above the housing stock that we have now. We will change the rules when we extend the right to buy so that all the proceeds are ploughed back into building more social housing. The Government are going the opposite way. They are stopping the right to buy with their changes, and they are not explaining where the funds will come from for the shortfall in resources to build more social housing. As I said, the average tenancy in London is 20 years, so there is little mobility in social housing anyway. It is much better to get a public capital sum and use it effectively to build more houses. As I have explained previously, by extending the right to buy we can sell off about 30,000 22WH houses and build 15,000 additional social housing units. In relation to the figures that were given, that represents a large percentage of what the Government are building today.
I have had my time in this debate—
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
The Minister says, "Good", but he should listen and perhaps adopt one or two suggestions instead of making cheap political points at the expense of those poor people who suffer the misery of homelessness and sleeping on the streets. He sits here making cheap, snide comments—he should be ashamed of himself. I hope that when he speaks he will have more positive ideas than his predecessors about how to solve the problem.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for introducing this important debate on homelessness. Both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokesmen were on the Front Bench in last night's debate on the fire brigade, and I regret that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is in no better humour than he was when we left the House last night.
We have heard some interesting points in this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond for the Government. I regret that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell decided to launch his speech with a hectoring and highly critical attack of Government policy. That is a bit rich for a member of the party that, when in office, took this country to its peak of homelessness in 1990 with 145,800 homeless households. That is the truth, and we have been dealing with that legacy ever since.
The facts are that when the Conservatives were in power, half a million homes were repossessed between 1990 and 1997, when mortgage rates averaged 11 per cent. In 1992, 1.2 million houses suffered from negative equity, and the Conservatives left this Labour Government a backlog of repairs to local authority housing amounting to no less than £19 billion. Under the Tories, there was a year-on-year decrease in housing investment, and they spent more than —40 billion on subsidising the right to buy, which prevented local authorities from reinvesting those capital receipts to repair council homes. As we have heard this morning, they want to extend the right to buy to housing associations. How on earth that will help solve the housing shortage—it will cost more than £330 million per year—I simply do not understand.
§ Chris Grayling rose—
§ Phil Hope
I want to move on.
Across the country, more and more people are seeking and receiving assistance from local authorities under our homelessness legislation. It is not just a London problem, although it is often painted as such by the popular press. It seems odd that increases in homelessness have been recorded in all regions in recent 23WH years. Some of those increases are the result of us strengthening legislation on the rights of homeless people—more people are being helped now who might not have been given priority need in the past. That does not account for all the growth in the numbers, however.
The question of homelessness among black and ethnic minority groups has been raised. We know that those groups are three times more likely to be homeless than those from other communities, and we are not shying away from that difficult problem. We have published a policy briefing on the issue and have commissioned a new research project to help us to understand why that is happening and to identify best practice. We will report soon on tackling that issue.
I could provide, as other Members have done, a litany of statistics. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) spoke about younger people, and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) focused on older people, in relation to the dilemmas and problems that we face. The important thing, though, is what we are going to do about the problem, and we want to tackle it head on. We have a good track record. We have introduced legislation to strengthen the safety net for homeless people by, for the first time, requiring local authorities to take a strategic approach to tackling and preventing the problem; and every local authority now has a homelessness strategy in place. It was foolish of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell to suggest that such strategies are irrelevant, unnecessary or bureaucratic, and that they do not achieve anything. The hon. Member for Banbury gave the lie to that when he said that his council, Cherwell, was feeling the pressure of the homelessness legislation forcing it into dealing with the problems of young, single homeless in his constituency. If the Conservatives—were they ever to get back into power—were to abolish the obligation on local authorities to tackle homelessness, that would be a devastating blow to the needs of many vulnerable people in our communities.
The Government have extended the priority need groups, ensuring that more vulnerable people will get the help that they need from local authorities. We have reduced rough sleeping to well below two thirds of 1998 levels. We are on target to ensure that no family with children has to live in a bed-and-breakfast hotel for longer than six weeks, with numbers reduced by more than 50 per cent. over the past year alone. We have provided significant additional funding for local authorities and voluntary sector agencies to support delivery of these homelessness strategies, doubling previous spending plans. We shall spend £5 billion on more affordable housing, which is double the level of investment that we inherited in 1997.
§ Chris Grayling
If the Government have maintained the building of affordable housing at 1997 levels, does that mean that since then we have built more new affordable homes than the total number of homeless families?
§ Phil Hope
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about affordable housing, to which I shall turn in a few moments. Conservative Members continue to moan about the Government's so-called concreting over of the 24WH countryside, yet it is authorities' refusal to meet their obligations under the planning system to revive land and homes for people to live in that causes demand to outstrip supply. The hon. Gentleman should ask some of his colleagues to consider why affordable homes are not being built at the rate that they should be.
We are spending £5 billion more on affordable housing, and we shall spend £22 billion on communities and housing during the next three years—an increase of 40 per cent. on current figures.
The hon. Member for Banbury bemoaned the fact that his local authorities were underfunded. Since 1997, in general terms, Government grant to local authorities has gone up by no less than 30 per cent. in real terms. That contrasts starkly with the 7 per cent. cut in central Government funding for local government in the last four years of the Conservative Administration. More specifically, he alleged that north Oxfordshire has been ignored in terms of housing capital allocation. Of the three authorities in north Oxfordshire, two—Cherwell, which he mentioned, and West Oxfordshire—volunteered to give their allocations to the Housing Corporation. If he does not agree with that decision, perhaps he would like to go back to his district council to discuss it. The third. Oxford, has been allocated increased housing funding for the next financial year. In 2003—04, Oxford received more than £2.5 million, which will rise to £2.9 million in 2004—05. I hope that that deals with the hon. Gentleman's point.
In the course of listing alternative action points that the Conservatives would implement, the hon. Member for Cotswold made several interesting Conservative spending commitments, which we are looking forward to costing. Of course, he did not say that he would match the £22 billion sustainable communities plan that we have published, nor that he would match the £5 billion of affordable housing. We shall have to see how his sums add up in the end.
I am pleased to say that we have had real success in tackling rough sleeping. Some of us remember that a Conservative Secretary of State bemoaned the fact that he had to step over rough sleepers when he came out of the opera in London. Instead of stepping over the problem, we tackled it. Towns, cities and boroughs such as Brighton, Oxford, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and Camden have all seen the number of people sleeping out on their streets plummet through the work of multi-agency partnerships led by the local authorities. We still want to make sustained reductions in some areas, and we are bearing down on that problem.
We have made much progress towards our bed-and-breakfast target, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) was good enough to acknowledge. In 2002, we decided, alongside a number of wider measures, to tackle the pernicious feature of homelessness that is families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We were determined quickly to bring an end to the scandal of children being forced to spend long periods in cramped bed-and-breakfast hotels, having to share washing and cooking facilities with strangers and with no room to play or do homework. I am pleased to say that local authorities across the country are reporting good progress towards our target that, by March 2004, no families with children should be in B and B accommodation for longer than six weeks. As hon. Members will know, we 25WH have moved to outlaw its use, except for short periods, from 1 April, empowering homeless households and ensuring that we put an end to that scandal once and for all.
I turn to prevention. As I said, the figures on homelessness are increasing. We have embarked on a programme to ensure that the causes of homelessness are recognised and understood at a local level. The problem is as much about social exclusion as about the availability of affordable housing. We need to understand the personal factors that can lead to homelessness. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam referred to older people and to those with mental health problems. Other factors include drug and alcohol abuse, debt, family relationship breakdowns or domestic violence. We need to help people rebuild their relationships with family or friends, to stay in education or to take up training or employment. As the hon. Member for Cotswold said, multiple factors contribute to the problem of homelessness.
§ Mr. Burstow
Does the Minister agree that there should be adequate working between the health service, especially mental health services, and local authorities in drawing up their homelessness strategies?
§ Phil Hope
The homelessness legislation provides an important safety net for vulnerable people who are homeless, including the elderly. There is no set age—the critical factor is whether they are vulnerable. For the homelessness statistics we collect information on reasons for being accepted as homeless, including old age, but we recognise that people may be vulnerable for more than one reason. Last year, we consulted on ways in which to improve data collection, and some changes will be made to the next quarterly statistics. We need to know the causes of homelessness. Age may come into it, but there are often multiple factors. Under the initiative on homelessness and the mentally ill, several high-care hostels have been built with Government capital funding. The initiative focuses on homeless people who 26WH are vulnerable due to mental ill-health, including older people, and revenue costs are met 75 per cent. by central Government and 25 per cent. by local authorities. That may not deal with all the problems, but I hope that it demonstrates that we recognise the concerns mentioned by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam about such people being hidden and isolated. We expect local authorities, with the help of central Government, to address their needs.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury on mentioning the difficulties that are faced by young people and the projects in his constituency that are doing good work to try to tackle them.
As the hon. Members for Epsom and Ewell and for Cotswold said, any attempts to prevent and tackle homelessness have to be part of a wider effort to improve the supply of good-quality, affordable housing. Funding for the Housing Corporation's development programme has risen to around £1.5 billion to provide homes for rent and low-cost home ownership—an increase of £0.5 billion on last year—and £300 million of that has been top-sliced for a challenge fund to produce more than 8,000 new homes in London and south-east England. I shall be interested to know whether the Conservatives will ever match that pledge.
In total, we are investing £5 billion in more affordable housing, including £1 billion for key worker housing. I have to say to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that I regret the Liberal Democrat's decision to abandon that scheme if they were ever to get into power. We believe that it provides important support for young key workers to get into housing for the first time.
We are tackling the issue of empty homes and dealing with the question of building of affordable housing. We have had a lot of success in tackling the worst manifestations of homelessness—rough sleeping and families with children living in bed-and-breakfast—but our prevention agenda is beginning to show results. We are building more affordable housing and setting the right agenda for reducing levels of homelessness in future.