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Housing: Homeless and Overcrowded Families

Volume 691: debated on Monday 23 April 2007

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to help provide homes for homeless and overcrowded families.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, housing in this country has improved significantly over the past 10 years. Fewer people are homeless, fewer people are sleeping on the streets, and there is better co-operation between central Government, local authorities and housing associations. But there are still quite serious problems for some of our people.

The housing market today is a picture of quite significant contrasts. The market for owner-occupiers is on the boil—indeed, it is almost frenzied, especially in London and the south-east. Large sums of money have been earned as Christmas bonuses in the City; one firm is reputed to have given 1,000 of its staff bonuses of £1 million. The result is a scramble for housing by people who do not need mortgages and do not need to sell anything before buying. That is at one end of the scale. I am not saying that the Government can easily do anything about these large bonuses earned in the City, but I believe that they could do more for people at the other end of the social scale. That is the subject of this debate.

One group in particular difficulties is the essential workers in the public sector, whose earnings have not kept up with soaring house prices in London. I refer to teachers, nurses, NHS staff generally, and others in the public sector. Nurses have always had difficulties, but teachers have more recently had to face the same problem of being unable to get into the housing market.

I want to concentrate on families, especially those with young children—those who are homeless and those who are in overcrowded accommodation. I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate. I am speaking nationally, although I am aware that the problem is most acute in the south-east and especially in London.

Let me quote one or two key facts, which I am sure will be familiar to Members of the House. There are around 90,000 vulnerable homeless households in this country, including 130,000 children. Around 500,000 households, including nearly 1 million children, are living in overcrowded conditions. Bad as they are, these figures still mean that housing conditions have improved over the past 10 years. The problem can be solved.

At present, annual output of social housing is in the region of 30,000, and it is generally agreed that the figure needs to be increased by some 20,000 per annum. In its recent report on the supply and affordability of housing, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government included a specific recommendation endorsing the need for an extra 20,000 social homes a year. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed that social housing will be a priority in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. We shall have to see how much extra funding will be made available for this purpose.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the impact of unfit, overcrowded and temporary homes on the life chances of young children. Shelter’s survey of homeless households shockingly revealed that more than half had seen their health suffer as a result of living in temporary accommodation. It also showed that on average, homeless children miss a quarter of their schooling each year—an extremely alarming figure.

The Government’s action to end the prolonged use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families with children has made the experience less damaging, but B&B is only ever the tip of a very much bigger iceberg. Even good quality self-contained temporary accommodation does not solve the problem of homelessness. Temporary accommodation is meant to be just that—an emergency stopgap. The only lasting solution is clearly a permanent home.

The insecurity and isolation of living in temporary accommodation compounds the experience of homelessness—it is not suitable and it is not affordable. Some of it is the worst that private landlords have to offer; some comprises shared hostels and much of the rest is hard-to-let council stock.

Placements outside homeless families’ local area disrupt the support networks on which they depend, and regular enforced moves deepen their sense of insecurity because of their isolation from friends and those who can give them the day-to-day support that they need.

Most temporary accommodation is at sky-high rents, creating poverty traps that make it almost impossible to make work pay. The result is that the longer homeless people stay in temporary accommodation, the more socially excluded they become. That is a blight that this country has imposed on them.

Other research shows that overcrowding also is a massive problem. There is a clear link between overcrowding and ill health, particularly infectious diseases. When one family member becomes ill, more often than not, everyone becomes ill. The stress of sharing bedrooms and facilities is well documented also as being a cause of tension, leaving many mothers suffering from depression and families at risk of breakdown. The research also sheds light on evidence that living in cramped conditions undermines educational attainment. Overcrowding makes it hard for children to find a quiet space to study at home or to get the sleep that they need to concentrate during the following day at school. As the housing Minister, Yvette Cooper, has acknowledged, the Dickensian statutory definition of overcrowding helps play down the problems that these families face. Those standards must be modernised to reflect today’s understanding of the need for space and privacy.

The root cause of the problem has been obvious for years: we have to build more social homes. Almost everyone agrees on this. The Deputy Prime Minister has said so; the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly, has said so; and the Treasury-commissioned Barker review of housing supply has said so. Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England backs the call for more social housing.

Reforming the right to buy, the private rented sector and the planning system will all help to maximise the supply of housing for those in less need. Under the right-to-buy legislation, which has existed for many years, one third of council housing stock has been lost. In May 2003, the maximum right-to-buy discount in London and the south-east was reduced to £16,000. If this could be extended to other areas, it would enable more money to be earned by local authorities to invest in replacement stock.

However, whatever changes are made to right-to-buy, there is no getting away from the need to build more social homes. In his response to the Barker review, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed a big increase in the number of homes being built for sale on the open market. He also assured us that new social housing would be “a priority” in next summer’s Comprehensive Spending Review. I hope that Members of this House will join me and the 100,000 members of the public who have backed Shelter's petition calling for that commitment to be translated into the 20,000 extra social homes that we need. It is not a large figure; it is well within our capacity as a country, even when money is tight, to provide that extra social housing. It is surely urgent, and I urge the Government to move towards meeting that target.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for facilitating this debate and for the clarity with which he has mapped out the need for further government action on this important issue. I declare an interest as the chair of Circle 33 housing association and, perhaps more importantly in this debate, as a trustee of the housing charity, Shelter.

In contributing to this debate, it is important that I acknowledge the considerable range of measures already taken by government to tackle homelessness, to build more affordable homes and to deliver decent standards of social housing. The Government’s record was quite rightly praised in the pages of Inside Housing last week. It reported that a survey of housing professionals had concluded that the Government’s housing investment will be remembered as a lasting achievement, standing in contrast to the damage caused by the previous Government’s scorched earth policy towards addressing housing need. I echo this view and pay tribute to the investment policies that have delivered 180,000 new homes last year, doubled investment in affordable housing to £2 billion a year by 2008, cut rough sleeping by 73 per cent, ended the long-term use of bed and breakfasts for families and have reduced substandard social housing already by more than 1 million. The effect of this investment has been to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of families previously living in unacceptable, damp or overcrowded accommodation.

Unfortunately these improvements are taking place against the backdrop of escalating social and market trends in the housing market, which are creating new challenges for government. For example, there are the emerging demographic pressures from the million additional single households, combined with the increased migration to the south-east causing a shortage of family-sized homes. Then there are the economic pressures that have encouraged rampant housing speculation at the same time as house purchase becomes unobtainable to a generation of young people. Then there are the social pressures identified in the Hills report in which monolithic concentrations of social housing are creating ghettos of poverty, depravation and unemployment.

In this environment, with the continuing shortage of affordable homes to rent or buy, the most vulnerable families are being squeezed out. As my noble friend has identified, we still have 90,000 families in temporary accommodation, 0.5 million in overcrowded properties and up to 1 million children still living in substandard housing. As has been said, that frequently has a knock-on effect on their health and education and robs them of their life chances at an early age.

The key to effective measures to tackle homelessness is to understand why people become homeless in the first place. Sometimes the cause is all too obvious. For example, last year I visited a Shelter project in Armley jail and saw the ground-breaking work being done to assist young offenders in finding accommodation before they were released literally on to the streets. Sometimes education can make a difference. In Rotherham, Shelter runs a scheme in which ex-homeless young people go into schools to explain the dangers of leaving home unprepared and the stark reality of life on the streets.

The most important feature of homeless families is their complex interconnected problems, which often lead to them becoming homeless again and again. Many suffer domestic violence, relationship breakdowns, mental health or long-term debt problems, which contribute to a cycle of homelessness and temporary accommodation. The key to this is to intervene and provide support at an early stage. Shelter runs a number of “homeless to home” projects around the country to help families to make a successful transition from temporary accommodation to a permanent home with sustainable tenancies. Projects such as these, with a mission to prevent homelessness, have proved their effectiveness. There is a case now for rolling out “tenancy sustainment” schemes across the country. Of course, there is a cost to this, but there is an even greater cost in inaction, both in terms of the continuing pressure on temporary accommodation and the health and welfare of those forced to live there.

Preventive measures are crucial but we will not have resolved the shortage of affordable housing unless we increase the number of social houses to rent. Shelter has estimated that a minimum of 20,000 additional units of social housing need to be built each year beyond those already planned. Given the scale of the problem that we have identified, that seems a fairly modest estimation, but for each year that goes by without this extra capacity the target must increase. That is why I am hopeful that the Government will address the shortfall with some urgency, and will see fit to make an announcement to that effect in the Comprehensive Spending Review. That would reinforce the Government’s deserved reputation for tackling the acute problems in the housing sector as well as transforming the lives of thousands of families living in housing need.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a landlord. I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing this debate on the plight of families enduring homelessness and overcrowding.

I should like to concentrate on two matters: first, the impact of life in temporary accommodation and overcrowding on children; and, secondly, the need for more social housing, particularly given the very poor state of much privately rented accommodation, and the requirement that services supporting these families should be reinforced rather than allowed to decline.

I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on removing families from bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The previous situation was quite unacceptable and I shall give an example of it later. I am delighted that Her Majesty’s Government have reduced the number of families in temporary accommodation below the 100,000 threshold, to 90,000, as other speakers said. Her Majesty’s Government have set a target to reduce households in temporary accommodation by half by 2010. As has been said, their success in reducing rough sleeping by two-thirds over three years gives some hope that this may be achieved.

Sadly, too much of the alternative provision to bed and breakfast is of a similar unacceptable quality. Construction of social housing is currently barely a quarter of what was achieved between 1945 and 1975, and even were Her Majesty’s Government to be successful in halving the number of households in temporary accommodation by 2010, we would find ourselves only in the same situation as in 1997.

On the impact of overcrowding and homelessness on family relations, the experts on child development such as John Bowlby and DW Winnicott have always been unanimous on the importance of the security of the parent-child relationship, particularly that between the primary carer and child in its earliest months. The development of scanning technology to permit us to see the functioning of the brain enables us today to see the way the earliest relationship sculpts the mind and significantly determines character and the ability to learn. It is imperative that the early environment does not frustrate the normal parental drive to bond with the infant, and to place the child at the top of all priorities in the first months of life at least. That is how the mutual bond of love is established that makes all the later tribulations of development manageable, even the terrible twos and teens.

All this tends to be thrown in doubt in overcrowded or insecure housing. Some years ago I visited a family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Canning Town, east London, with their health visitor. The mother was unwell and walked with the aid of two sticks. Neither of the parents had a good command of English. They had three sons: a baby boy, a six year-old and a 12 year-old. The six year-old had difficulty sleeping, suffered from nightmares and wet his bed. There were no cooking facilities so the family was obliged to spend money on expensive takeaway food. The mother could not heat formula milk for her baby so was obliged to breast-feed him. As a consequence she could not take her medication lest it contaminate her milk. The mother’s fingernails were eaten quite to the quick. How can a mother in such a situation, experiencing such anxiety, give her baby the vital attention he needs?

A particularly striking feature of the research into homeless families, which has been alluded to, is that many of them are lone parents experiencing isolation from family and friends. It is deeply troubling that so often such families are bereft of the normal vital network of supportive relationships. Their physical circumstance is worsened by their loneliness.

As more and more low-income families are obliged to use insecure accommodation in the private sector, their need for advice and support becomes greater. Inevitably, often those families in temporary accommodation will find difficulty in accessing services. The charity Barnardo’s provides its Families in Temporary Accommodation service to these households. The FiTA project has been resourced solely by raising of voluntary funds by Barnardo’s for the past 10 years. The service assists families in obtaining their welfare rights. Over the past four years, that project, which receives no statutory funds, has had to be reduced. Two and a half full-time equivalent posts are unfilled, and the project is still £67,000 short of the expenditure budgeted for 2007-08. Are the Minister and her colleagues giving all possible assistance to Barnardo’s in finding funding for that service? She may prefer to write to me on that. No doubt she agrees that it is imperative that these families have the strongest support in gaining access to services. Can she advise on how a provision for free bus and Tube travel for families in temporary accommodation might be developed to encourage increased contact between those families, their relations, friends and home communities? What is being done in that area?

What steps have been taken by the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to make benefit offices family-friendly environments? On all those matters, she might prefer to write to me rather than respond during the debate. Should any of your Lordships wish to have an opportunity to hear from parents in temporary accommodation, I strongly urge them to ask Barnardo’s whether a visit might be arranged to one of the Family in Temporary Accommodation surgeries. I would be happy to assist with that if I could.

I have been shocked at the quality of some of the non-bed and breakfast, privately rented family accommodation that I have seen in Canning Town. One home had a basement that was flooded almost to ground floor level, and no action appeared to be being taken by the landlord. Another had a shower that was fitted directly above the lavatory, as an all-in-one unit. Another home for a mother and two young children had walls sodden with damp. I therefore join strongly the homelessness charity Shelter’s call—and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones—for the setting of social housing output targets to be raised to a level of 46,500 in 2008-09, 50,000 in 2009-10, and 53,500 in 2010-11. Self-interest determines, given our ageing population, that the welfare of our children is too precious for any less investment. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Dubs for securing this short debate, which is of great importance. Its importance will be recognised by many MPs, for whom housing and homelessness issues prompt the largest amount of post. It is a real issue in this country.

This Government have done a lot to improve the situation of housing in the UK. It must be recognised that they inherited a pretty awful legacy from the previous Government in 1997. That year, I was appointed chairman of the Housing Corporation. Housing Corporation funding had gone down year on year in the previous years and the percentage grant that it was able to give had also gone down considerably, which had an impact on house building. The Government have a commitment to halve the number of homeless people in temporary accommodation by 2010. That is a laudable commitment but it will not answer the enormous challenge faced by the Government and this country.

Many noble Lords taking part in this debate have enormous respect for and support Shelter. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Jones is a trustee of Shelter, whose good work is known by many of us. It is a very responsible organisation, and its call for an additional 20,000 homes per annum, an enormous amount that will be very difficult to deliver, is worth serious consideration. I am delighted that the Select Committee in another place supports it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that it is an important target to go for.

I know that Ministers normally answer in this kind of debate, but it will be interesting to hear—because of my knowledge and experience of what we inherited in 1997—whether the noble Baroness speaking for the Benches opposite is able to support this proposal and to back it up with support for planning permission. Opposition to planning permission has been one of our key problems when new housing is sought in almost any area of the country. It is not just a case of saying “Let’s build” but also of saying, “and we will have the political guts to follow that through”, as the Government have.

I was honoured to chair a taskforce—not my choice of word—on affordable home ownership. There is no doubt that people in Britain want to own their homes. There is now one city in the country where the average cost of a house is £100,000, when a few years ago it was £5,000. In every other city, the average cost of a house is well over that amount, very much out of the reach of low-income families. Our job was to find ways of increasing affordable home ownership. As in the report, we decided that that could not be at the cost of socially rented housing. The director of Shelter, Adam Sampson, was a member of the taskforce and supported that view.

We called for shared ownership because it was clear that the number of those who could afford a mortgage to buy their own home was diminishing considerably. Shared ownership is a help. The cost of housing has meant that the entry level for that has gone up, but it is nevertheless of considerable help. This is not easy to deal with. The Government have been trying to tackle three key issues. First, on the inheritance of the sale of council houses, the issue was not just the sale of council houses; many of us would welcome that, because people want to own their own homes. The problem was the refusal by the then Conservative Government to allow the revenue generated by the sale of those homes to be ploughed into building more social housing to be rented, to replace that stock. The other problem, particularly in the boiling pot of our housing problem in London and the south-east, was that the controls were so loose that if I was a council-house tenant with a certain degree of tenure, I could buy my house but within a short period I could—and many did—sell it on to a company that would then let it out for a commercial rent. That was wrong. Our work on the low-cost home ownership taskforce identified some serious problems with this in London. We called for it to be stopped. We did not call for an end to the sale of council houses or housing association houses, but we said that when those people moved on, the house should be offered back to the local authority or the housing association at the market price. It could then come back into the stock and go out for rent again.

The second problem for the Government, which any Government will have, is what constitutes homelessness. I have heard my noble friends talk about families, which are key. It is about family break-up, which will be a continuing problem. It is also about groups of women who, because of domestic violence, stay in a situation where they may be killed—many are—or where their children grow up accepting that domestic violence is a norm, a way of life. It is something that boys then take into their relationships. Getting out of that situation all too often makes women technically homeless. We must look at that, and ensure that a mother and her children remain in the home and that the perpetrator of the domestic violence loses the tenancy even though their name may be on the rent book. We must find a way around that.

The other issue, for which the MoD has some responsibility, is Armed Forces members who find a home when they leave but are unable to cope with society. If you go on the streets at night, as a number of us have, and talk to those living there, you will find that quite a number are ex-service people. Some work has been done—when I was at the Housing Corporation, our people met the MoD—but it is insufficient. You cannot just transfer responsibility for people leaving the Armed Forces to another department. That causes problems.

The third area is the cost of housing. Increased costs mean that one can build and buy less housing. That is a real challenge for this or any Government. I should declare that I am a non-executive director of George Wimpey private house builders. I have seen how building costs have gone up and know that the Government will have to face that issue. I hope that, when the Minister replies, she will not feel defensive about it in any way. This Government are being good in that area; we just want to make sure that they remain good and that the Comprehensive Spending Review delivers the extra investment in housing that we need, which they have continued to deliver since 1997.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Dubs on initiating this debate and I declare an interest as vice-president of Shelter. I am grateful to my noble friend for backing the charity’s call for Her Majesty’s Government to commit to building an extra 20,000 social homes each year.

I want to join those noble Lords who have concentrated on the effect of homelessness on children. My interest in this issue and my support for Shelter date back many years and I want to continue to play my part in ensuring that the Government’s commitment to halve the numbers of homeless households trapped in temporary accommodation is made good by 2010.

None of us who watched Ken Loach’s film “Cathy Come Home” when it was first transmitted or saw its recent revival can have been unmoved by Cathy’s child’s screams as the story drew to its tragic close. The film seems to have stirred the nation’s conscience and led to a legal safety net for vulnerable families, requiring that they be placed in emergency housing and on a council’s waiting list, but that has not since been followed by many further steps.

As we have heard from my noble friend Lord Dubs and others, there is now evidence that prolonged periods spent in unsuitable temporary accommodation undermine the lives of children. Physical and mental health suffers, and education suffers most of all. While the number of homeless households has more than doubled in the past 10 years, it must be acknowledged that this Government have taken decisive action to end the worst form of temporary accommodation, bed and breakfast. But I question whether homeless children are much better off in self-contained temporary accommodation than has been claimed.

The stories that I have heard about the standards of such accommodation seem to indicate that it is at the grubby end of the private market, including run-down flats leased by local authorities from private landlords. I remember such a place near where I live—a shabby decaying dump from which mothers with toddlers and babies emerged, downcast and degraded. I wonder how degraded and downcast we would be if obliged to live in such conditions. That building was subsequently sold to a developer who turned it into luxury apartments, the so-called penthouse of which sold for £1.3 million.

Take one story from Shelter’s case files: Sarah and her two year-old son became homeless two years ago when her landlord raised her rent and she fell deeper and deeper into arrears. Eventually, he terminated her tenancy and, as it was only a six-month assured shorthold let, she had no grounds on which to defend it in court. Because she was pregnant with Joe at the time, her council accepted a duty to rehouse her and temporarily placed her in a one-bedroom flat with a leaking ceiling, broken furniture and no heating. When her baby Steven was born there was no room for his cot and he was frequently ill, so she was constantly travelling back and forwards to the doctor and to see her mother. Two years later, Sarah and her children still live in that flat.

I understand that the Government in 2006 introduced a code of guidance for local authorities dealing with homelessness, which included directions about the quality of housing used as temporary accommodation. Yet horror stories of poor conditions persist. Can my noble friend tell the House how this code of guidance is being enforced?

A homeless child living in the kind of temporary accommodation that I have described is likely to be among those who spend all their formative years below the poverty line. Shelter estimates that 1.6 million children in today’s Britain live in bad housing. They are the ones who are less likely to enjoy and succeed at school than other children and are more likely to plan on leaving school at 16. Shelter’s investigation has found that they are nearly twice as likely as other children not to get any GCSEs, and that children living in bad housing who get at least one GCSE are twice as likely not to attain an A to C grade. They take more time off school, given that children in bad housing are almost twice as likely as other children to suffer from poor health. Nearly 310,000 children in Britain are suffering from a long-term illness or disability, and many have problems with homework. One 13 year-old told Shelter:

“I need space to learn. Sometimes I have exams to study for and if there’s noise I can't think”.

Homeless children can end up having to change schools several times in a school year—a stressful experience, considering that they also have to deal with the problems attendant on moving home.

Children were asked what they liked about their home. Most said spending time with their family. The response of one seven year-old was:

“We like being with the family ... and the kitchen as long as you don't open the drawer with the rats in”.

Such infestations are not uncommon in this kind of accommodation; and this is Britain in the 21st century.

Darran, aged 13, has to share a bedroom with his pregnant mother.

“That's what I have been planning for my whole life”,

he says:

“To have my own bedroom”.

Should not every child in this prosperous country have his or her own bedroom—a place to do one's homework in, a place to be private? Fifteen year-old Damon and his mother have one room for sleeping, eating, studying and relaxing. They share all other facilities with two other households. Shelter’s findings suggest that children living in acutely bad housing are more vulnerable to bullying than others. Teachers told Shelter that, in their experience, children in bad housing are bullied more than children in good or adequate accommodation. One 14 year-old explained what would make things better for his family:

“More places to play and hang out with friends, a place where we can go without being threatened by older kids”.

The percentage of parents in bad housing who had been contacted by the police about their children was twice that of parents of other children. Nearly half of male remand young offenders and 42 per cent of female sentenced young offenders have experienced homelessness.

Not long ago, I was invited to inaugurate the building of an estate of affordable housing at a village called Elmswell in Suffolk. “Affordable” is the key word here. I was shown architects’ plans and told how this housing would be sustainable and environmentally desirable. It was all highly desirable, and I promised to go back to see the place when the houses were completed. But, of these houses, about half were for rent and half for sale. They were far cheaper than anything on the market, even in this remote area of Suffolk, but they were far beyond the reach of the many families with whom Shelter is concerned. Also, there was no embargo on the sale of these properties to people from London who might buy them as second homes. There was very little restriction on selling them on and no requirement that those who bought them should be below a certain income level. No doubt it is impossible in law that that should be so. Each of these houses would have been a dream home for the families whom I and other noble Lords have spoken about.

Finally, it is clear that homeless children who have lived for a long time in the kind of accommodation that I have described are very likely to be among those who spend all their formative years living below the poverty line, and this increases the chances that they, in their turn, will also grow up to live in poverty.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Dubs for initiating this debate. I am participating in it because of the respect that I have for my noble friends and other noble Lords who have spoken today who have given a lifetime’s, or certainly part of a lifetime’s, service to campaigning on behalf of the homeless and for the need for adequate housing for all people. I wish to show my solidarity, from this position on these Benches, with them for the work that they do.

I grew up in a northern working-class community. When I became a young trade unionist, we basically had two words on our banners: “jobs” and “homes”. They were the two things that we never had an adequate supply of but always wanted. Even in middle age, I still campaigned for the same things, not in Parliament but on the streets. For me, it is a great comfort and almost a pleasure to see what this Government have done in economic terms with regard to work. We no longer see mass demonstrations against unemployment and we do not see the banners. Not everyone but most people who want to work have the opportunity to do so, but, sadly, most people who want a decent home do not have the opportunity to get one. The message to my Labour Government, and the Chancellor in particular—who, above all politicians, has done more to solve economic, work and other problems, as he charts his future political career—is to give the same kind of energy and commitment to providing homes that he gave to providing work. Comments have been made that it is pretty awful finding homes out there, not just for the homeless and poor people. Fairly affluent young people find it increasingly difficult to find a place on the housing ladder.

The Government have done well. It is not my job to criticise them; it is not even for me to say that it is all the Government’s responsibility because it is not. Many players and factors are involved in providing adequate housing, and it is not only the Government’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of architects, planners, professional people, builders and people with all kinds of occupations and skills to ensure that the housing supply is adequate and affordable.

It may not be the Government’s sole responsibility, but they need stronger political will. I am reading and thinking carefully about the commitment, energy and drive that are going into the Olympic Games, which I fully support. But I wish that homelessness and housing were on the agenda and the front pages in the same way that we see the passion and drive for the Olympic Games. That is my message to the Minister and the Government: get some passion, energy and drive into solving the problem of homes for people. That is what is required.

Secondly, as a social democrat, there is a morality issue. One of my children was recently keen to buy a house, or a small flat. He was told that the house had gone to an investment buyer, which means someone who wanted it to be a buy-to-let home. My generation was one of the first to have a disposable income, which has often been used to buy houses. What have we done with those houses? We have rented them to our own children or to our neighbours’ children, and have made more money than we could have done by putting the money in the bank or towards other kinds of investment. That might be okay, but it means that young people like my son are paying £10,000, £11,000 or £12,000 a year to rent such accommodation out of disposable incomes of—I don’t know—£15,000, £18,000, £20,000, £25,000, meaning that 50, 60 or 70 per cent of their income is going on rent. Is that good? Is that the kind of morality that we really want to support as politicians?

It is not the Government’s responsibility, and I am not saying that I want them to pass legislation eliminating buy-to-let opportunities, but we should talk about what we are doing and why, and is it really what we want to do to our own children? Is there a moral issue about using homes as investment opportunities when a home is for someone having somewhere to live? We should at least talk about this issue.

Finally, I want to talk about vision. As well as other noble Lords, I read a lot about housing and what is going on. The Government have introduced initiatives, the Housing Corporation has played an important role, and individual housing associations have done well. Private developers have tried many times to provide affordable, attractive homes, and I have no criticism about that. But, that has never been enough. I want the kind of vision about how and where we might live in the next 20, 30 or 40 years. I want someone to articulate that vision. That has been done in the past. Herbert Morrison was a politician who had the vision of council homes for people who were living in slums. We know that the right to buy council homes has created its own problems, but there was a vision that working-class people aspired to get out of the slums to live in a council house, with a garden and open space.

Private individuals had their vision. A Clerk in this House called Ebenezer Howard had a vision of a garden city. He built more than one garden city. They may be seen as slightly quaint and old-fashioned these days, but they were a vision. If one reads of the passion and commitment behind the garden city movement, one can see hope, light and possibilities for working people that we do not see today. It is not the job of the Minister, nor is it the job of any individual. I wish it was my job and that I had the ability to do it. I do not think that I have, otherwise I would not be here this afternoon. I would be out there doing something about it. What Ministers can do is to look for people with vision. Perhaps people such as the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, and others need more support, to let their ideas flow freely about how we might live. Clearly, we will have to live high and densely.

If my children and grandchildren are going to have affordable homes, they will not be detached houses in half an acre. It will be a case of building high, living small. That is okay, as long those homes are affordable, clean and tidy and healthy and the transport, which will probably have to travel high and densely, is there to enable them to do that. I do not think that they will have a problem with that.

We need a vision of what it could be like, how it could be done and of how people on low, middle and high incomes could live together in a unified and peaceful way. Beyond that, who knows? Perhaps the visionaries of the next generation will build in the sea. Why not? That is probably the kind of thing that people like HG Wells thought about. Everyone thought that such things would never happen and, of course, they are.

My message is fairly simple—it is simple to me, even if I was not able to make it simple for other Lords. It is: let us get some passion and morality into this from us and from the Government and let us support the Government in the good work that they are doing.

My Lords, the price of housing, its availability and its affordability has become something of a national obsession. It has become the new weather. Every day, when we pick up the newspapers, we read stories about this problem. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on reminding everyone that, for many people, this is not a question of whether they can afford a property, it is a question of whether their property is even fit to live in, whether too many people live in it or, in some cases, even now, whether they have a proper home or are dependent almost on the charity of friends and relatives.

I will focus my remarks this evening on the voluntary sector. I pay tribute to the many thousands of volunteers and professionals who work for voluntary organisations across the country and who do such valuable work in the housing field. Many of the Government’s achievements, about which we have heard a lot today, would not have happened had it not been for the work done by the voluntary sector.

I will focus also on three organisations that I happen to be involved with but I could focus on any number. I spoke to the three of them about this debate and asked them, perhaps slightly unfairly, to name one thing that was really high on their agenda at this time—one wish that they would like the Government to grant them.

I spoke to Shelter first. It is clear that Shelter needs no introduction in your Lordships’ House; almost every speaker has declared some sort of interest and been involved, in Shelter at a level of detail. Other than my fairly modest annual donation, I do not think that I need to declare any interest beyond my respect and admiration for its practical work and campaigning zeal. Its concern is increasingly for families who find themselves in temporary, overcrowded or otherwise unsuitable accommodation. We have heard, movingly, from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, about the impact that that has on individuals, particularly children, and the way in which disadvantage becomes almost an institutional part of their life and is passed down the generations. I am afraid that it is a fact that housing being built for organisations in the social rented sector, whether they are housing associations or local authorities, is lower now than it was when the Conservatives were in power.

I agree absolutely with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that while low-cost home purchase for key workers on low incomes is a laudable aim, it should not be at the expense of improving conditions for people who are currently poorly housed and who will always find house purchase beyond their means. The time has come for us to stop dismissing the socially rented option as somehow anti-aspirational, because it clearly has a place.

It will come as no surprise to noble Lords that the Shelter wish was for 20,000 additional houses to be built every year in the socially rented sector. Its aim has been supported by the Select Committee in another place, more than 200 Members of Parliament, the National Housing Federation, the Local Government Association and a number of other organisations.

The second organisation I want to mention is the Passage, a charity associated with Westminster Cathedral and based in Victoria. I first became associated with it about five years ago. Before my life was rather taken over by Front-Bench responsibilities in this place, I used to work once a week as a volunteer in its kitchen. It is the most amazing organisation, not only providing immediate help to rough sleepers but going much further by providing help with physical and mental health problems, improving literacy and numeracy, and helping to rebuild people to prepare them to move on to independent lives when they are ready.

The Passage is facing a serious and immediate challenge. It has always offered an open-door policy and provided help to anyone presenting themselves to it. Since the accession of new member states into the EU in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania, there has been a significant increase in migrant workers arriving at the Passage. That is mostly because of its links with the Catholic Church. These workers are a different client group from the one that the Passage traditionally serves in that they need help for only a short time. As the issue is a tabloid newspaper’s paradise, I need to emphasise that these people are not in this country to receive hand-outs, they simply want to work. We have opened our borders and that is exactly what we want them to do. Quite often, however, they simply do not know what to do when they arrive here.

The Passage is associated with these people for a very short time, but there is a continuous stream of them. It is becoming increasingly stretched and is worried about its more traditional client group, which has much more complex needs. It has therefore very reluctantly decided that it cannot keep its door open to migrant workers. It will assess them and help them if they are vulnerable, but otherwise they will be given advice and sent on. So the plea from the Passage is that while it accepts that this is a difficult area for government—and while we on these Benches agree that it was right to open up our work markets to new EU residents—merely opening the market is not enough. For example, migrant workers are not allowed to use Jobcentre Plus, although it is difficult to imagine why not. We clearly need a joined-up approach that starts in the country of origin and helps people who genuinely want to come here to work and who have a great contribution to make. We need co-ordination between the key departments: the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Just a few hundred yards from the Passage is the third organisation that I want to mention, the Ex-Service Fellowship. Although it is a much smaller organisation, last year it provided 19,000 nights’ accommodation to ex-servicemen. I have a particular empathy with the organisation because I come from a forces background. The organisation estimates that around 10 per cent of the homeless population has served in the Armed Forces. Interestingly, however, it says that it has no evidence of a causal link between the two. In other words, there is no evidence to suggest that former servicepeople are more vulnerable. However, on any given day in London, around 1,100 former servicemen are homeless and 2,500 are in temporary accommodation. The organisation usually observes that although complex life difficulties have caused these people to present themselves in need of help, their single biggest problem is the absence of a support network among family and friends. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that the Armed Forces ought to have a stab at identifying the individuals who might be at risk before they leave the forces and perhaps giving them a bit of extra help before they fall into difficulties.

The big issue that the Ex-Service Fellowship wanted to raise—I was rather surprised when it did—was that many local housing authorities give preference to people living in a given area and award extra points to those who have lived there over a long period. It clearly disadvantages servicepeople. I had regularly to deal with this problem in the early 1990s when I was a new councillor and had an air force base in my county council division. I am surprised that we are still addressing the same issue all this time later.

That is the shopping list from three organisations. I finish by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for obtaining a debate on this subject.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for obtaining this debate. I also thank speakers in the previous debate for not speaking for long because it has given us longer for this debate than we would otherwise have had. It has been good all round. All the speeches have made this an extremely worthwhile debate.

The international review of homelessness by Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick and Professor Mark Stephens of the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York set the problem of homelessness in an international context. They studied the policies and practices of other countries and came to the conclusion that the English approach is highly distinctive because it is set in a legal framework. It is apparently almost unique internationally. That framework encourages the provision of long-term settled housing as the ultimate response to homeless people in priority need.

Since the original legislation in 1977, the number of priority categories has been increased. There are now so many that, unless local authorities adopt their own policies, those on the housing waiting list, many of whom have extreme problems, and homeless people have little chance of obtaining a home. Families who have lived in an area all their lives have little hope of seeing their children able to continue to live there, so continuity and communities are consequently imperilled. That is another side of this discussion. In addition, homeless single people, some of whom have become homeless because of the problems we have been discussing today, have little prospect of fitting any of the priority categories, and limited move-on accommodation makes it increasingly difficult for vulnerable single people to gain access to social housing.

Despite the reduction in their number, many people are still sleeping rough. In 1998 a report by the Social Exclusion Unit showed that between one-quarter and one-fifth of rough sleepers were from the Armed Forces. This subject has been touched on by several speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. It is significant. Has the Minister any figures on it? The evidence produced by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, seemed to indicate that it is still a problem. Many people are coming out of the Armed Forces, and some will have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. One wonders why the Armed Forces’ welfare system is not picking them up before they become homeless. They are undoubtedly an element of the problem.

To have any hope of providing the settled housing envisaged in the report on the international situation, local authorities are using a plethora of measures to contain the situation. These include: using housing benefit for the private sector; tenancy deposit schemes to secure housing for people who need it; mediation in the face of family difficulties to prevent breakdowns, which increase the chance of homelessness; in the case of domestic violence, trying to secure that a member of the family—the perpetrator, one hopes—leaves; encouraging older people occupying properties that have become too large for them to downsize, with help, to smaller accommodation, thus freeing the bigger property for larger families; creating more shared ownership schemes; and encouraging better hostel provision for people sleeping rough. Much is happening.

To bring the situation into perspective—it brought it home to me—boroughs in west London, including my own, have recently put together a booklet and a very professional DVD on housing options, which refer, among more general housing advice, to homelessness prevention and support. Much of this will have to guide how we help the homeless rather than necessarily assuming that each time people become homeless they require different accommodation.

In an attempt to increase the amount of affordable housing and encourage housing associations to build family-sized accommodation, local authorities require Section 106 payments to provide affordable housing or contribute to it—the Minister will know that as well as I do. The Mayor of London now demands that 50 per cent of all developments create affordable housing, although not all local London boroughs will accept that amount. My borough has recently given permission for affordable housing to be attached to a major block of flats. Flats in the block will be sold but it will also contain affordable housing.

Section 106 therefore makes a significant contribution to the provision of social housing. However, the slump in affordable house building has been very noticeable, with fewer than 20,000 homes provided annually, against, I think, 100,000 built annually in the 1970s.

I am sure the Minister will say that there is plenty going on; however, it feels a little as though the duck is paddling very fast below the water but not going very far on top. The lack of housing, as others have said, remains a conundrum. As described by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and others, it leaves individuals and families in temporary accommodation waiting for a more permanent home. Many are living in unacceptably overcrowded accommodation, in the public and the private sector. Families with children of different sexes have to share rooms, with no accommodation for older children. We have heard graphic examples from the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, so I do not need to go into that any further. We all know of families in such situations and how unacceptable it is.

Shelter, Crisis and the Public Accounts Committee have expressed considerable concern about the Government’s statistics on homelessness, which appear to demonstrate a reduction since 2004 in the number of homeless people. Their concern arises partly because it is now assumed that there are estimated to be just under 400,000 “hidden homeless”; that is, homeless people who do not approach a local authority or who do not meet any of the priority criteria.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, touched on migration within the EU, particularly from the 10 accession countries, which undoubtedly adds to problems across the EU and certainly here. I know of some EU migrants who are working and sending the money home but sleeping rough on the streets; and they should not be.

We have had several debates recently drawing attention to the difficulties experienced in the countryside, where young people are priced out of their villages and towns and small-scale redevelopment is urgently required. That urgency is underlined in the Affordable Rural Housing Commission’s 2006 report. Having studied the situation, Kate Barker has determined that the number of additional dwellings already identified as being provided annually needs to be increased by at least 112,000 across the country.

Swathes of development sites have been identified, mainly in the south, where building is likely to take place; that includes areas on the Thames. There are acres of land down on the river, where there will have to be mixed communities. The legacy of the Olympics will have to involve building affordable housing, but it will not necessarily be located where people want to be.

My party recognises the need for well designed, environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly affordable homes. Many but not all of those can be built in cities, on brownfield sites. We believe that much of what is needed can be provided by working with local communities and local authorities, rather than central government or regional agencies dictating what should be provided and where. However, we all recognise that there is still a major problem that must be resolved and that people are still living in unacceptable conditions or do not have somewhere proper to live at all.

My Lords, I join every noble Lord who has spoken in congratulating my noble friend on raising this important issue. It has been a very thoughtful debate, which has revealed tremendous consensus between parties across the House over the importance of housing and the complexity and scale of the challenge. The focus that has rightly been placed on families and children shows that we all share extremely deep concern about how both homelessness and overcrowding impact on the most vulnerable. My noble friend Lord Dubs has done the House a great service and we could easily have had a longer debate today. I am sure that the powerful advocacy offered behind the Shelter report will be welcome and noted.

The point is that if we are intent on making homelessness history, we must tackle its root causes, as many noble Lords have said. We must also place it within a robust policy of housing and planning and tackle its economic and social causes. I was most interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said about the international context and how we in Britain have taken a slightly different route. However, across Europe, we meet the same challenging demographic and economic changes. I hope that I can persuade my noble friend Lord Sawyer that, just as every other Labour Government in history have made housing a priority—in very different circumstances—we, too, have made housing a priority. However, we have combined it with a vision of building not just houses but communities that can thrive because they are socially coherent and environmentally sustainable. It is becoming more difficult to do this, not least in the light of climate change.

Our approach to tackling homelessness with passion and energy has been to help those who are most vulnerable and at greatest risk while, at the same time, building up a more effective system to meet wider housing and social needs. I am grateful for the warmth of welcome that has been given from across the House to so many aspects of the Government’s housing policy. It is especially good, for example, to see the reference in Inside Housing, which is not always an uncritical friend of the Government.

We have tried to deliver stability in the housing market through lower long-term interest rates; to address the repairs backlog in affordable housing, so that homes meet decency standards; to address the decline and abandonment in our housing market renewal pathfinder areas in the north and west, where the economic tide has receded; to build and continue to build at increasing levels to meet the desperate need for housing in the wider south-east; and to open opportunities for affordable housing for people on low incomes. All that and more must be done in the context of planning and scarce land resources. That is why PPS 3 recently brought those two elements together most successfully.

Of course there are huge challenges. I was very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, brought to our attention the role of the voluntary organisations, because none of those things would have been achieved without the active partnership of many voluntary organisations above and beyond the RSLs. Octavia Hill was as concerned with how people lived as she was with where they lived. I am particularly pleased that that tradition is so robust in this country, particularly in the three areas that the noble Baroness picked out. I visited the Passage recently and talked to Sister Ellen about the pressures that the A8 are causing. Although 97 per cent of our new A8 nationals who are registered are in work in the UK, we must recognise that there are pressures in central London in particular. We have tried to address those pressures. We have made more than £600,000 available to local authorities in central London to support their intervention work with A8s, and I am glad to say that some of it has been invested in targeting particular problems.

We had a huge challenge when we came to office in 1997. We had to determine the right set of priorities to meet urgent needs. As my noble friend Lady Dean said, the stoking up of the pressures in the system posed a considerable challenge, and we had to deal with the massive £19 billion backlog of social housing repairs that we inherited. More than 2 million homes failed basic decency standards, and 1,800 people were sleeping rough on the streets. We have done a great deal to address the many problems that noble Lords have already talked about. We have been able to achieve those changes because, uniquely, we have worked intensively and with an innovative eye on what actually works. Local authorities are required for the first time by legislation to have a strategy for homelessness and are supported by intensive and expert advice from my department on how to implement best practice. Practically every borough in need can call on that support, which is making a profound difference. Indeed, I am very glad to pay tribute to officials who are working in this field.

We have put significant investment into improving housing choices as well as conditions. As I said, we have also tried to meet urgent need, while at the same time laying a foundation so that we can prevent homelessness in the future. We have seen the results. We have seen the South Bank cardboard city melt away and have cut rough sleeping by 73 per cent. We have also ended the scandal of large numbers of families stuck in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a long time. New cases of homelessness are at their lowest level since the early 1980s and the number of households in temporary accommodation is also falling. The figure of 90,000 has been quoted around the House this afternoon, but the figure is below 90,000 for the first time in nearly four years.

Many noble Lords, such as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lady Rendell, spoke passionately and movingly of some of the dreadful conditions in which some families in temporary accommodation are still living. It is a reproach to every one of us that they are, but local authorities are working proactively and positively to make that a thing of the past. Most temporary accommodation is of good quality and at street level, with its own front door. That is what we want for everyone. Although we are making progress, the number of people who are homeless and in temporary accommodation is still too high. That is why we have set a target to halve the number of households in temporary accommodation to 50,500 by 2010, and we are determined to meet that challenge.

Many noble Lords have focused on the impact of both homelessness and overcrowding on children. I am pleased to say that, since 1997, the number of children in non-decent homes has reduced by more than 1.4 million, as has the number of children in households in temporary accommodation. However, 130,000 children are still living in temporary accommodation, and we are in no mood to be complacent. How could we be, given that we know—as, I am sure, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, would have been able to tell us had the debate not been moved forward—that the impact on those children is profound and tremendous? Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, began to explain this, although the department does not need to be reminded of it. Later in the year, we will publish research that we have commissioned on the experiences of children living in temporary accommodation.

We have worked with and enabled local authorities to design and deliver more effective front-line prevention services. We have invested £200 million over three years, and I am delighted to hear what boroughs such as those in west London and the noble Baroness’s own borough are doing. Many noble Lords are right that it is vital to know who the homeless are and why they are homeless. Homelessness may be due to violent and abusive families, the failure to manage rent and housing costs, the vulnerability that comes from a lifetime in care, being in prison or, as my noble friend Lady Dean and the noble Baronesses, Lady Scott and Lady Hanham, pointed out, when people leave the armed services. I can tell the House that my department is working closely with the MoD, but I will write to noble Lords because it is an aspect of the work that is worth exploring.

We have made major changes for some of those groups. Children leaving care now form a priority group for social housing, and we are working closely with 16 and 17 year-olds to meet a commitment that by 2010 they will not be placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation except in emergencies. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to mediation services. A whole range of new policies is being implemented in terms of working with families, especially young people, to prevent that critical step into homelessness. We are putting into place practical help such as supported lodgings. I wish I had more time to speak in more detail about what we are doing with offenders because a tremendous range of opportunities is opening up.

I want to talk briefly about social housing, since that was the message behind the Shelter report. We know that it is crucial to increase the supply of all forms of affordable housing, and that means new social housing. We are on course to deliver our target of 30,000 social rented homes a year by the end of 2007, the final year of the last spending round. That means the provision of an additional 10,000 social rented homes per year, which represents a 50 per cent increase over 2004-05. We recognise that that will not meet all the newly arising needs and the Chancellor is well aware that the provision of social rented homes must be a priority for the 2007 CSR. If he was not aware before he reads this debate, afterwards he will be in no doubt about the head of steam that is building up around the issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, made the point that this is an aspirational choice. Discussions with tenants’ associations and organisations show that social homes are an aspirational choice. It is the preferred choice and that is why we have to work towards it. Indeed, the Hills report that we commissioned raised key issues about the future of social housing. The question I would put in response to my noble friend Lord Sawyer is: what is going to be our vision for social housing in the future? Certainly we want it to be an aspiration and to open up a pathway for social and economic mobility. We must square the vicious circle of social housing and worklessness, so in promoting social mobility through, for example, choice-based lettings, is a big challenge.

We have to be more innovative and to improve opportunities for moving from temporary to settled homes. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who offered me the opportunity to write to him about Barnardo’s. I shall certainly do that, but I can tell him now that we are meeting representatives of the charity next week. We are aware of the problems. My noble friend Lady Rendell asked me how the guidance is being enforced. That is being done in a number of ways. I shall write to her in detail because it is a complex area. Among the new approaches we are taking in the provision of settled homes is a £30 million pilot to help families move from temporary accommodation into long-term settled homes, and we are looking for innovative pilot proposals that focus on London.

I want to take one minute to talk about overcrowding because it is one of the most stubborn, persistent and unpleasant problems. As we have heard, the impact on children can be quite awful. That is precisely why we have made it a priority. We have issued a consultation document and we are working with the London boroughs and our new advisers to meet the targets. It is also why we are giving the mayor a greater role. We are the first Government in over 70 years to look at how to tackle the problem and raise existing standards. We will publish our response to the consultation paper later this year. However, in November we announced that we would be investing £19 million in a series of pilot schemes across the capital which we expect to provide innovative solutions. Perhaps I may write to noble Lords about the sort of things we are considering in the context of overcrowding, because it is not possible to do justice to the issue during such a rapid résumé of these complex matters.

In conclusion, we have to build more homes; I am not in the least defensive about that. They have to be environmentally sustainable and affordable, and we will build them with local authorities. Indeed, it is local authorities which are driving this forward in terms of their housing needs assessments and on their judgment of what is needed. We have to provide more choice; we have to provide more low-cost and social housing; and we have to make better use of existing stock.

Finally, our vision is of building decent homes but also decent communities. We may not have an Ebenezer Howard but we still have a vision of a garden city. It may have changed in shape and form and the densities may be higher, but that does not mean that we compromise on quality. These places should still be a delight to live in, not just now, and a housing policy ought to be more than simply relying on your parents—having chosen the right parents in the first place. We are looking for all those things to make the decent communities of tomorrow.

I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Dubs for the opportunity he has created to debate this.

House adjourned at 6.05 pm.