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On this day: 1990 Jeremy Corbyn takes on Margaret Thatcher over 'disgrace' of UK homelessness

Then an obscure backbench MP, the future Labour leader clashed with the Iron Lady as an emerging homelessness crisis started to create 'cardboard cities' in London and across the UK 

Adam Lusher
Tuesday 08 May 2018 15:36 BST
Corbyn takes on Margaret Thatcher over homelessness in Parliament in 1990

It was, you might think, a long time ago in a different century.

It was the spring of 1990.

At the National Theatre, The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, partly based on the work of the Classical Greek dramatist Sophocles, had just opened.

But to get to their refined entertainment, the theatre goers had to pick their way past an unsightly collection of cartons, makeshift braziers and desperate, homeless people – Cardboard City, they called it, in the shadows around Waterloo Bridge.

In the capital, and in other cities, the streets were becoming pockmarked by what some saw as the casualties of Thatcher’s Britain, the rough sleepers.

In April 1990 a new socially conscious band, The Levellers, had referenced the mounting homelessness crisis with the track Cardboard City, on their debut album A Weapon Called The Word.

Even at the National, there was no escape – the playwright Tony Harrison had peppered his new play with reference to the homeless sleeping a stone’s throw away from the stage door.

Cardboard City, as The Independent later observed, had become “a recurrent symbol of heartlessness”.

And one man was determined to challenge Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about it: an obscure, allegedly scruffy backbench MP called Jeremy Corbyn.

On May 8 1990, 28 years ago on Tuesday, the 40-year-old Islington North Labour MP rose in the House of Commons – on the other side of the river from Cardboard City - and asked the prime minister what plans she had to alleviate homelessness in London.

His hair was less grey then, but his suit was equally brown. There was no tie.

Mrs Thatcher was in Iron Lady armour of power suit and shoulder pads.

She reeled off the statistics: “Additional allocations of £88m to London boroughs in 1990–91 to relieve homelessness … £45m-worth of schemes to help the homeless … increasing to £2m the support that we give to voluntary organisations who help and advise the homeless.”

Mr Corbyn remained indignant.

“Will the Prime Minister accept,” he demanded, “That, 10 years ago, in 1979, there were 2,750 households in temporary accommodation in London; that the current figure is over 25,000 and that a further 2,000 people are sleeping on the streets?

“When her Government asked local authorities what resources they required to deal with the homeless problem in London,” he added, “they asked for at least £480m. They were given less than one sixth of what they wanted.

“Does she agree that, when people sleep on the streets of our capital city, when people are charged exorbitant rents and when children are brought up in bed-in-breakfast hotels, it is a disgrace to a civilised country?”

Mrs Thatcher appeared unmoved by the indignation, or by the chorus of "Hear, hear".

She removed her spectacles, and glared at Mr Corbyn as she gave her answer – which, funnily enough, quoted statistics from Islington.

“The honourable gentleman,” she said, “will also be aware that a considerable number of council properties are empty which, if they were brought into use more quickly, could reduce the number of homeless. For example, in Islington, there are 1,162 empty properties. If the properties were turned around much more quickly, that would make a great contribution to relieving homelessness.”

Mr Corbyn’s fellow Labour left-winger Tony Banks did manage to suggest that four out of five of these supposedly empty “council” properties were in fact in the hands of private landlords, and thus beyond the control of Mr Corbyn or any local authority.

But then the Speaker called for order, so loyal Tory backbencher Sir George Young could suggest that homelessness in London would be tackled more effectively now the Conservatives had gained control of Ealing Council.

As it happened, homelessness in England climbed remorselessly to a peak of 135,420 households accepted as statutory homeless in 2003-4.

The statutory homeless figure fell to a low of 40,020 in 2009-10, but since then it has been creeping upwards again, with the after-effects of the 2008-9 financial crisis under Labour and austerity politics under the Conservatives being cited as reasons.

In January 2018 official government figures showed that the number of people sleeping rough in England had doubled since 2010.

John Bird, who founded the Big Issue magazine to help combat the homelessness crisis of the early 1990s, has expressed fears that Britain is “heading almost inexorably” towards a return to a situation as bad as it was in those “desperate” times.

Mr Corbyn remains indignant about homelessness, and continues to call it a disgrace.

Ms Thatcher fell from power six months after her Commons clash with Mr Corbyn, ousted by her own MPs in a dispute over Europe.

So far, since emerging from obscurity to become Labour party leader in 2015, Mr Corbyn has resisted all attempts by some of his own MPs to remove him.

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