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Westminster Hall

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 23 April 2008

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 April 2008

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Prison Overcrowding/Sentencing Policy

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

I declare an interest, because I still practise—for my sins—in the criminal courts as a barrister. Looking around the Chamber, I hope that what we lack in quantity we will make up in quality.

Are the inhabitants of Britain so intrinsically bad that we must lock up many more people per capita than our friends in Europe? Some might say yes, but that is a serious question because our prisons have been overcrowded since 1994. Over the past year or 18 months, more than half our prisons have been overcrowded. I well recall serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and saying, with others, that the legislation would result in a substantial increase in the number of new prisoners. I argued that if that Act was to make any sense, it would have to be matched with an increase in prison places, which seemed fairly obvious. Back then we were talking about 50,000 prisoners—if I recall correctly—but today the figure is 82,000. That increase had been foreseen for some time.

One complicating feature is that criminal justice, in general, and sentencing, in particular, are and always have been a political football. Every now and then, the larger parties get into a bidding war about how to be beastly to offenders, which usually plays out to the background music of the tabloid drum beat. If the question was depoliticised—as far as one can imagine that happening—the system would be greatly improved for the benefit of society and, quite importantly, the taxpayer.

Many experts in the field have long concluded that prison simply does not work for many offenders. Even before the 2003 Carter report, it was clear that policy was wrongly directed. The report’s findings were very stark. It reckoned that the prison population had increased by 22 per cent. since 1997, resulting in a 5 per cent. reduction in crime. It concluded:

“there is no convincing evidence that further increases in the use of custody would significantly reduce crime.”

The then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said:

“More than half of all crime in this country is committed by people who have been through the criminal justice system. Prison does not work in stopping reoffending.”—[Official Report, 9 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 1033.]

Surprisingly, that was not said ex cathedra, but when he was very much in harness.

Since then, not a lot has happened—to coin a phrase. Two contrasting factors continue to predominate: first, the political imperative, to which I have alluded, and, secondly, the fact that the vast majority of prisoners —67 per cent.—are reconvicted within two years of release. The figure for youngsters in Wales between the ages of 18 and 21 is 78 per cent. Arguably, even if there were a complete change of heart over custody, the situation would be like an ocean-going vessel, in that it would take a long time to stop and turn around.

The rehabilitation element of prison has been severely undermined. There have been cuts in training and education, which might well be contributing to these awful statistics. I think that it is plain that if prison does not make a real difference to an individual’s life chances, it is simply failing not just prisoners, but society, because it costs £40,000 a year to keep somebody in prison.

On Friday 11 April, the prison population stood at 82,003, and as far as I know, that figure is rising. As at February 2008, the prison population was 114 per cent. of the certified normal accommodation level. The prison population exceeded the CNA level by 9,765, 88 of the 141 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, and the populations of 14 were more than 150 per cent. of their CNA level. The five most overcrowded prisons are Lancaster, Kennett, Shrewsbury, Swansea and Leicester.

To digress for a minute, despite what I am saying, I have long campaigned for a prison in north Wales, on the basis of human rights grounds, among other things. The figures that I have cited actually bolster the claim that north Wales needs a prison, given that many from north Wales end up in Shrewsbury prison and some end up in Swansea.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that experiences such as those in Dorchester prison, which is in my constituency, suggest that even when prisons are not technically overcrowded, very severe problems can emerge, for example with first night accommodation? General overcrowding is therefore rippling through the system and causing problems even worse than he describes.

I am sure that that is absolutely right. I do not think that any prison is working at a reasonable capacity, so there must be a knock-on effect, as the right hon. Gentleman says.

As I mentioned, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, with 143 inmates per 100,000 of the population, compared with France with 88, and Germany with 97. I know that we cannot compare like with like and that it is convenient to throw around statistics on international comparators, but this has been a trend for many years. I argue that the prison system is letting society down through wasting taxpayers’ money and, crucially, through failing to rehabilitate those who go into prison on a revolving-door basis, of whom there are many.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, for example, believes that the population crisis has had an adverse impact on the delivery of reoffending programmes, which must be crucial. It says that the movement and recategorisation of prisoners, and in some cases the closure of whole establishments for recategorisation, have undermined the stability required for the effective delivery of those very important programmes. It goes on to say that basic standards of human dignity are compromised with more than 12,000 prisoners being held two to a cell in cells designed for one. It also says that prisoners are being transported all over the UK in search of spaces, costing the taxpayer millions in transportation, resulting in delays in the criminal justice system, jeopardising family relationships and, for all I know, breaching human rights.

I sit on the board of the Prison Reform Trust, so I am naturally sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but does he agree that if our constituents are to be convinced about the alternatives to prison, those alternatives must be sufficiently rigorous and properly managed? Does he think that community sentences fit that description, or is there scope for improvement?

I am, and always have been, a believer in community sentencing, not as a soft option, but because, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, the reoffending rate is lower—it is more effective than prison. His point is absolutely right. Unless and until we properly fund the probation service to do the job that we expect it to do, we will be at a pinch point and will not persuade anyone of the efficacy of community penalties, or convince them that they are more effective and useful. He makes a good point, and I hope to touch on it in a few minutes.

Deaths in custody are on the increase. A study by the forum for preventing deaths in custody in September 2007 found a definite link between overcrowding and self-inflicted deaths. In addition, violence on prison officers is increasing. We also have self-harm and prisoner-on-prisoner violence. The PCS says that the situation could be further exacerbated by the 3 per cent. year-on-year cuts expected between 2008 and 2011 under Lord Carter’s review. It believes that the solution to the crisis should include safeguarding the budget of the Prison Service and ensuring that programmes to tackle reoffending—including the work of instructional officers—and drug and alcohol treatments are properly resourced.

Prison education is a hot topic at the moment. I know that the Government will say that more money has been put in, but on the ground there are fewer opportunities. I also know that not every prisoner is interested in education or retraining; however, there are many who are who cannot access it. Again, the system is failing us. Instructional officers in the public sector prison service have been very effective in delivering education, training and work to help inmates address their reoffending behaviour. That is another area that needs to be assessed to see whether sufficient investment is being made.

I have said this before and I will say it again: we need a thorough audit of those who are in prison. If we had such an audit, we would find that as many as 35 per cent. of prisoners—possibly higher—should not be there. There is a high percentage of people with psychiatric illnesses and with drug dependency, and those two issues are not being addressed. Sending such people to prison is not dealing with the problem. The system is failing them and society, as well.

As a young solicitor in the mid-1970s, I recall appearing many times before mental health tribunals. Usually, we would go to a halfway house. There was a very good centre in mid-Wales that served the whole of Wales very well. It has since closed. Typically, people from Rampton, Broadmoor or wherever were sent to that halfway house. They had often been convicted of very serious offences, including extreme violence and sometimes murder. I was instructed on their behalf to make an application for them to be re-categorised and ultimately reintroduced into society. That centre had a fantastic record of working closely with such people. Believe it or not, many of those people still send me the occasional postcard. They are back in society. We were looking after them at that stage and they were receiving the best care. Unfortunately, that centre has now closed down. It closed at about the same time when all the clever commentators were talking about care in the community being the best thing since sliced bread. However, there is very little care in the community. What we seem to do now is lock people up, and that is no good to them or to society. It is costing some £40,000 a year just to keep them under lock and key.

I want to refer to the current sentencing problems. There are now restrictions on sentencing in 34 of the 42 probation areas in the UK. Such restrictions involve the non-availability of unpaid work, the cancellation of one-to-one programmes, major delays in programmes for domestic violence, and drink-driving, substance abuse and community and internet offenders. Those are crucial matters that need to be addressed. The National Association of Probation Officers tells me that 34 of the 42 probation areas—or 80 per cent.—are now suffering from lack of resources and staffing. Of the 34 areas, 20 report huge delays with domestic violence programmes, 17 with unpaid work, 11 with substance abuse, 10 with community sex offender programmes, and so on. Let me give some specific examples. In south-east London, major cuts to staff resources mean that there are considerable delays in offenders getting on to domestic abuse programmes. The situation has worsened over the past 12 months.

In Essex, there are waiting lists for the intensive domestic abuse programme. The average wait now is 12 months. That must be a ridiculous situation. One officer said that none of his cases has ever started a programme within six months of the order being made. The officers have been advised by management to recommend supervision orders of two years when an IDAP proposal has been made to ensure that there is enough time for completion. That obviously leads to complications in terms of resourcing and the volume of casework.

In Gwent, in south Wales, staff report a waiting list of at least 40 men and say that there is no work load relief for officers to train or to deliver programmes. They cite one instance of a man placed on a supervision order for two years with a condition of attendance of the course after having been convicted of choking his wife. He was not placed on the programme and he committed the offence again. A request has been put in for a place on the programme as a matter of urgency, and he is still waiting.

Therefore, the situation is pretty dire across the UK. Avon and Somerset report a minimum delay of two to three weeks for all offenders with an unpaid work requirement because of a sharp increase in prison numbers and a decrease in staffing. As from 22 January, Staffordshire ceased making active proposals for unpaid work in reports to magistrates courts because of a deficit, thereby restricting the ways in which courts can deal with offenders.

In north Wales, the service has been reorganised with a resulting 70 per cent. cut in the domestic abuse programme. The community sex offenders’ programme has been cut even further, and the internet sex offenders’ programme has been withdrawn. The reason given for the cuts is that offenders undertake such programmes in prison and they are being duplicated on their release. If anyone believes that, then they are more naïve than me.

The situation is that we are expecting a lot of probation officers when there are far fewer of them on the ground. In south Wales, believe it or not, staff have been told that they must not actively recommend supervision for foreign nationals who need interpreters because of the additional cost of interpreting. That sums up the whole situation. Yet on 16 April, the director-general of the National Offender Management Service, Phil Wheatley, said:

“We know that short custodial sentences are less effective than community sentences in reducing re-offending.”

In effect, he is saying, “Do not suggest sending people away”. At the same time, we are being told not to recommend a community penalty. How on earth are probation officers meant to put a cogent report before a court? Phil Wheatley goes on to say:

“It’s obviously a matter for sentencers to decide who goes to prison, but with places in custody in very short supply, it’s really important that probation staff continue to ensure that the option of non-custodial punishments are offered where it’s appropriate to do so and otherwise custody is the likely option.”

All well and good, but where are the officers?

I spoke about the crisis in the justice system at a conference two weeks ago. I was told about the unpaid work situation on Humberside on Sunday 13 April. At one centre, there was one supervisor with 15 offenders. At Bransholme Pond site, there were 13 offenders with one supervisor. At Hessle Foreshore, there was one supervisor with 12 offenders. Ultimately, people given a 300-hour order end up litter-picking. I do not think that litter-picking will do much for the individual or anybody else. It might be a good thing to clear up a bit of litter, but I do not think that it will rehabilitate anybody. The sentencing options, therefore, are being severely cut back simply because of cutbacks in the probation service. With due respect to the Minister, she will quote global figures and the way in which funding has increased over the past seven or 10 years. However, the experience on the ground is that there is a crisis in this whole area. NAPO is alarmed at the decision taken by Kent probation area to cut 76 staff in the next three years in response to the imposition of a flat, capped budget. Things will get worse on the ground if we are not careful.

I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow too much, but there has been a 2.7 per cent. increase this year in probation budgets—that is before the £40 million extra. Some of the figures that he is quoting are from January, before the extra money has gone in. I hope that the extra money will relieve some of the situations that he describes.

I thank the Minister for her response, but at the conference that I attended last week, I gained the impression that the crisis is still there. The money might be of some assistance—it would be foolish of me to say otherwise—but the scale of the problem out there demands concentration and a redoubling of efforts. However, I do not deny that more money has been put in.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is the way in which the Treasury views the matter? Seeing rehabilitation as a cost ignores the fact that successful rehabilitation is a money saver. We need to reverse the Treasury’s perception and get it to understand that it is an investment that could yield returns for the taxpayer.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Earlier, I mentioned the £40,000 that we spend on keeping each prisoner in prison for a year. It costs £76,000 to train a probation officer, and it does not take a great deal of mathematics to work out that if we start recruiting and training people now, it will pay dividends in two or three years’ time. It is difficult to think in Treasury terms of outcomes. He knows more about economics than I ever will, but I do not think that this area can be measured acutely in outcomes. Common sense dictates that it is better to invest in the probation service at this stage and ensure that we do not have to build too many prisons in which to fail to rehabilitate people.

Is it not a matter of balance? It is hard to convince an elderly person in the community who is being terrorised by someone that simple rehabilitation or some other solution is going to keep them safe in the community. Surely there has to be a balanced position that is not only in the interests of the offender. Those who have been offended against must feel safe as well.

I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman’s use of the word “terrorised” implies that the offending person’s conduct is pretty bad, and there is no doubt that that kind of person should be in prison. I am the first to admit that many people are in prison because they deserve to be there and because there is no other option for them. I also say, however, that as many as 35 per cent. of people in prison should not be there, and that we should deal with them in another way that is more humane and cost-effective. If we explain to the public how they will get a return on that investment, and how people who are serving proper, structured and lengthy community penalties might be rehabilitated and brought back into mainstream society, that argument might be accepted.

I do not want to take up too much time, either, but may I make another point? The hon. Gentleman talks about cuts in services, but it is hard to convince a community that experiences daily cuts in its services that there should be more concern about cuts in the services for people who offend.

That is a valid point, but if we fail with the criminal justice system it will implode, and that will affect everybody. We really must get things right, but we are not getting them right at the moment.

The Minister will know that I have seen her colleague, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) to discuss a suggestion. Community penalties are all well and good—I have made the point about needing more probation officers—and I believe that more money has gone into the system, but we need far more if we are to turn the situation around rather than simply imprisoning more and more people and having a revolving-door syndrome. My suggestion is about progressive community sentencing. Very often, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, there are various aspects to a community penalty. It might involve getting a person clean from drugs, for example, or it might impose a curfew or activity requirement such as undertaking unpaid work or looking for work. NAPO and I have suggested introducing lengthier community penalties that might involve concentrating entirely on getting offenders clear of drugs for the first four or five months. The second phase could then involve literacy and numeracy, or unpaid and community work. The hope is that the final phase would involve those people looking for paid employment and getting back into mainstream society.

Too many people have community sentences that lump everything together. Someone who is on hard drugs is bound to live a disordered life. How can they look for work or attend a literacy or numeracy course? It is impossible. Crown Court judges, of whom I know many, are disheartened when they hand down such sentences because they know pretty well that they will see the same people again in two or three months’ time and will have to send them away.

I know that the Minister of State to whom I referred is considering my suggestion with his officials, and I hope that phased community penalties are introduced. Suffice it to say that I am a firm believer in the community penalty route. Clearly, we need prisons, but they should be a last resort, and when we send people away we should be considering their rehabilitation. That is not about being soft on crime, and nor are the staggered or progressive community orders. In fact, they are about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, to coin a phrase.

I apologise for being late, Mr. Gale. I put it down to problems with the transport system, which I am sure will be resolved after the mayoral elections in a week’s time. I shall not even mention the name of the relevant candidate.

I speak as the secretary of the all-party group on justice trade unions that brings together the Prison Officers Association, the National Association of Probation Officers and the Public and Commercial Services Union. It also engages in dialogue with the Police Federation and other voluntary organisations that deal with the Prison Service. May I briefly put on record some of the concerns of individual unions and associations that have been raised through the all-party group? I apologise if some of these issues have been discussed in more detail by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

A key concern for the POA, which I have raised on several occasions, is the lack of long-term planning regarding the prison population and the investment of resources. There is a specific problem with identifying what needs to be done for rehabilitation. In previous debates on this issue, the Government have announced that there would be 9,500 additional places on the prison estate. The number was initially 8,000, and a further 1,500 were announced later. POA’s position on those additional places is that they are too little too late. I recall having meetings with Ministers two years ago in which we identified, using POA’s projections, the capacity that would be required, but the Government did not respond to those submissions. As a result, it looks as though the Prison Service will soon be at operational capacity once more, which means that there could be about 20,000 overcrowded places and prisoners sharing. POA points out that, in that situation, it is almost impossible to venture into rehabilitation.

I repeat POA’s plea about the need for a clearer strategy on mental health and drug treatment. I appreciate what the Government have done in giving additional resources, particularly for drug treatment, but from POA’s point of view, it is almost a drop in the ocean in terms of the scale of the mental health and drug issues that prisons face. The last estimate was that at least a third of the prisoners that it deals with have mental health problems. A similar number of prisoners have drug-related concerns.

There is cross-party support for the development of community sentencing. In our own areas, we have seen the success of community sentencing in many instances. However, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, community sentencing must be resourced properly. We welcome the additional £40 million that the Government have announced; it was a real breakthrough to have a specific amount identified as a result of a lobby that came from the all-party group on justice trade unions and other organisations. However, that additional money is being given in the context of the overall savings that must be found within the Department itself and there is some confusion about the specific allocation of the budgets that will be dedicated to community service.

My colleague, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, who is the vice-chair of the all-party group on justice trade unions, has cited the individual examples that are being reported to us now of situations in which there are insufficient resources to supervise the community sentences in a way that would make them constructive in contributing towards the rehabilitation of individual offenders. It would be useful to obtain clarity on the individual probation budgets, area by area, so that there can be greater transparency about the level of resources that are being invested for community sentencing within the regions themselves, because there seems to be a lack of clarity at the moment.

I would also like to say that there is an issue of morale within the service, across the piece. Members of the POA have been affected by the continuing refusal by the Government to recognise their trade union rights. From the POA’s point of view and increasingly from the point of view of NAPO, there is almost a continuing wrangle over pay, and NAPO members are back in pay talks with their employers. The Government have set an overall 2 per cent. pay limit on public sector pay, but within the probation service the employers seem to want to go even further, by inflicting pay reductions. The employers are now looking, before any process of negotiation that will lead towards a pay offer, at undermining the conditions that NAPO workers have enjoyed regarding flexible working and harmonisation of working hours, and they are also looking at assaults on sickness and other forms of working condition agreements. That all impinges upon the morale of the probation officers themselves, who are struggling to do a good job in very difficult circumstances.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Justice itself acknowledged, in a press statement, the work that was being undertaken by NAPO members. That press statement complimented NAPO members, saying:

“In 2006-07 the National Probation Service had its best performance year with the highest ever rates of…completed accredited programmes and unpaid work, and more offenders starting and completed drug rehabilitation than in any previous year.”

At the same time, their employers are seeking to undermine NAPO members’ wages and working conditions.

I suppose this debate gives us the opportunity to make a plea to the Government for a number of things: first, consistency of investment over time; and secondly, clarity about budgets and their distribution on a regional basis. However, the Government also need to take responsibility for creating a climate of industrial relations within the justice sector that can contribute more effectively to the delivery of services than the situation at the moment, in which there seems to be an element of hostility from the employer’s side towards the employees, who, as the Government themselves have said, have performed well in recent years. I hope that the Minister will be willing to meet the all-party group on justice trade unions, so that we can discuss these issues.

I know that we have had direct access to Ministers on a consistent basis in the past and that has been very constructive; it has enabled us to raise issues that nip some problems in the bud and also assisted the Government in coming forward with some of their policies that have been constructively appreciated by the work force themselves. I would welcome now a further dialogue with Ministers through the all-party group on justice trade unions to resolve some of these issues in the long term.

I congratulate you, Mr. Gale, on chairing the debate today. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on securing this debate. I will try not to refer to his constituency again, because a mixture of Welsh and Ulster Scots at this time of the morning would probably be more than most people could handle. However, I am very happy that he has secured this debate. Briefly, I want to dwell on the issue of sentencing. I probably will be coming at the subject from a different angle to him, and hon. Members may disagree with me.

One of the features of sentencing in recent times has been a failure, on some occasions, to make the sentence even come near to fitting the crime when it comes to offences such as sexual offences, including rape and sexual assault. It beggars belief that people can serve as little as a few months for the crime of rape. We have a situation in Northern Ireland—I am speaking in this debate on sentencing in Northern Ireland, because the issue is not devolved—where, by the Government’s own admission, victims of rape were reluctant to come forward. They were reluctant to do so because, in the first instance, they were concerned about the way in which they would be treated. I work a lot with the Rape Crisis Centre and with young offenders, and many victims of crime would say that they often end up feeling like criminals themselves. Secondly, victims of rape are fearful about how the perpetrator will be treated. Far too often, the sentence handed down is too light and elements of the crime, such as the long-term trauma inflicted upon the victim, are not given proper consideration.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has vowed to tackle this problem, although I am not entirely convinced that his proposals will prove to be the answer that he believes them to be. Perhaps the Minister, when she is winding up, could answer some of my questions. First, does she agree that this situation is not unique to Northern Ireland and that it occurs right across the whole of the United Kingdom? Secondly, does she agree that much more needs to be done to encourage victims of such crime to come forward, to make the process less traumatic for them, and also to make judges more accountable for how they hand down sentences?

I have listened to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and I agree with a lot of his points. A balance must be struck regarding sentencing, but some judges hand out very lenient sentences for this type of crime. There must be stiffer automatic tariffs and early release must be made much more difficult to obtain.

Finally, will the Minister join me in asking the Secretary of State for the Home Department to place these issues higher in the Government’s priority list? If that were to happen, we would move to tackling what I believe is a very serious situation affecting folk right across the United Kingdom. There are many difficulties in relation to sexual offences and I believe that the Government should put the treatment of those difficulties higher up their priority list.

I start by declaring an interest, in that I am a trustee of a prison charity, Unlock. I will then attempt to pronounce the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), having spelled it out phonetically for myself.

Good. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his remarks and on raising the significant issue of prison overcrowding. It is important that we keep referring to it; it is an issue that will not just go away, and I thought that he summarised extremely well the knock-on consequences of prison overcrowding.

Normally, those who participate in Westminster Hall debates try to be consensual and non-confrontational, but, given what has happened over the past 10 years under this Government, it is difficult to take a constructive approach. The figures speak for themselves. The enormous increase from 61,000 to 82,000 cannot just be explained away. I have some serious concerns about the way in which the prison population has gone up so alarmingly under a Labour Government.

Of course, the big increase in overcrowding has several wide-ranging consequences that make it difficult for the Prison Service to get itself out of the cycle of reoffending and overcrowding. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) discussed the impact that overcrowding has on the morale of the people who work inside the prisons. Their ability to deliver good prison services is clearly undermined by current population levels. Their ability to deliver services that would reduce overcrowding is a matter of major concern. I shall run through some of the effects of overcrowding, and they were touched on by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.

Education is one of the big losers as a result of overcrowding. The fact that some prisons do not have enough staff to cope with getting prisoners from cells to classrooms was drawn to my attention. A simple issue of geography within the prison itself is a ridiculous barrier to getting prisoners into classrooms to learn.

There are other knock-on consequences. There is not enough time to ensure that prisoners are able to get the right qualifications to take part in the right courses. I remember speaking to a prisoner when I was visiting a prison. She was on a hairdressing course offered in the prison, and was due to be released the next week. I congratulated her on the work that she was doing and she said, “Please, could you arrange for me to stay in prison for a couple more months?” She wanted to stay in prison to be able to complete the course because there was no system that allowed her to continue it after she left. That is ridiculous.

Another consequence of overcrowding is that prisoners move around the country so much. They find it extremely difficult to continue a course that they started in prison A when they are moved to prison B or C. Our efforts to rehabilitate our prisoners and give them the skills to get jobs are totally undermined by overcrowding.

The next area of concern due to overcrowding is the health of the prison population. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned suicides. It is a tragedy that so many young men reach a point, in what should be a safe and captive environment, at which they commit suicide. The figures for self-harm have increased rapidly over the past three years. According to the Howard League, there were more than 22,000 cases of self-harm in the prison population. How can that be right, given that those individuals should be under some kind of supervision?

The problem goes beyond the pressure of self-harm and suicide. The British Medical Association recently issued a statement that expressed the concerns of some doctors who operate in the prisons. It stated:

“Overcrowding in prisons continues to place immense pressure on the ability of prison doctors to provide basic healthcare to prisoners.”

Another matter that is raised with Members of Parliament when they visit prisons is access to dental care. Whether the issue is self-harm, suicide, doctors complaining or access to dental health, we know that overcrowding creates serious problems for the health and welfare of our prisoners. Whatever the merits of the case for whether prisoners should be there, it just cannot be right, in this age, to have such poor quality health care in our prisons.

Then there are the prisoners with mental health difficulties who perhaps should not be in prison in the first place. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to them. The figure that I have been given by various agencies working in this field is that up to 70 per cent. of our prisoners suffer from mental health difficulties at some point. I am not arguing that 70 per cent. of prisoners should not be in prison but that serious resources are needed to tackle the problem and that in many cases prison is not the most appropriate location for such individuals.

If 70 per cent. of persons who are in prison have mental health problems, surely those problems were already in the society. We should have dealt with them in society rather than having to deal with them because someone got into trouble.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have no data, but we can assume that individuals who have mental health problems in prison had them before going to prison. Those problems may well have contributed to the difficulties that led them into prison and I am sure that that is blatantly obvious to all of us in this Chamber. A joined-up approach would focus not just on prisoners while they are in prison but on the activities that we undertake to stop people going to prison and then reoffending when they leave. That is self-evident, and I am sure that nobody would disagree with it. The question is how we actually tackle the situation and make things work.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a valuable point. Practitioners have identified a common issue among a core group of reoffenders: child abuse has been part of their experience. Many prisoners have been mentally damaged because of child abuse and, as a result, have later been involved in violent behaviour. The Government have instigated some terrifically successful programmes to deal with that issue, but they are few and far between. The scale of the problem is in no way matched by the resources, and overcrowding undermines the good practice that the Government have developed.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A frustrating aspect of many of the issues that we are discussing this morning is that this Labour Government understand the problem and have been trying to do many creative things to solve it. I am sure that when the Minister responds, she will be able to announce and recall several initiatives that try to tackle the problems. There is much common ground, and there are many superb examples and case studies of schemes that work being tried in prisons. As the hon. Gentleman said, the difficulty is that we cannot roll them out quickly enough because of the overcrowding problem. It is almost a chicken-and-egg situation. A massive up-front investment is needed so that some of the trials can be rolled out much more quickly. We would then see benefits over a period of time.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy referred to drugs and there is concern that the overcrowding situation is leading to prisons being unable to cope with the amount of drugs that are traded within them. The head of drug treatment at the National Offender Management Service estimated that the street value of the drugs taken in prisons is £100 million. Again, in what should be a safe, secure environment, to have that amount of drugs just cannot be right. It also totally undermines public confidence in the prison system.

Then there is the knock-on consequence of prisoners being unable to keep links with family and friends, which are crucial for rehabilitation. It is a tragedy that contacts with children and partners often break down when people go to prison for the first time. That can make it all the harder for them to rebuild their life when they leave prison. The constant churn and moving around of the prison population because of overcrowding put an ever-increasing strain on family relations, which are strained in the first place because of where the individuals are.

The final and most obvious consequence of overcrowding is the inability to tackle reoffending. There is no point in repeating this, but the obvious solution to the problem is that if we could tackle high reoffending, we would begin to bring down the prison population. Not enough is being done within the prison population to tackle reoffending. Efforts should start in the prisons; the issue is not only for the community afterwards. It is important that the problem is tackled, because we need to reassure the public that the system, which costs a lot of money, is not just wasting that money by sending out individuals who commit crimes again.

I wish to ask the Minister a couple of questions on that issue. One thing that would certainly help to reduce reoffending is giving ex-offenders some support when they go into the community. As I said, I am a trustee of Unlock and a couple of issues are of enormous concern to the organisation. The first is that it is virtually impossible for an ex-offender to get home insurance and, as a consequence, it is difficult to get rented accommodation. Landlords can lose their insurance on the house if they declare that an ex-offender is renting it. It can be difficult for those individuals to purchase or rent a property themselves.

An issue that needs more work done on it is the inability of ex-offenders to get bank accounts. It is difficult for people leaving prison to get a bank account. I met the British Bankers Association and I am encouraged that it will try to do more to tackle this issue. However, the various money laundering legislation and requirements for proof of identity make it difficult for a prisoner to open a bank account and get the benefits of that. If people cannot have a bank account, in many cases they cannot get a job. It would be helpful if the Government gave a little push to a couple of practical barriers in relation to insurance and bank accounts.

What are the solutions to all this? I have talked about some of the issues. However, one problem is that the Government have tended to put in place some quick fixes—they have seen the numbers rising, panicked slightly and want to avoid the headlines—that are in danger of backfiring and undermining public confidence. The early release programme is not a sensible way to tackle the overcrowding problem: it can seem unfair and simplistic to the public and it is a knee-jerk response to the difficulty.

The individual who oversees prisons, the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said in her most recent report that

“the prison population went from one all time high to another, staving off disaster only by a series of short-term, often expensive, emergency measures”.

This short-term quick-fix approach is clearly not the way forward. The way forward is a fundamental review of the prison structure. Here I speak individually and not for my party. I have argued privately that we need to look at the very concept of a prison and see whether we should have different models, comprising education and training centres and units to tackle people’s mental health. It may prove impossible for a prison, on its own, to do all those things at the same time in one building—one structure—that has so many different individuals to cope with.

We certainly need to do more about education and training. Again, some of the Government’s schemes have been superb. For example, at Reading prison, where work has been done to get Transco and the big utility companies to come in, take prisoners and train them, it has been discovered that the reoffending rate for those on such schemes decreases to 6 per cent. or 7 per cent., because the individuals get jobs. That is where we should be at, but we need to be doing more of it.

On sentencing policy, I pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who rightly said that, if there were an alternative to prison as part of sentencing policy, it could undermine public confidence in the system. I understand and accept that. I have been an advocate of community sentences for a long time. I am troubled by some of the recent figures that suggest that alternatives and community sentences are not a panacea and are not, perhaps, as successful as we had hoped they would be.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the reason for that is surely that there is gross understaffing. We cannot squeeze a quart out of a pint bottle.

The hon. Gentleman is right. However, we need to make community sentences robust and ensure that the staff are there. Community sentences need to do two things: they need to reassure people that they are effective and they need to be effective. They must be put in place to ensure that we tackle reoffending. We should be looking towards some system of public service sentences, so that the public see that a community sentence is not a soft option but will give something back to the community. That will allow the community to have a say, perhaps, in what kind of work it wants to be done. Then there might be a sense of community restorative justice, with the community getting something in return for the crimes that may have been committed in it. However, such sentences should be linked with training and education to ensure that they are not just about litter picking, but that they change people’s behaviour. That has to be the right way forward, but I still do not think that we have got it absolutely right. Certainly, alternatives to prison would be a sensible way forward for many offenders.

I want to highlight women prisoners, which is an issue that I am sure is close to the Minister’s heart. Here, surely, more than anywhere else, we should be looking at alternatives to custody. The Minister will be aware of the Corston report, to which the Government have responded. The report mentioned trying to move towards closing women’s prisons over a 10-year period, replacing them with small custodial units for serious offenders and trying to ensure that the majority of women offenders were supported in supervision centres in the community. That is absolutely the right approach for women prisoners and it could well be a model for some male prisons. I should welcome the Minister’s updating us on where she is on that matter; I think that she was going to be appointed as the lead Minister to look at it.

I should like to make a quick plea for the Minister to provide us with an update on where the Government are in relation to votes for prisoners. That is a controversial issue, but I will not let go of it because of the various court rulings. Having lost the judgment in the courts in Europe, the Government have delayed for far too long the legislation required to allow prisoners the right to vote. I say that not because I want all prisoners to be able to vote so as to make a difference to elections—I am sure that that would not be so—but because they do not currently have the right to vote because they lose their civil rights and responsibilities when they go to prison. If we are to tackle many of the issues to do with reoffending, we jolly well ought to expect our prisoners to gain, and put in place, a sense of civic responsibility and civic rights. Among many of the other things they should be doing, prisoners should be voting.

In conclusion, the Government have been doing many things right in this area. However, the bottom line is that the figures speak for themselves. There has been an enormous increase in the prison population and their record so far can be summed up as follows: they are too timid and not prepared to be robust enough to tackle this issue with a big roll-out of programmes that we know could make such a big difference to prison overcrowding.

As others have done, I congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on initiating this debate. It is sad that if he had introduced the debate last week or the week before, or even a year or five years ago, the facts that he brought before us, and the conclusions that we could have drawn from them, would have been largely the same. The fact that we are still debating these issues in 2008 and seeing, as far as I can tell, no meaningful progress emerging from the Government in their management of prisons is a shame, to say the least. It is a waste, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, accommodating every prisoner is expensive.

The figures that I have, which are based on studies by King’s college, London, suggest that the overall cost of accommodating every adult prisoner is about £50,000 a year, and more for young offenders—in the region of £75,000 to £80,000 a year. Of course, for 15 to 17-year-olds in secure training centres, given increased staffing levels and so forth, the cost is in excess of £175,000 a year. Considering that the reoffending rates of those who emerge from adult prison is about 66 per cent., that is a huge waste of public money. It is also immoral. It is an indictment of how we run our prisons that we spend all this public money pretending that we are protecting the public from criminals, yet criminals come out of prison and reoffend in industrial quantities.

The reoffending rate for young offenders is about 75 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman said, the sad thing is that about half the prison population has been there before: they are reoffenders who have been through either the community or custodial sentencing systems. None the less, we are churning prisoners around the prison estate and churning individuals through the criminal justice system to absolutely no purpose at all.

I want a criminal justice system and prisons with a purpose, which should, of course, be to protect the public from those who need to be in prison due to the crimes that they have committed. None of us in the Chamber would deny that, whether we are members of the Labour party, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh national party, or the Northern Irish parties—[Interruption.] I went to school in Northern Ireland. I might even have gone to school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—at the Friends school, Lisburn.


I have a United Kingdom interest in the matter, but I do not come to it from a purely party political standpoint because, like the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, I am an officer of the justice unions parliamentary group. I fear that I do not attend its meetings as actively as the hon. Gentlemen, but the fact that I am an officer of the group indicates that I have a profound interest in the matter, which brings me to a point that I must make, not just as a formality, but because it informs the way in which I consider such issues.

I have been at the Bar for 35 years, which is a hideous thought, and for the past 10 years or so, I have also been a Crown court recorder, dealing with criminal cases with juries in the London Crown courts. When I sit as a part-time judge in the London criminal courts, I see a conveyor belt of people suffering from drug and alcohol problems who have been accused of committing crimes. Unfortunately, I often have to send those who are convicted to prison. What worries me is that I know that I am sending them to a grossly overcrowded prison estate in which, if they have a drug problem, they might start on a course to detoxify them, get them off drugs, and help them to stay clean, but, as other hon. Members have said—as they could have said last week, the week before or five years ago—they will then be churned through the system. There is a metaphorical jumbo jet of prisoners flying around the country from prison to prison.

At Canterbury Crown court, 10 people may be sent to prison every Monday. They may go initially to Canterbury prison for assessment and so on, but to make room for them, the governor must send 10 prisoners out of the back door. Where does he send them? He sends them to Maidstone prison. What happens at Maidstone Crown court? The judges send 10 people to prison, but to fit them in the governor of Maidstone prison must not only send 10 prisoners out to fit in the 10 from Canterbury, but must get 10 others out to fit in the 10 from Maidstone Crown court. That is 20, so where do they go? They go to Lewes prison. You can imagine, Mr. Gale, the increasing number of prisoners emerging from the sentencing process and being shunted around the prison estate all over the country. The numbers grow and grow.

We now have a prison population of 82,000, and it is obscene that we are making men live in lavatories. Around 3,000 or 4,000 prisoners are trebled up in cells designed for one person, and about 17,000 are doubled up. I need not go into the details, but they are obvious. We can congratulate ourselves that there is no more slopping out, except at Exeter prison, and it is disgusting that there is still slopping out in 2008. The obverse of that coin—my congratulatory words about having got rid of slopping out in all prisons except Exeter—is that because there is now sanitation in cells, two or three men sleep, eat and live in a lavatory. There is no privacy, and it is not surprising that the reoffending rate is so high when people are put into adverse conditions that go beyond the courts’ sentences. People are sentenced to lose their liberty. I sentence people not to live in public lavatories in inhumane and disgusting conditions, but to lose their liberty for a finite period.

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman suggesting that prisoners are living in inhumane conditions? If he is, I reject that.

The Minister may reject that in due course, but I do not know whether she can do so with evidence. This is a matter of common decency, and it is inhumane that three men live in a room in which they must all defecate. We would not expect that in our own homes, in a hospital, or in any other institution, so why do we expect it in our prisons?

At Norwich prison, the sewerage pipes went through the cells and leaked, so prisoners and, just as importantly, prison officers had to work or live in sewage. Luckily, that has now stopped, but that was a consequence of overcrowding, and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy was right to raise the matter as one of huge importance.

To return to an earlier point, surely this is a matter of balance. Many people in prison are living in better conditions than many of their victims in society. We must be careful to have a balanced view of the victim and the criminal.

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman for one moment. It is not a question of either/or. As a Member of Parliament, a part-time judge and the shadow Minister for Justice dealing with my party’s policies on prisons, I am acutely aware of the huge damage that is done to crime victims, both physically and economically. Criminals cost the country around £11 billion a year. I want to capture that money and reinvest it in better rehabilitation, and we will get that if we stop overcrowding in prisons. No one can be rehabilitated in an overcrowded prison. Prison officers—after this debate I am having a meeting with Colin Moses, the president of the Prison Officers Association, and some of his colleagues—cannot work in overcrowded conditions.

The Government are introducing the core day, which will reduce prisoners’ time out of cell and the amount of human contact between officers and prisoners. Prisoners are inside prisons for different reasons, but denying them contact, socialising time, interaction with prison officers and the opportunity to go into workshops and other educational facilities for much of the day is not sensible. The average amount of purposeful activity, as it is called nowadays, is 3.6 hours a day. With the introduction of the core day at the beginning of this financial year, I suspect that that will be further reduced. There are consequences if prisoners are not rehabilitated and educated. Some 65 per cent. of the prison population has a reading age of under 11. They cannot get even the most basic of jobs if they have a reading age of under 14.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right, but he will know, as a Crown court recorder, that two thirds of the people he sentences for property crime are drug-dependent. If we concentrate on getting people off drugs as part of the rehabilitation programme, surely society will soon see that that will pay for itself.

There will be a virtuous circle. As soon as my party and I get the opportunity, we will introduce the policy of capturing the £11 billion that is being consumed by the criminal justice system in dealing with reoffences. If one breaks down the figures, there would be about an additional £2,500 per offender. That money should be spent on getting people off drugs—either in or out of prison—and on teaching people to read and write, and to become responsible citizens.

One problem is that after we send people to prison, they immediately become irresponsible; they have been irresponsible in the first place, but in prison they make no decisions and have no responsibility for anything. People do not even have responsibility for their own families once they go into prison, and if we can maintain or inculcate a sense of responsibility for not only victims, but prisoners’ dependents and themselves, the reoffending rate would decrease. Yes, we will need to increase the prison estate capacity to break the back of overcrowding, but having done that, we will miss a trick if we do not invest time and money in the rehabilitation of offenders. I do not think that because I am some drip who wants to be nice to criminals. I do not want to be nasty to criminals, but I want our approach to be productive and effective for the victim and the taxpayer.

When one considers the reoffending rates, it is madness to keep on reinforcing the problem. It is essential that we devote more time to reducing the reoffending rate because if we do so, we can spend less money on prisons, rather than building our way out of a problem. We will not build our way out of the problem in the long term, and I urge the Government to try to think more strategically, instead of constantly backing and filling the early release from custody on licence system. I think that the Lord Chancellor introduced that system on 29 June 2007; I cannot remember if he was in office then, but it does not matter because the Government introduced it. The system was designed to release 25,500 people during the 12 months after that date to reduce the prison population. The prison population is now at 82,000—I think that it reached an all-time record in February 2008—and it shows no sign of declining, despite the Government’s attempts to reduce the figure by letting people out early in one way or another.

The public want reoffending to go down and greater safety in their houses and on their streets. They want those who have been convicted of offences to be justly punished, but they also want them to be rehabilitated once they have been punished—either in the community or inside prison. They want their taxes to be spent wisely. At the moment, the public get neither public protection nor rehabilitation, and nor are their taxes spent efficiently, effectively and wisely. I have visited 40 prisons and seen excellent work during the two years since I took on responsibility for this subject. Pockets of dedicated work are going on in prisons. Why is that not being replicated and rolled out across the national estate? It is because the Government are constantly looking backwards and trying to be more macho than the other parties in Parliament to achieve political and electoral gain. The Government are failing; and they are failing big time.

I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated not least, of course, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) who was fortunate to secure the debate and has used the opportunity to initiate an excellent discussion. Many parties from across the UK have participated and there have been some points of real agreement across the parties, as well as indications of slightly different philosophies regarding the purpose of imprisonment and of the criminal justice system. None the less, there have been many points of real agreement across all parties. I will do my best to deal with as many points as possible, particularly the comments of the hon. Gentleman who initiated the debate, but needless to say I will be unable to deal fully with every point. I also wish to put a few things on the record, as hon. Members would expect me to, given that I have had to sit for an hour and 15 minutes and feel extremely frustrated at not having been involved in the debate at an earlier stage.

It is important to point out that since 1997, crime has fallen by 32 per cent.—by a third. That is not unconnected—and on this point I agree in some way with the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson)—with the fact that we are imprisoning more serious and violent offenders. We are catching and imprisoning more offenders and we are imprisoning them for longer. Consequently, we are protecting the public more and offenders do not have the opportunity to do what they might do if they were not imprisoned. It is not wrong to say that there is a connection between those two things.

As a Government, we have made it clear that we believe that imprisonment should be for serious violent sexual offenders and that imprisonment does and should work to protect the public. Protecting the public is a primary purpose of our criminal justice system and the trends in longer sentences for more serious offences and the introduction of sentencing options, such as indeterminate sentences for public protection, have made a real contribution to that. That is not to say that I disagree with the points that have been made by hon. Members from all parties regarding there being some people in prison who perhaps should not be there. I do not disagree with the points made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and, by implication, by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) regarding there being some people in prison who revolve around the system because they come out and reoffend. That is accepted, and we accept that imprisonment is not the answer to every single crime that is committed.

Evidence clearly shows that short periods of imprisonment are the least effective way of reducing reoffending. In parenthesis, I should say that during the past 10 years, we have for the first time managed to reduce reoffending among even some of the toughest offenders. Reoffending rates for those coming out of prison have decreased by 4.7 per cent.; for those more generally the figure is 5.8 per cent. It is the first time that we have managed to reduce reoffending, and that is in large part because of the good work done by all those in the criminal justice system—those who work in the prison service and the probation service. I put on the record the thanks and congratulations of the Government to those workers who do what they do often in difficult and dangerous circumstances. They have had some great results during the past few years in reducing reoffending, which is a tough thing to do.

We have some of the best suites of evidence-based programmes anywhere in the world. To be fair, hon. Members have made the point that that is the case, although they have expressed some frustration that we have not been able to do even more than we have done. I understand that, but I point out that during the past 10 years, in real terms, we have increased spending on the prison system and on services by 37 per cent. That is not to be sniffed at; it is a significant increase in spending and that increase is still going on.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is deeply frustrated that he cannot respond to the debate today; he is currently in Nigeria trying to negotiate a prison transfer agreement. He would be the first person to say that we are planning on investing more money—some £2.3 billion to try to get ahead of the curve of prison numbers. We are trying to get the estate capacity up to 96,000 by 2014 to get ahead of the curve of the increase in prison numbers. I have to accept that 20,000 more people are in prison now than 10 years ago, when the Government first came into office. We are trying to get ahead of that curve, which will enable us to prevent the constant overcrowding that creates some of the churn of difficult problems, to which many hon. Members have referred.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough referred to having to move people from prison to prison, which perhaps disrupts some of the other things being done to assist them. That is a consequence of overcrowding. We are trying to get ahead of that curve with the building programme and we fully expect to do so, but it would not be right to say that overcrowding is a problem that has occurred in just the past 10 years. During the time of the last Conservative Government, prisons were frequently running extremely close to capacity. Overcrowding has been a long-term problem.

Predicting whether the prison population will rise, on whichever projection—there is a range of projections—is an art rather than a science and it is not always easy to predict, but the building plans that the Minister of State commended in the previous debate on this issue in Westminster Hall, which were recommended by Lord Carter of Coles, will, we believe, deal with the issue and enable us to move on to focusing much more on reducing reoffending. Hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber agree that that needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy raised several issues relating to probation services. He said that there were restrictions on provision as a result of a lack of resources. I want to deal with some of his points in detail. It is true to say that at the beginning of this year—in January, in particular—probation areas were reporting restrictions to courts in terms of what services were available and what programmes could be offered. There was a particular problem with unpaid work in Staffordshire. There were problems with sex offender programmes in north Wales and some accredited programmes in Cumbria, and some difficulties in dealing with alcohol treatment programmes, but the fact is that most probation areas continue to provide a good service to the courts. The short-term difficulties reported at that time, which the hon. Gentleman was reflecting in his remarks, have been tackled.

There is increased probation funding. When the Minister of State made allocations for this financial year, there was an average increase of more than 2 per cent. in the budget. The funding has gone up further as a result of the £40 million that has been found by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to boost probation services. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made specific points about that issue. My understanding is that allocations have been made according to a well-known formula. I ask him not to ask me to repeat at this moment precisely what it is, but there is a formula whereby allocations are made to the 42 probation areas. My understanding is that that has been applied and that areas should know precisely what money they now have as a result of the extra resources that have been found. Therefore, they should be in a position to talk in great detail and to plan properly with their work forces in those areas. I hope that that explanation assists in dealing with the point. As a result of the extra money, there is an average increase of 8 per cent. for each board. That should make a real difference in tackling some of the issues that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy raised.

It is great to see the hon. Member for Upper Bann in Westminster Hall, talking about criminal justice issues, which may be devolved fairly soon. One never knows. These things may end up devolved; that is certainly the Government’s aim. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would not want me to leave the Chamber without making that point, which has now been acknowledged. The hon. Gentleman raised important points about the community’s confidence in sentencing. That is a key issue for all members of the public—for all our constituents. They need to be confident about the efficacy of sentencing, the toughness of sentencing, and sentences fitting the seriousness of the crimes. Only if we can show that will they support other initiatives, and all hon. Members who have spoken highlighted the importance of reducing reoffending.

The Government have focused a great deal on sexual offences. There is an understanding that there is under-reporting of sexual crime and that a lot of assurance needs to be given to victims, who quite often will not wish to come forward, because of the traumatic nature of the crime and their fear that they will have to relive it and that that might not be worth it if the perpetrator does not, in the end, receive what they feel is a sufficient punishment.

The Government have realised that the conviction rate is very low, but bringing forward witnesses and victims is the problem. Sexual assault referral centres are being established across Britain to support victims of sexual offences in coming forward. In 34 per cent. of rape cases that are prosecuted, there is a conviction. Bringing forward victims and supporting them in making a complaint is the biggest issue. We currently have 19 sexual assault referral centres across England and Wales, and we aim to have one in every police force area to ensure national coverage by 2011. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be examining closely the evidence that we have from this effort, and perhaps lessons can be learned for dealing with these issues in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Winchester asked me to deal with several issues. He asked about prisoners’ votes. He asked whether the Government could do much to assist with some practical problems that prisoners have when leaving prison, specifically regarding accommodation, insurance relating to accommodation, and bank accounts. On the latter point, it is possible, working with the banking industry, to try to ensure that prisoners coming out of prison who will be going into jobs are seen as potentially good customers of banks. I know from my own experience of visits, and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough will know from his own visits, that many prisoners coming out of prison do get bank accounts. They can sometimes set up bank accounts before they leave, which is helpful. I am sure that that is a question of relationships between the local prison and local bank managers. Nothing replaces good local relationship-building, but work can be done in respect of policy level issues and I am sure that the Minister of State and I would be interested in pursuing any of those issues.

Frankly, insurance is a tougher issue. Insurance is very much a risk-based business, perhaps more so than many others, and although I am willing to discuss the issue with the hon. Member for Winchester and his organisation, I do not have an immediate answer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington asked whether I would be willing to meet him and other members of the cross-party parliamentary group, most of whom appear to be in this Chamber. In those circumstances I can only say, absolutely, I would be very happy to meet him; my door is always open. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough said that he was to meet Colin Moses and the Prison Officers Association shortly after the debate has ended. Say hello to Mr. Moses and his executive, please; I saw them all yesterday.

My door is always open to trade unionists and members of the work force. Meeting regularly is a fine way of finding out what is going on in local areas and on the ground, which does not always come back through other channels. The Secretary of State for Justice, the Minister of State and I make a practice of doing that and are happy to continue to do so.

The other substantive point that the Opposition made was about crowding. I find it extraordinary that they say that they will remove all crowding from the prison system. I do not think that that can be done in the short or medium term, even with the type of building programme that we have initiated, which is the largest in the history of the Prison Service. The challenge set by Carter and the recommendation on prison building—getting the estate up to 96,000 places by 2014—represents a £2.3 billion investment and the biggest and most ambitious prison building programme ever. It will be a challenge to meet that. Even in doing that, we will not necessarily have removed overcrowding, depending on the trend in imprisonment and the increase that we have seen over the past years. That would not enable us to remove overcrowding. I find it extraordinary that the Opposition say that they will remove overcrowding and that without doing so, there will not be humanity or a humane system. That is quite remarkable. I will have to go away and have a close—

I have read it. I do not have time to give full details of why it is uncosted and has a £1.7 billion black hole at its heart. We will have to take that up on a rather more—

West Midlands RSS

I wish you a happy St. George’s day, Mr. Gale. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate on such an appropriate day, as I want to speak up for middle England. I hope to slay a dragon or two, although without St. George’s help.

Phase 2 of the west midlands regional spatial strategy revision—a phrase guaranteed to set the pulse racing—is important. It is about a lot more than housing. Indeed, to be fair to the Minister—I am pleased to see him in his place—some elements of it are welcome. For example, the Worcestershire wildlife trust of which I am a proud member welcomes the clear statements on climate change, sustainable communities and community developments, but—and it is a big but—the issues of greatest concern are the level of new housing building that the Government seem determined to impose on the west midlands and the delay in the final revised regional spatial strategy and, crucially, the local core strategies that that unwelcome intervention has led to.

On 7 January, 18 months of hard work by the regional assembly and local authorities was suddenly torn up in one of the most undemocratic and unwarranted interventions in local affairs by a Minister that I can recall. A letter to the regional assembly from Baroness Andrews, one of the Minister’s colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, told us that all our efforts had been wasted and that, under her instructions, we must go back to the drawing board. It is no wonder that people are cynical about politics.

The regional assembly’s consultation on the preferred options in phase 2 of the RSS revision was due to end four weeks ago, on 28 March; the Government’s first intervention recommended extending that date to 23 May, to enable consultees to consider the extra evidence that the Government would produce. The assembly pointed out that it would need to take account of the purdah for the local elections, so it suggested an extension to 30 June, and the Government agreed.

However, the Government office for the west midlands took months to appoint expensive London-based consultants to find the new “evidence”—and I put that word in inverted commas. It took until early October. The consultation has therefore been extended to 8 December. The examination in public of the final phase 2 document will therefore not take place until the spring of 2009. Incidentally, as a result, the consultation period is four weeks short of Cabinet Office guidelines, and all that comes on top of the fact that unelected academics in the national housing and planning advice unit are providing an undemocratic input to Ministers on demand and price levels.

Meanwhile, poor old locally accountable district councils such as those in my area—Wychavon, Worcester City and Malvern Hills—are trying to progress their own joint plans. However, they can only guess what the RSS housing numbers will be. In due course, Ministers will doubtless attack those councils for failing to deliver the goods on time, but the blame for the delay rests fairly and squarely on those self-same Ministers. Strangely, the delay means that it may not now be possible to complete the RSS revision process before the regional assembly itself is abolished. What a fine mess the Government have got us into.

I wish to make five key points, and I shall have three questions for the Minister at the end. First, we all accept the need for more housing. That is not in dispute. People are living longer; the divorce rate is a sad driver of increased household formation rates; and there is a lack of affordable housing, both rented and owned. However, that does not mean that we should throw houses up without properly considering their long-term impact and, indeed, without establishing whether the current housing shortage is irreversible and permanent.

The Government are relying on new household projections that dramatically increase estimates of housing need over the next 20 years. The big dispute is whether the current rate of immigration will continue. I think that it will not, as we are already seeing net migration back to the countries of eastern Europe. The Government are projecting forward historically unprecedented levels of immigration, and that is a serious error.

The Government also argue that house building levels need to be high to reduce the price of housing so that it is more affordable. They want to reduce house prices. However, people are now seeing house prices fall, and they can tell the Government that that policy objective has been achieved without a single new house being built. High prices were mainly, but not exclusively, the result of the irresponsible lending practices of banks and mortgage companies. Too much money was the main cause, and the Government have put that right, albeit unintentionally. I therefore challenge the Government’s figures. They are too high.

Secondly, the West Midlands regional assembly has already proposed a high number of new dwellings—difficult but manageable if we get the rest of the policy environment right. In its submission to the Government in December 2007, it proposed that 365,600 extra dwellings should be provided in the west midlands by 2026. That is 25 per cent. higher than recent building rates, and 50 per cent. higher than the rate planned under the existing strategy.

I am inclined to agree with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which believes that a figure of about 285,000 would be a more reasonable response to the present situation. The regional assembly’s numbers may be higher than many would like, but at least the assembly has gone through a democratic and systematic process to arrive at a preferred option for growth.

Based on advice from the academics at the national housing unit, it seems that the Government are now pressing for between 408,000 and 460,000 new dwellings to be provided in that period. To achieve the assembly’s proposed RSS figure for the region, the housing figures for the major urban areas—Stoke, the black country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry—have rightly been increased, although there may be practical difficulties in achieving some of those figures without building on green belt land or causing excessive urban intensification.

The five growth points in the existing strategy—Hereford, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Telford and Worcester—have been extended to 10 with the addition of Burton upon Trent, Nuneaton and Bedworth, Redditch, Stafford, and Warwick and Leamington. Between them, those 10 “settlements of significant development” would account for 30 per cent. of the region’s housing growth. Potentially, there are also two eco-towns in the west midlands, of which more later. All that will inevitably require a significant release of greenfield land, which will undermine the current “brownfield first” approach.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He mentioned Redditch. Through him I would like to point out to the Minister that Bromsgrove is happy to have more housing—and happy to have some affordable housing. The problem at the moment is that Redditch’s housing will be dumped on our green belt borders. If we can put that housing where we want it, we will be happy to comply with what the Minister seeks.

My hon. Friend usefully illustrates the importance of listening to local people rather than imposing solutions from the centre.

I was about to say that green belt land will inevitably be lost, with no proposal to compensate for the loss, contrary to the Prime Minister’s assurances to the House. The existing strategy assumes that if builders are given the option of cheaper greenfield land they will still continue to support urban regeneration house building—and if so, that they will build the quality of housing needed in urban areas and not build up-market in the shires, as I fear, and down-market in the cities. We can live with high growth if the major metropolitan areas in the west midlands play their part and plan for their proportion of that growth. Urban renaissance was a cornerstone of the original 2004 RSS, and it should remain so.

Worcester is identified as one of the growth points; the RSS preferred options document proposes that no fewer than 24,500 extra dwellings should be provided in south Worcestershire—in the Worcester City, Malvern Hills and Wychavon—over the next 20 years. The Government want to increase that number substantially. The problem is that Worcester City is virtually full; we believe that it can accommodate about 3,200 houses, so the other 21,000 will spill out into the two surrounding districts.

That is causing consternation in those communities, who see no way of accommodating that phenomenal level of growth without major damage being caused to the environment and the character of the area. There are concerns about flooding and the loss of agricultural land and areas of high landscape quality, increased pressure on an already overloaded transport system and the overdevelopment of villages within commuting distance of Worcester and towns such as Great Malvern, Evesham and Pershore.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this short debate. Does he agree that the so-called consultants appointed by the Government represent a top-down dictatorship? Not only will there be a massive overspill in south Worcestershire, clogging up the green spaces between villages, but the Government requirement that the consultants consider areas of high market demand such as Solihull, Litchfield and Tamworth will mean that the additional 40,000 or so houses will be built in the least sustainable areas rather than in areas where the infrastructure would be able to accommodate them, such as Birmingham and the black country.

I had to hoped to secure an hour-and a-half debate on this subject, and the interest of my colleagues is shown by the fact that they have come to a half-hour debate. I suspect that I will intrude slightly on the Minister’s time for responding, for which I apologise, but it is important to allow those voices to be heard. I agree with the hon. Lady and I am slightly concerned to hear the Minister was laughing when my colleagues made their points. That suggests that the Government have made up their minds and pre-judged the process, which is worrying because I genuinely believe that they are making a mistake. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) said, we will embrace more housing. We know how best to do that—the Government do not.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful and important speech and I agree with every word that he has said. Has he had any indication from the Government that they are prepared to put their hands in their pockets in any way to support the infrastructure that will clearly be needed?

I am about to turn to infrastructure, and my hon. Friend makes a crucial point. I shall not labour the point that I was going to make about flooding, but I remind the Minister that 10 per cent. of Worcestershire is at risk of flooding. We had huge floods last year, to which, to be fair, the Government responded very well. We had a huge amount of flooding, and any additional building, even outside the flood plain, which must at all costs be avoided, will increase flood risk in the rest of the county, which is a real worry.

On infrastructure, new homes and towns cannot exist in a vacuum. People living in them commute to work, travel to leisure facilities and hospitals and visit families and friends. The Government do not seem to understand that. Growth points such as Worcester City are already under huge pressure, and planned growth on the scale that is proposed requires serious forethought by policy makers, and money, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) said. We are currently going through the process of closing down 2,500 post offices, but we do not yet know which ones will close or where the new houses will be, so it is the wrong time to slash infrastructure that may be needed to support new houses.

Infrastructure will not happen by magic, as a consequence of planning; rather, it must be put in communities in advance to ensure that the interests of the existing residents are also served. Local communities would have much more faith in the what the Government are doing if there were funding mechanisms that worked for infrastructure in all its forms, including hospitals, water and sewerage, leisure facilities, energy supplies and, above all, transport.

Railways are particularly important to me. The complete redoubling of the Cotswold line is crucial if we are to have a significant increase in housing in south Worcestershire. I am meeting Network Rail officials later today to challenge them on why they are proposing to redouble only one of the three sections; that will not be enough to cope with the housing that the regional assembly wants, never mind the Government.

Rail links to the north of the county and to Birmingham are at or beyond capacity. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove knows that the expansion of Bromsgrove station to enable longer trains to run from my constituency to Birmingham is important. Commuters already face hugely unsatisfactory services; any further house building will strain them to breaking point, which will mean that people take to the roads to commute to their jobs and clog up an already overloaded network. More people on the roads means more cars in traffic jams and more carbon dioxide emissions: that is the environmental reality of the Government’s plans.

I mentioned Baroness Andrews’s intervention in my opening remarks. When the assembly formally submitted the RSS in January, it had been subject to considerable debate and consultation, including with local authorities, businesses and other so-called stakeholders. However, the Government have now intervened in the democratic process to impose their own research. Instead of housing numbers being driven by the strategy, they are driving the strategy. That is an important observation for planners. How a bunch of London-based experts—so-called experts—with a few months to do the work can come up with a better answer than the local councils working through the regional assembly, I do not know. What message does that send to voters? How can anyone have faith in the consultation processes that is being so blatantly and openly manipulated in the Government’s favour, when we should have a democratically deduced solution to the problems that we all acknowledge that we face?

There is no time to discuss the serious issues that that raises for regional government more broadly, particularly the abolition of the regional assembly and the rolling together of the planning functions into the regional development agency.

Simon Jenkins has described eco-towns in a brilliant article in The Guardian on 4 April as

“the greatest try-on in the long and dazzling history of property speculation”.

Two eco-towns are on the shortlist for the west midlands: one for Staffordshire and one on the Worcestershire-Warwickshire border. Originally, my constituency was faced with two such monstrosities—at least we are down to one. By the way, how nice it would be if the Department for Communities and Local Government actually knew where the eco-town in Warwickshire is actually planned for; it is not only in Warwickshire, but in Worcestershire; it does not only involve Stratford-on-Avon district council because one third of it is in Wychavon district council. How nice it would be if the Government’s consultation document showed that they know the geography of the west midlands as that would give us greater confidence as we consider these important questions.

We cannot have parallel planning processes for deciding how the region should expand. If we treat eco-towns through the normal channels, we would consult on the need for accommodating growth by new settlements along with all other mechanisms, including urban extensions, growth in market towns, sub-regional growth points and so on, but the Government simply want to impose eco-towns on us. Cynically, the Government think that putting the word “eco” in front of something makes it unassailable. However, there is little evidence to suggest such places are going to be environmentally friendly. All the evidence points to them becoming the sink estates of the future, or, to borrow a phrase from the Local Government Association, “eco-slums”.

The crucial question for the Minister—we have not been able to pin the Government down on this point because they have evaded it time and again—is, if the proposed eco-towns go ahead, will they contribute to the RSS housing figures? In a speech at Earl’s Court on 27 February, the Minister for Housing said:

“I want to assure local authorities which include an eco-town in their future housing plans that it will, of course, count towards their future housing targets”.

However, she has not reiterated or expanded on that point, and I believe that they will simply be added to whatever the number the Government come up with. Technically, they will be part of the target, but they will actually be additional to it.

The fundamental problem with eco-towns such as the one proposed for my constituency, is that when you dump 15,000 people in relatively inaccessible towns, miles from established settlements, they will simply get in their cars and drive, which is not environmentally sustainable. The impact of a new town on the surrounding villages, and on Stratford-on-Avon in particular, will be enormously damaging. The happily named local campaign group, BARD—the Minister will recognise the reference on Shakespeare’s birthday—which stands for Better Accessible Responsible Development, found, and adorns its website with, this quote from Titus Andronicus:

“O, why should nature build so foul a den,

Unless the gods delight in tragedies”.

I urge the Minister to change his policy now and avoid the tragedy.

I have three key questions. First, why are the Government being so dictatorial on both RSS numbers and eco-towns, and why will they not trust local people who are committing to historically high levels of housing provision as it is in their rejected proposals? Secondly, how confident are the Government about their household projection predictions and, specifically, their migration forecasts? Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster said, what guarantees will we get on infrastructure provision?

The final lunacy is that all those new houses will be built only if the private sector wants to build them, but we do not live in Stalin’s Soviet Union where factories could be instructed to produce so many thousands of tractors. Private house builders will want to build houses that they can sell in areas where they can sell them. Given the state of the property market and the great pressures on the construction sector, coupled with an emerging skills shortage as the Polish plumbers go home, my guess is that they will not in any case want to build in the west midlands. If against my expectations the houses are built, they will not be sustainable because the infrastructure would not be there to support them. The Government use fine words to cover their foul deeds. They are trying to ram down the throats of local people plans for houses that are neither deliverable nor sustainable.

I think that I need to pause to take breath for a moment. That was a catalytic, quick, and at times acidic, but always passionate, performance by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). He asked a lot of questions and I shall tackle as many of them as I can. I congratulate him on securing the debate, and the hon. Members for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) and for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on their participation.

I have been asked many questions. Unfortunately, I often find that when we have these debates with Opposition Members, when it comes to housing, we tend to hear warm words around the periphery. They say, “Yes, we like the principle and we would quite like more housing, but—” Many questions are asked, but precious few solutions are offered by Opposition Members.

I shall come to that point.

The hon. Gentleman has made clear how important the regional spatial strategy is to him and his constituents in Mid-Worcestershire. He said at the outset that his particular concerns related to the RSS phase 2 revision, which I shall call the draft RSS from now on to make things simpler, and the proposals for a possible eco-town—he described accurately where the one proposed for Middle Quinton will be.

The Government need to take urgent action to address growing housing demand and the serious issue of housing affordability. In the hon. Gentleman’s region, the housing gap is between 1,400 to 4,000 houses a year, and there is a particular issue with affordability. The housing Green Paper announced an ambitious new national target of achieving 240,000 additional dwellings a year, delivering 2 million new homes by 2016 and 3 million by 2020. I appreciate that Opposition Members have many questions, but I think that they are in favour of that principle on the whole, although some are more in favour of it than others.

Every region will need to make its contribution to achieving the national target, and most will undertake mini-revisions to their RSSs to help them do so. The draft RSS for the west midlands is at a stage where there is an opportunity and an imperative to address the need to meet the growing demand for housing and avoid the need for a further mini-review later.

Before proceeding, however, I must highlight the fact that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say about the draft RSS. The propriety guidance outlines that Ministers should not enter into discussions with the regional planning body or other interested parties on changes that might be made to a draft revision to a regional spatial strategy once it has been submitted for examination.

The hon. Gentleman is nodding, and I know that he is aware of that. Those arrangements are to ensure that the process is fair and transparent, and representations to the Secretary of State must be channelled through the proper statutory process.

We are concerned that the draft RSS, as submitted by the regional assembly in December 2007, falls short of making provision for the number of homes anticipated in the 2004-based household projections. It does not make provision for the lower end of the initial housing supply range, which was suggested in the national housing and planning advice unit’s response to the housing Green Paper to address affordability issues.

As has been mentioned, my noble Friend Baroness Andrews expressed concerns that the spatial strategy might unnecessarily be constraining longer-term development, which would impact on the affordability of housing in the region. To address the issue, she asked the Government office for the west midlands to commission further work to look at the options—it is important to remember that these are only options—for delivering higher housing numbers before the examination in public. Evidence will be submitted to the panel to consider. Proposals will not be imposed, as has been suggested in the debate.

I am pleased to say that the Government office has now appointed consultants to look at the evidence and identify options for locating additional housing growth. That additional evidence will support the Government office’s submissions to the examination in public.

We will ensure that this additional process is as transparent as possible and we propose that the consultants engage with regional stakeholders, including local authorities, the development industry, infrastructure providers and environmental bodies, through seminars during the preparation of further evidence.

I hope that what the Minister has just said will give Bromsgrove a chance to put its case. At the moment, much of the housing growth will take place in Redditch, which cannot take all that housing. Growth will therefore have to move into neighbouring areas, including Bromsgrove’s green belt, which is where the overlap is. On the basis of what the Minister has just said, can my council make representations to put that housing somewhere in Bromsgrove that it approves of? For example, some of it could go in the village of Alvechurch, which has a big space where a school used to be. That would be ideal for the proposed housing and it would be three miles from the border of Redditch.

It is important to get across the fact that RSSs are emerging strategies that take on board the views of, and work with, local authorities. We must never get into a position where we just assume that an RSS is saying, in black and white, “This must happen here,” or, “This must happen there.” As hon. Members will be aware, there is still a planning process, which involves appeals, inspectors, inquiries and all the rest.

We hope that the West Midlands regional assembly will agree to extend the consultation on the draft RSS to give regional stakeholders the opportunity to take the evidence into account. That will assist the examination panel in its consideration of the draft RSS. That revision work should not be seen as an alternative to the RSS, because it is not, but it will provide evidence to inform the Government’s response to the draft RSS. The implications of the draft RSS will be considered at the examination in public to address the issues of housing need in the area to which the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire rightly alluded.

I am aware that that approach might not be universally popular. However, we have an opportunity to consider options for accommodating additional housing growth as part of the review of the RSS. It is better to look at the issues at this stage in the process, before the examination, so that different views about the options can be properly tested and debated in public at examination.

I turn now to the consideration of infrastructure, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. I recognise that the delivery of housing growth must be supported by appropriate infrastructure and that transport, which he also mentioned, is a key component of that. We need to ensure that growth is focused on sustainable transport solutions and we are working with key regional partners to identify the impact of growth on the transport system. In fact, part of the review will involve detailed work on infrastructure, including transport.

In preparing the draft RSS, the regional assembly worked with partners to consider the implications of the infrastructure necessary to support the proposed growth options. That included provisions for transport in the regional transport strategy, which is an integrated part of the draft RSS. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that phasing is also important. Local authorities need to consider all these issues as RSSs emerge.

A key element of the further evidence to which I referred will be the consideration that is given to the implications of the options for higher housing numbers for transport, including local transport strategies and investment in infrastructure. That will be in addition to the issues identified and considered in the draft RSS.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned eco-towns, and I will try to do the issue some justice in the moments that remain. Eco-towns will contribute to meeting our national aim of delivering 240,000 homes a year by 2016. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing made an announcement on the 15 short-listed locations for eco-towns on 3 April, and two of those are in the west midlands. One, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is at Middle Quinton, where the proposed scheme sets out plans for at least 6,000 zero-carbon homes on previously developed land. There will be substantial employment opportunities, affordable housing and community infrastructure, accompanied by high-quality public transport links.

We have asked the consultants undertaking the study into housing options to consider the contribution that potential eco-towns and new growth points could make to delivering additional growth in the region. It is therefore likely that any additional numbers resulting from an eco-town will be incorporated into the figures in the emerging RSS. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.

We expect eco-towns to contribute significantly to meeting national aims for additional housing and we want to assure local authorities that include an eco-town in their future housing plans that it will count towards future housing targets, which, in most places, are likely to be more stretching. I hope that that is pretty transparent.

I can also assure hon. Members that the development of eco-towns does not mean that there will be new housing on the green belt. We are consulting on the shortlisted locations for eco-towns. This is only the first stage, and bidders who have cleared the first hurdle will face considerably tougher tests if they want to become eco-towns and will need to improve proposals still further.

It is not appropriate for me to comment on the merits of particular eco-towns, but I can reassure hon. Members that shortlisted locations will face further challenges, including public consultation and a detailed sustainability appraisal, which will assess the merits and challenges in each case. A decision on the final list of locations with the potential to be an eco-town, as well as a draft, and subsequently a final, eco-towns policy statement, will be published later this year.

I appreciate that we are running short of time. I was peppered with quite a lot of questions and I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman to give him further information.

Sitting suspended.

Housing (London)

I appreciate enormously the opportunity to discuss housing need in London once again. The Minister and the Department for Communities and Local Government will be aware that this debate is another instalment in a long-running campaign about numerous housing needs issues. In recent years, that campaign has not gone wholly unrewarded as colleagues and I have pressed for more resources for affordable homes to buy and rent in London.

I am conscious of many issues relating to low-cost home ownership, and I shall make a few comments about them as I proceed, but for the moment I merely note that we are in a curious position in relation to home ownership. We are simultaneously anxious about falling house prices in the context of the wider economy and relieved that house prices, particularly for first-time buyers, will decrease a little—certainly across the country, and potentially in London—and grant the access that has, sadly, been constrained for decades.

I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised to know that I shall talk mostly about the supply of affordable housing to rent. I welcome the progress made in recent years by the Mayor of London, and the Government’s additional investment in the supply of affordable homes. The supply of affordable homes to rent has more than doubled in the past eight years—from 6,623 in 1999-2000 to 13,500 last year. Last year’s figures reflect the best performance on affordable housing in the capital for 30 years. With a Labour Mayor committed to driving that policy forward and backed by Government investment, and despite fierce opposition from many Conservative-controlled local authorities—I am sure that colleagues will make some points about that later—we are at last poised to make serious inroads into unmet housing need. Such progress would be seriously undermined by a prospective Conservative Mayor committed to scrapping the 50 per cent. affordable housing target and raising the threshold for low-cost home ownership. His housing manifesto does not even mention the 1.9 million Londoners who live in housing association and local authority homes for rent. The interests of a quarter of the population go completely unmentioned.

I welcome the Government’s acknowledgement of the issue of overcrowding, which has been dear to my heart for many years, in their recent discussion papers and the announcement in December of additional resources. However, the Minister will not be surprised to know that I shall concentrate my remarks on some of the questions that remain unanswered, some of which have even been complicated slightly by the recent announcements.

My first point is one that I have made many times over the years. Families in overcrowded accommodation in the capital are in crisis, and that crisis is getting worse. Overcrowding and the number of families on the waiting list continue to increase, particularly in London, partly as a result of the continuing shortage of supply, partly as a result of the pressure of the 50 per cent. target for reducing the number of households in temporary accommodation and partly because few councils and relatively few other key bodies, including the Housing Corporation, show any proper signs at a strategic level of recognising the scale of the problem that they must tackle.

Currently, 330,000 households are on housing waiting lists in London. The number has risen by 20 per cent. in four years. Most of them, of course, require family-sized accommodation. There are 200,000 overcrowded households in London—a figure that has grown by 12 per cent. in the past four years alone. We need the Mayor of London’s house-building programme, and we need a greater emphasis within it and across Government and agencies on family-sized accommodation. We need a willingness to invest in family homes in all parts of London, not just the east, if we are to avoid hollowing out the inner city and all the attendant social and economic problems that that would cause. We also need a greater strategic awareness of the issue from Government, the boroughs and the corporation.

In 2006-07, years after the need for family-sized accommodation became an imperative, only 2,500 socially rented homes with three bedrooms or more were built in the capital. That is only 25 per cent. of the total built. I ask the Minister to address this question: how on earth can the Housing Corporation’s target that 42 per cent. of all new build social homes be three-bedroomed or larger be achieved when we are trailing so badly?

In Newham, only 132 of 950 homes developed last year were for rented social housing. Only 6 per cent. of the homes developed in my borough, which is in east London, had three bedrooms or more. Given that we have 6,000 families in temporary accommodation and 30,000 families on the housing waiting list, that is not sustainable if we are to do anything to combat child poverty, to mention just one of our targets.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That has been acknowledged in recent years, yet the solution has not been delivered. The Mayor, who assumed greater housing responsibilities only this year, has committed himself to tackling the problem. I believe him because he has a track record of doing so, but I think that it is a departmental responsibility, and no co-ordinated demand has been placed on the corporation, social landlords or the boroughs to deliver. As a consequence, a problem is increasing that has massive implications for child well-being, educational achievement, health and poverty.

I spend a fair amount of time criticising my local authority, particularly Westminster city council, and I stand by those criticisms, but I am glad to say that this year, it has acceded to the pressure I have placed on it and made changes in its housing allocation process that recognise the reality of severe overcrowding. However—I have raised this issue with Ministers, and I believe it to be true—the council, like other local authorities, whether they are committed to doing something about overcrowding or simply forced to respond to the pressures, is handicapped by the pursuit of the 50 per cent. target for reducing the number of households in temporary accommodation. That is not because the target is in any way a bad thing. Quite the reverse; homelessness is an appalling experience for families who go through it.

Temporary accommodation is an unsettling, frequently deeply unsatisfactory experience. I have dealt with families, some of whom I have brought to the Department’s notice, who have had nine different temporary addresses in 10 years. I have brought to the Department cases of families living in such substandard temporary accommodation that, although we subsidise landlords by £400 and more a week, roofs fall in, boilers have not worked for years and paint is falling off the walls. Such properties are dangerous, let alone unsanitary and unpleasant.

My hon. Friend is making a very valuable point. Does she share my concern that there sometimes seems to be an unhealthily close relationship between local housing authorities and the placing of homeless people in private rented accommodation, often on excessive rent, with very poor levels of inspection and advocacy available to the tenants, who, after all, are the victims of a system costing the public a vast amount of money?

I agree totally. I would be perfectly content to devote all my time in this debate to the subject of temporary accommodation. Indeed, I have had such debates, because we have experienced many problems with it. A few weeks ago, the chief executive of a major London housing association told me that properties in his temporary accommodation portfolio are inspected every month. Given the condition of properties that I have visited—I have seen black fungus growing down the walls and holes in walls that I could put my hand through—I wonder what those inspectors were doing. Of course, in truth, such inspections never took place. A pressing need remains to improve standards.

Having said all that, if we could ensure, as we should be able to do, reasonable quality and stability for households in temporary accommodation, and if we could crack the long-standing problem of disincentives to work for families in temporary accommodation—an issue about which colleagues have expressed concerns—we could ensure that we balance the needs of homeless families with those of families in chronically overcrowded accommodation. But we do not do that. In the past, I have used the analogy of a table with three legs. We consider home ownership, the quality of housing delivered through the decent homes initiative, and homelessness; but we have consistently failed seriously to address overcrowded accommodation and tenant transfer. We do so at our peril.

If we look at the figures for families bidding under choice-based systems, we see exactly what that means: 200 to 300 families bidding for one home each week. Those families are devastated by a process that goes on for years. Every week, they build up their hopes and pray that the conditions in which they live will be relieved, but every week—for 52 weeks, followed by the next 52 weeks, and so on—those prayers are not answered. I cannot tell the Minister strongly enough how dangerous and corrosive that experience is. It is even worse because most of those households were probably—in fact, we kind of know—homeless themselves, so they have gone through all this twice.

In the mid-1990s, Westminster council deliberately placed families who had entered social housing through the homelessness route in properties that were too small for them, on the ground that they should be grateful for anything. That policy has come back to bite the council in the leg, as it were. I suspect that it was not alone in doing that, and anyway, I am not entirely sure that that gets us off the hook regarding where we are now.

I am sure that my hon. Friend’s story is the same as mine. For my local authority, the given waiting times for the lower bands of the choice-based letting scheme, in which more than 90 per cent. of people are based, are 12 years for a four-bedroomed property and eight and a half years for a three-bedroomed property. As she will know, those are the properties most in demand. In reality, that might as well be 120 years and 85 years. There is no opportunity at all for those on the waiting list to get family-size accommodation in inner-London boroughs.

I thank my hon. Friend for that illustration; he is absolutely right. We could all add to those figures. I shall repeat my tradition of quoting from some of the correspondents with whom I have been dealing recently. Obviously, I shall not give names, but I am always happy to pass on such cases:

“Yet again I have no one to turn to. Only you. I had a very bad time for over 8 months. My wife had twins prematurely but one of them passed away too weak to survive and the other had many operations and is still under medical treatment, but thank God we have brought her home… but the state of my house now is like an animal cage now with damp and cold, with cracks and the overcrowding that we are in”.

Another one was from someone whom I shall call Marianne:

“I wrote to you before when I was eight”—

I have the letter in my file—

“but my situation has not changed. We are still living in a one bedroom flat, me and my mum and my little brother. I have been living in this flat all my life and I am sick and tired of it, having to share a room with whole family is upsetting and depressing. I have no privacy whatsoever…please…my mum has tried everything, bidding is useless with no hope. I feel like I’m never going to have my own room or any space to play or dance.”

We need an urgent commitment to making progress on overcrowding. I do not believe that we will do so, despite the additional money that has been invested—welcome though that it is—and the Mayor’s commitment, if we do not reconsider the implications of the 50 per cent. target for reducing temporary accommodation. We cannot have a table with three legs. That commitment to housing need is absent from local area agreements and, therefore, from local authorities’ targets and most people’s consciousness, and yet that need is gripping almost 250,000 households in London.

In addition to driving forward the supply of family-sized accommodation and the broader supply question, we could consider those welcome but modest measures that the Government announced before Christmas. What is happening to the remainder of the £10 million allocated to dealing with overcrowding? Why did all London local authorities receive the same allocation of £100,000 when—to put it gently to colleagues from all parties—Bromley, as far as I am aware, does not have an overcrowding crisis, but Newham, Hackney, Westminster and Islington do? Given that all the evidence confirms that this is a highly concentrated problem, in 15 or 20 boroughs, what is the logic of regarding all local authorities as being in the same situation? Why is there no specific capital funding from the housing pot to tackle overcrowding? It would be relatively easy to do that. Why are we not driving forward a substantial programme on extensions to and de-conversions of existing properties? Last year, that policy, which can be very helpful, delivered only 126 units, but it should be capable of delivering thousands.

The Department is very conscious of my concerns about definitions and measurements. Dry and technical though that sounds, it is absolutely clear that if we do not adopt a consistent approach to assessing housing need, we will not be able to define the scale of the problem or set our priorities properly. At the moment, we do not have that. I shall provide an example of what that means. Two weeks ago, a mum and dad and their three children came to see me. They were sharing a studio flat in the private rented sector. Environmental health services inspected that property and found that it constituted a category 1, band A hazard under the housing health and safety rating system—the most serious hazard that they can find. The family applied as homeless on the ground that the property was not suitable for occupation. The letter came back from the homelessness section of the council stating:

“I have had regard to the Housing Health and Safety Rating System…it is opined that this is due to overcrowding…however, overcrowding does not equate to homelessness…according to the Statutory size standards”—

which legally must be taken into consideration—

“the accommodation is a reasonable size for you and your household”.

A reasonable size! A studio flat for five people! That illustrates—we have many other illustrations—what happens within and between local authorities when they operate on an overlapping jigsaw of different standards.

The old overcrowding standard—statutory overcrowding —was the enforcement tool that was used by environmental health departments and, as my example shows, is used to help determine whether a family is homeless or homeless at home. Meanwhile, we also have a bedroom standard that has been used since 1993 to estimate the numbers in overcrowded accommodation, although the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said in 2004 that the bedroom standard was on the margins of acceptability. The Housing Act 2004 introduced three ways to prevent overcrowding, including the crowding and space standard of the housing health and safety rating system. Finally the 2006 and 2007 discussion papers on overcrowding accepted that statutory overcrowding was out of date, and proposed to move to the bedroom standard, but they did not even mention the use of the HHSRS. However, the bedroom standard is not an enforcement tool, as my standard illustrates.

We really need to sort out this matter. Without making a decision on legally enforceable, consistent sets of measurement, we cannot determine a robust figure for levels of overcrowding and other housing need and give local authorities the tools to enable them to respond to the problem. I ask the Minister to meet me to discuss this matter, as I have asked previous Ministers to do. I want to ensure that officials work with the leading environmental health officer in Westminster. I will criticise Westminster when I have to—and that is frequently—but I will also give credit where it is due. I have to say that the environmental health services department in that local authority is without doubt the best in the country. It is outstanding in its ability to respond to the issues and in its understanding of how the system works and should work. To use that resource would be very helpful indeed.

The temporary accommodation target that I have discussed in relation to the overall issue of housing need has been successful across the country. It has, however, been less successful in London in bearing down on families in temporary accommodation. The numbers in temporary accommodation in London have dropped by only 8 per cent. compared with 2004, while they have fallen considerably elsewhere. However, meeting the target may lead to further perverse consequences, which will make life harder for families in such accommodation. That is partly to do with out-of- borough nominations to accommodation, and partly to do with the tough discharge of duty decisions. I have raised my concern with Ministers about how out-of-borough nominations to temporary accommodation break up the support networks on which families rely. I received confirmation in writing and in parliamentary questions that local authorities should take into account those important support networks.

Last Friday, a heavily pregnant 18-year-old girl attended my surgery. She has spent her entire life in Westminster. Her severely disabled mother, for whom she provides support, came with her to discuss her housing needs. That young woman was accepted as homeless and has been housed in Barking. She is two hours away from her family, her mother, for whom she cares, and her brother. That is despite the assurance that Ministers have given me about what should be done in respect of out-of-borough nominations.

Another woman, currently in a hotel in Hackney, wrote to me last week. She said:

“My partner and I opened a joint application for housing in November 2007…as I was heavily pregnant. My partner’s mother explained that she would not be able to cope with the stresses of having a young baby, as she has a history of illness and heart problems…In January we became homeless…we were told by the council that we would be placed in Temporary Accommodation in East London…The plea to stay in Westminster was ignored although I was told that I would be put on a waiting list…Consequently, we were moved to the Leabridge Road Hotel on the understanding that we would be there for six weeks. At the end of the fifth week, we were told to move rooms to a room that was equipped with a kitchenette and that was en suite. I have been employed within Westminster”

for the last two years

“and was hoping to return to work…It has now been more than three months and I am under an immense amount of stress…I have become more and more isolated from family and friends.”

The Department says that that kind of thing should not be happening. Westminster says that it is under no legal obligation to do anything else, so we continue to have this inconsistency and harshness.

I am looking at the problem from the perspective of one of the boroughs that receives people from central London. Often those people are abandoned in such boroughs for many years. They set up local connections, family and friends. When they are offered full-time permanent accommodation back in the borough it is too late for them, and they are left in limbo in the receiving authority.

That is absolutely right. Many families who have been housed in Barking, Dagenham and Walthamstow have to commute into Westminster because their children still go to school there. They do not have the slightest idea how long they are going to be in temporary accommodation and will do anything to avoid that constant disruption to their children’s education.

I have a few other issues that I want to raise, including the question of helping home owners. The Mayor’s housing plan spells out very clearly that London’s economy and society depend on access to affordable homes to buy, as well as to rent, and one can help the other. The 50 per cent. affordable target has helped to ensure that the Mayor has delivered record numbers of shared ownership homes. Yet the average income required for a London mortgage was £85,000 in 2006, while average incomes were only £24,000, and I suspect that the credit squeeze has made the situation worse. That reinforces the importance of subsidy and tough guidance on boroughs to maintain the flow of homes in this category. The Government could do more by supporting the 50:50 rent-free ownership proposal that the London councils have been lobbying for, and by developing a London-wide landlord saving scheme.

Having said that, Tory boroughs are showing what they think of the affordable housing priority and what life would be like in the event of a Tory Mayor. Last year, Wandsworth council delivered only 11 per cent. of affordable homes in the borough, Barnet 10 per cent., and Westminster 11 per cent., including only 16 shared ownership homes. Redbridge council chose to reduce its target for affordable house building to 25 per cent. The Conservative mayoral candidate’s housing policy is aimed at households with an income of £60,000, which is only one in five Londoners. We can see very clearly what needs to be done, and what many councils on the ground are doing to undermine it.

Low-cost home owners also include social leaseholders. My hon. Friend the Minister has promised to meet me and other MPs to discuss the plight of those families who may be suffering declining equity, but face bills of up to £60,000 for major works. That need is pressing for a small number of people. We do not want to return to the days of the 1980s and 1990s when low-income home owners were forced into homelessness and into abandoning their homes because they could not afford those major works bills.

London is also the only part of the country that has not met the original target to cut rough sleeping by two thirds. There has been success across the country as a whole and 19,000 rough sleepers have been taken off the streets of London. However, 3,000 people still slept rough last year, and real issues must be addressed regarding cross-boundary work, local connection rules and Home Office liaison over recourse to public funds if we are to bring London in line with the rest of the country.

In conclusion, we have seen impressive achievements in recent years thanks to the Mayor’s strategy and Government support. Nevertheless, London’s needs remain unmet. In some cases, such as overcrowding, it is a deteriorating situation. We need to review the strategy and to take a fresh look at the temporary accommodation target, priority for overcrowding and transfers—including by the Housing Corporation and housing associations—sorting out the overcrowding measurement, and helping existing tenants and other first-time buyers into affordable home ownership that meets their needs and reflects their incomes. What we do not want is a housing policy that ignores 2 million tenants, tears up affordable housing targets and targets help on the better off.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing this timely debate.

In Barnet, as of the end of March, we had 13,803 families in need on the waiting list. That figure is the fourth highest in London, and it includes 2,492 families in temporary accommodation, of whom 884 are on our regeneration estates, to which I shall refer later, and 177 have been placed outside the borough. We also have 2,562 families awaiting transfers, primarily because of overcrowding. I am pleased that the London Mayor has pledged to halve the number of people in temporary accommodation during his next term in office, if he is re-elected. I do not propose to discuss in detail the plight of people in temporary accommodation, as my hon. Friend has done that more than adequately. However, we must reflect on the appalling conditions in which some people have been placed.

My hon. Friend made the important point that housing investment should be spread throughout London, not just concentrated in the east end. We must invest in housing where the jobs and transport links are and where people want to live—places such as my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. My concerns about the platform that has been advanced by the Conservative mayoral candidate is that his policies—removing the 50 per cent. rule, and his rather barmy first steps scheme, which requires an enormous income—will lead to economic apartheid in our capital city, with less well-off people being concentrated in the east end and excluded, for economic reasons, from the north and west of London. That is no recipe for a successful city, as we have seen in some cities in the north.

Does not the hon. Gentleman feel that ghettoisation is happening anyway? I agree with his concerns, but how do we de-ghettoise the city, given that Britain as a whole has accepted a culture that stratifies population according to wealth?

That is an important point, and the 50 per cent. rule is part of the answer. I shall give some examples from developments in my constituency regarding the consequences of having and not having the 50 per cent. rule.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that when developers are told that they have to provide either a proportion of social housing or a section 106 payment, they often opt for the payment to evade their social responsibility, thus exporting social housing to some other place? As a result, we end up with more serious ghettoisation. Does he think that that practice should be stopped?

I am concerned about sustainable communities and ensuring that people from all strata of society are able to live together. That is illustrated by the dilemma that exists in Newham. The east end of London is a desirable place to live and has fantastic neighbours—I should not like anyone to make suggestions to the contrary or decry that point—but it is cheaper to buy there than in the rest of London, and there is a problem in that that is attracting a buy-to-let market. Even with the houses being built in my constituency, more than 50 per cent. of private homes go to not private home owners, but the poorest in our society who are paying private rents to private landlords in the buy-to-let market. Some of those people are paying more than £1,000 a calendar month for properties over shops that are in awful condition.

Order. I shall have to call a halt there, because a lot of people want to speak and that was a long intervention.

My hon. Friend makes two points, the second being an important one about buy-to-let properties. The current situation not only creates the difficulties that she mentions, but leads to a lack of community cohesion, because those properties are inevitably let on short tenancies and people move around all the time. That does not create a sense of community or cohesion.

My hon. Friend’s first point was a plug for living in the east end. People will live where they want to live. I am happy with my place in my constituency, and I am sure that she is very happy with hers. The bald point that I want to make is that people should be able to live where they want to live—where the transport links and jobs are—but we will not achieve that if we are not careful about investment.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to become one of her electors in the near future.

According to the figures, there were 666 new homes in Barnet last year. Despite the 50 per cent. rule, however, only eight were for intermediate sale and only 58 were for rent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North said, that amounts to 10 per cent. of the total, which is the worst record in the whole of the capital, apart from in the City, which is, of course, a special case. Even Westminster managed 11 per cent. If we were to include properties that have been brought back into use, such as hostels and student accommodation, the total would be 1,010, of which only 8 per cent. were affordable. Again, even Westminster managed 12 per cent. New developments have been mainly below the threshold of 10 properties, and we have seen street corners being turned into flats. There has not been insistence on the 50 per cent. rule and a serious problem has developed. The difficulty is that in-fill sites and smaller-scale developments are outside the Mayor’s powers, but they have a huge impact on the community.

When we were considering the unitary development plan, Conservative-controlled Barnet did not want to adopt the 50 per cent. rule, but was required to accept it by both the London Mayor and the Planning Inspectorate. Of that 50 per cent., 70 per cent. of the properties should be for rent and 30 per cent. for sale. There is also, of course, a requirement for 42 per cent. family-sized properties with three-plus bedrooms. The council was also forced, against its wishes, to accept the 10-unit threshold. It wanted the threshold to be much higher to enable more rich people to move to the borough, rather than meeting the genuine housing needs of the nearly 14,000 families in the borough.

The planning department tells me that part of the difficulty is that the new planning rules and the 50 per cent. rule have not filtered through into planning applications because some sites were bought years ago, at then market prices, before the rule was introduced. To make a profit, developers have had to squeeze the schemes as much as they can. It says that the 50 per cent. rule is important because it will start to filter back into residual land values, and that 50 per cent. schemes will increasingly become more affordable for developers than they have been in recent years.

What would be the implication of doing away with the 50 per cent. rule for affordable housing in Barnet?

If my hon. Friend is a little patient, he will find out, because I shall give clear examples of what I think would happen. However, first, let me make another point about the economics of this issue. As the 50 per cent. rule filters through into land sales, it will become a much more practical proposition. The problems that arise out of the 10-unit threshold will be addressed. The threshold has had one beneficial effect: reducing the number of shoebox studio conversions whereby big family houses are turned into a dozen studios. However, it has led to a lot of nine-unit applications. There have been fewer middle market—10 to 50—applications, but there has been much more of a trend for large developments in the 50 to 100 scale. Those large developments tend to involve buying several family-sized houses in a row, often with the developers winkling out the people who do not want to sell with threats and promises, and then knocking down half a street and developing those blocks. It is vital that the 50 per cent. rule is maintained to keep some control over that practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) asked what the impact on Barnet would be of getting rid of the 50 per cent. rule. We have some major development schemes in my constituency and we are seen as a growth borough. Those schemes are private, but the 50 per cent. rule is essential. In Mill Hill East, a draft area action plan has been approved to build 2,660 properties on an old Ministry of Defence site. The plan is for a split of 40 per cent. houses and 60 per cent. flats, with 50 per cent. of the properties be affordable, along the 70:30 split that I have mentioned.

The Colindale area action plan, which is out to consultation, also covers my constituency. That is an opportunity area of the London plan, and we have been told that there is the capacity to deliver 10,000 new homes between 2001 and 2016. The Beaufort Park development is well on the way and will have 2,990 properties, and a planning application for 7,500 new properties at Brent Cross Cricklewood has just been submitted. If we were to add all those properties up and apply the 50 per cent. rule properly and vigorously, it would pretty well ensure that the 14,000 families on the waiting list in Barnet would have a real chance of finding somewhere to live and having a decent home at last. If the rule is abandoned, however, they will have no prospect whatever of doing so.

I have no doubt that Tory Barnet will not enforce the 50 per cent. rule if it is not required to do so; it will ensure that more and more wealthy people move in, so we will have more and more buy-to-let and far fewer properties for those in desperate housing need. The drive for family-sized homes is also vital, so I am pleased that London councils have confirmed in their briefing for today’s debate that there is a desperate need for large homes in the capital, including in my constituency and borough.

I mentioned the other major schemes in my constituency—the regeneration estates. At Spur Road and Stonegrove, 937 properties will replace 603 properties. There will be 417 affordable properties—the proposal is with the Mayor for approval— but they will only replace existing affordable accommodation. At West Hendon, 2,171 properties will replace 530 properties for rent and 150 that are owned—there are 680 properties there now. Of those to be built, 1,491 will be for private open-market sale, 132 will be for part-shared ownership, 548 will be for rent, and only a tiny additional number will be affordable homes. At Grahame Park, 2,977 properties will replace the 1,314 that are there now. Of those, 835 will be for tenants and 165 will be for sale or affordable. That means that there will be 1,000 affordable homes, which is even fewer than we have on the estate as it stands.

That is the reality of what Tory Barnet is trying to do in my constituency. It is important that regeneration on these three estates is done effectively, because it will provide new homes for people who are generally living in pretty appalling conditions, but the council is missing the opportunity of a generation to do something about housing need in my borough. The Government need to see what can be done using all the levers available to them to ensure that more money is put into these schemes, or that more pressure is put on those involved to increase the amount of affordable accommodation.

As I said, there are 884 temporary tenants on these estates. The schemes housing them were first thought of eight or so years ago, when Labour ran the council. The idea was to put temporary people in because it was thought that the schemes would develop rapidly, that they would not be there long, and that there would not be a large number of them. However, as properties have become vacant on these estates, more temporary people have been moved in, and some have been in temporary accommodation for many years. They are given an absolute guarantee that they will not get one of the new homes on these estates and no guarantee about where they will be relocated to. They have no stake whatever in the community as it stands, or as it will develop under the new schemes, so it is vital that the issue is seriously addressed. To return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, people in temporary accommodation must have a future, but they see none in the way in which Barnet council is running its housing policies, although they could see one if the 50 per cent. rule was vigorously applied.

Another issue relating to regeneration estates is design, and there is growing concern that design will simply replicate the failures of the past. There is also the question of the impact on local services to existing communities and growth communities. Most people who look independently and objectively at the issue are concerned that the borough has not really got to grips with issues such as roads, utilities, the health service and education.

The other issue on which I want to touch briefly relates not so much to housing supply as to the quality of housing, and this is where I think that the decent homes initiative has been such a boon. In Barnet, the Government are investing £88.5 million in new kitchens, bathrooms and windows from Burnt Oak to Belle Vue estate and from Broadfields to Fosters estate in my constituency. That investment is vital, but few people know that the Government are making it. It is outrageous that the Conservative council is claiming the credit for that investment on big signs all over the place, because that does not reflect where the money has actually come from. The Government should do far more to brand the decent homes initiative so that people are aware that it is not the Conservative council that is putting its hand in its pocket—[Interruption.] Or the Liberals. Such a move by the Government would be a good start. They should make clear who is actually investing in decent homes in the borough.

I am concerned that regeneration estates have missed out. The issue has been left on the back burner because there is no point investing in these estates while they are coming down. The problem, however, is that as the years go by, the quality of the accommodation goes down because basic maintenance is not done. At Grahame Park, which I mentioned earlier, it will take 17 years from now for the regeneration scheme to be completed, assuming that all goes to plan, and we all know the risks in that respect. The scheme will take 25 years from start to finish, and no major works will have been done. People’s accommodation is getting worse, with leaking windows and roofs, and generally poor common parts.

I am pleased to say that Labour councillors and I have been able to persuade Tory Barnet at long last to invest in new windows on the West Hendon estate—some were so rotten that they were starting to fall out. The council has been able to do that because of the decent homes initiative money, and investment in other housing stock has meant that the council has had to spend rather less on routine maintenance, which has freed up the money that it needs for capital investment to do something about the West Hendon windows. Again, that is a product of the Government’s strong investment in improving the housing stock in the borough.

Next week, when they vote, Londoners, including Barnet and Hendon residents, will face a choice on housing policy. I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is not here to defend his housing policy, because it does not stand up to much scrutiny. For that matter, there is nobody from the Conservative party here to defend its housing policy, apart from its Front-Bench spokesman—

Indeed. Interventions to allow us to point out the gross failings, inadequacies, bad arithmetic and internal contradictions in the Conservative party’s housing policy would have been very welcome.

The choice is between 50 per cent. enforced or 50 per cent. abandoned, and making the right choice is people in London’s best hope of getting a decent home. I hope that they vote accordingly next week.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) for securing the debate, for what she said and for all the fantastic work that she has done on housing policy in London over a very long time. That work has made an enormous difference and probably given the Minister a lot of grey hairs, although he has yet to show them. [Interruption.] I said that the Minister is yet to show his grey hairs; it was meant to be a compliment, but it was obviously a total failure. When I pay the Government compliments, they do not understand them.

We are debating the most serious issue that faces anyone in London. We could all say again and again everything that my hon. Friends the Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have said. Growing up in overcrowded accommodation is sheer misery. Sharing a bedroom with three or four siblings and being unable to do anything at home, to bring friends home, to study or to socialise in any way becomes an embarrassment. If we talk to teenaged children in secondary schools, we hear that they immediately divide into those who have a nice home to go back to—one where friends can come and stay over for the weekend—and those who just feel embarrassed about where they live. Such children feel a sense of failure, including towards their parents, and their parents feel a sense of failure, too. The whole experience becomes utterly miserable. These ought to be the best years of a young person’s life, but they are often blighted by the horror of being ashamed of where they live and of the conditions there, as well as by a sense of failure. Of course, the parents are not failures; it is public policy that has failed them, and we must be able to do something about that.

I have been the MP for Islington, North since 1983. I was there in the early 1980s, when we had a very effective house building programme under a Labour council. It was a pleasure regularly to go to the opening of new council developments, but how many colleagues go to one of those now? Sometimes I was critical of the designs, and sometimes I was not, but at least things were happening. There was building, and things were going ahead. That was an interesting period.

We then went through the sale of council homes promoted by the Conservative Government, and the period of the Labour Government from 1997 onwards, to whom I pay tribute for really rapid, fantastic improvements in the quality of estates—new roofs, windows, bathrooms and kitchens, and things of that kind. All that made a difference to the lives of many people on estates, which are much better managed as a result of what was done and much better respected.

The downside, however, is that we have been far too slow in getting around to the problem of the development of new properties—places for affordable rent. That is what I want to talk about, because the effect has been to push housing authorities into the only solution that they can find, which is to shove homeless people away from hostels and bed and breakfast into leased properties. A fantastic scam—that is the only way to describe it—is going on, by which letting agencies all over London have an over-close and over-cosy relationship with their housing authorities, which accept a dozen, two or three dozen, or 100 homeless families, and plonk them in flats in constituencies, such as Edmonton, that are usually near an outer London ring. Those places are often disgusting, and we, the public, pay for that through housing benefit. I have been to places where I would not be prepared to stay the night, let alone live, and for which the public pay £300 a week in rent—places that no one can be bothered to inspect or repair and that are infested with vermin. In 21st century London that is simply wrong.

My council in Islington is Liberal Democrat-controlled and is consulting on a housing strategy. In the past five years, on council figures, the proportion of owner-occupiers in Islington has decreased by 4 per cent; that of council tenants by 6 per cent., and that of housing association tenants by 1 per cent. The proportion of private renters has increased by 9 per cent. The lowest cost of a one-bedroomed property has increased from £160,000 to £228,000. The lowest rent for a one-bedroomed home in the private sector has increased from £700 a month to £900 a month, and the annual need for affordable housing has increased from 1,800 to 4,400 units. The proportion of households in Islington living in overcrowded conditions has increased from 6.7 per cent. to 6.9 per cent. In council housing that figure has increased from 9.8 per cent. to 11.5 per cent. Those statistics are very interesting. They show the reality for my borough—which has an image of expensive restaurants, chic metropolitan living and all that goes with that—as one in which a minority of the population live in owner-occupied accommodation. The largest sector is council/housing association homes and there is a rapidly increasing private rented sector. The problems are that we are not able to offer places to people in Islington who are in desperate housing need. That leads to community break-up and other problems.

Another downside to the private rented, uncertain-future accommodation is that people do not know how long they will be there. It might be a week, a month, a year or two years. They have no stake or interest in the local community and are frightened to get involved in a community association, school governing body or anything else because they do not know what their future will be. That has a debilitating effect on community life as a whole. We need permanent housing to be built, urgently.

I have a couple more quick points to make, but I will be very brief. The current crisis in the housing market over mortgages and the rest may well lead to a slight reduction in house prices, if not to a rapid fall in some parts of the country. I suspect that it will also have the result that some of the developers who are now building private sector developments, such as flats, will suddenly be unable to sell them. That is a crisis for them; I understand that. It is also an opportunity for councils and housing associations to move in quickly, buy the developments and help to solve the current housing problem. I should be very interested to know whether the Minister can give us any help on that issue. I have asked representatives of several of the larger housing associations that operate in my area, “If something came up, could you get it quickly; could you deal with it?” Most of them say that, provided they had the capital available, they could process that quickly.

My last point is about London as a whole. We have a housing crisis in London. We have a crisis of homelessness and of need; housing is in crisis in many ways. It will not be solved by letting a free market rip in London. It will be addressed only by investing in new council housing. I tell local authorities that are still selling off assets, Islington included, that it is a disgrace to be selling them now when they could be converted to social housing.

The hon. Gentleman and I have very similar views on this; does he agree that if, as I should wish, considerably more council housing were to be built in London, we should avoid letting it be susceptible to the right to buy, so that it would disappear after councils had invested in it? It should be possible to ring-fence it and keep it in local authority control, and hand it on so that it remained social housing.

Absolutely. I could not agree more. There are many ways to deal with that, such as forming co-operatives; we need to keep those places in the social sector. However, we need overall housing administration in London that requires at least half of all new developments to be housing for people in need, and at least a third, although I should prefer half, to be for affordable, controlled rent—social rented. We also need to end the scam, which I mentioned when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), of developers buying out their obligations by putting money and development somewhere else. We need mixed and balanced communities.

I am proud to represent my constituents and to do my best for them, but I am ashamed when I talk to people and I know that they will bid week after week and get nothing as a result. One can see the depression in the family and the potential for family break-up. Youngsters hang around the streets; there is nothing wrong in that, but it is wrong for it to be someone’s only option because they are frightened to be at home at night. I thank the Minister for what he has done in trying to improve conditions on estates, and for his understanding of the issue, but we need an urgent action programme to deal with the housing crisis in London.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for leaving me a little time, and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) for yet another housing debate. She must occasionally feel that she is banging her head against a brick wall, but nevertheless she keeps going and keeps raising the issues. Of course not many brick walls are being built in London, but that will change with the election of Ken Livingstone next week.

The bottom end of the housing market—social rented and shared ownership—is virtually sclerotic in central London now. There is at least a 25 per cent. population turnover in my constituency every year, but there is very little movement, except among the properties that have been sold and are now buy-to-let, on housing estates. Whole families grow up and children finally move out in appallingly crowded conditions, without any of the movement that used to take place even 20 years ago in that market. We know, historically, that that is for reasons of lack of supply as well as of depletion of stock through the right to buy and other means, and it results in figures such as those I quoted in my intervention earlier, which show that there is effectively no opportunity for families living in Hammersmith and Fulham or Ealing to be rehoused within the social rented market. There are appalling levels of overcrowding, and people have come to my surgeries who have five children in a one-bedroomed flat or six children in a two-bedroomed flat; those are not untypical examples.

The need for policy is clear, and the policy is clear, certainly as far as the Mayor is concerned: it is for 35 per cent. social rented housing, 15 per cent. shared ownership and 50 per cent. market target. The mayoral candidates attended a debate conducted by London Citizens the week before last, and they were introduced to the concept of the housing affordability standard. I think that that is a very good piece of research. It showed that someone on the minimum wage in London has £86 a week available for housing, and that someone on the London living wage, which the mayor has promoted, of £7.20 an hour, would have £135 a week. That, in reality, means living in registered social landlord or council rented accommodation—not even in shared ownership accommodation—and that is the essential reason for requiring not only the 50 per cent. target but the 35 per cent. target. That is why the intention of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) to abandon the target if elected is criminality, rather than folly.

In the brief time that I have, I want to focus on what is already happening with registered social landlords and Conservative and Liberal councils. Either they find meeting housing need too difficult or do not want to do so for political reasons, but they are not even seeking to meet such need. In fact, they are going the other way and reducing the amount of affordable housing available.

I give an example from my surgery last Friday. Hammersmith and Fulham council boasts about its direct letting scheme. If a mother with two children goes to the council, she will be put in touch with a private landlord—usually big private landlords who own many properties—who will house her somewhere. In this case, a family with two children—a two-year-old and a six-month-old—were put into a flat directly on the A40. It is in appalling condition. There is infestation, and the lifts do not work. The mother is undergoing treatment for a brain tumour. She is unable to get to the shops or to get a buggy downstairs, and she has no prospect of ever being rehoused by the council. She is in an infested block run by Ealing council, and has a private landlord who does not care.

That is the new face of rehousing in London. It is almost impossible for my office or anybody else who wishes to assist people to untangle the network that has been created. Previously, such people would have been put in a hostel. Under the previous Labour council in Hammersmith, all the hostels were modernised and made self-contained. The current Conservative council is selling them off on the open market. They emptied them using the Government’s target to reduce temporary accommodation by 50 per cent. as a cynical excuse. Estates Gazette reported last month that a very desirable property in Waldemar avenue had been sold for £905,000. Formerly, it had been five flats for homeless families. It is now being converted with planning consent from the Conservative council into a single property for sale on the open market.

I believe that you wish me to conclude, Mr. Chope. I end simply with this point: unless there is a reversal of policy, and unless the Government are prepared to follow their money with implementation, the housing market in London will not change. I would like to hear the response of the Minister and the Opposition to that.

I have become very engaged by this debate and by the fact that the bottom line is that everyone in this room agrees that the biggest single determinant of the quality of life of a family in the long term is the quality of their accommodation. I do not need to repeat that point, and I see that the Minister is agreeing. I am encouraged by the fact that we all agree that the fundamental requirement in a first-world country is to ensure that individuals have a quality of accommodation that is commensurate with the wealth of the nation as a whole.

The fact that the rate of ownership is lower in London than anywhere else in the UK is hardly surprising. There are historical and financial reasons for that. That in itself is not the issue. In other countries, there is generally a lower level of ownership. It is a quirk of British society that we equate property ownership with achievement.

Nevertheless, what really concerns me are the 91,000 empty homes and the 200,000 or so overcrowded houses, which have already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and others. It is also a matter of great concern to me—and, I am sure, to the Minister—that 330,000 households are on waiting lists. The number has risen by about one fifth in the past four years. We have also heard from various contributors today about the importance of building not just one and two-bedroomed houses, and that 60,000 households require homes with three or more bedrooms. It is ironic indeed that 60,000 three to four-bedroomed homes are under-occupied.

Part of the reason for that is the great profitability of building one to two-bedroomed homes. We know that that is why developers like them, and that it is how they maximise their profits. Of course, that could change if we end up with a glut of one and two-bedroomed homes and a shortage of larger homes. We have to recognise that developers are primarily under a financial obligation to deliver what they think will maximise their profits. Let us not be naïve and think that they will alter their strategies simply on the basis of what the Government require and what society needs—that will not happen.

My first question to the Minister is, what mechanisms could be used to influence developers to build the right mix of housing? In parenthesis, I also point out that several developers feel that they have to build one and two-bedroomed homes—the cheaper homes—because the bottom rungs of the house ownership ladder have been kicked away due to spiralling inflation in house prices. Let us not pretend that any short readjustment in the house price market will be sustained for any length of time. The market always recovers if demand exceeds supply, as substantially as it does.

The issue of temporary accommodation has once again been raised. With some 56,000 households in temporary accommodation in London, it cannot be right to think that the strategy is in line with requirements. There has been an 8 per cent. reduction in the number of households in such accommodation, and that is welcome, but it is nowhere near enough.

The cost of temporary accommodation can be measured in pounds and pence and can be extremely high, for reasons that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and others highlighted, but the social cost has a practical financial value, as well as a less definable but very real cost in terms of misery. Diverting money to housing associations so that they can house families permanently seems like an attractive option.

My second question to the Minister is, what will his Government do to ensure that local authorities have the tools to break the vicious cycle of temporary accommodation that has been lucidly described by others and needs no repetition from me?

Increasing owner-occupation through shared ownership seems an absolutely sensible way to provide equity for the householder and the state. London has one of the lowest rates of owner-occupation in the UK, with only 57 per cent. owning their own home, compared with 70 per cent. nationally. Twenty per cent. of social housing tenants aged 34 to 44 could afford to buy their own home in 1997-98, but that proportion was down to 5 per cent. in 2004-05, entirely as a result of property prices rising. That leads to my third question to the Minister: to what extent will this Government actively drive owner-occupation and facilitate the use of that valuable and important tool in the interests of resolving these issues?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about promoting owner-occupation. In my borough, there is roughly 30 per cent. owner-occupation. He heard what I said about house prices. Is it really credible to promote owner-occupation in an area such as mine? Would it not be better to promote rented accommodation to solve the immediate housing problems?

I do not have the arrogance to second-guess the hon. Gentleman’s information about his own constituency, but I know that there is great variation in the demographics across London, and that what would not work in his area could well work in others. From what he said today, I suspect that other solutions would be much more appropriate in his area than simply following an owner-occupation agenda.

I think that we are over-obsessed with house ownership in this country. We have created a social status that results in poor decision making by some people, who end up, in effect, being slaves to their mortgage. That does not help them in the long term and it increases the risk of repossession.

The action points seem fairly clear to me. First, compulsory purchase orders could be effective in bringing some of the empty homes back into public usage, or in acting as an incentive to let the property. At least that would be a mitigating measure to reduce the pressure on housing. The empty property strategy from 2003 to 2006 reduced the number of empty homes in Islington by 16 per cent., and I hope that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) feels that that, at least, has been an effective methodology. However, we still have people in wrong-sized properties. With sensitive management, I wonder whether the Government could do something to make it easy and painless for people to be put in the right size of house.

I reiterate that, unlike the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats are committed to the principle that 50 per cent. of new housing developments should be affordable housing. I do not understand why the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), whom I regard as a personal friend, takes a contrary view, when it is absolutely clear that to remove that requirement would simply make matters worse. Perhaps the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who will speak for the official Opposition, will clarify that position.

Does my hon. Friend accept that in London, as colleagues have said, many people just do not have a home of their own? Their needs would be met by the provision of affordable housing. Much of the free-market housing would not be a first home and might not even be a second home, and is for people who are generally perfectly adequately housed—it is not a need in London at all and is absolutely not a priority.

My hon. Friend makes a point that is self-explanatory. I agree. I hope that the Minister will respond to it if he has time.

As well as the 50 per cent. condition, and in addition to looking at compulsory purchase, I seek the Minister’s views on the 70,000 hectares of surplus land owned by Network Rail, Transport for London, the NHS and other Government bodies, which could be used to build tens of thousands of new houses. Surely that would be an easy win and would be fairly straightforward—especially through new community land trusts—under the legislation that the Minister himself shepherded through the House on new build, which passed through the House of Commons just a few weeks ago.

I have already mentioned shared equity schemes. I should like the Minister to comment on the potential for new forms of housing purchase for people on low and moderate incomes that keep homes affordable, rather than allowing them to be sold on at a market rate. Obviously, we Liberal Democrats will review and expand our policies in line with the need in London but, fundamentally, I am looking for a commitment from the Minister, whom I hold in high regard, to work strategically with local authorities that are doing the best they can with the resources available, given the strictures placed upon them. Without that support, I fear that those local authorities will have to act expediently in the short term and continue to exacerbate the strategic problem in the long term.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate. I know that the subject is a passion of hers.

This is a timely debate for me, because I have today released a report called “Crumbling Foundations”, which looks specifically into affordable housing throughout the country and in London. A table on page 6—figure 3—amply demonstrates the point that the hon. Lady came here to raise today, which is that the number of people now on council waiting lists for housing is at an all-time record, including in London. Back in 1997, there were 181,080 on the council waiting lists; now there are 333,857 on the same lists. There is, by any extent, a crisis.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) mentioned his constituency in great detail. I knew it well before he spoke and I now feel that I know it even better, including many of the estates. He knows the estates inside out, and he took us on a tour around them and explained many of the crippling housing problems. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and other hon. Members clearly articulated the problem. In that regard, we are all in agreement; we all believe that there is a housing crisis.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, because I would have liked to have put this question to a Conservative Member for London, but since none are available, I shall put it to him. Will he join me in condemning Wandsworth, Westminster, Barnet and other local authorities that have delivered only 10 or 11 per cent. affordable accommodation in London to address the problems that he mentions? If, as he says, all hon. Members in the Chamber are in agreement, he will certainly endorse that sentiment.

Rather than picking on individual councils, I will do better than that and quote from my report, which makes clear why we have ended up with this horrendous problem. To speed things through, I shall jump to the relevant section of that report, for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit.

After 11 years of following roughly the same policy, we have built fewer houses in this country overall. We know the figures. Some 176,000 houses, on average, were built a year during the period of the last Government. That number has descended to a mere 145,000 over the past decade. I welcome interventions from Labour Members on that point. We also know the figures on the statistics for housing association and RSL homes. We know that, in the 11 years since 1997, we have never returned even to the 1997 figure of 28,000 RSL homes being built. In the past year the figure dropped to 26,000. However, the situation is worse still if we look at the supply of houses built by councils. Back in 1997, the figure was still more than 1,550, yet it had descended to a mere 268 last year. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong; I do not have a moment to look that figure up in my report.

If we are going to analyse the problem and have a serious, grown-up discussion about why we are in such a catastrophic mess when it comes to housing, it is not because Wandsworth has done this or Hammersmith and Fulham has done that, but because this nation has not built the houses that we have needed for well over a decade—particularly in the past decade—and that has left us in crisis.

Is it not true that local authorities, as the planning authorities in respect of these decisions, are essential if we are going to deliver a national house building target? The hon. Gentleman is reading from his report, but would it be wrong to say, from reading his website, that he was also campaigning using the words, “Say no way to 10k”, and opposing house building in his constituency?

That was a cross-party campaign that I chaired in my constituency, and the hon. Lady’s colleagues from Welwyn Hatfield were sitting in as well. It is not that we mind building homes. In fact, we have already built 2,000 and are happy to build 6,000 of them. It is just that 10,000 pushes the resources when one considers that, at the same time, the local hospital is being closed down and resources are not being provided. That picture is repeated not just in my constituency, but across London, and I want to focus on that.

Given the challenges and the need to improve and increase the supply of housing in the capital, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the consensus of our excellent debate that any moves to scrap a 50 per cent. affordable housing build would be absolutely foolish and should be criticised as being in Pottyland?

No, I disagree with the Minister and I will tell him why. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned, trying to build the homes that we need by pushing further with the prescriptions to try to solve the housing crisis that have failed during the Government’s tenure will replicate and ensure the continuation of the problems that we have experienced. I should have thought it fairly obvious to Labour Members, who feel passionately about this issue, that repeating the same mistakes is not the way to get out of the problem in which we find ourselves.

I am happy to carry on taking interventions, but I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to some of the points that have been made.

On a point that I raised when I think that the hon. Gentleman was out of the Chamber, does he agree with Barnet planners, who tell me that as the 50 per cent. rule works through, sites bought many years ago at the then open market value before the 50 per cent. rule, or when it had just come in, will work their way through and the residual land values will then start to reflect the 50 per cent. rule, thus making it much more achievable?

I could spend quite a while on that and I make some reference to it in my report. However, in the interests of allowing the Minister to speak, I shall carry on with my own points, but only because it is a complicated question, although the entire situation is complicated.

It is easy to say that we need to build all houses at 50 per cent. affordability. I should like to build all houses at 100 per cent. affordability and I have no doubt that the Minister—although I do not want to do his job for him—would like to as well. However, the reality is that to get those houses built, we must have developers who are prepared to develop, because—guess what, folks—the Government do not build houses. Actually, last year the Government built only 268 council houses directly, as has been mentioned. I should like them to build more. When we were in power, we did build more. I know how we can build more. Rather than having local authorities return 75 per cent. of income from a right-to-buy sale to central Government, with that money not being recycled to build more homes, why not allow that money to be ring-fenced locally for housing? That seems obvious and it is one of the many solutions that we need in respect of housing.

The hon. Gentleman knows that it is perfectly possible to achieve those targets. Some Labour councils, including Hammersmith, when it was under Labour control, achieved them. I shall not ask him about that again, but I would like him to answer another question. My Conservative council said last month:

“Council housing can be a great safety net to help get people back on their feet, but that is all it should be. Council housing is a springboard, not a destination.”

When I suggested during proceedings on the Housing and Regeneration Bill that that was Conservative policy, the hon. Gentleman denied it, so will he now dissociate himself from that comment? Conservative policy seems to be to treat all council housing as temporary housing. Is that his solution to the housing problem?

I have just told the hon. Gentleman that we want more council house building. When we were in power, we built more council housing in every category than his Government have. To get to the central point, if we want to relieve the housing crisis in this country, we must build more homes, and if we want to do that, repeating the failing prescription of the past will not achieve what we require. I have told the Minister before—and I say again—that when the former Soviet Union told Ukraine how many tractors to build in the 10-year plan, it rarely, if ever, made that target.

The same mistake is being made here today with a new target: 3 million homes by 2020 from a Government who have no chance of building them. If I were in the Chamber with not a junior housing Minister, but a trade and industry Minister, they would think it insane for any of us to ask how many cars or tractors the Government hoped to build in the next 10 years. However, the Government apparently believe that that is a rational approach for housing, and that is why, 11 years on, it must be incredibly sad for Labour Back Benchers, who are passionate about this matter, to know that their Government have failed them and their constituents.

We all have constituents in our surgeries every week telling us that they are unable to get homes simply because not enough are being built. We must tackle that by building more homes and incentivising local communities to create the necessary housing. That is done by not closing down the local hospital in an area where one wants to build 10,000 or 15,000 more homes and by relaxing the rules that section 106 money can be spent only in the exact vicinity of the new housing, rather than through incentivising the existing community to accept those houses. Until we do those things, we will never build the homes that this country requires.

I begin with a profound personal apology to your good self, Mr. Chope, for the fact that you have had to listen to me five times in two days. I do not know what you have done to displease Mr. Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on his engagement and wish him well.

This has been an excellent debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing it. It is recognised throughout the House that she has been a champion of housing in the capital. I hope that all hon. Members agree that a one-and-a-half-hour debate in Westminster Hall is inadequate for such a massive issue. We need a topical debate on the Floor of the House, or perhaps a three-hour debate here on a Thursday afternoon, because the matter is so important.

Many issues have been raised: overcrowding, temporary accommodation, problems associated with choice-based lettings, homelessness, rough sleeping and economic apartheid, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) mentioned. A common theme—I hope that we all agree on this—is that we need to build more homes, particularly affordable homes, with an emphasis on social homes.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said, the fact that the non-London hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who claims that he will be a strong voice for London, is not here to debate housing, which is one of London’s most pressing issues, is symptomatic of his campaign. He is running scared, hiding from scrutiny, and demonstrating an arrogant and disgraceful disdain for the electorate. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) did a sterling job of trying to defend his hon. Friend, but he knows the truth. It is disgraceful that someone who wants to represent London, the world’s best city, is not here to have his policies scrutinised.

London’s need for housing has been well explained during the debate. It is an extremely successful city— arguably the best—and is growing fast. The London plan estimates that the population will increase from around 7.5 million in 2006 to 8.19 million in 2016 and 8.71 million in 2020. The number of households is expected to increase by around 720,000 by 2026. We have discussed the imbalance of supply and demand, and that has an impact on prices, which has an impact on affordability. It is genuinely shocking that the average house price in London, when adjusted for the mix, is now £339,000. Anyone who suggests that someone with an income of £60,000, £70,000 or £80,000 is normal does not move in the circles in which my hon. Friends and I move in our constituencies. That shows a level of elitism that I do not want in housing policy, and we must address that.

We have been building more homes in London in recent years. In 2006-07, more than 31,000 homes were completed, but the Greater London authority estimates that London will require about 353,000 new homes over the next 10 years to meet the backlog and future demand.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North raised many issues. She wrote to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing in February, and I replied on my right hon. Friend’s behalf yesterday—I hope that she received that. I shall reiterate some of the themes concerning temporary accommodation, overcrowding, homelessness and rough sleeping because they are important. I will be happy, with my hon. Friend’s permission, to share that reply with hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.

I want to respond to the important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon made about Barnet and the patchiness of affordable housing in the capital. He was right to say that last year the proportion was about 10 per cent. We need a lot more, but I want to consider the matter with a three-year trajectory because that gives an idea of direction and how local authorities are committed to ensuring that they provide affordable housing.

The three-year average for Barnet is 23 per cent., which is one of the lowest in the capital and is matched only by Liberal Democrat Richmond with 20 per cent., Liberal Democrat Sutton with 17 per cent., Conservative Wandsworth with 18 per cent. and Conservative Kensington and Chelsea with 21 per cent. I do not want to be party political, so I shall mention the Labour-run London borough of Greenwich, which has a three-year average of 19 per cent., but it is important to point out that last year it showed 38 per cent. affordable housing in its total new build, so it is moving in the right direction. In 2004-05, the figure was 17 per cent. That is important, because local authorities have a key role in securing affordable housing and that shows how committed they are to addressing people’s needs and to obtaining affordable housing in their areas.

My hon. Friend would have noticed, as I did, that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) did not answer the question about the 50 per cent. rule—one can only assume that he does not agree with it. His contribution suggested that he wanted to let rip the open market in London. His solution seems to be to build more houses without any reference to social housing. Is that my hon. Friend’s understanding of where the Conservatives are coming from, and what would that mean in Barnet?

As I said, the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield is slightly embarrassed by the stance of the Conservative mayoral candidate.

Will the Minister accept that what is important is not the percentage of affordable housing that is built, but the absolute numbers that are built? Some of the councils that he has mentioned have exceeded the Mayor’s own building target. Does the Minister not accept that that is a good thing?

Targets are the right way to drive through improvements in performance, particularly the 50 per cent. target on affordable housing. Yes, let us build more homes, but some people, such as those within the circles in which certain hon. Members move, think that having houses worth £300,000, £400,000 or £500,000 is somehow acceptable and that they are quite cheap. I do not think that that is acceptable. We need to address in a strong manner the needs of the people on the ground whom we represent, which is something that the Conservative party does not do. This is a key dividing line in terms of how we ensure—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Private Sector Rented Housing

I am very glad to be able to have a debate this afternoon on private rented housing. I am also very grateful for the information that has been provided to me for the debate by a number of external organisations. Clearly, there is wider concern on the issue among both housing industry professional organisations and the organisations that support tenants and homeless people. I hope that my comments will feed into the current Government review of private sector rented housing, which my hon. Friend the Minister is leading. I hope that he will say more about that review when he winds up and that he will give assurances about how the points that I raise will feed into the review and be reflected in the results.

My concern is especially with the use of private rented accommodation as an alternative to social rented housing for people on low incomes and particularly homeless people. I want to raise four issues that I hope my hon. Friend will include in his review and I would like three particular recommendations to come out of it. First, however, it is important to recognise the role that private sector rented housing plays in the overall housing mix. It accounts for 12 per cent. of England’s total housing stock, catering for people at all income levels. Of course, much of it operates perfectly well. Indeed, I understand that, overall, tenant satisfaction is higher in the private rented sector than it is in relation to housing associations or among council tenants.

However, underlying that overall position are many private sector tenants who are among the most vulnerable people in society and there is evidence that that group is growing in number. One of the drivers of that is the Government’s housing options approach, which has encouraged tenants who apply for social housing to consider private rented accommodation. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend, either now or later, could clarify the Government’s intention on the way in which housing options interviews are conducted. My understanding is that the needs assessment should come first and the discussion about housing options and how those needs are met should come second. The person inquiring about housing should not be plunged into talking about options before their needs have been assessed.

Unfortunately, the expansion of the private rented sector has not been accompanied by the rationalisation of it. A very large number of small-scale landlords make their money out of renting small numbers of properties—in many cases, renting to tenants funded by the public sector—and although many of those landlords are entirely reputable, a significant minority are not.

The use of the private sector for what are basically public sector tenants can work well. Last year, I went to an excellent seminar run by Shelter, at which a number of local authorities spoke about the constructive working relations they had with private landlords in their areas, which worked in the interest of housing homeless people. The private sector was a partner in active planning for housing homeless people and assessing needs in an area. However, I know from my constituency that if the local authority—in this case, Northampton borough council—is poor, the process of considering housing options can too easily become a process that pressurises tenants into moving into private sector tenancies that are insecure, unaffordable, unregulated and, sometimes, in disrepair. That can cause real hardship for some of the most vulnerable people, who rightly turn to local authorities for support.

The biggest problem facing tenants in private sector rented accommodation is the chronic lack of security. Six-month shorthold tenancies do not provide a stable home for vulnerable families. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux found that the United Kingdom provides the least security of tenure for private-sector tenants of the six European countries that it studied. In Germany, 51 per cent. of people live in privately rented properties, mostly with unlimited contracts; in Spain, where 10 per cent. of properties are privately rented, tenants have the right annually to extend contracts for up to five years. We are the only country with six-month shorthold tenancies.

For vulnerable families, the consequences are desperate. A recent study of homelessness in Northamptonshire found that, in 2006, no fewer than 17 per cent., almost one in five, of homeless families housed by the local authority were made homeless because their shorthold tenancies had come to an end and had not been renewed. Councils have to pick up the pieces when that happens, as people are almost being evicted from private rented homes.

A Shelter report, due to be published shortly, cites the survey of English housing for 2005-06, which found that 38 per cent. or just over a third of people in private rented housing had been in their homes for less than a year. That is four times the level for social tenants, and a staggering seven times that for owner-occupiers. Only 5 per cent. of owner-occupiers had moved within the past year compared with 38 per cent. of tenants in privately rented property. There is massively greater insecurity for private tenants than for any other group.

Behind those figures lies deep misery for many families. They are forced to live a nomadic existence in private rented housing. As a result, the children suffer constant disruption in their schooling and the parents sometimes have problems in keeping their jobs, and there is the social disruption of having constantly to move home.

A young couple in my constituency who came to me for help were typical; they were under real pressure. They were teenage parents; the father was in work and the mother was a former care leaver. They had to move home three times in 18 months, from one privately rented home to another. They had been forced into private accommodation as a result of a housing options interview. On the third time of moving, the mother was pregnant with a second child. The young man’s mother was very supportive of them and desperate to find a better solution for her son and his family, but they still had to move from place to place. Unfortunately, I was not able to maintain contact with them. Packing up and moving home every six months is something that I could not cope with, let alone with two young children in tow.

There was a time when security of tenure acted as a deterrent to owners renting their properties, but I believe that the pendulum has swung too far the other way and that changes are needed to redress the balance in favour of tenants.

Secondly, the cost of private rented housing can be a real problem, especially for those on housing benefit. According to figures provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government, 19 per cent. of the sector’s tenants were receiving housing benefit in 2005-06. That is a total of just under 500,000 households. However, about 30 per cent. of those people suffer benefit shortfalls, and need to top up their housing benefit from other benefits to pay the rent. A third have to top up their rents from money that only just covers their living costs and, as a result, they may be in debt or arrears. That can result in eviction, which puts them back into the revolving doors of homelessness.

Another constituent who asked me for help and advice was sharing a one-bedroomed flat with her daughter. She was paying £625 a month for the property. As a result of economic pressures, she was facing a reduction in her working hours. For the first time, she was having to think about claiming benefits. However, she discovered that she would get only £525 a month in housing benefit, leaving a shortfall of £100 a month, which had to be made up from her other benefits and a reduced wage—a near impossible task.

I know of the Government scheme to help private sector tenants with their deposits, but the experience of my constituents is that, for whatever reason, many do not seem to be able to gain access to that help. They have real difficulty in raising money for a deposit; and if they have to leave a tenancy, they find it difficult to get the deposit money back again. I would not argue for a return to the days when the Government had to underwrite whatever rents landlords chose to charge though housing benefit, but the review needs to consider what can be done about the high cost of private sector rented housing; we must ensure that landlords do not charge whatever they can from housing benefit and whatever more they think they can get from the tenants’ other benefits.

Thirdly, there are significant problems with the maintenance and repair of many properties. Although housing conditions in the private sector are improving, the Shelter study cites Government figures from 2005 showing that almost half of all homes in the private rented sector were classified as not being decent to live in. The major problems listed included inadequate heating, difficulties with water and even sanitation, structural problems, damp and poorly fitted electrical fixtures. There is also considerable evidence of the tenants’ inability to get private sector landlords to carry out repairs. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux detailed a catalogue of what it calls “retaliatory evictions”, with landlords evicting tenants for trying to force them to carry out repairs. NACAB calls for Government action to stop such evictions and points to measures taken by other European Governments.

A constituent came to see me saying that she had been unable to get her private sector landlord to carry out basic repairs, and when she repeatedly complained to her landlord, she found that her tenancy was not renewed. Other constituents have complained about being unable to get landlords to carry out such basic repairs as replacing broken windows; one constituent complained of having to live for several months with the ground floor windows boarded up. Council tenants, of course, have problems of disrepair, but at least they have access to the council, whereas private sector tenants often have difficulty in getting a response from their landlords.

Fourthly, tenants have complained about the problem of getting action taken on antisocial behaviour. Local authorities are in a lead position for getting antisocial behaviour orders to combat problems on their estates, especially those linked to their own tenants. However, tenants in private accommodation do not have the same access to justice. One constituent told me of a neighbour involved in drug taking, but the landlord of the block of flats was unwilling to act; her shorthold tenancy was not renewed. I do not know whether that can be called an eviction, but the landlord has the option every six months to decide on renewal.

I recognise the importance of an active private sector in providing rented accommodation, and believe that it should be actively developed in the UK. I spent a long time living in the private rented sector when abroad. My experience of rented accommodation outside the UK is very different; that is due mainly to the lack of institutional investment in the sector here.

I hope that the Government review will help to stimulate, as well as regulate, the private rented sector by doing two things. First, they should encourage institutional investment in the sector. The buy-to-let market has until now been active, but it is patchy and fickle, with a large number of smaller-scale landlords. I have noticed that they tend to follow the market when deciding what to do with their properties. At one stage, landlords in Northampton were not letting so much to homeless families but to asylum seekers—they could get close on £100 a week for a room instead of £100 a week for the property. When the market peaked, a good number sold out completely, leaving their tenants homeless.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors gives support for institutional investment as one of its priorities. It says that there is a need for greater Government support to increase the provision of rented accommodation by larger companies as opposed to single landlords as that would offer a greater level of accountability and greater chances of ensuring better- quality stable housing. The institution has set out a number of proposals that would boost institutional investment in private rented accommodation, including using planning policy, changing the stamp duty and VAT regimes, and changing the real estate investment trust regime to encourage its use as a tool for investing in property for rent.

There is a pressing need to provide more security of tenure for tenants, especially by increasing the length of tenancies and providing an effective appeal against eviction. There is a pressing need to end the continual instability that plagues the lives of many of the poorest people. There needs to be some halfway house between the misery merry-go-round of six months shorthold tenancies and the long-term, secure tenancies enjoyed by council tenants. I was pleased that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has also supported proposals such as that for a new type of housing tenancy. Thirdly, there is a need for a comprehensive and joined-up system of national regulation that penalises the worst landlords and promotes good practice in the sector with a common code for all.

In many of our areas, council homes were a step up for people who were escaping the slum housing of the early 1990s. I know that huge problems with large-scale private sector landlords have caused real misery for many households on low incomes in my hon. Friend the Minister’s constituency. Now, for some of our most vulnerable people in constituencies such as mine, a move into the private sector is a move back into substandard and insecure housing, where they are at the mercy of landlords who charge high rents for inferior accommodation, without security of tenure, which people who turn to the state for help rightly expect. If we are to ensure that the private sector provides a realistic housing option for people on lower incomes, we need to ensure that we increase the supply, improve the quality and reduce the insecurity.

I hope that the measures that I have set out, and those put forward by Shelter, NACAB and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors will be looked at seriously and adopted by the Government to ensure that their ambition for everybody to have a decent home extends to people in private rented housing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this debate. She is a real champion of housing and was gracious enough to allow me to visit her constituency in the past couple of months; I greatly enjoyed the visit and hope to go back soon.

A decent home can be a major indicator of life chances, educational attainments and life expectancy. Having a home that one can be proud of is of major importance. Aspirations and expectations of home ownership and tenants’ rights have risen dramatically in the past few decades, and rightly so. Whether people buy or rent, their right to a decent home of their choice that is suitable for their needs is the same. That right underpins the priority that the Government attach to delivering housing in all sectors. Our plans for 3 million new homes between now and 2020 are absolutely essential if aspirations for greater quality and choice are to be met. Greater housing supply is vitally important, but the issue is also about giving people access to the right sort of home. As my hon. Friend said, the private rented sector can make a vital contribution.

We talk about a private rented sector as if it is a single entity, but it is actually not a homogenous market at all—quite the reverse; there are different sectors and different types of market within it. For example, nearly two thirds of households in the private rented sector are categorised as economically active, and more than three quarters of tenants in the private rented sector are under 35. For those people, who are often in the first throes of their careers, attempting to secure a professional qualification and so on, the attraction of private renting is its flexibility. Students who have moved away from home for the first time almost invariably rent, which again shows a degree a dynamism within the market.

However, it is fair to say, as my hon. Friend did, that the sector also provides housing for vulnerable people. A little under a fifth of tenants in the private rented sector are on housing benefit. The introduction of the new local housing allowance should give those tenants greater choice about where they live because it will allow them to see in advance the properties that they can afford.

I was struck about what my hon. Friend said on this matter, but I share her vision that the private rented sector should not be a tenure of last resort for those in housing need. To achieve that, standards need to be raised. She was kind enough to mention my constituency, where absentee landlords help to fuel antisocial behaviour and an exodus away from really decent communities. We need to stop that, which is why I believe that we need to increase the professionalism within the private rented sector.

By working closely with our stakeholders within and outside government, we have shown that people’s aspirations for increased quality and choice can be met by the private rented sector. One example of what I mean by that will be well known to my hon. Friend. In the east midlands, the regional housing board sponsored the creation of Decent and Safe Homes in late 2004. Since its establishment, DASH has held several regional events and has delivered both advice and training courses for landlords. I am also encouraged by Northampton council’s landlord forum and its student accreditation scheme, which looks at property condition.

A key theme in my hon. Friend’s excellent contribution was the need for better regulation. I was struck by a phrase that she used, and I shall take it on board when we discuss the private sector review. She was absolutely spot on when she spoke about how we should stimulate, as well as regulate, the private rented sector market. However, as she recognises, targeted regulation to back up voluntary approaches is important.

We are not starting with a blank sheet of paper. Measures that were introduced in the Housing Act 2004 are having a positive benefit. First, we introduced mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation. Real progress is being made by local authorities that use their powers to tackle what are potentially the most problematic parts of the sector. We are now beginning to see applications from some councils to establish discretionary licensing schemes. So far, we have approved five selective licensing schemes—my own borough of Hartlepool is about to put one forward—and, in the summer, I went up to the north-east and saw that Gateshead council’s excellent scheme is working incredibly well. Several more such schemes are in the pipeline, so the knowledge that local authorities can and will take targeted steps to deal with problem areas will, I believe, give confidence to people when they make their decision about where to live.

Secondly, we introduced the housing health and safety rating system. Conditions across the private rented sector are already getting better. The English house condition survey found that 49 per cent. of private rented sector dwellings were non-decent in 2001, which reduced to 43 per cent. in 2004. My hon. Friend and I have spoken in Adjournment debates about decent homes in recent months, so I know that she shares my passion to ensure that decent homes are available to all. I remain concerned that some vulnerable people, who are least able to change their housing circumstances, live in non-decent conditions, but our focus on such households is paying off. In 2001, only 57 per cent. of vulnerable people were living in a decent home but, by 2005, that number had risen to 66 per cent. Those are real step changes, and we are on target to achieve our aim of having 70 per cent. of vulnerable households living in decent homes by 2010.

Thirdly, it is a little more than a year since the Government introduced schemes to safeguard tenancy deposits, which was another potential abuse of the system—I take on board what my hon. Friend said on the matter. In that time, 1 million deposits have been protected, and around £885 million of cash has been safeguarded. I am confident that we can build on those successes and meet people’s aspirations for greater housing quality and choice, but I recognise that there is still some way to go—the issue raised by the Citizens Advice report, “The tenant’s dilemma”, which my hon. Friend mentioned, gives just one example of that. I am conscious of the issue of retaliatory eviction and have pledged to look at it, and to ensure that the review of the private rented sector also considers it.

My hon. Friend was spot on when she said that there needs to be a delicate balance of rights and responsibilities in the landlord-tenant relationship within the private rented sector. I have every sympathy for tenants mistreated by their landlords and letting agents, and I am keen to protect their rights as much as possible, but for every letter that I receive detailing tenants’ heartbreaking and harrowing experiences with bad landlords, I receive a letter from a landlord about their experience of unprovoked damage caused by tenants and the thousands of pounds that it has cost them to set it right. I know that my hon. Friend is aware that it is a delicate balance. When that is upset, the image of the whole sector suffers, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline. It is something that we need to address.

That, in a nutshell, is why we commissioned the independent review of the private sector to which my hon. Friend referred. The review is being carried out by Julie Rugg and David Rhodes at the Centre for Housing Policy at the university of York. It has a wide remit. It will look at how the sector meets current needs and expectations, and whether and how both landlords’ and tenants’ experiences might be improved. In the context of future demand and supply pressures in the private rented sector, the review will consider what needs to be done to ensure that private renting offers people the right type of homes of good quality both now and in future, and what more should and could be done to raise professionalism.

I was taken by my hon. Friend’s point about institutional investment. To be terribly frank, I am keen for more players to come to the table. I want councils and private developers to expand their housing supply, and I am intrigued by her suggestions about institutional investment. Institutional investment tends to be by big pension funds, which need, quite rightly, a rate of return to ensure that pensions are paid out. That is important, but one of the things that the private sector review could consider is the current make-up of the sector and whether that acts as a barrier to a fit-for-purpose product. In particular, Julie Rugg has been considering incentives for large institutions to invest in the private rented sector. That is extremely encouraging.

I meant to intervene earlier, when my hon. Friend was talking about the rent deposit scheme. Could he arrange a briefing for me on how it works and what the rules are so that I can work out why my constituents cannot access it and how they might be able to?

I certainly pledge to do that, so that my hon. Friend can provide an even better service to her constituents.

My hon. Friend’s other main theme was security of tenure, and I have a lot of sympathy with what she said. The review is considering security of tenure in exploring whether more needs to be done to improve the experiences of both landlords and tenants in the sector in relation to their rights and responsibilities and the delicate balance to which I referred.

Because I hear about it in my constituency surgeries, I understand the point about security of tenure, six-month leases and shorthold tenants. The average tenancy in this country lasts between a year and 18 months. That seems to suggest that many landlords are happy to allow their tenants to continue their tenancy after the initial six-month or fixed-term agreement has ended. I suggest that that is a contractual matter, and that it is up to the tenant and the landlord to come to a mutually beneficial agreement on what can be achieved, but I am keen to take on board what my hon. Friend says.

Julie Rugg and David Rhodes have engaged with a wide range of stakeholders from across the sector, and I am keen for my hon. Friend to contribute. I shall ensure that a relevant copy of Hansard is provided, and I am happy to facilitate meetings with my hon. Friend. I am also grateful to other hon. Members and stakeholders who found time to take part in the review’s evidence-gathering. The review is due to report to Ministers this October, and I look forward to seeing the results.

I want a strong private rental sector that encourages and assists the well-intentioned majority of landlords to stay within it and shows less professional landlords the red card. That will mean striking a balance between the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants and between regulation and voluntary initiatives. It relates to my hon. Friend’s point about stimulating as well as regulating; I like that. I expect and hope that the conclusions of the private sector review will advise us on whether we have struck that balance or need to do more. I look forward to receiving it.

Post Office Closures (Northavon)

I shall use the short time available to bring to the Minister’s attention the implications of the Government’s plans—they are the Government’s—to close three post offices in my constituency: Old Sodbury, Tytherington and Station road, Yate. I am tempted to sympathise with the Minister. I am aware that he has dealt with similar debates on post office closures in Cheshire, Clapham, the highlands and islands, Mole Valley, Lancashire and Adur and Worthing, and no doubt others that I have missed. The human side of me sympathises with him at having to listen to yet another hon. Member talk about his local post office, but actually, I do not sympathise. The Government are damaging our communities, and he needs to hear that over and over until they do something. I do not apologise for securing this debate.

Because we have had a series of debates like this, I asked my office to look up what the Minister will say in reply. I have a note that says, “In his speech, he makes the following eight points.” He starts by saying that he does not play a role in decisions about individual post offices, which I understand, and then he outlines the changes in lifestyle that the Post Office is facing, including direct payment of benefits into bank accounts, which has resulted in 4 million fewer people going through the doors than two years ago, and so on.

I do not want to spoil his fun, so I will let him do the other six, but I want to comment on the second point, because Post Office Ltd said it at one of the public meetings in my constituency. It said, “Well, it’s all changed now. People don’t use post offices so much. They all have their pensions paid into a bank.” The Government say that as though it were some neutral process, like osmosis—as though it just kind of happened, and that is why post offices must close. Well, I used to shadow the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Government drove that policy through with a sledgehammer. They bullied people, cajoled them and wrote to them. They as near as damn it forced them to give up their pension books.

Although some went for Post Office card accounts, which means that they still go through the doors of the post office, many of them simply gave up the fuss—not least because Post Office card accounts are hard to obtain—and went to the bank. Then another Department came along and said, “Ooh, gosh, there are fewer post office customers. We’d better shut some.” It is ludicrous for the Government to suggest that their hands are somehow clean: “It’s just social change, innit, guv?” I am afraid that it is not. It is deliberate Government policy. Yes, the trends have been happening over decades, but if post offices and sub-post offices had had the time, they could have done far more to adjust to new patterns of business and develop the new sorts of business that the Minister will no doubt mention in his reply. It is the speed of change that has caught so many of them on the hop. The Government forced through the loss of one of their major sources of business. The Government are responsible, not social trends.

Now that I have got that off my chest, what about the three post offices in my constituency? I shall give a thumbnail sketch of the impact of each closure, and then I shall ask the Minister some questions about rescue packages, financial arrangements and the closure and appeal process. Old Sodbury is a small village shop with a village post office. It is the only shop in the village, and neighbouring hamlets use it, as well. One of the interesting aspects of the comments that I have heard is that shorter hours could have been an option to save money. I think that the sub-postmistress would have been amenable to shorter hours. The post office would have saved money and the balance sheet would have looked a bit better, but the Government’s target is not budgetary; it is 2,500 closures. Post Office Ltd does not get a tick in its box if Old Sodbury post office stays open for fewer hours; it only gets one if it shuts.

Given that, as long as people know when the post office is open, they can juggle when they go there to some extent, shortening the hours would still have saved some money and would surely have been less disruptive than shutting it altogether. I wonder whether the target mechanism has created some perverse outcomes. I think that money could have been saved and the public could have retained that service, which would have been a better outcome for all concerned.

The second proposed closure in my constituency is in a Tesco Express store, on Station road, in Yate, in a part of my constituency’s main town that is less well-off, with fewer cars. On a map, it is not far from the Crown office in the middle of the town and looks fine, but it is not fine for the elderly residents of the sheltered bungalows who attended our public meeting. They cannot get a bus there because there is no direct service, they cannot drive and they simply cannot walk that far. Furthermore, when those who can get to the Crown office get there, they have to queue and queue—everybody says that the office cannot cope. People report having to keep returning every hour to find a time when they do not have to queue, because there is nowhere to sit down. Although those are not insurmountable problems, nobody believes that they will be resolved or that, given that this is a cost-cutting measure, the Post Office will spend the money on the receiving branch to provide extra counters and chairs or anything like that. Effectively, those people will be disfranchised.

I have particularly harsh words for Tesco. The staff in the store at Yate found out about the post office closure through reading about it in the newspapers. How shoddy is that? I spoke to Tesco’s so-called Government relations people and asked, “If we can put together a rescue package and bring the community together, will you play your part and allow the post office to continue to operate on your premises?”, but they were staggeringly reluctant to help. They simply were not interested. The Minister might say, “It is not a charity, so why should it help?”, but Members of Parliament receive letters from Tesco all the time telling us how community-minded it is and asking us to present computers to school kids. For years, I have refused to present Tesco computers to school kids, because it does not give a damn about the local community. When it comes to the crunch and something that really matters, it is not interested. That has been my experience with the Tesco Express in Yate.

The third post office that I want to bring to the Minister’s attention is the one in Tytherington—I would be grateful for his specific response to this—which is the one on which we are perhaps making some headway in putting together a package. Tytherington is a smallish village; the Post Office’s paperwork said that 331 people live there, but Postwatch told me that the correct number is more than 600. As far as we can see, therefore, the impact of the post office closure has been miscalculated by a factor of a half. That area lost its previous post office in 1996, but the community said, “This is not good enough; we need a post office and a village shop”, so it started one. Residents put their cash where their mouths were and now have shares in the village shop, which they run on a rota. The post office gets rent-free rates and its lighting and heating paid for, which is a fantastic achievement for a village that was at risk of dying, owing to the loss of its post office and school.

Ten years ago, the people of Tytherington got off their backsides and made something happen; and it is a beautiful shop, but now what is going to happen? They are going to lose their post office again. That does not guarantee that the shop will go as well, but it bloomin’ well does not help. It is a kick in the teeth—there is no other word for it. A village meeting was held, which I helped to organise with the parish council, and the village hall was so packed to overflowing that some people had to go away because they could not squeeze in. The Post Office people said that they had never seen so many people. It is interesting that some of the more rural and village communities feel most passionately about such closures.

What can we do about it? On Friday, people from Post Office headquarters are visiting my constituency to meet Tytherington parish council and the village shop committee, and we will find out the hard financial information about what it will take to keep the post office going. Getting financial information out of the Post Office has been like getting blood out of a stone. I think that I got the information about the financial savings to the Post Office of closing those shops only because I secured this debate. I understand the issues of commercial sensitivity, but a rescue package cannot be put together unless the numbers are known.

The worry is not that we will never get there, but that the post offices will have to close—most of us assume that they all will—before we can rescue them. That is what we are hearing from Postwatch. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point. The consultation is over, decisions are due in a few weeks and closures a few weeks after that. It is ludicrous situation. There is a serious live rescue bid from community leaders who might put money in—I am not committing them—and the local authority might play a part as well. Furthermore, we might have struck a deal with a neighbouring postmaster to come and operate an outreach service. With all of that happening, the Post Office could still shut it in the meantime. I thought that I had heard Ministers, or others, say that if there was a serious live rescue attempt—not something tokenistic—they would hold off from closures, but that is not what I am being told. Will the Minister clarify that point?

What pressure can the Minister put on the Post Office over its attitude towards such rescue packages and proposals? My sense is that it was caught on the hop by the idea of anyone putting together a rescue package. When Essex county council came up with its idea, everyone ran around like headless chickens saying, “Oh, we did not think that people might try to save these things or invest money creatively.” Will he assure us that he is banging heads together at the Post Office and saying, “Be as creative as possible within the framework that we have given you. If you can work with communities, give them financial information and some breathing space, and allow them to be creative and imaginative, do it”? I hope that he is taking that line with the Post Office.

For all the tea in China, I would not exchange jobs with those in the Post Office doing this—it must be a miserable job. However, I get the feeling that those to whom I speak hate what they do, because they came into the Post Office to run a network, not to kill one. And yet they have been given closure targets, so do they really want to invest a lot of time and energy in helping to put together a package that will make things work, when they will not get rewarded for it? Will the Minister assure us that they will get some sort of return or thanks for that sort of activity?

We would all like to save all the post offices on our patches. Of the three in my constituency, some sort of community initiative must be possible regarding the one that, historically, the community has rallied around in the largest numbers and has shown the most initiative in respect of. It is also the one that gives rise to no issues with a multinational such as Tesco, which, frankly, is the biggest problem with one of the others. However, I hope that the Minister can assure us that the financial terms of any such initiative will be as sympathetic as possible. That is a funny word to use, but in other words, I appreciate that common costs are incurred wherever the Post Office runs branches, that central costs are allocated locally and that a post office is not just the marginal cost, as it were.

If, however, we can get together a package locally, how can we be confident that the Post Office will not then say, “Well, to keep this going, we will charge you x amount for central computing, banking services, or whatever you buy in”? How can we be confident that that figure will be as low as the Post Office can keep it? What is the risk that the Post Office will say, “Frankly, we don’t want to save the post office anyway. It’s no skin off our nose if it shuts, but we can get some cash in here and help ourselves, so let’s bump it up a bit—they’ll never know that it only costs us x to run this branch, so we will charge them y.” How confident can we be that the terms of any arrangement will be fair?

Finally, will the Minister say more about the concept of outreach services? In a sense, I am slightly conflating two different things. First and foremost, we would like the Post Office to say, “All right, it’s a fair cop. It would be a disaster to shut Tytherington, so we won’t shut it.” That would be great. If it does not say that, I am not clear about what the appeal process is. I sense that there is virtually no meaningful appeal process. I have talked to Postwatch and I am not clear whether it can ask Adam Crozier or his mates to consider the matter again. However, I do not think that there is a meaningful appeal process that is likely to change anything.

Originally, there was talk of 500 outreach services across the network, but the word on the street is that that might be a slightly more widely used model to ensure that postal services across a broader range of areas are provided at a lower cost than that of providing a full-blown sub-post office. Will the Minister clarify both the Government’s and the Post Office’s philosophical approach to outreach services? For example, is it something that the Government want to encourage? Can I expect the Post Office to actively say, “Well actually, outreach is good for us because we cover a whole population, but it is fairly cheap”, in which case, am I knocking at an open door? Or will the Post Office say, “No, we are only allowed 500 outreach projects across Britain, so Bristol and Somerset will get 21 and you can’t have one of them”? Is that a rigid number or is there flexibility, so that if such a service model seems right for a particular community, that is what we can have?

I could have read out the heartbreaking letters, e-mails, petitions and all the rest of it that we have received from local residents. The Minister has heard the like before many times. However, I can only stress to him that, with a community and constituency such as mine, there is the whole gamut of areas. There are relatively hard-pressed urban areas that will suffer. There are also village communities. For them, it is a cliché but it is true: the post office and village shop is the heart of the community. In a sense, the most that I hope for from the Minister today, but also the least that I hope for from him today, is some constructive encouragement: that, where we are trying to be creative and innovative locally, as the people of Tytherington have already been once before 10 years ago, he will be on their side, at least to that extent.

I would, of course, like to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing this debate. He is absolutely right; this is the type of debate that I have taken part in many times in recent months. He is also right in his understanding that, as a Minister, I do not decide which post office closes and which stays open.

In the time available to me, I will do my best to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions about funding, outreach, support and so on. I understand that he is in dialogue with Post Office Ltd about some of these issues and I also understand that he has at the moment 28 post offices in his constituency, of which three are scheduled for closure.

So where does all this process of closures come from? It comes from an announcement in May 2007 by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who at the time was the Secretary of State in what was then the Department of Trade and Industry, that there would be up to 2,500 post office closures out of more than 14,000 branches across the country, with 500 new outreach services, which the hon. Gentleman referred to. I want to begin by saying that I obviously understand the concerns, and indeed the very strong protests, that have existed in some communities over that decision. It is one thing to announce it in the generality; it is another thing to see it implemented locally in individual post offices in individual communities.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the Government’s role in post office closures and I want to pause on that point. He knows about the Government’s role because, as he said, he was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on work and pensions for a number of years. It is true that the Government wrote to people about change and so on, but we also gave people a choice. People have the Post Office card account; it is still used by several million people.

Having said that, we must also think about how people are used to being paid these days. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will be going to the post office for his pension every week when he retires; I wish him a long, healthy and successful retirement whenever it comes. However, nine out of 10 pensioners who come up for retirement today choose not to do that; they choose to have their pension paid into their bank account, even though they can still use the Post Office card account if they so choose.

That situation illustrates some of the challenges facing the post office network. It loses £500,000 every day that it is open, and those losses have more or less doubled in the past few years. It has lost an average of 4 million customers a week. In addition to the nine out of 10 new retirees who choose direct payment for their pensions, even eight out of 10 existing pensioners choose direct payment too.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman talked about the Government’s role; that role is interesting and important. For example, if we take online services, the Government worked to put together an online service for car tax renewal a couple of years ago. The use of that service has risen almost exponentially. Nobody is forced to use it; there is still the ability to renew car tax at post offices. However, last year, the online service was used by 500,000 people a month; this year, that figure is about 1 million people a month. Furthermore, half the people using it are doing so outside the normal office hours of nine to five.

What is the hon. Gentleman’s position on such developments? Is it that, when people are accustomed to using the internet in other spheres of their life to book flights, pay bills or access other services, somehow the Government should say, “No, you cannot do that”? I ask the question because, if that is his and his party’s position, I must say that I disagree with it. I think that the Government have to respond to changes in other spheres of people’s lives and make these types of services available online.

Now, such change has an impact on the Post Office, as do other changes, including greater competition. It is because there are other networks such as Paypoint, which can bid for contracts, that a service such as the television licence is no longer with the Post Office. That has resulted in significant difficulty for the post office network, in terms of losses of custom and other financial losses.

These changes reflect the way that we live. As a country, most of us have taken part in those changes and, as I said, most people have either ordered goods or paid bills over the internet. Some 70 per cent. of the country is now online in one way or another, so what is the Government’s response to all this change? It is not to walk away and to say that the post office network must be a purely commercial network; we have not done that. Of the 14,000 post offices that are currently in the network, it is estimated that only about 4,000 would operate as a purely commercial venture. However, that is not the stance that we have taken at all. Instead, we have become the first Government to put substantial subsidy into the network.

It is important to say that, because the hon. Gentleman was critical of the Government’s role, but no previous Government have subsidised the post office network. We have done so. By 2011, we will have put up to £3.7 billion into supporting the Post Office in one way or another. That includes a subsidy of £150 million a year, without which his constituents and constituents throughout the country would be facing thousands more post office closures than is currently the case. So the Government’s position has been to support the network. The Government, however, also have a duty to the taxpayer, and subsidy cannot be unlimited in the face of some of the changes that I have talked about. The Government cannot be blind to the impact of the internet, direct debit, or the way that people do business and receive money in the world today.

Those challenges have been recognised not just by the Government but by the general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters himself. He said at the start of the programme:

“Although regrettable, we believe that closures are necessary to ensure the remaining post offices are able to thrive in the future.”

So he recognises the difficulties that the network faces. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who is Conservative shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, said in a debate on the post office network only last month:

“We have to face the facts about the future of postal services in this country…we fully expect the network to shrink in size. We have never given a guarantee that no post offices will close”.—[Official Report, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 947.]

I think that there is widespread recognition about the challenges facing the network.

I fully understand that nobody likes to see their post office close, even those people who may not use a post office very often but like the idea of having one in their community. However, it is also important to remember the scale of what is planned. Even after completion of this programme, in the Bristol and Somerset area, which covers the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, almost 90 per cent. of customers will see no change in the post office branch that they use. In total, 99 per cent. of the area’s population will either see no change in the branch that they use or they will remain within one mile, as measured by road, of an alternative post office branch.

This is not wholesale destruction of the post office network. It is a reduction in the size of the network, but the vast majority of post office users will still be using the same branch that they have always used, and almost all post office users will either be using the same branch or, as I said, be within a mile of another branch.

The hon. Gentleman asked me some questions about the consultation process, appeals and so on, and I want to help him with those questions. The first thing is to stress what the question in the consultation process is. That process is not, as the Business and Enterprise Committee said in its report a few months ago, a referendum on whether people want post office closures. That decision was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in May 2007, and a letter, which set out that decision, was sent to the hon. Gentleman and all other MPs just before this process began. It said that the consultations

“would not concern the principle of the need for change of the network, nor its broad extent and distribution—that has already been established by the Government in its Response Document issued on 17 May. Rather consultation will be seeking representations on the most effective way in which Government policy—as set out in the Response Document—can be best implemented in the particular area in question.”

It is about how this is implemented and not about whether.

When it comes to appeals, a review mechanism is triggered by Postwatch, which is the consumer voice in this area. The hon. Gentleman said that he was in touch with Postwatch, and that is the right and sensible way if he believes that the Post Office has got the how—not the whether—wrong in terms of its own criteria. Postwatch can trigger a proposal and put it into review, and that can go up through several levels from local to national. Ultimately the matter can be decided by Allan Leighton, chairman of the Royal Mail Group. Therefore, there is a review process, but it is triggered by Postwatch.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about proposals for locally funded rescue packages and so on. The first thing to stress is that the Government fund the post office network to a very large extent. That funding includes subsidy and provision to help improve the situation in the remaining network. I understand what he is saying about queuing and the handling of custom elsewhere. Several local authorities have said that they are interested in such packages, but I have a few things to spell out about that. On 19 March, the Secretary of State wrote about this issue to the managing director of the Post Office and to the chairman of the Local Government Association. I believe that a copy of that letter is available in the Library if he wishes to see it. It sets out the Government’s position. Broadly speaking, the letter says that if a local authority—or another third party—was seriously interested in a package, the Government would encourage talks with Post Office Ltd.

The process is not easy or costless. I have set out the reasons why branches are closing. Post Office Ltd will expect to recover its costs, which include payments to staff, and also the central support costs that the hon. Gentleman talked about. Those can be expensive because they include the provision of cash to all the branches around the country, the provision and maintenance of IT and various other costs. Even with volunteer labour, the running of a post office in most circumstances is a cost to Post Office Ltd. When we take into account both the central costs of the network and the individual payments to the branches, three post offices out of four run at a cost to Post Office Ltd.

Post Office Ltd is keen to secure a commitment for several years. The Government have given the network some financial certainty by guaranteeing the subsidy until at least 2011, so Post Office Ltd will look for similar certainty from any third party which may wish to fund a post office. Post Office Ltd wants to avoid being in the same circumstances in six months’ or a year’s time.

It is important to stress that once the network has gone through this process, we will still have a post office network that is bigger than all the banks put together. It will be three times larger than the top five supermarket chains put together, including the one that the hon. Gentleman is not a fan of. We will still have, through the access criteria, a significant network which has an unparalleled reach in both rural and urban communities throughout the country.

I am grateful for the reminder. We have said that there should be up to 500 outreach projects, but that is not costless. Outreach needs a sub-postmaster in a neighbouring town to take over the project. It is innovative and it has been successful. I have visited outreach projects myself. A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that, in addition to the 500 outreach projects, there would be new provision geared towards urban areas—outreach is more geared towards rural areas—to ensure that that kind of part-time and flexible approach may be available everywhere. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to talk to the Post Office about it.

I appreciate that this is a difficult issue for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but the Government have stood by the Post Office with significant subsidy. It is a lifestyle change that is a challenge to the network and the future will be about developing new products and new reasons for people to use the post office rather than trying to rewind the clock.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Five o’clock.