HC Deb 26 March 1969 vol 780 cc1757-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]

10.6 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

The proposed use of the Tottenham Drill Hall as a reception centre for homeless men solves a problem for the Department of Social Services, but poses a very serious problem for the part of Tottenham in which it is situated, which is in my constituency. The Department intends to use the drill hall, simply because it happens to be available, to meet its problem of relocating some of the many homeless men who now live in the Camberwell Centre and a variety of other centres in London. No question arises as to the suitability of the drill hall. It just happens to be available, and so far as I can ascertain the Department has made no examination of other possible sites in North London which might be more suitable.

The building, like so many drill halls, is a great barn of a place which is completely unsuitable for residential purposes. Its adaptation for its proposed new use would be extremely difficult and costly. A figure of about £50,000 has been quoted. In my view that would be totally inadequate, bearing in mind that two small huts which have been erected there have cost £9,000. Even when adapted, the building would hardly be the kind of place in which men could be expected to live and be resettled.

Not only is the building itself wrong, but it is in the wrong place. More than 3,400 people living in the locality signed a petition which I presented to the Minister, in which they pointed out that the drill hall is less than a quarter of a mile from five infant and primary schools, with Army and Air Force Cadets on the same site, the Boys' Brigade in the Baptist Church next door, the Council's Youth Club in Park Lane opposite, and Scouts and Guides meeting nearby. It is in an area frequented by an unusually high number of children, the majority of whom are between the ages of 5 and 11. Not unnaturally there are considerable fears among parents as to the fright, to put it no higher and no more strongly, which the children in the area will receive when they encounter some of the men who will be using the centre.

The other point which is of very great importance is that this part of Tottenham is in a state of flux. There has been extensive redevelopment and slum clearance which is still going on. Whole streets of small houses have been torn down and replaced by large blocks of flats. It is one of the Plowden education areas. The schools are out of date and overcrowded and there is almost complete lack of other facilities. An area under stress like this cannot possibly be a suitable place for the rehabilitation of men under stress. Resettlement of men who are unsettled will be extremely difficult in an unsettled community.

In addition to the other problems this local community faces, once a week, sometimes twice, there is a great influx of all kinds of hooligan elements. The Spurs Football Club is very close to the drill hall and this again presents a great many problems for those living in the area.

That is the negative aspect of the problem for Tottenham, but on the positive side there is great need for the drill hall to be used as an indoor sports centre. There are many young people in the high blocks of flats in the vicinity and there is little provision for them of any kind of activity of this sort. We desperately need the facilities which the drill hall would offer and it is an ideal building for an indoor sports centre. It could also be combined with some public use and, of course, while the drill hall was being used as a drill hall, the public had access to it by arrangement with the military authorities. If the Ministry takes it over, the public will have no access to the building.

I assure my hon. Friend that the suburbs of London are not just places where Ministry establishments can be placed without regard to local interests. The reorganisation of London government, redevelopment, road schemes—all these are combining to disintegrate this local community and it is necessary to take positive action to keep the community together and to improve the quality of living and environment. It is more necessary in deprived areas like this than anywhere else, and the area needs relief from some of its problems and not an addition to them.

This is why when, in November, 1966, the Greater London and South-East Sports Council wrote to Haringey Borough Council, in whose area the drill hall is situated, saying that it was reviewing the use of drill halls and that it regarded the Tottenham Drill Hall as a building highly recommended for indoor sports use, Haringey Council proceeded to apply for the drill hall to be used as an indoor sports centre.

The Council raised the matter with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and in June 1967 I myself made representations to the Ministry on the Council's behalf for this purpose. It was after this that the Council was informed that the post office and the Ministry of Social Security had an interest in the drill hall and that neither was prepared to withdraw. So when, in February 1968, the Council was asked to give planning approval, it did so with great reluctance but was under the impression that it had no alternative. This is why planning approval was not withheld from the Ministry for use of the drill hall as a reception centre. I stress this because the Council is now renewing its efforts to get the drill hall as an indoor sports centre. I would not want my hon. Friend to think that this is something which has just arisen. It has been a matter of very long standing concern to the Council to provide facilities of this kind in the area.

There has been no inquiry into the use of the drill hall. It is not normal procedure to have an inquiry and, as a result of there not having been any inquiry, many questions have been unanswered. The people in the area do not know how many men will be using the centre at night. They do not know the type of men. We have been assured by the Ministry that they will not be "meths" drinkers or other undesirables, but I have recently had sent to me a newspaper article drawing attention to the numbers of "meths" drinkers and other undesirable men who have congregated in the Camberwell area in the vicinity of the reception centre. The views of the local police about the use of the centre have not been obtained and there are many other questions to which the local people are entitled to have answers. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is now the Paymaster-General, for coming to see the drill hall for herself and to her successor for his help in considering some of these problems, but there is still a great deal more we need to know.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows quite well that his Department has the power to go ahead with this centre. I am sure that he will say that it will go ahead with this centre at the drill hall. But I ask him to consider that this is a choice between two social needs, between socially deprived men and a socially deprived area. It is a question of sufficient importance for there to be a public inquiry as to which of these needs should be paramount in a consideration of the future use of the drill hall. I know before he speaks that my hon. Friend will not accept my request, for I asked the Minister whether he would hold a public inquiry and he refused. But I am asking again tonight that this be reconsidered, because it is important that local opinion should not be over-ridden in this way.

Although my hon. Friend may think that once the centre is established, local opinion will simmer down, I can assure him that it will not. Although he may say that this has happened in other areas, it may not have been apparent that opposition continued in other areas, because people know that they do not have power to change these Ministry decisions and that it is too late.

I ask him to look again at this question of a public inquiry, which is all I am asking. I am asking him not to change the Ministry decision, but to have an inquiry when all points of view may be expressed. It would be a good essay in public relations. It would be an excellent example of a democratic decision publicly arrived at. That is what I am asking tonight and I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to the decision.

10.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security (Mr. Norman Pentland)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I recognise and sympathise with the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) that everything possible should be done to help areas such as Tottenham. But I am confident, too, that the people of Tottenham want to help others as well as to receive help themselves.

The men we are dealing with at Camberwell, who come from all over London, need help. These are the men who could not keep up, who have nearly dropped out of our modern society, but who have fallen into the safety net which the State has provided through the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission took over in 1966 the duty placed on the National Assistance Board in 1948 to make provision whereby persons without a settled way of living might be influenced to lead a more settled life. Every night it provides accommodation for upwards of 1,200 men in its 18 reception centres. Nearly half of these men are in London at the Camberwell centre.

Camberwell on a very cold night has 800 or 900 men sleeping in it. On a more normal night the number may be between 500 and 600 men. They sleep on double bunks, many in dormitories which hold 120 men each. Those who agree to stay for resettlement are only a little better housed.

All of them share one enormous dining room with bare wooden tables. There are no proper day rooms. The workshop is inadequate for the numbers of men. It looks what it is: a Victorian workhouse of the 1870s in which people are trying to do a 1969 job of work.

The Camberwell Reception Centre was run by the London County Council up to 1964 as agents for the National Assistance Board. The Board was not happy with the centre then, any more than the Commission is now. Very early on efforts were made to find a site for a second centre, somewhere in north London. Those plans fell through and it was not until the surplus Territorial Army Centres became available—by which time the Commission had become directly responsible for running the Reception Centre—that there was a glimmer of hope that we might be able to set up a series of small units to replace the monstrously outsize unit at Camberwell.

In the provinces no reception centre houses more than 150 men. The staff can get to know the men and that is the first very necessary step if they are to be influenced to settle down.

We want these men to find in the reception centres a friendly, though disciplined atmosphere. We know that many of them will respond to it. When they come to the centres some have been sleeping in lodging houses and some have been sleeping rough. When they arrive each man has a bath. If he has any ailments he is encouraged to see the doctor, who calls regularly at the centre. If he is suffering from malnutrition he benefits from the regular meals provided.

If he needs hospital treatment he is helped to get it. If he is an older man in need of permanent care and attention, the staff collaborate with the local authority in finding him Part III accommodation. A young man who is fit for work is helped, first, to get back into the routine of a normal settled life. Then he is placed in work, but may still live in the centre for a small weekly charge until, finally, he is able to move into lodgings and start living an independent life again.

About a quarter of the men who use Camberwell Reception Centre are on the borderline between fitness and unfitness for work because of mental disorders. Where necessary, arrangements are made for hospital treatment, but in most cases this is neither necessary nor of use. We find the men need kindness and a measure of care, acceptance by the community, and help to find whatever corner there may be which they can fill.

About as many are alcoholics or have drinking problems. They are "dried out" and, if they are trying to stay off drink, they are given help and encouragement to build up their self-respect.

Most of the rest are rather ineffective, inadequate people, who just cannot make their own way or who have at some time suffered a loss or a tragedy which has deprived them of the will to do so.

Men who come to the reception centres have to hand in any drink they have with them. They are not allowed to drink on the premises. In the mornings they help to clean the place up before leaving.

Those who agree to stay on for resettlement, help to run the centre itself or do simple work—mainly woodwork—in the workshops. In the evenings most of the men watch television.

However, some men will not come to reception centres. These are the men who regularly sleep rough on the bomb sites and in derelict houses, and they can be a nuisance. They are the kind of people whom the hon. Member's constituents are bothered about. Such men, who are not attractive, do not want to hand in their bottles and be "dried out" or to accept any kind of rules, however reasonable they may be. But they do not come into an area because there is a reception centre there: rather the reverse.

My hon. Friend suggests that putting a Reception Centre in Tottenham will result in the area being plagued by undesirable people such as schools of meths. drinkers. I am informed that there may be some confusion here, because all our evidence, including a report from the police suggests that the men using the Camberwell centre present no problem in the neighbourhood. However, there is a voluntary organisation in Camberwell which gives shelter to alcoholics including the crude spirit drinkers, and the local controversy centres round the work of this voluntary body.

My hon. Friend asks: why choose Tottenham? When the Territorial Army centres became surplus, the normal drill for surplus Government premises was followed. The Ministry of Public Building and Works circulated details to other Government Departments and we, with others, considered all of them to see whether they looked to be convertible and were not too far from central London, accessible by public transport, and with relatively good opportunities for work not too far away. In the event, there were five drill halls scattered round London for which our claim was thought to be stronger than that of any competing Department, and Tottenham was one of them. We want to turn each of them into a Reception and Resettlement Centre for between 100 and 150 men.

The Ministry of Housing and Local Government later asked us to relinquish the project and let the local authority have the premises. We did not feel able to do this. We have waited a long time for suitable premises and the longer we wait the more costly to maintain the old unsuitable buildings in Camberwell become. These five drill halls provide an opportunity which may not be repeated to achieve an advance in this field at a lower cost than purpose built accommodation. This question of cost has still to be fully worked out and no final decision can be taken until full details are available.

My hon. Friend referred to the unsuitability for conversion of the drill hall for a reception centre. The professional advice we had from the Ministry of Public Building and Works is that the drill hall can be adapted to meet our requirements unless serious structural problems are discovered. But a conversion such as this obviously is not an ideal solution. It would be better to acquire a site and build from scratch, but, as my hon. Friend will agree, an undertaking of this order in the London area would be prohibitively expensive.

My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, when she was Minister of Social Security, visited the drill hall and toured the surrounding area with my hon. Friend. She considered all the points put to her with great care, and wrote a long letter going into considerable detail in explaining why she was unable to accept the representations made. My right hon. Friend the late Minister of State for Social Security also visited the drill hall and Camberwell Reception Centre, and, together with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Building and Works, he met my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham. I am advised that the matter has been studied very carefully, and we shall certainly look at the points made tonight.

This is an important piece of social work and, knowing my hon. Friend as I do, I think she knows in her heart of hearts that the job we are trying to do in Camberwell is worth doing. I hope that she, and the people of Tottenham will help us to continue with this very necessary social work.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.