Ministers failing in promise to homeless

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The Independent Online

Numbers of homeless families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation have almost trebled under Labour.

Housing charities said yesterday that the surge in the total of families put up in emergency housing could harm their health and the education of their children.

Labour pledged in its election manifesto to "reduce the use of costly bed-and-breakfast accommodation" and has set up a Whitehall unit to tackle the problem.

But the scale of the challenge it faces has been underlined by a written Commons answer from Sally Keeble, a parliamentary secretary in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. She revealed that 10,830 families were now listed as resident in temporary lodgings in England. That compares with 4,100 when Labour came to power in 1997; 4,990 in 1998; 7,460 in 1999; and 8,700 last year. The rise has also left council taxpayers with a growing bill, now approaching £200m a year.

Most families living in bed-and-breakfasts are in London boroughs, but substantial numbers are also now in such accommodation in Brighton, Bournemouth, Bristol, Manchester and Gloucestershire.

Councils have been forced to ask the private sector to put up homeless families because the amount of council housing has shrunk after the sale of local authority property. Fast-rising property prices also mean that less public housing is becoming available because residents find it harder to move on by buying their own homes.

Chris Holmes, director of the housing charity Shelter, said: "We are facing wholly unacceptable levels of housing shortage and thousands of families are paying the price of long-term lack of investment."

He added: "Families have to endure often appalling conditions in B&B accommodation, when it is actually cheaper to house them in decent temporary accommodation provided by housing associations."

James Tickell, deputy chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said life in bed-and-breakfast accommodation could have a "devastating effect on the well-being of children. They're without room to study, unable to settle in schools, typically sharing one or two rooms with siblings and parents. They're not able to eat properly because you can't really cook in bed-and-breakfasts."

A spokeswoman for Ms Keeble's department insisted that ministers were determined to reverse the increasing use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. She said: "The homeless figures have gone up ... because there is a rise in the number of people we are now required by law to help.

"We are setting up a bed-and-breakfast task force which will start work in September to look at why some councils use B&Bs and others don't."

But Adrian Sanders, housing spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "The Government has got to free up money in areas where there is the greatest need – to allow local housing needs to be met locally."