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Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006

New cases of homelessness are at their lowest level since 1985 and the number of households in temporary accommodation is falling. We are achieving this by investing in homelessness prevention schemes, increasing the supply of new social housing and improving opportunities for moving from temporary accommodation into settled homes.

I welcome the progress set out by my right hon. Friend, but will she look at how local authorities interpret the preventing homelessness agenda and the Homelessness Act 2002, especially in Northampton where the local authority has refused to accept responsibility for a man who suffers from leprosy, and faces being turfed out of his home? Does she think that it is acceptable in this day and age that people with such illnesses are left homeless on the streets?

No, I do not. I am not familiar with the case that my hon. Friend has brought to my attention today, but it is important that local authorities not only reduce homelessness but deal with individual cases in a sensitive and appropriate manner. If she would like me to look at the case that she has highlighted, I would be happy to do so.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is no adult homelessness provision in Shropshire, which leads to homeless people sleeping in cars, in derelict cars, on Ercall wood and on the Wrekin itself. Will the Secretary of State liaise with Labour-led Telford and Wrekin council to do something about this ongoing problem?

It is very important that we have appropriate hostels so that rough sleepers can be properly accommodated, that we take action on bed-and-breakfast accommodation so that families do not have to bring up their children in cramped conditions, and that we encourage local authorities to move people from expensive temporary accommodation into more permanent settled homes. The Government, as the hon. Gentleman will know, have taken action across all those fronts, with rough sleeping falling by 75 per cent.; we are ending the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and investing £19 million in hostel provision. There may well be individual areas where yet more needs to be done, and we as a Government, working with Labour local councils, are committed to making that happen.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that homelessness and the shortage of affordable houses are problems not only in the south but in my constituency in Sheffield, in the north of the country. She will have seen the report of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which calls for increased house building and for a significant proportion of those houses to be affordable houses for rent. In order to achieve that, will she give greater powers to three-star arm’s length management organisations such as Sheffield Homes, to enable them to build new houses and to contribute to dealing with the housing shortage problem, which affects so many people?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Over the past nine years we have corrected the £19 billion backlog in repairs, which was vitally needed in order to improve our social housing stock. It is right that we now move our emphasis from the decent homes programme—although that needs to continue, of course—to allowing councils, including councils with arm’s length management organisations, to build new council housing where that is needed. Over the next few years we will increase investment in new social homes by 50 per cent. We also recently issued a document about innovative ways of allowing local councils and ALMOs to build new homes.

I think that the Secretary of State might find that this is the first year since 1997 in which homelessness figures have actually dipped—although Crisis estimates that there are 380,000 cases of hidden homelessness. However, I want to take my question away from such figures. Is not the tragedy of homelessness that its causes and cures are not so much the physical provision of accommodation, but personal matters such as relationship breakdown, mental illness, and the leaving of care or the forces? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that her Department is doing enough to encourage small charities, such as Thames Reach Bondway, King’s Arms, Emmaus and the Jericho Road Project, which are trying to tackle the deep-seated causes and to provide stability for the homeless, to prevent them from being placed in accommodation to clear a statistic today only for them to become another one tomorrow when they cannot cope?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is important that we work not only with local authorities but with the voluntary and charitable sector, to enable people to live independently for longer in their own homes, and also to support them in whatever form of accommodation is needed. We are investing about £1.8 billion through the supporting people programme, which enables people to live independently for longer. But it is also right to invest more money in hostel provision, which we are doing, and which increasingly links the accommodation needs of individuals with their job-search needs and other needs, to enable them to live independently.

Today the Government will publish their Welfare Reform Bill, which includes a major reform of housing benefit. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions on ensuring that the terms of the Bill sustain people in their homes, and do not lead to a rise in homelessness?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to housing benefit and how it is framed, and, of course, my Department and the DWP work very closely on those issues. Let me highlight one issue. We are working with innovative local authorities such as Newham to recycle some of the proceeds from housing benefit when they use the private sector rather than the social rented sector to house vulnerable families, so that they can move more families from high- cost temporary accommodation into settled accommodation. I would like to see such innovative schemes expand. Later this year we will announce a fund for London, which may be replicated elsewhere, and which will allow such schemes to be developed further.