The Minister for Housing and Local Government is caught in some flooding—an emergency with which he is no doubt getting assistance from the emergency services. In the meantime, the Whip, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), will sit in his chair and the Minister will take part in the debate as soon as he arrives.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. The Minister rang me to explain that he is, I think, paddling across the flooded Thames plain in a small coracle and that he will get here as soon as he possibly can.
Exactly. I entirely understand his predicament.
We all know from official figures that the pressures of homelessness are rising, and sharply. Homelessness, along with unemployment, is one of the most devastating events that can happen in a person’s life, and I want to talk for a minute or two about its definition. It is important to stress that it is not, as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions sought to justify on the “Today” programme, a predicament that simply involves having children sharing a bedroom. He told the programme in January:
“The homelessness definition…is in fact very misleading for the public. The public thinks that homelessness is about not having any accommodation; reasonable accommodation to go to. That’s not the definition. The definition inside Government and places like Shelter is that children have to share rooms. Now for most people who are working whose children share rooms they would find that a strange definition.”
That definition is simply wrong. It is simply and profoundly misleading, and it is important that this House corrects that misapprehension. Homelessness has, in fact, a very strict and clear legal meaning, and it is interpreted as such by the courts and local authorities alike every day and can be seen in some of the judgments and statistics on intentional homelessness.
I would very much like the Minister, when he arrives, to respond to this interesting point: the variation in local authorities’ performance regarding accepting homelessness applications is striking. Figures for boroughs such as mine show that about 40% of people who apply as homeless are accepted. Westminster city council is in a tri-borough arrangement with Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham, and last year Westminster accepted an average of about 40% of all homelessness applications, whereas the figure from Hammersmith and Fulham that I have just seen is only 6.5%. That is truly extraordinary, and it is for the Department and the Minister to explain how it is that there can be such variation in performance. Although it is absolutely beyond dispute—it has always been the case—that homelessness applications can be found to be incorrect in law, because people are satisfactorily housed or at a wrong stage in the process and it is therefore right that a local authority finds against them, many applications are refused on technical or incorrect grounds. Above all, the nature of the applications should be roughly consistent between local authorities, and certainly within a region—in London, say. There is no reason for such variation in performance between local authorities.
The public perception, as fuelled by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, would be that people made applications simply because their children were forced to share a bedroom. In fact, on the day of that “Today” programme, the press asked the Prime Minister whether he considered, according to the Secretary of State’s definition, his children to be homeless because they shared a bedroom. However, if that were so, people in cases such as the one I am about to outline would not be found to be intentionally homeless.
I shall read into the record from a letter from the charity Action for Children in support of a case that we have recently dealt with in my office:
“C was referred by his school to have a mentor because his mother is seriously unwell and he has significant behavioural difficulties. She is partially disabled down one side of her body and she lost her speech following a large stroke in May 2011. She suffered another stroke last month because of the stress of being made homeless. Ms A is being supported by her family to meet the needs of her medical condition, which includes someone to be with her for 24 hrs a day. In February the family were evicted from the house they were living in in North Paddington and put in temporary accommodation”—
elsewhere in the borough. Following that, Action for Children started to become involved. The letter continues:
“Since this time I have referred C to an Educational Psychologist and to Children’s Social Care…I informed both social workers who were allocated to the case about the gravity of the situation…In April the family were given notice to move out of the hotel they had been placed in. The social work manager also told me that they were referring the case back to Adult Social Services as they should be supporting the family. In addition the cap on housing benefits will make it”
impossible for them
“to find a suitable property in Westminster.”
Following their eviction from the hotel, the family were found to be intentionally homeless because the mother had moved, briefly, out of the borough that had been her lifelong home into a relationship, which broke down. The family ended up
“sleeping on the floor of the sister’s, wherever they can find space. Their clothes and belongings are spread all over and the situation is not suitable for the family’s wellbeing at all.
This family need a place to live near to their wider family. C has witnessed his mother go from a healthy adult to a disabled parent who he now has to help care for. He has extreme behavioural problems at school, for example he has recently banged a child’s head on a concrete wall and is also becoming really obsessive. His school and I have made a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service…all of these services need to continue. Being moved out of the borough will mean the cancellation of all of these services. He will be thrown into a totally new school and situation, where it will take months to get these services in place again and…to build positive working relationships.
Ms A needs someone to be with her 24 hrs a day and help with child care. It is therefore important for her to remain close enough for her family to care for her. They are doing this at no cost to the state. If Ms A and her family are moved to a borough that is too far for her family to support her, as now seems likely, that borough will have to provide 24 hr care and…support for the children as well.”
The family were found to be intentionally homeless. Despite all those circumstances and all those traumas, they were unable to persuade the local authority that it had a duty to care for them. Also, because of the new housing benefit cap they are unable to afford a home in the private rented sector large enough to enable them to stay near the grandmother and the rest of the family who provide informal support, so the entire family has now been moved into a one-bedroomed flat, in an attempt to find a property within the housing benefit cap, despite the fact that the school and the agencies involved are concerned that it is a wholly inappropriate form of accommodation.
I have explained that case at some length because it seems that before we even get into homelessness and what is happening with the rise in accepted cases and local authorities’ responses, we need a clear understanding that the majority of people who make applications and do not even get through the narrow gateway are not people whose children are sharing a bedroom, whether in Downing street or elsewhere. They are frequently highly traumatised, highly vulnerable and highly damaged families.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate. She is correct that homelessness is not just about sharing a bedroom. We have this problem of homelessness across the whole United Kingdom. Surely there is an onus on the authorities to provide proper advice for families such as the one she has just talked about, to help them to achieve a proper home. Also, there are a lot of empty homes across the United Kingdom that authorities should bring back into use.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is a matter of great concern, although not central to this debate, that advice services are being cut all over the country. It does not help that legislation that this Government passed in the previous parliamentary Session removes almost all housing support from the scope of legal aid. Advice services all over the country are reducing their hours and their capacity. Indeed, Westminster city council, which is at the heart of my concerns about homelessness, has just announced plans for a further 10% cut in its advice services, which will inevitably affect such families. On the specific point about intentionality, I have absolutely no doubt from my office’s experience that many families and individuals who apply unsuccessfully to a local authority for appropriate housing support are turned away because they have made a simple error in their application. If they had been given good advice and support through the process, it would have led to a different and more satisfactory outcome.
Like unemployment, losing the roof over one’s head is traumatic and can have deep and damaging consequences, particularly for children. Evidence is growing about the impact of homelessness and enforced mobility on vulnerable families, their well-being and their educational outcomes. Nearly half a century ago, the campaigning organisation Shelter grew from one particularly vivid representation of what homelessness could do to a family: the film “Cathy Come Home” exposed its devastating consequences. We have come a long way in our attitudes since then. We have also come a long way since the homelessness catastrophe that engulfed this country during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when 1,000 home owners a week were losing their homes, and there was an extraordinary escalation in the number of families found homeless or in temporary accommodation. However, we have not come far enough. By the late 1990s, the number of people treated as homeless was declining significantly from that peak, but even so, when I was first elected to Parliament, families were spending months and sometimes more than a year trapped in a single bedroom in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with no facilities, sometimes in the most shocking conditions, involving pest infestations, violence and disruption.
I was delighted by the Labour Government’s decision in the early part of the last decade to limit the time that any family with children could spend in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I hope that I made a small contribution to that decision by taking the then Minister around a hotel in Bayswater to meet families caught in those unfortunate circumstances. However, the truth, then as now, was that bearing down on one manifestation of the problem—in that case, bed-and-breakfast accommodation—does not resolve the underlying problem if other factors are not dealt with, in particular the supply of affordable housing. We accept the Government’s criticism that one thing that the Labour Government did not do as well as we should have was build a sufficient supply of affordable homes. We built homes and introduced the decent homes initiative, and much progress was made during our later years in Government, but we did not build enough homes. However, the bed-and-breakfast crisis was largely resolved by legislation and support. It did not lead to a knock-on catastrophe, as happened in the previous decade, because other economic and social conditions did not underpin a worsening of the problem.
Where the last Government went wrong, I am afraid, is in deciding to seek to halve the number of households in temporary accommodation. It was an arbitrary decision that would have knock-on consequences, which are part of the problem that we are dealing with now. The Government made a well intentioned decision to reduce the number of people in temporary accommodation by diverting families and vulnerable individuals into the private rented sector under the prevention and relief of homelessness duties. Cumulatively, 200,000 or so families have been placed in the private rented sector as a consequence.
This Government have made that reorientation of homelessness duties into a crisis by restricting housing benefit. Unquestionably, we would all like the housing benefit bill to be cut, families to be housed in lower-rent accommodation and rents to come down, but if the Government choose to place vulnerable and low-income families in the private rented sector while at the same time removing the means for them to sustain their tenancies, it will be no surprise to anyone that the consequence is a rise in homelessness, which is exactly what has happened.
Some £2 billion in cuts have been made to housing benefit, the number of working people relying on Government help to pay their rent has increased dramatically and the number of affordable homes being built has collapsed. New statistics just released confirm a 68% fall in affordable housing starts in the year 2011-12, the first full year for which the Government are responsible. The Government are now reaping what they sowed. They were warned in a letter sent by the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Prime Minister last year saying that the housing benefit cuts would lead to a rise in homelessness, which was adamantly denied.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one factor in making those on housing benefit less attractive to private landlords has been the decision to give rent directly to the tenant? Therefore, unfortunately, in some cases, it is not passed on to the landlord.
The Government were warned that direct payment in a housing market as unstable as ours now is would have exactly those consequences. Yes, direct payment is a concern. It is of grave concern to social landlords, who need a reliable income stream against which they can borrow to invest, and it is of concern to private landlords, but it is not the only problem.
Part of the problem—it is particularly pronounced in London—is that the private rental market is booming. Huge numbers of people can no longer afford to buy their own homes, so they are moving into the private rented sector. Competition is strong for homes there, and low-income families whose only bargaining tool is housing benefit can no longer compete. That is the absolute opposite of what we were told by Ministers. We were told, particularly by Lord Freud, that because housing benefit is such a major purchaser in the private rented sector, rents would fall for people on low incomes. That has not happened. Westminster council has managed to reduce the number of families on housing benefit in the private rented sector by only 52, from 6,000. It is a complete and catastrophic failure of the policy, and the Government were warned about it.
What are the statistics? In 2011, 106,070 people approached their councils as homeless—an increase of 10% from the previous year. Of those, 48,510 households were accepted as being owed a homelessness duty—a 14% increase from 2010. Government street counts and estimates show that 2,181 people across England sleep rough on any given night—a rise of 23% from the previous year. Homelessness agencies report that 3,975 people were seen sleeping rough in London in 2010-11—an 8% rise from the previous year. The number of new rough sleepers rose by 73% compared with the same period last year. The number of people in London living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation increased by 26% last year. The number of families now forced to stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for longer than the maximum of six weeks increased threefold between 2010 and 2011.
London Councils warns that housing benefit restrictions are
“leading to a lack of private rented supply in which to place homeless or potential homeless households…which results in an increased number of borough placements in expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation. This situation is deteriorating and is expected to continue to deteriorate”,
and the introduction of the universal credit is expected to worsen the scenario further.
We cannot say that the Government have been idle in responding to the situation. They have written a letter to local authorities in breach of the six-week limit on families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The Minister, whom I am sorry is not in his place, wrote to my council and others saying:
“Whilst this Government has removed targets in the area of homelessness and elsewhere, this does not mean that I am relaxed about local authorities placing families in B and B for extended periods. The detrimental effects of B and B on families are well documented… I do understand that some local authorities are facing increasing homelessness pressures… However, I urge you to prioritise this issue.”
Westminster council—a cheerleader for the restrictions on housing benefit and other measures supported by the Government—is understandably irked at having received that letter. It points out, not unreasonably, that the increase in bed and breakfast is due exclusively to a set of measures introduced, not, to be fair, by the Department for Communities and Local Government, but by its evil twin, the Department for Work and Pensions.
Westminster council said in its response:
“The use of non-self-contained TA—Bed and Breakfast—is the result of demand for housing from homeless households outstripping supply and a shortage of accommodation for households where a duty has been accepted… When Housing Benefit caps were introduced, the Council planned for an increase in homelessness applications”.
That is strange, because Ministers were arguing at that point that there was not the slightest risk that there would be any increase in homelessness as a result of the housing benefit caps. Westminster council was telling us something completely different, as were most other local authorities. Westminster council went on to say that
“it is proving very challenging to procure new units in sufficient volumes to meet demand. The fact that the current funding framework runs out in 9 months and there has been no announcement of any replacement formula and how the LHA and household benefit caps will be applied in practice means it is difficult to provide landlords with surety of income.
The market for properties available for letting within the funding framework is reducing as landlords move away from letting to benefit dependent groups and have alternative markets”.
Stripped of the diplomatic language, that means that homelessness is rising, as families lose their private rented homes because of housing benefit cuts, that the council cannot find anywhere to put them, because homelessness accommodation is also being capped, and that landlords are leaving the market. On top of that, on the one hand, local authorities are being told by the DCLG that they are not supposed to send their homeless households to other parts of the country, while on the other hand, they are being told by DWP that they cannot afford to keep them where they are. Those two Departments are fighting each other in the trenches, leaving vulnerable families caught in the middle.
It gets worse. Even if it is possible to put households in temporary accommodation, under the household benefit cap, which will be introduced in a few months, they will not be able to pay their rent. This is a mystery to everyone. I have not found a single person—I would love it if the Minister, who is not yet in his place, could answer this question—who has been able to tell me what will happen. Last week, two families approached me—they were the first of many—because when their housing benefit is deducted they will be left with nothing. They will not have a single penny to pay for the temporary accommodation that the council has placed them in. They will not be left with £50 to buy food, or £30 to pay their electricity bill and for food. They will be left with nothing. That cannot happen, but nobody has been able to tell me what will happen in those circumstances.
In practice, families who have lost their homes because of a benefit shortfall of £50 or £100 a week are now spending months—I know of families who are spending 10 months—in bed and breakfast accommodation, which is costing the state far more than the amount saved by the cap on housing benefit. That is madness. The situation also means that councils are being forced, with varying degrees of reluctance, to choose which order they break—the time limit on the use of bed and breakfast, or the guidance on local connection, even for those families with many years residency, jobs, children in schools and other family ties.
I will highlight a few cases to illustrate that point. The first reads:
“I am a single mother with a hearing impaired 4 year old and a 6 month old baby girl with hemangioma on her back which is badly ulcerated. I can’t work to rent a flat as my deaf son has speech therapy and audiology appointments at least twice a week, and when I’m not attending therapy or appointments, I’m at Great Ormond Street Hospital for my daughters back.”
She goes on to say that her mother, with whom she was living until being made homeless recently, is a very sick lady. She has cancer and multiple sclerosis and has recently been diagnosed with diabetes. As a consequence, my correspondent and her two sick children were unable to remaining living with her mother. She goes on to say that, fortunately, the council
“put me in a hotel in Victoria which isn’t too far from my sons school, but unfortunately, it’s literally one room with a bathroom”.
There is no fridge or cooking facilities, which is
“very difficult as I’ve been having to go out every time my children get hungry. This is very expensive and even if I can afford it now, in a couple of days I won’t be able to.”
She called the council’s housing department
“and asked them how do they expect me to feed my children if I haven’t got a cooker or a fridge in my room. They said they can’t do anything. Do you know if that’s true? All I want is a self contained place so I can feed the children.”
That letter was written at the end of March; at the end of May, the family were still there. In April, when I asked the council whether they could be moved into self-contained accommodation with cooking facilities, it told me:
“Unfortunately we have had to use the 2 self-contained units which have become available in Westminster or surrounds since your email for even more pressing cases”.
The second case involves Ms E, who was in a privately rented flat off the Harrow road in Westminster. Sadly, she suffered a stroke, was in hospital for seven weeks and is now restricted to a wheelchair. She is 81 years old. During her stay in hospital she was evicted from her home for non-payment of rent. Since being discharged she has had to spend one month in a hotel in the west end, six weeks in a hotel in Kensington, and she is now in another hotel. I am told that housing options is trying to find somewhere suitable for that wheelchair user, who is 81 years old and has suffered a stroke, but surely, after almost 14 weeks, the search should be complete.
In another case, a lady wrote to me:
“I need your help, I am in a complex situation. I am in a private flat and housing benefit will be cut by 30th July 2012.”
She is a single mother with three children, aged nine, seven and six. The oldest is disabled: he has severe sickle cell disease, chronic hypoxaemia and low oxygen. He is at high risk of a stroke and has abnormal transcranial dopplers, and a hospital is monitoring him closely during his painful crises. They have been in their flat since 2009 and in the Westminster borough for 10 years. She continued:
“On 5th March I went to housing options, I asked the housing adviser for them to find us a property because the land lord is not going to accept the new housing benefit rate. He also phoned the land lord and he told me he is not going to lower the price. He told me that I can apply for the DISCRETIONARY HOUSING BENEFIT, but if it is awarded it will be for a limited period till November 2012.
I DO NOT WANT TO BE HOMELESS AND I DO NOT WANT MY CHILDREN TO SUFFER.”
Those are random examples of the kinds of cases that we have been dealing with over the past few weeks, but there are many more.
I am glad to see that the Minister is now in his place. I have talked so far about the pressures driving the increase in homelessness and the increased reliance on bed and breakfast, but I want to turn now to local connection. It has always been my belief that we should find a way to share responsibility for families with no local connections to any area—they should be more fairly distributed among different local authorities—and that we should also make it easier for families who want to move to other parts of the United Kingdom to do so. I know of families who would love to move. They tell me that they have family members in Manchester or elsewhere in the north of England and that they would love to be able to move there, but that there is no mechanism available for them to do so. I know of the HomeSwapper scheme, but if that does not work, there is no statutory framework available that allows people to move.
Those people who have local connections, such as children settled in schools, work—it is a complete myth that everybody who is homeless or on housing benefit is workless; that is not the case—caring responsibilities or other family and voluntary duties, should be supported, and that duty should not cease simply because the home borough happens to be in central London.
I am talking about people like Carol—I have not used anyone’s real name—who is a lifelong Westminster resident. She became homeless after suffering domestic violence and was given temporary accommodation in Dagenham. Her three children attend a school on Church street, where one of them, who has a speech problem, sees a speech therapist, and another receives additional, special learning support. Moving school is therefore not an option. Carol travels from Dagenham to Church street every day to take her children to school and to care for her disabled grandmother and agoraphobic mother. She spends four hours a day travelling, with her small children, from and to her temporary accommodation in east London.
Maryan is homeless due to the housing benefit cuts and currently lives in a hotel in Barnet. She is 29 weeks pregnant and suffers from endometrioses and related problems, which recently resulted in the removal of part of her bowel. Her placenta is not located correctly and moving around or taking the stairs is risky, but she has no choice because her room is on the hotel’s second floor.
Ms T was placed in private accommodation three years ago by housing support. It had an extra and illegal bedroom that was only discovered when we sent an environmental health officer to visit. Her violent ex-partner found out where she lived. She therefore had to make a second homelessness application, and at the time of writing, she was in a hotel where she has been for 10 weeks with her young son and newborn baby.
Family V are homeless owing to housing benefits caps. They have one child with hemiplegic cerebral palsy who attends St Mary’s hospital and is at a special school in Hammersmith. The family have two babies at home and a child at school in Paddington. They are in east London, and they are getting up every morning at 5 am to get to school.
Those are the kinds of cases where families have been located in other London boroughs. Local connection is very strictly defined and usually applies only to people who are taking public exams. That is not right and is not in line with DCLG guidance. The impact of that issue on families is devastating and counter-productive. Yet everything that the Department for Work and Pensions is doing, and that it is underpinning the DCLG to do in terms of housing supply and the weakness of the guidance for local authorities, is driving more and more councils to place their disabled and vulnerable families miles from their schools, caring responsibilities and work. That makes any attempt to rebuild their lives impossible.
Hammersmith council’s draft homelessness strategy has just been published and confirms that point even more strongly. Absolutely in contravention of the Minister’s words and flying in the face of the guidance given to local authorities, that strategy states:
“There is expected to be a reduction in the amount of locally available temporary accommodation… Due to rising local private rents”—
I thought that the Minister told us that they were not rising, but Hammersmith council does not agree—
“and the change in the Local Housing Allowance methodology, the private rented sector outside the borough will be increasingly used to meet the council’s statutory homelessness duties and other housing obligations”.
Considering those words from the mouth of the local authority and the cases that I and other Members increasingly have coming to our doors, it cannot be the case that the Minister is correct in saying that there is a duty to maintain local connection. He cannot be correct in saying that, other than in the case of genuine and short-term emergencies, local authorities are not placing families far outside their local authority and that families are not staying for more than six weeks in bed-and- breakfast accommodation, because all those things are happening.
Everyone we talk to in London Councils, local authorities, the housing sector and the specialist agencies that deal with homeless families tells us that the problem will get significantly and possibly dramatically worse in the coming months. Hardly anyone affected by the housing benefit cap has lost their home yet. A very small proportion of those people have got to the end of their lease, gone to court, perhaps seen a bailiff and ended up making a homeless application. The worst is very much still to come, because temporary accommodation has not yet been brought into the housing benefit regime. That is why local authorities are struggling so hard. In addition, the household benefit cap has not come into effect, which will make it impossible for families even to pay the rent for the accommodation that the local authority has placed them in. It is time for the two Departments to sit down, work this out, get a grip and prevent what is currently a crisis from turning into a catastrophe.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for securing this important debate on homelessness.
I have two basic reasons for wanting to speak in the debate. First, I have some knowledge of the subject, which I will touch on in a moment. Secondly, as has already been indicated, the increase in homelessness both locally in Rochdale—I will come to that—and across the country will have a devastating effect. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there is no doubt that the situation is getting worse.
I worked as a social researcher for about 10 years from 1997 until 2007. I started off with the Big Issue in the North, which is a homelessness agency and charity. From there, I went on to do lots of homelessness research projects across the country for a variety of agencies; for example, Crisis, the Rough Sleepers Unit, Shelter and local authorities such as Camden, Islington and many others. There is probably not an elected Member who has visited more homelessness projects than me right across the UK over a 10-year period.
I mention that because I made three significant observations while doing that research. First, it will not surprise anyone who has an interest in the subject to hear that homelessness is not just about housing; it is about drug treatment, mental health, alcohol and a whole range of different issues. We must not forget that. As we are now seeing, housing—the number of houses, flats and different types of accommodation provided—is critical, but it is not the only issue. That is my first observation.
From the research I have conducted, my second observation is about clustering. I have seen very little on that subject, but the clustering of homelessness services in a particular area for historical reasons is significant. Let me give three examples. In south Yorkshire—with the exception of Sheffield, which has many homelessness services—Doncaster has a lot of homelessness services, while Barnsley and Rotherham have very few. So Doncaster is an area where there is clustering in the provision of homelessness services. Another example is Blackburn, where there is a disproportionately high number of homelessness services. However, in Accrington, Burnley and other surrounding towns, there are fewer such services. Rochdale is another place where there is a high proportion of homelessness services, whereas the number in Bury and Oldham is disproportionately low.
The clustering of homelessness provision is important. I am not being partisan in saying that; I am making an important observation. We should either celebrate the fact that those towns and cities are providing homelessness services, hold them up as beacons and give them additional resources because they are carrying a disproportionate responsibility for homelessness in that sub-region, or we should try to ensure that local authorities who are not doing as much increase provision. It should be one or the other. That is an important observation that people have tended to miss in such debates.
By coincidence, I started social research into homelessness in 1997 and continued right up to 2007. My third observation is that, as has been pointed out, there is no doubt that the Labour Government were very successful during that time. First, they tackled the critical issue of rough sleeping. They appointed Louise Casey, who is a great civil servant, to deal with the problem. I am pleased that the Government have chosen her to lead the challenge on troubled families.
The Labour Government dramatically reduced rough sleeping, and they then moved on to the issue of bed- and-breakfast accommodation. Through a systematic approach, homelessness was reduced by 70% during the Labour Government. I am not being partisan about it; those are the facts. I studied the subject during that time and we could see homelessness reduced to the point that the Labour Government were moving on to try to address other issues, such as people in temporary accommodation and bed and breakfasts. As with unemployment, some people will always fall into homelessness. There is some inevitability about that, and people will inevitably find themselves sleeping rough on the streets. However, we can reduce the problem. The Labour Government did a fantastic job of reducing homelessness to somewhere near the lowest level it could be, and we should give them credit for that.
There is no doubt that homelessness is increasing again. The statistics and the facts show that we are going backwards. In 2011, homelessness increased by 14% and rough sleeping by 23%. As I mentioned, the number of houses being built is a significant problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North mentioned the Homes and Communities Agency figures. There has been a 68% reduction in the building of affordable houses in the past financial year. That, in addition to the cuts and the Government’s inability to get the economy going, is absolutely devastating news for the homeless.
I talked earlier about other factors that push people into homelessness. There has been an increase in unemployment, lower living standards and house repossessions, all of which move people toward homelessness. As a consequence, the number of people who are homeless and sleeping rough is increasing. My hon. Friend mentioned benefits. This morning I spoke with Dennis Skelton, the co-ordinator of Petrus, a Rochdale-based homelessness charity. Shared-room rents and the reduction of housing benefit are a massive concern, and perpetuate the problem of increased homelessness.
Homelessness is not just a national issue; cuts to local government and related agencies are having a significant impact. Drug treatment provision is being cut. Provision for mental health services, hostels and day care centres is being stretched. Homeless Link’s most recent survey shows that the number of clients using homeless day centres has risen by nearly a third. On average, there are 22% fewer empty beds in emergency accommodation for homeless people, per night. Charities, voluntary groups and other agencies that support and provide assistance to homeless people are being affected by the cuts. We are seeing a return to the 1980s, with more people sleeping rough, more people going into bed and breakfast, and more people sofa-surfing. That is the reality of how the Government’s policies are affecting people at the bottom of the pile who are struggling and finding things really difficult.
We should not politicise or play politics with homelessness. In May 2008, before he was Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:
“I think that it is simply a disgrace that in the fifth-biggest economy in the world that we have people homeless, people sleeping on the streets, sofa-surfers, people in hospitals.”
He said it was a disgrace. The problem with playing politics with this type of issue is becoming a hostage to fortune. He made those comments when the previous Government had taken radical steps forward to reduce homelessness and it was probably at an all-time low. In 2012, as Prime Minister he is overseeing a dramatic increase in homelessness, yet he is doing very little to stop the problem. In fact, all indications suggest that it will get worse. There are no indications that the problem will stop.
According to research undertaken by Shelter last year, my constituency of Rochdale is the 10th-worst place in the country for repossessions. In December 2010, 53 people presented to the local authority as homeless. In December 2011, the number had gone up to 160—a 200% increase, and the biggest rise in Greater Manchester. We are seeing real problems. Thirteen local agencies that provide homelessness services have had their contracts cut, and their services are being reduced. More people going into bed and breakfast in Manchester and Burnley are being placed outside the borough.
I am not saying that the council has got it exactly right. It has had a very difficult time, with one of the worst settlements from central Government, compared with some of the more leafy suburbs in Conservative-controlled local authorities in the south of England. Where we have poverty and difficulty, we have seen some of the worst cuts to local authorities; Rochdale is an example. The council has removed the ring-fence from the Supporting People programme budget and it has been salami-slicing homelessness budgets, so it has not got it exactly right. I am happy to be critical of the local authority—even a Labour-controlled authority; it should have awarded more contracts to local charities, which have a better grass-roots understanding of homelessness, yet some contracts have been awarded to national homeless charities. That is a mistake, but there is no doubt that Rochdale council, like many other local authorities, is operating in an exceptionally difficult climate that has been created by the Government. If the Government are genuinely serious about tackling homelessness—there are no indications yet that they are—they have to do something radically different to get on top of the issue.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who has been a remarkable and outstanding champion of homeless people for many years. In a most dramatic and vivid way, she has brought home the sheer scale of human misery felt by hundreds of thousands of those we represent. The voice of homeless people has been heard in Parliament today.
Like my hon. Friend, I see the ever-lengthening queues of the desperate in my constituency: families trying to get a decent home at a price that they can afford who are being evicted; and those whose lives have come apart, who have spiralled down and ended up homeless on the streets. They are good men and women who deserve better in 21st-century England.
Homelessness and rough sleeping in 21st-century Britain, the seventh-richest nation on earth, are a disgrace and a scar on our society. Those were the sentiments of the Prime Minister when he was in opposition in 2009. Indeed, in August 2011, the Housing Minister said:
“Tackling homelessness and rough sleeping is what first got me into politics”.
No one doubts the Minister’s desire to bring an end to homelessness and rough sleeping. In opposition, he set up the Conservative homelessness foundation. In government, he has set up a cross-Government working group on homelessness and introduced a “no second night out” policy. However, with sadness I have to say that as we have seen all too often with the Minister and the Government, the rhetoric and the reality are very different indeed.
On the Minister’s watch, the consequences of the Government’s economic, housing and benefits policies have been devastating. We now have the biggest housing crisis in a generation, and, at its heart, the depressing statistics of homelessness up by 14% and rough sleeping up by 23%. The truth is that homelessness is rising precisely because their economic and housing policies are failing.
I have some questions for the Housing Minister. Does he accept that the Government were warned that the 60% cut in investment in the 2010 comprehensive spending review would have catastrophic consequences and that they have led, as today’s figures from the Homes and Communities Agency have demonstrated, to a 68% collapse in the building of affordable houses? Does he accept that the Government were warned that the toxic combination of increasing rents in the private sector, collapsing affordable house building and ill-thought-through changes to the benefits system would mean thousands of families being uprooted, particularly in London? The private secretary to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote last year that the cap and other housing benefit reforms could result in 40,000 people being made homeless and that the policy could cost more than it saved. Does the Minister accept that the Government were warned about the consequences of the biggest cuts to local government expenditure in history and the cuts to Supporting People?
As we have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) say eloquently, the consequences have been serious. The city of Birmingham, which I am proud to represent, has had the biggest cuts in local government history in the past two years: £312 million, including £15 million in cuts to the big society through cuts to the charitable and voluntary sectors.
In Birmingham, and throughout Britain, there have been cutbacks in services to homeless people. Again, the statistics are depressing; 58% of projects have received reduced funding, leading to a reduction of one in 10 staff— 1,400 people—caring for the homeless. The number of clients using day centres for the homeless has risen by nearly a third and there are 22% fewer empty beds on an average night. The research report, “SNAP 2012”, produced by Homeless Link, shows that there are 1,544 fewer bed spaces in 2012, compared to the previous year.
As a result of the Government’s actions—their failed economic policies—there is higher unemployment and the greatest squeeze on living standards in a generation, with families and individuals struggling to stay in their homes, whether owned or rented. Increasing numbers of people are presenting as homeless or are out on the street, not to mention the cuts to services that provide the safety net. There has been a catastrophic fall in construction, which is at the heart of the double-dip recession made in Downing street.
The Government’s failed housing policies are contributing to the growing housing crisis and the collapse in affordable house building. The private rented sector is defined by ever-increasing rents and, all too often, poor standards, with one in two homes in the sector not meeting the decent homes standard. Social housing providers are increasingly unsupported and their tenants shamefully demonised by Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North used powerful case studies to demonstrate eloquently that the combination of the Government’s failing housing and economic policies and their benefit changes is leading, as the Housing Minister was warned, to misery on a grand scale. Tenants are forced out of their private rented homes because of the housing benefit changes and councils cannot find anywhere to put them. Many landlords are increasingly leaving the housing benefit tenant market. Councils are told by the Government that tenants should not be sent elsewhere in the country, but councils cannot keep them locally, so tenants end up in hotels paid for by the taxpayer, costing the taxpayer more and leading to more misery for the tenants. That is the economics of the madhouse.
We Labour Members learnt in government that homelessness can only be tackled by addressing all the factors contributing to it. Above all, more homes are needed. In government, Labour delivered 2 million new homes—500,000 affordable homes—and introduced Supporting People, bringing together seven income streams from across central Government to give the necessary housing and related support, particularly for vulnerable people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale is right to say that as a consequence of Labour’s determination to tackle the scandal of homelessness and bad housing, there was, progressively, a 70% reduction in homelessness. That reduction has gone dramatically into reverse under this Government.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an incomprehensible lack of logic in the Government’s now telling local authorities that they cannot transfer people to other local authorities, when that is the inevitable conclusion of the Government’s policies? Indeed, Ministers highlighted that conclusion in respect of the welfare reform and housing benefit changes of the past two years.
My hon. Friend is right. I have seen at first hand some utterly tragic cases resulting from those policies. For example, a young woman, who understandably chose to remain anonymous, appeared on the “Today” programme. She lived in Waltham Forest, was married to a professional man and they had a nine-year-old. The couple broke up and stayed close, but sadly he died. She then lost her home and ended up in temporary accommodation and was told that because there was no available alternative accommodation that the council could provide for her, she would have to go from Waltham Forest to Walsall. She said, “I can’t do it. My nine-year-old is distraught because of her dad’s death. She hasn’t gone to school for the last three months, with the agreement of the school, as she recovers. I go every day to my mum, who looks after her granddaughter while I train to get back into the world of work.” I do not mind admitting that after she told me that story, with its consequences and the pain that she felt, I was in tears. It is about time that Ministers faced up to the consequences experienced by the victims of their policies.
It appears that there is consensus in this Government that housing does not matter and should not be centre stage. Labour believes strongly—we know—that it does matter. Does the Housing Minister accept how important housing is to the economy? Construction accounts for 3% of gross domestic product, £91 billion of economic output and 1.5 million jobs. Does the Minister accept that it matters to health? The annual costs to the national health service of poor housing and homelessness have been assessed at £2.5 billion. Another depressing statistic shows that, on average, the homeless on the streets die 30 years younger.
Does the Minister accept that homelessness matters with regard to educational attainment? Again, the depressing evidence shows the impact on a generation of young people brought up in poor housing or temporary accommodation.
Will the hon. Gentleman remind hon. Members how many debates on housing the Opposition have called?
My predecessor and I have stood up for all that is decent in terms of putting housing centre stage, and fought hard on behalf of the homeless, the badly housed and the millions who need a decent home at a price that they can afford, whether to buy or to rent. The Housing Minister should not make flippant comments but, instead, take his responsibilities seriously, as Labour is doing.
We might reflect on the fact that, in a full-day Opposition debate, we discussed the impact of the housing benefit cuts on housing, in the context of the collapse in housing supply. We warned of the interaction of the policies bringing about exactly the conditions that we have been debating today.
My hon. Friend is right, and I would compare our record with that of this Government at any time, including on what kind of action should be taken now. When there was global collapse in 2008, did we stand back? No, we did not. We acted on the one hand to keep people in their homes, avoiding the tide of repossessions to which my hon. Friend referred earlier, and on the other hand by way of the kick-start programme, which saw 110,000 homes built and 70,000 jobs and 3,000 apprenticeships created. To this day, the benefits of that programme are feeding through.
What do we see now? We see the reverse. We see a Government who have done scarcely anything, as a consequence of which we see today the depressing statistic that there has been a 68% fall in affordable house building. That is why we want the Minister to listen to our case for a repeat of the bank bonus tax, enabling us to start with 25,000 badly needed affordable homes, the creation of jobs for 100,000 young people and a cut in VAT on home improvements, which will both upgrade housing stock and create jobs in the economy. If we were in government, our argument is that we would do what this Government are refusing to do, which is to act: to raise standards in the rapidly growing private rented sector, protecting tenants and good landlords alike, to create a more stable, secure and affordable sector and to encourage investment in major new build in that sector. The Housing Minister has gone in exactly the opposite direction; for example, repealing crucial protections that Labour put in place when in government, dismissing them as red tape. Much needed protection for tenants, many of whom are suffering in the private rented sector, is not red tape.
In conclusion, what strikes me as the most shocking thing about homelessness is not that it exists in a rich nation such as ours but that we know how to solve it. Therefore, I hope that the Minister has not completely forgotten what brought him into politics and that, instead, he listens to the voice of those concerned, such as the verdict on homelessness in the second edition of the powerful “Housing Report” produced by the National Housing Federation, Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing, whose annual conference he and I will be addressing later this week. I hope that the Minister hears the report’s assessment:
“The large increase in homeless acceptances and rough sleepers is deeply troubling. Ministers need to respond urgently to this growing problem, which could be exacerbated by further cuts to Housing Benefit in 2013.”
It is true that there was once a noble tradition in the Conservative party that took housing obligations seriously. It was the tradition of Harold Macmillan. Sadly, that tradition now appears to be all but extinct in the modern Conservative party.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate, as well as my thanks to her for understanding my predicament this morning, trapped as I was when trying to reach the House, our inclement summer weather not letting me make the journey.
The housing debate is incredibly important, and homelessness even more so. I pay huge tribute to the hon. Lady for her long-term commitment to this subject, going back many years. Housing does not always get the attention that it rightly deserves, whether from Government or Opposition—I will say more about that in a moment—but not so with the hon. Lady, who is a passionate advocate on housing and in particular on homelessness, on which I have heard her speak often over many years.
We need to set the context. Far from being a recession “made in Downing street”, as the rather glib soundbite from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) suggests, sensible people looking at today’s circumstances appreciate that we need only to look across the water to see what is happening in Europe—the bail-out in Spain and events in France, Greece and so many other places—to understand that the problem is global and not one experienced only in the UK. In fact, the problem has a source, a reason, a cause, which was spending money that we did not have today and expecting our children to pay it back in the future. That was unsustainable; it could not be maintained forever. Only a fool imagines that we can spend money that we do not have forever. We had to do something about it, which means reducing the deficit in every area of the economy. Yes, that includes reducing the capital available to build homes—there is no point pretending that that has not been affected. Our great challenge has been to reduce the deficit while finding ways to increase the amount of house building, which, as we would not know from the contributions of the Opposition Members, fell to its lowest level since the 1920s under the previous Administration’s plans, resulting in a huge housing crisis.
We must look at the overall housing picture to understand the situation in a bit more detail. We have such enormous pressure on housing in this country because house prices were able to double in only 10 years, which is precisely what happened between 1997 and 2007. Lo and behold, what a great surprise, we end up with a large proportion of our fellow citizens finding it almost impossible to buy a house. As a result, rents and the number of people trapped in their housing position grow and grow exponentially. That did not happen overnight but over a decade and more. A lack of house building is at the very heart and is the very root of the problems of homelessness.
I am aware that the Minister struggles with his statistics, but perhaps he can take the opportunity today to confirm his Department’s own statistics. Under a Labour Government, there were 2 million new homes, 1 million more mortgage holders, 0.5 million affordable homes and, as a consequence of the kick-start programme in precisely the same kind of difficult economic circumstances as we now face, 110,000 new homes, 70,000 jobs and 3,000 apprenticeships. That is a record to be proud of. Can the Minister confirm those statistics?
The problem with statistics, as the hon. Gentleman should know, is that they can be played any which way we choose. For example, six months ago, when the Home and Communities Agency produced the house building figures for the previous six months, the hon. Gentleman made great play of a 97% reduction in the amount of affordable housing starts, although it was a natural consequence of the switch from the old programme to the new affordable rent programme. In the light of analysis of the figures six months on, he has failed to come to the House to explain that there has been 3,500% increase in starts based on his measure. I agree that we are not building sufficient homes in this country, but I am not happy with him ducking and weaving and using one set of figures six months ago and a different set of figures today in order to make a point.
I would like to make progress on the essence of this debate, because I have a feeling that we will never agree on the housing stats, although it is undeniable that house building had slumped to its lowest level since the 1920s, and starts were up by 29% in 2011 compared with 2009, so some progress has been made.
I want to focus on the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Westminster North—I have caught up on the notes—and to address some of the issues. I heard clearly her description of some of the people who are trapped in homelessness, and there is no doubt that the anxiety and pressure is immense. We have all seen that in our constituencies. I have been the Housing Minister or the shadow Minister for five years, and I challenge the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on who has visited the most homelessness projects. However, he is spot on to say that when one hears such stories and understands what is going on in people’s lives, it is often surprising and even shocking to realise how little of the problem is simply down to the roof over one’s head. I have yet to meet someone who is homeless and who does not have a catastrophic tale of complex circumstances such as family break-up, financial problems, health problems, sometimes mental health problems, having been in prison and not having got their life back together, and sometimes following active service. There is almost always a combination of some of those contributory factors.
I decided early on, following our work with the Homelessness Foundation, which was set up in 2008, that we need to make Government Departments work better together. That is why I set up the ministerial working group on homelessness. It is the first time that Ministers from different Departments—eight of them—have come together to work on these issues. They include the Department for Work and Pensions, which works closely with us.
I think we must accept that the Government and the Opposition start from slightly different positions. I passionately believe in a safety net to ensure that people are not made homeless, and Members on both sides of the House can be proud that this country probably has the best safety net in the entire world.
I will give way in a moment. It is a tribute to the Opposition as well as the Government that in this country we do not see families and children homeless on the streets. We do see single people homeless on the streets, and I will talk about the measures that I am taking to try to address that problem.
When people talk about homelessness, there is a confusing set of definitions; that has come out in our debate today. For example, when we talk about homelessness, we are usually talking about homelessness acceptances: people who have been accepted as having a right to be helped and who, in other words, will not be homeless because they will be provided with a home. Until now, that has been an offer in the social sector of a home for life, which more often than not can be passed on to a future generation.
It is still true, although one would not know it from the Opposition’s comments—I even wonder whether they are aware of it—that homelessness today is lower than it has been in 28 of the past 30 years, and half the average level during the 13 years of the previous Administration. I do not want to paint an overly rosy picture, because I am alive to the many real pressures and difficulties for families and family budgets posed by the extended downturn and the world economic problems. Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Rochdale, rightly talked about not playing politics with these issues, but he then proceeded to play politics. It is not simple to resolve the problems, and the Government must find the right responses.
Does the Minister accept that his statement is misleading, because where we are now is a consequence of the 70% reduction under a Labour Government, and that is now in reverse with a 14% increase in statutory homelessness and a 23% increase in rough sleeping?
One of the problems is that it depends where the figures are taken from. The high point in the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation was in 2004, which was a long time—seven years—into the previous Administration. We may say that there was a big reduction in, for example, the number of homeless people in temporary accommodation, and that may have been from halfway through the previous Labour Administration, but we must be very careful when trading figures. I am much more concerned about the outcome for people on the ground, and when I talk about people on the ground, I sometimes mean people at the bottom of the pile who are sleeping on the streets.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington and other Labour Members feel some shame that the true size of the cohort of people living on the nation’s streets was buried under the previous system of counting. For example, if someone was sitting upright in a sleeping bag, they were not counted, and they had to be there at a certain time and so on to be counted. One of the first things I did was rip up the system that tried to claim that only 424 people in the country were sleeping rough. Any observer with any knowledge of the system, let alone hon. Members who had spent a lot of time studying homelessness, knew that that was nonsense. I have tried to reveal the true size and scale of the problem and not to bury it or hide it away, but I want to go further.
Reference has been made to the importance of the Supporting People budget. Despite the enormous pressure on reducing budgets to deal with the record deficit, we have kept almost the entire cash amount for the Supporting People programme. In fact, there was a 1% reduction in Supporting People over four years—£6.5 billion. I know that there have been problems on the ground—the hon. Member for Westminster North described them clearly—about the way in which Supporting People money has been spent. I understand that there are challenges when such funding is not ring-fenced—it was not ring-fenced in 2009—and that with other pressures the Supporting People budget has been pressurised on the ground, but it is not that the money has not been going in. Nor is it the case that we have reduced by even a penny support for homelessness. The homelessness budget was £400 million—£100 million a year—for the spending review period, and that has not been reduced.
I do not know whether it has escaped the attention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, but during the past year, I took another £70 million, which was not in the spending review and aimed at homelessness, and put it into homelessness programmes, because I passionately believe in maintaining that fantastic homelessness support in this country. When we talk about people being homeless, we generally mean that they have been accepted as being homeless so that they can get a home, but there is a category of single people who do not receive help and support through our system. If a single person—the sort of people we are familiar with from our constituency surgeries—turns up at their local authority, under the rules that have applied until now they would simply be told, “I’m sorry, you are not covered as a preference category. We can do nothing for you.” That is not good enough, and I am sure that other hon. Members agree, so I have made £18.5 million available in the last few months to ensure that tailored advice is available for individuals, in addition to £10 million to Crisis to do the same.
I would dearly like to make the category of single people without dependants a preference category, and that should be the objective of any Government when money allows. I have not only protected all the preference categories that Opposition Members talked about—the work of Louise Casey was praised, and I echo that—I have added to those preference categories and I am trying to go further.
It is crazy that anyone who sees someone sleeping rough in this country must call the local authority; they may or may not get a response, and will not know what has happened afterwards. That is not good enough, so I am setting up a national helpline and a website to ensure that assistance can be brought directly to that individual. It will be run with the assistance of Homeless Link and will be in place by Christmas, and I hope that the whole House will join me in supporting it. When we see somebody sleeping rough, we have a terrible moment of dilemma about whether we should try to assist them directly—even if we do not know whether the money will be used in that person’s best interest—or do something else for them. Now we will be able to use the helpline, and information will be available so that people can see whether that person was helped and in what way. I think that is important.
We have also announced the “no second night out” initiative nationwide. “No second night out” came from the first cross-ministerial working group report, and I hope that Opposition Members will welcome it. The £70 million that I mentioned includes £20 million to back that programme, and it means that nobody in this country who is found sleeping on the street should ever experience a second night in that situation. I slept rough for a night to see what it was like: it is frightening and one feels vulnerable. We do not want any of our citizens to be in that position, and there is no reason for them to be because we have also allocated £42.5 million of funding to the hostel system, to ensure that new and refurbished hostel places are available.
The problem in this country, and particularly in London where we have the excellent combined homelessness and information network—CHAIN—database, is generally not about whether a hostel place is available on any given night, but about finding the individual, connecting them with the hostel, and sometimes persuading them to go into it. “No second night out” and the national reporting line is designed to help deal with that, and I am pleased to say that it has been taken up in Merseyside, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. It is an excellent, practical example of the way that we are trying to work.
The Minister mentions telephone lines, advice and websites, but people need houses. In particular, those who are homeless, as well as those living in overcrowded and poor conditions, need new social rented homes. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber for the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). I understand that she mentioned Hammersmith and Fulham—perhaps the worst housing authority in the country—which builds no social rented homes. As a consequence of that, its homelessness strategy, which I commend to the Minister and ask him to read, states that anybody who needs a three-bedroomed house, or bigger, should be discharged to the private rented sector outside the borough. That is contrary to the housing policy of the Government and the Mayor, but is it something that the Minister supports?
No contribution from the hon. Gentleman would be complete without a reference to his own time as leader of housing in Hammersmith and Fulham. I think, however, that that council has a good record of looking for constructive measures that help to take people off the housing waiting list. For example, it was one of the forerunners in a programme that I launched recently with the Prime Minister to sell 100,000 homes under the right-to-buy programme. Critically, and unlike the previous programme, every penny of that money will be used to build more homes for affordable rent, and that seems to be a great solution. Not only can a family achieve their aspiration of purchasing their own property, but they can do so in the knowledge that somebody else is being taken off the housing waiting list. I have yet to hear whether the Opposition support the return to the right to buy, with the money going towards affordable houses.
A straight answer to a straight question. Labour has supported the right to buy, but—crucially—we are not convinced about the bogus figures put forward that somehow suggest there will be one-for-one replacement. Councils are not able to retain the bulk of the receipts, and there is no guarantee that if a home is sold in a local authority area, a matching home will be built in the same area. We therefore fear that we will see a significant reduction in available social council stock, without any new build to compensate. Time will tell, but the sad reality will soon dawn.
I am still not entirely sure whether the Opposition support the initiative, but one-for-one replacement is part of the policy and is what we intend. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) challenges the Government by saying that the answer is to build more homes. I absolutely agree.
A question has been posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Slaughter) and by me, and I am anxious to have a response. What are the Government going to do about the two rules that are being breached and, indeed, are in conflict with each other? The maximum time that local authorities are supposed to keep families in bed and breakfasts is increasingly being breached, and the respect of local connection rule has been breached in the examples that my hon. Friend and I described. Will the Government enforce those orders?
As the hon. Lady knows, I have written to the 20 authorities that were responsible for 80% of the breaches of the six-week bed-and-breakfast rule. I pointed out that they are in breach of the law and asked for their plan or strategy to resolve the issue. It involves a small number of authorities, although I share her concern. I make no distinction politically or otherwise—the authorities concerned come from across the board—and I expect them to put plans in place to deal with the issue.
As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) noted in her intervention, there are enormous pressures in every direction and the problem is not simple to resolve. None the less, the changes we are making are designed to make it easier for authorities to discharge those all-important homelessness duties. Through the Localism Act 2011, we are allowing a discharge of those duties into the private rented sector on a fixed-term lease, with protections in place, which I think is an utterly sensible approach. Quality homes in the private rented sector could massively expand our capacity to deal with families who require assistance. Again, I have not heard—although on this occasion, I do not think I will provide them with the opportunity—what the Opposition think of discharging that homelessness responsibility into the private rented sector, but I think it is an important element.
This issue goes to the heart of the debate, and I do not feel that we have had a response. In order to comply with the Minister’s request, local authorities that have exceeded the limit for families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation need to find somewhere to place them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned guidance from Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster’s response to increasing demand states:
“Increasing procurement of family-sized properties in East London where the council has focused its out of borough procurement. Investigating procuring new properties in areas outside of London…a number of properties within Kent and Essex and we consider other proposals from organisations who approach us, including areas outside London.”
Does the Minister agree with that or not?
Guidance is already in place, which I am strengthening, to make it clear that local connections are critical and that people should never be shipped hundreds of miles away. There will, however, be cases where somebody may move from one borough to the next—the local housing area can encompass one, two or three boroughs, depending on location. I have been clear, however, that the kind of Newham games of writing and threatening to send 500 residents across the country are neither fair nor right. I was absolutely appalled by that approach. Interestingly, when I was approached by the leader of that council some time afterwards, he sort of half apologised and suggested that those letters should never have gone out.
In the last minute or two I will return to the comments made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He says that housing has never been a priority for this Government, but he is absolutely wrong. The truth is that housing was never a priority for the previous Government. Those are not my views, and when the Leader of the Opposition stated:
“We refused to prioritise the building of new social housing”
he was absolutely right. The critical figure that nobody in this House and beyond should ever forget, is that after 13 years there was a net loss in the number of affordable homes for rent in this country. That is a terrible, disastrous record that we are in the process of turning round, with 170,000 new affordable homes for rent that, as shown by HCA figures published today, are on track to be built by the end of this Parliament. I would have thought that that would be welcomed across the House, although bizarrely it is not. The idea that the Labour party is interested in housing is belied by that quote from the Leader of the Opposition and by the nine people who occupied the position of Housing Minister when Labour were in government. It is belied by the fact that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington is the eighth shadow Housing Minister I have faced. This Government are prioritising housing and doing something about getting homes built, which is the best way to prevent people from entering the world of homelessness.