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House of Lords
Speeches

Madam Speaker, when I was first elected to the Other Place 15 years ago, I was inundated with pamphlets and reports from my constituency and beyond.

But one that grabbed my attention was called “I musn’t laugh too much”.

Now I like to laugh, so I wanted to understand why anyone would impose such silly advice.

As I read the report I discovered that the title was based on advice given by a doctor to a young woman in a cold, damp and overcrowded flat at the top of a tower block on the Ocean Estate in Stepney.

The report went on to detail the housing conditions the family was living in.

Despite the heating being on constantly, everyone suffered from the cold in the winter and frequently fell ill.

There were no drying facilities and clothes had to be dried in the bathroom and hallway.

There was severe damp which produced black mould and the windows were always dripping wet.

Clothes and bedclothes got ruined by damp.

The three eldest children had asthma and used inhalers.

And the youngest boy had heart trouble and had suffered from persistent colds and coughs since birth.

The doctor warned the family that asthma attacks can be precipitated by fits of laughing - hence the doctorly advice!

My Lords, I grew up in north London and had already seen plenty of run-down housing before becoming Labour’s candidate in Bethnal Green & Bow.

But families on low incomes are as proud as anyone else and they always tried to put on a good show when I visited during that first election campaign.

The intense and grinding daily impact of living in such conditions was really only truly brought home to me for the first time by this report.

In surveys of a hundred families on the Ocean and Limehouse Fields estates it calculated the number of days lost in work or school through sickness.

It described the extent of damp throughout the badly constructed and poorly maintained tower blocks.

It revealed that many buildings were running alive with mice and cockroaches.

It exposed that the lifts constantly broke down and took weeks to repair.

And it showed that the stairwells of these blocks were plagued by drug users.

Most of all it painted a vivid picture of how bad housing affected the health, education and well-being of children, undermining their long-term life chances.

At that moment, I became a complete convert to the central importance of decent, secure and affordable housing in ending child poverty.

My Lords, in the years that followed 1997, the Bothnia, Malacca and Tunis blocks in which the young woman and her neighbours lived were demolished and replaced by excellent, family-sized social housing built by Bethnal Green & Victoria Park Housing Association under the SRB programme.

The kind of homes Nye Bevan would have been proud to put his name to.

In 2000, I received a follow-up research report – A Drop in the Ocean.

This showed that the “health gain” of those families who had moved into the first new homes on those estates was already dramatic.

Finding and staying in work continued to be a problem.

But the children were healthier and doing much better in school.

Its most important recommendation was that that the SRB needed to be extended to benefit families in the rest of Stepney too.

And so I was delighted when the Ocean Estate was included in the New Deal for Communities programme, with a £55 million budget to transform the area.

Thanks to that initiative and much extra schools funding besides, the exams results at Stepney Green and Sir John Cass Secondary schools are now well above the national average.

Those children have a real chance to fulfil their potential.

My Lords, the ideas behind the SRB and NDC were not new or even very innovative.

The East End is the birthplace of council housing – many of you will have heard of the Boundary Estate.

And some of you may have even read Arthur Morrison’s novel “A Child of the Jago” - based around life in the Old Nichol slum on which the estate was built.

The LCC built the Boundary Estate out of its desire to improve the squalid and overcrowded housing conditions in which children were growing up.

The challenge then as now was how to roll this out borough-wide, city-wide and nationwide.

Our predecessors in central and local government determined that a decent secure and affordable home was essential for children to fulfil their potential.

And the funding followed that political priority.

But at some point in the 1980s or 1990s those governing our country – and some local authorities - lost sight of that objective.

Investment was salami-sliced away and councils stopped building.

I would be the first to admit that it took the Labour Government that I supported too long to rediscover that objective.

But rediscover it they did – especially after the 2004 Spending Review.

To the extent that almost 50,000 new social homes were completed in England in 2010/11 – over 1,000 of them, in Tower Hamlets alone.

To the extent that Tower Hamlets Council was granted a further £43 million to complete the physical regeneration of the Ocean Estate.

And to the extent that Tower Hamlets was promised £222 million to bring its remaining council homes up to a decent standard.

My Lords, Lib Dem MPs stood alongside my colleagues and I in many debates calling for Labour’s ministers to increase investment in housing.

All of which makes the housing policy and budgetary decisions taken by this Coalition Government all the more dispiriting.

A two-thirds cut in the Homes & Communities Agency’s budget.

A benefit cap that punishes tenants for the greed of their landlords.

“Affordable” rents at 80 per cent of market levels – which most of my former constituents who are working can’t afford to pay and so don’t bid for.

And an end to proper security of tenure in social housing.

There are clearly individuals in this Government who recognise the value of building social housing to give children the home they need to succeed in life.

I venture to suggest that the Noble Lord, Lord Oakshott pops up regularly on my TV to speak for one of them.

But the Deputy Prime Minister’s hopelessly inadequate announcement last year of just £300 million to provide a fig leaf for tearing up section 106 agreements for social homes shows that he isn’t one of them.

This country urgently needs a proper house building programme and I am delighted that in his own excellent speech to the Labour Party conference last month, the Leader of the Opposition promised we will deliver it.

200,000 new homes a year.

Double the number the Coalition has achieved in any of its years in power.

My Lords, the report I referred to at the start of my speech was written by Professor Peter Ambrose.

Some of you may know Peter through his tireless work in support of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust’s campaigns on behalf of families in poverty.

To my constituents, he was an academic who was prepared to roll up his sleeves and work with them to help drive forward the Ocean NDC.

I am sorry to report to the House that Peter sadly passed away last summer.

His passion and his compassion are sadly missed, especially in Stepney.

But I am confident his work will continue to inspire a new generation campaigning on behalf of homeless and overcrowded families.

Over the summer I received a briefing note from Zacchaeus 2000 (Z2K), reminding us that two million children still live in bad housing today.

Living in cold and damp homes that result in them missing far too many school days off sick and falling behind with their studies.

Or growing up in overcrowded conditions of three or four children to a bedroom with no quiet space to study.

Many of my own children’s classmates at Old Ford Primary School are living in such conditions.

It’s a great school with fantastic teachers.

But their housing is already having an adverse impact on those children.

And when those children go on to secondary school the overcrowding at home will make it almost impossible for them to find the quiet space they need to concentrate properly on their homework or study for exams.

The lack of privacy is especially unfair on teenage girls forced to share bedrooms with their brothers.

One of the Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets - Lesley Pavitt - told me a story recently about one woman who came to her advice surgery in tears because her 12 year-old daughter had said she didn’t want to be a girl anymore after the brothers she shares a room with teased her so much about the changes she is going through.

Councillor Pavitt is the daughter of the late Laurie Pavitt – former member for Brent South.

Like her father, she is a great champion of homeless and overcrowded families and not prone to hyperbole.

But as she says, her constituent’s story is completely heart-breaking.

This is the consequence of the Coalition’s cuts to funding for social housing.

And the cuts to Housing Benefit mean homeless families are again spending months on end in totally unsuitable Bed and Breakfast accommodation.

Cooped up in single rooms where babies don’t even have space to learn to crawl.

And toddlers are at risk from all sorts of hazards in the communal areas as well as inside the room.

The last Labour Government banned this practice for a reason, and yet the Coalition has allowed it to rise all over again.

Just like it did under Thatcher and Major.

Mr Pickles’ offer of £1.9 million to all the councils struggling with the pressures of increased homelessness was totally inadequate.

So it was no wonder that only seven of them got anything.

And no surprise that minsters gave Tower Hamlets nothing at all, while Westminster got yet another big wodge of cash.

Probably so it can compensate the hundreds of families it has put through this B&B wringer in line with the Ombudsman’s damning recent finding against it.

I pay tribute to Westminster North MP - Karen Buck - for fighting so hard on behalf of those families.

My Lords, I am very grateful for the chance to initiate this important debate and look forward to the contributions of others.

I end by urging minsters to think again about their devastating cuts to the HCA’s budget and start building the homes our children need so the next generation of our children doesn’t have to worry about laughing too much.