HC Deb 17 December 1970 vol 808 cc1680-708

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

9.10 p.m.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

Tonight I invite the attention of the House to the position of homeless families in London, and I want to start by making it quite clear that my main interest and concern is with the cruel and increasing problems with which the homeless families are being faced at the heart of our great capital city.

I must begin by trying to get from the Minister some clarification of the confusion which seems to have surrounded what has become known as the Greve Report. In April, 1969, the then Minister commissioned, as I understand it, a study of this very severe and difficult problem by a team headed by Professor Greve and Professor Cullingworth. I understand also that the draft of that report was submitted last January and that the final report was published in June.

Therefore I asked the Secretary of State for Social Services in November when he received the report of the study of homelessness in Greater London commissioned in April, 1969, by his predecessor; what steps he is taking to make public the findings of the research team under the leadership of Professor Greve. To my immense surprise the right hon. Gentleman answered: I have not yet received this report."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th November, 1970; Vol 807, c. 68.] If he had not received the report, obviously he could not have read it; if he had not read it, that must mean that no very urgent consultations had been going on in the Department about the material which was contained in that report. I think it is an absolute disgrace that a report dealing with such an urgent human problem should be kicking around the Ministry for six months.

I was even more surprised when I read in The Guardian on 3rd December a letter from Professor Greve saying: I was puzzled to learn from Sir Keith Joseph's reply to a Parliamentary question that he is still awaiting the report on homelessness in Greater London. There must be some mistake. The research team delivered its final report to the Department of Health and Social Security by the beginning of June.… The title page says Homelessness in Greater London—Report of Study ' and the research team certainly did not regard it as a draft. He goes on: The revision on which we are now working is not a 'final version' of the report—that has already been submitted. Instead, we aim to produce a book based closely on the June report, but not identical in content. Several hon. Members have asked Questions, the Answers to which have confused the issue even more. I shall not weary the House with recitations, but there are certain questions which have to be asked. For instance, can copies of this report, of what I have to call the "June report", be made available to local authorities? Local authorities have got to deal on their doorsteps with this problem. Is there any information in this report which will give them some guidelines for their future planning and for their future financial arrangements? Is it to be kept a secret from them, even though many of them contributed usefully and helpfully to the work of the research team?

Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a suspicion that the report she calls the "June report" was referred to the various local government associations in London, and that there is a suspicion that it was even altered by those people, they having some views on it? I think the Minister ought to answer and say that the "June report" was referred to the local government associations, and say whether they were permitted to make amendments to it.

Mrs. Jeger

I thank my hon. Friend who has great knowledge of these matters. I am not, however, so much concerned with whether it went to the associations. What I want to know is whether it went to individual boroughs, and I hope that, whether it did or not, it may soon be made available. What about the Greater London Council and the housing associations which are trying to help in this difficult matter? Will it be possible for the Community Relations Commission to study the report from the point of view of the problems of homeless people from overseas? Will the Minister place any restrictions on the research team's publishing part of the report in the form of articles, or talking on the communication media about its discoveries?

It is extraordinary that in answer to questions the Minister should tell the House that his Ministry has been financing, out of public funds, a project to enable two professors to write a book That is a strange use of public money and is not the way in which these matters are usually dealt with, especially since it was understood, when the original announcement was made in the House, that the Minister was setting up this project because he urgently required information on which to take action.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) did not set up this academic exercise so that one more book could be added to the spate of literature on our housing problems. I must press the Minister to tell us what is going on. It is a much more important question than asking when a draft report becomes a report, or when a book is to be published; it is a question of the action that the Government are going to take to deal with the facts disclosed by the report. We want to know, tonight, what is happening about the growing number of homeless families in London. It bodes ill for those people when one considers the incompetent muddle that surrounded even the passing of the report from the Ministry to Ministry. We have to ask ourselves how any of the Ministers concerned will be able to deal with the reality of the problem if they cannot cope more efficiently with pieces of paper about it.

Much of the argument has concerned the difficult of definition. Nobody knows how many homeless families there are. That is one reason why I hoped to hear something about the definition of homeless families. When I am privileged to read the report I may find some answers in it.

When one of my hon. Friends asked a Question in the House on 11th December about the number of homeless families in the United Kingdom the Minister replied: My information relates to families in temporary accommodation maintained by local authorities. Reports from authorities in England and Wales … give a total of 4,680 families then in temporary accommodation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th December, 1969; Vol. 808, c. 205.] That does not answer the question which is: how many homeless families are there? It does not ask what accommodation is available. That answer is about as helpful, in answer to a question asking how many people have chest complaints, as saying that there are 50, because the local hospital has only 50 chest beds. The way in which the figures are produced means that a serious underestimate is made of the number of homeless, and there there is a gap in our knowledge of homelessness. We are told only the number of places in which homeless people can be put; we are not told how many are turned away.

We know that different authorities have different definitions and that in some areas only families with small children are counted, and elderly couples are turned away. We know that thousands of people are sleeping rough, putting up with temporary accommodation in hostels. The last survey estimated that every night about 11,000 in London were without homes of their own, sleeping either rough or in hostels.

Of course, the figures give no idea of the number of people who are living in absolutely intolerable conditions. I always think that if we took homelessness to mean living in uncertainty without one's own front door, not knowing how long one would be able to stay in a place, not being able to grow any roots, not enjoying the basic amenities, we would probably find that the figure was nearer one million. I do not think that I am exaggerating.

But if we take the first official definition, we find that there are about 7,600 families in the officially classified homeless list, which is probably already out of date. I do not know whether the Minister will have another report prepared, but my impression is that the figures are still rising. So this Christmas, there will be at least 2,300 families actually in welfare accommodation and no one is sure how many who would like to be in are outside.

There are many families who would be homeless tonight if our public health inspectors worked to rule in the boroughs that some of us represent. Hundreds of families are living in over-crowded and sub-standard conditions and would be homeless but for a sympathetic blind eye now and again being turned in their direction.

The evidence seems to me that the problem is getting worse in London. I have read accounts in the Press—I have to rely on the Press for my information—that some people say that it has trebled in ten years. Other reports say that it has doubled, and of course the difficulty in getting the right answer, especially to those of us who are not privy to the report, is that we know that it varies very much from borough to borough.

If this question is getting worse, we must ask why it is. One of the main reasons is that, in all the greater London boroughs, the stock of privately rented accommodation is dropping. In Inner London, between 1961 and 1966, it dropped by about 15 per cent. But the interesting thing is that in all those boroughs the supply of furnished accommodation went up.

This is part of the heart of the problem. I am sure that the Minister would not want to make party capital out of this. I will give him a point in advance: several of us tried to persuade the previous Minister to include furnished accommodation in the Rent Act, because we foresaw—I have been the chairman of a borough housing committee, as have several other hon. Members, and we know about these things—that as soon as the restrictions on unfurnished accommodation became more stringent than on furnished accommodation, landlords will put in the table and a chair. This is what has happened.

In one case in my constituency, landlords have collected public money for improvement grants and have been enabled to raise the rents because the facilities were improved. That is fair enough, but as each family move out of those publicly improved flats, a couple of pieces of furniture go in, and the rent rockets immediately.

This is having a very distressing and serious effect sociologically. We are finding in Inner London an ebbing away of family life, that, in order to pay these rents in Inner London, three or four girls live together and there are shared households and single working people.

I appreciate that they must live somewhere and I am certainly not casting doubt on my concern for this group of people. It means, however, that many families cannot live in Central London on one wage packet. This is certainly so in many of the constituencies that we represent.

The result is that one gets a completely distorted picture of the position. Many households are shared among single people who do not grow deep roots in the places where they live and who take up accommodation which was traditionally that of working people who needed to live in Central London to be near their work.

Many of these people are homeless because of what is euphemistically described as "redevolpment". Many hon. Members will be aware of cases where private developers have bought up rows of traditional working-class houses, have done them up—not always very well—and sold them. The local people are completely outbid in this market situation. Why are these companies going in for this sort of development? The answer is simple. It is profitable. They are certainly not doing it because their hearts are aching about the condition of old houses in the middle of London.

Another problem which will increase is that of rising rents causing increasing difficulties for many people. Sometimes families are tempted to take on property which they cannot afford, just for the sake of having somewhere to live. They get into difficulties and, in my experience, many of the present homeless families came from the furnished sector. It is this sector where we must look for the earliest and most direct improvement.

I was interested to read a Report—this was one Report which I was able to get—about London's housing needs up to 1974. It was called Report No. 3 of the Standing Working Party on London's Housing, a high-powered committee which worked hard on this difficult problem. It said: The Report confirms dramatically the view that there is an imperative continuing need to take every possible means to relieve the clament housing needs of London as a whole It went on: It is clear that the relative position of inner London has worsened in comparison with that of outer London and that, on present trends, the disparity will be still more marked in 1974, when inner London is likely to have a deficit of over 100,000 dwellings. To that figure must be added an estimated 150,000 dwellings which are either unfit or unlikely to be improved, making a total deficit of about one-quarter of a million. These are terrifying figures because if we are now watching the number of homeless families rise, we cannot but conclude that the trend will be upwards.

This working party estimated that to cope with the quite modest projected needs, we should require in the public sector about 28,000 new units a year. As far as I can discover, the London building programme is stuck at about 21,000, and many boroughs are worried about whether, under the new subsidy arrangements, they may have to cut back further. Certainly we shall need a fantastic increase to jump from 21,000 to the 28,000 which this working party thought was necessary.

Exactly who are we talking about when we refer to homeless families? Unfortunately, the phrase "homeless family" has become a sociological label. It gets stuck to people and all it does is help to put them in a row of statistics. Sometimes the label becomes so large that it hides their faces.

I recall when it was said that most people who could not provide homes for themselves must have something wrong with them or be a lot of feckless lay-abouts. Some time ago the then L.C.C. conducted a survey. It showed that the main characteristic of the homeless family was that it was just a family without a roof over its head. It showed that the majority of the homeless were decent, employed people with all sorts of difficulties, the main one being that they had nowhere to live. Another characteristic was that they earned rather less than average wages. Last year just over half the fathers in these families were earning under £20 a week. Goodness knows, that is little enough to provide housing in the jungle of Central London these days.

Sometimes, the family loses its home, even though it is not in arrears with the rent, because the owner falls down on his mortgage repayments. There have been several such cases in which, through absolutely no fault of their own, people have lost their homes. Some leave when they have no legal necessity to do so; because there is so much harassment and unpleasantness, they would rather just go than fight it out. One difficulty is that the law is always on the side of the landlord. We need urgent action to ensure that tenants know their rights, and not only know them but are supported in getting them. It is not enough just to tell a person that he cannot be thrown out.

It is estimated that about 7 per cent. of homelessness in London nowadays is happening to families because of their attempts to use the legal provisions which are meant to protect them. After they have been to the rent tribunal, or to see the rent officer, the harassment and the difficulties start. So it would be quite irresponsible—I am sure that no hon. Member would suggest it—to follow the line that homelessness is the result of some aberration, some sort of character defect.

Some of these families need a great deal of welfare and social help. But often those needs arise because of the insecurity of their housing; they are not the cause of the difficulty, but the result. We need to be more tolerant about these things because many well-off and well-housed people can get away with all sorts of inadequate habits and with less than conventional behaviour—they can drink too much, or have noisy children—without being labelled welfare cases or problem families. But if a family loses its home, all these factors attract attention, and it is too easily assumed, almost automatically assumed, that they have personal and social problems other than housing.

I shall be interested to know, if we are ever to hear anything about Professor Greve's study, whether he confirms the thesis which the L.C.C. study established some years ago.

I ask again, who are these people? They are people who cannot find a secure home at rents which can be paid out of average and below-average wages. Goodness knows what they are supposed to do as rents go even higher. Another characteristic is that they have children. Sometimes there are other problems—illness, recent arrival in this country and so on—but the two basic factors are having children and earning less than the average wage.

It is what happens to the children that worries me most. Inner London has the highest admission rate in the country for the taking of children into care. I know that there are all sorts of reasons for that, but what worries me is that, between 1965 and 1969, the total number of children taken into care was practically constant, whereas the number admitted due to the homelessness of their parents nearly doubled. So this is not a question of parental neglect, delinquency or any of that group of causes which can lead to children being taken into care.

I emphasise again that the number of children who had to be parted from their parents and go into residential accommodation because of homelessness doubled between 1965 and 1969. I regard that as a shocking indictment of the present state of affairs. What is more, half of those children had to stay away from their parents for more than a year, and some for much longer.

What are we building up in personal strains and psychological difficulties within those families?

Mr. Ronald Brown

Is my hon. Friend aware that the London Borough of Hackney, with its Tory majority, attempted last year to reduce the pocket money of such children by 6d. a week, to save money?

Mrs. Jeger

There are mean attempts made to save money in that sort of way. At the same time, according to the last figure which I was able to obtain, the average cost of keeping a child in care was £8 6s. a week. I am sure that it is higher in London, and now, with the rate at which inflation is going and the cost of living is rising, it will become higher still. This is what makes me so angry about the way housing finance is dealt with by Ministers, of either party. They go on about the money side of it, but no one seems to take into account the amount of money needed to keep hundreds of children in care at over £8 a week each. I take the example of just one family with four children in care. What has happened to our economics, if not to our goodheartedness, if we will spend £30 a week to keep four children away from their parents? I never understand why we cannot spend the £30 on housing them. We could house more than one family for £30 a week.

There is a serious effect on the family caused by the break-up and distress inevitable in these circumstances, often leading to permanent defects and psychological trauma which makes it a most sensitive and urgent problem.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

In her figures, has the hon. Lady the proportion of children who went into care because of the inadequacy of the parents? She will realise that there are many cases in which it is necessary for the protection of the children that they be taken into care. In the case of homelessness, will it not often be possible for the children to stay with the mother?

Mrs. Jeger

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I took my figures from the Home Office Report, which attaches labels, so to speak, to the various categories. There is a category marked, "Taken into care because family homeless". There are other categories, "Parents incompetent", "Mother ill", and so on. I have used the Department's own nomenclature, and for the country as a whole, 2,192 children are reported by the Home Office as in care for homelessness. It would hardly be fair of me to ask the Home Office whether it really meant that. I am sure that these children are not taken into care if it can be avoided. Every child officer I know tries to avoid it, and, if it be possible for the children to stay with their mother, the children's officer is only too glad to arrange it.

I come to the administrative side. This whole sad problem does not belong with the Department of Health and Social Security. I am glad that a Minister from the Department of the Environment—as we have to call it now—is here to answer the debate tonight. This is where the problem belongs. If these people have difficulties of health and welfare, so have the well-housed people. Let them be looked after, as are other citizens, through the social services.

The history is interesting. Responsibility for homeless families went first, under the National Assistance Act, to the local authorities. I well remember that when this arrangement was made it was meant to cover sudden distress, sudden homelessness due, perhaps, to fire or flood of some others such immediate emergency. The provisions of that Act were never meant to cope with an in-built housing problem. That is why the whole thing has gone wrong. Homelessness is a built-in permanent aspect of London life: it is not a welfare problem.

It was a great pity—and, again, I give the Government a point here—that the previous Government when reorganising local authority social services did not take the opportunity to transfer the problem of homeless families from the welfare department to the housing department. The result is confusion between work at local and at Ministerial level. The health and social security side is finally responsible, but it is the housing Minister who has to build the houses which are what these people need.

I am strengthened in my view because this was a recommendation in the Seebohm Report, and that is why I was the more unhappy that that recommendation was not adopted. It is worth recalling that the Report stated: The full range of housing responsibilities should be placed upon housing departments. To relieve them of responsibility for dependent or unreliable tenants would discourage them from looking at the housing needs of their area as a whole and create or reinforce degrading stigmas and social distinctions. We recommend that housing departments should, as a few already do, asume responsibility for providing accommodation for homeless families. I know that it is difficult to talk about changing these arrangements so soon after local authorities have had to try to absorb the changes brought about by recent legislation, but the point should be looked at again.

Apart from the rather technical points in the report, what Government plans are there for helping local authorities to deal with this problem? In the capital city of our rich and talented country we can no longer accept our inability to put roofs over the heads of these people. No strange and rare genius is needed—no undiscovered processes of science. It is a problem of priorities, or social values, of public concern and of Government action.

Here, again, it is only fair to be asked what action we would take. First, I would transfer to the housing departments overall responsibility. We need massive capital investment in inner London. It is no use expecting boroughs, even with existing Government help, to deal with this problem, especially as some boroughs have problems very much worse than others. We must do what was promised in the Labour Party election address—bring furnished accommodation into equal control with unfurnished accommodation. I should like to see a big cut-back in so-called private redevelopment, because that does not contribute at all to the housing needs of the people with the most urgent problems. That sort of redevelopment merely provides profit for those who choose to invest in that way.

Lastly, I would severely cut back on office building in London. I am sad to see that an increase is to be allowed. As the Member of Parliament who is said to be the Member for Centre Point, I believe that this outrageous obscenity in my constituency is a reproach to anyone who has anything to do with it.

We have heard a lot of talk this week about inflation and the need for more productivity to combat inflation. I should like to know what the productivity norm is of the speculators who erected that hideous block and who can sit back and look at it—I am not sure that they even bother to look at it; they just wait while it becomes worth more and more money the longer it remains empty. This is an outrage when we are thinking in terms of the need for land, sites and building in the middle of our cities. I mention this example because it is one of the uglier ones.

Mr. Ronald Brown

As my hon. Friend and I have adjoining constituencies, she will no doubt be aware that she can pick up 50,000 ft. super of empty office space any time she likes in my constituency.

Mrs. Jeger

I hope that the Minister responsible will make that fact known. It is clear from the Press that there seems to be no more profitable investment at the moment than an empty office. I wonder what that does to the nation's productivity and what part it plays in our fight against inflation.

Mr. Brown

The Barbican is coming along.

Mrs. Jeger

It is coming along nicely. I believe that there would be public support for speedy and imaginative action. It will take a lot of money, but it will not be any more expensive in the end than trying to deal with all the casualties that we are creating by the present policy.

For these reasons I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that this intractable problem—I do not pretend that anyone seems to have found the answer to it yet—will receive the close and urgent attention that it merits.

9.47 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

The speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) was very sincerely motivated. It may be a record that present in the Chamber tonight are all three Members for the borough of Camden. There are certainly political divisions between us, but at least there is no question but that we are all extremely interested in the problem of the homeless in inner London.

The major problem which has faced anyone who has had anything to do with any form of public service in London since the war is that as fast as an old derelict or decaying site is developed the more difficult it is to rehouse people, because the same number of people as were displaced cannot be got back into the cleared site.

Further, in the broader sense the risk is run of destroying communities. In the general context of providing a roof over people's heads that is perhaps less important, but I am not certain that any of us would like to see throughout London vast gleaming, new, massive blocks of flats in which it was difficult for people to develop any feeling of security or of belonging to a community.

The hon. Lady mentioned the numbers of children in care in Inner London. This problem is aggravated by the fact that the Inner London boroughs have within their boundaries the major railway termini. The borough of Camden has within its boundaries King's Cross, St. Pancras and Euston. It is a fact of life that homeless families, whether or not they have children, who come to London seeking their fortunes, seeking different and better lives, land up at one of those railway stations and after a very short period qualify to be rehoused by the local authority's welfare department. They get temporary accommodation and then qualify for permanent accommodation. This difficulty is not experienced by Outer London boroughs because they do not have the main railway stations.

The hon. Lady said that one reason for the rise in the number of homeless families was that many of them could not afford high rents on their low incomes. There is a substantial element of truth in this, but two factors need to be examined. A substantial number of local authorities offer good rent rebates. The borough of Camden under its progressive Conservative council is pioneering. It has decided that nobody shall spend more than one-quarter of his income on rates and rent combined.

There is an urgent need for the legislation which was promised by the Secretary of State to provide for rent rebates in the private sector. The Milner Holland Report showed conclusively that incomes in the private sector are lower than they are in the sector covered by local authority housing, and that should never be forgotten.

The new family income supplements will be a substantial help to some families. Since 1963, under the Children and Young Persons Act, which was introduced by a distinguished Minister, Henry Brooke, local authorities are empowered to spend substantial sums of money on keeping families together, to save them from becoming homeless and the children going into care. I wish that more local authorities would do as much as Camden has done under both parties since it became a children's authority. It is far better to spend money on keeping families together than on keeping children in care.

No one will deny that there is not a short-term solution. What is the longterm solution? The G.L.C.'s idea of Thamesmead, started by one party and continued by another, is a step in the right direction. It may be that London needs a new town. It is no good winkling out the odd 5 acres in Harrow, 5 acres in Croydon; we need to look for a wider solution.

I was sorry to hear the hon. Lady make one or two partisan references in a speech which otherwise commended itself to both sides of the House. She was critical of private development. To condemn private development merely because it is for profit shows a closed mind. After all, it is out of the taxation of those profits that the country is run—not on the losses of some of the nationalised industries. To talk about private development not being allowed to continue is just as much a sign of a closed mind as to say that there should be only municipal development. The key is mixed development, and there was a belated conversion to this view by the last Labour Chairman of the Housing Committee of the Greater London Council.

The hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South mentioned Centre Point. It is in her constituency. It was in my borough when I was leader of the council. I should be ruled out of order or would be straying close to the bounds of order if I were to say that the sooner full rates are levied on this sort of property the better, so I will not run the risk of doing so.

As the hon. Lady rightly said, we are not dealing with statistics. We are not apportioning blame or trying to seek credit for any ideas we put forward. We must constantly realise that we are dealing with human beings. It would have been much easier had both parties gone the whole hog on the Seebohm Report and put all the responsibility on the boroughs in inner London for the full range of services instead of taking responsibility for some of the health services from the boroughs and splitting the functions of the housing department. This was not necessarily a good thing.

It is fortunate that the business of the House concluded slightly more speedily than was anticipated. The problems of inner London are perhaps not realised to the extent that they should be. It is true that they are shared in large measure by two or three other major cities, but public attention focuses on inner London. I desperately hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to set out some guidelines to what we may look for in Greater London in the next four years.

9.58 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Paul Channon)

I hope that the House will forgive me if I speak now. I shall try to give way to hon. Members if I have time. Other hon. Members may have the opportunity of speaking later. However, the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) spoke for 35 minutes and I think I am entitled to a little time to reply.

Mrs. Jeger

May I in explanation point out that during the debate on the Bill earlier some hon. Members spoke for even longer, otherwise we should have had much more time for this important debate.

Mr. Channon

I agree. We have waited some time for this debate which is important to hon. Members on both sides of the House. It was only right that the hon. Lady should have raised this very important subject, and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg) had the opportunity to intervene.

I shall have some things to say which may be controversial, but I hone that I can begin by being wholly non-controversial. The problem of homelessness is by far the most distressing aspect of the housing problem wherever it occurs. Although we may disagree about the methods needed to cure homelessness, or alleviate it—because it is a very difficult problem to cure—hon. Members on both sides of the House are rightly concerned to ensure that everything possible is done to relieve the distress and hardship suffered by families who have lost their homes.

It is appropriate that the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South should have raised this subject just before Christmas, because in a way the sympathy which we all feel for homeless families is perhaps heightened at this time. But this is not a problem which is over after Christmas. It is with us all the year round, and it is not sufficient for us to remember it at only particular times of the year. Apart from the homeless families in London, thousands of other families in the conurbations—and I entirely accept what the hon. Lady said—are living in completely inadequate and sub-standard housing.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Channon

I entirely accept what the hon. Lady said about the ghastly conditions of housing in London. Hon. Members are rightly concerned that the problem should continue to be aired, and I am sure that it will continue to be aired while such conditions exist. This is an appalling problem and no one would deny it. It is an appalling problem for any incoming Government to face. I accept the figures she gave of 100,000 crude shortage and 150,000 inadequate houses.

Mr. Arthur Latham (Paddington, North)

The hon. Gentleman says that he is being non-controversial. I have listened carefully to him and I do not want to let pass his reference to homelessness being the worst aspect of the housing problem. Before he leaves that point, I invite him to answer my hon. Friend's question about the definition of homelessness. I can take him to many places which could technically be called "homes" in my constituency, but whose occupants would be better off without such roofs over their heads. I ask him whether he does not agree that there is a twin problem—that of not merely providing additional accommodation but of launching a concerted attack on some of the Rachman-type landlords who are beginning to break cover in the London area.

Mr. Channon

I entirely accept that the present definition of homelessness is unsatisfactory. As the hon. Gentleman knows, on numerous occasions during the General Election campaign, my right hon. Friend said that he thought the present definition was unsatisfactory. It is difficult to find a better definition but it is a matter we shall have to go on examining. When I said that homelessness is the worst aspect of the housing problem, I meant it in the wider aspects, which of course include the problem to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred.

I hope I shall continue to be non-controversial, at least for a few more minutes. I must first take the opportunity to set out the facts about the Greve Report on homelessness in London. I say to the House, and I shall substantiate it, that there has been a scurrilous and irresponsible campaign by those who should know better, and by some who did know better, about the alleged suppression of the report. I will give the facts.

The Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at Birmingham University was formally asked to undertake a study of homelessness in London, to appoint Professor Greve, of Southampton University, as Director of Research, and to form a team mainly by diverting research staff from Centre projects sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Security. For this, the Centre is to be paid at least £13,000. Professor Greve was thus a consultant to the Centre.

If this appears to be a strange arrangement, as the hon. Lady says that it is, I remind her that it was not made by me or by my right hon. Friend. She should address her comment to the right hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) who made the arrangement. Under the terms of the agreement made by the right hon. Gentleman when he was Secretary of State, it is up to the Centre to publish. The Government have neither the right nor the power to publish. We are bound by the terms of the agreement to let the Centre publish. I have the agreement here if any hon. Member wishes to refute what I am saying. The agreement was made by the last Government for reasons which no doubt at the time seemed sound to them.

The report was asked for by October, 1969, but for various reasons for which I cannot be blamed, it could not be ready by then. The date for the first and final draft was first expected to be the end of February, with the object of securing publication of the report by the end of June, 1970. In fact, the draft of the report was not received until June, 1970.

The research staff agreed—and I emphasise that it is the research staff's report under the agreement—that the report should be sent in strict confidence—because it is for the staff to publish—to the Departments concerned with the problem, the Greater London Council and the London Boroughs Association for comment. The authors—and here I take up the point made by the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown)—would be completely free to take account of any comments made, or utterly to ignore them, and I must emphasise that in August of this year some eleven pages of comments were sent to Professor Greve. For example, in the original draft provided by Professor Greve he was unable to use the up-to-date figures in the recent report of the Standing Working Party on London Housing, to which the hon. Lady referred, and therefore a great many of his figures were out of date.

I understand that a complete revision of the document sent in June will be ready by mid-January. I also understand that the delay in providing a revised document is due to lack of time, so I am told. Professor Greve and his colleagues are presumably taking account of these revised figures in preparing their amended version of the report and of the book which, I understand, is to be published in the new year. My right hon. Friend has asked Professor Greve and Professor Cullingworth to publish as quickly as possible, and I hope that the revised version will come to us next month and be published shortly after.

Mrs. Jeger

I should like the hon. Gentleman to make this totally clear. Are we not talking about two things? Is there not a report which is within the Ministry on the one hand and, on the other hand, a book to be published? Is he saying that the agreement with the Centre for Urban Studies prevents the report that was delivered in June from being passed down to local authorities, or published in any way, or even put in the Library of the House of Commons?

Mr. Channon

The agreement is perfectly clear: it is for the research team, the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, to publish the report. If the hon. Lady wishes to see a copy, she should ask Professor Cullingworth or Professor Greve, for it is entirely for them to publish. We are only too anxious for the report to be published at the earliest possible date.

It is clear that there has been no intention whatever on the part of the Government to try to suppress this report. Indeed, we are as anxious as anybody to have up-to-date facts to help us in taking action. I therefore regret very much that, without adequately checking their facts, some observers are alleging that the Government are suppressing this report.

It is particularly sad, to me at any rate, that the Director of Shelter, which has done so much to help to alleviate housing misery, and whose organisation has done a job which is rightly praised both inside and outside the House, in his Christmas magazine and in other articles should have repeated allegations which are both irresponsible and completely and utterly untrue. I take this opportunity tonight from this Box to refute those allegations.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

I do not in any way wish to question what the hon. Gentleman is now saying, because, like many others, I have been awaiting a clear explanation of exactly what has transpired. It would be useful, and I do not say this in any unpleasant manner, if the hon. Gentleman made the point to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services that a full explanation along these lines would have been helpful at a much earlier date, for it would have been easier for many of us to understand what was going on. Some of our own comments on the problem, made outside the Chamber, might have been less ironic.

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to comment on that suggestion, but I am grateful to him for the tone in which he is taking what I am saying. I sincerely assure him that there is nothing in my very short period in Government which has annoyed me more than to be attacked for something in which there is not a single grain of truth. Governments of all kinds are liable to be attacked for their housing policies. We may be right or wrong, and I welcome honest attacks and honest controversy about matters of great public importance. The hon. Lady has given us an example of an important debate on a topic of great public importance. What wounds me is when attacks are made which have no basis of truth.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Having regard to the seriousness of the issues and the leakages which have gone on, and knowing as we do that his Department is aware of what would appear to be prima facie a very serious case, is he aware that it appears to the outside person that his Department has not been aware of the importance of the subject!

Mr. Channon

I am coming to that. What is more important than who is right or wrong about the publication of this is what we are going to do about it.

That we are willing to publish the facts and to act on them is clearly illustrated by the fact that we published the report on London's housing needs up to 1974 prepared by the Standing Working Party on London Housing. If the hon. Lady looks at that document she will see that it was prepared in February, 1970. If I were to take the same line as some of those criticising us I would say that the last Government held that up because they did not want to publish it before the General Election. I do not take that line. I accept that the last Government acted in complete faith about the report and I hope that hon. Members will accept that we did likewise with this one.

As the hon. Lady points out, the problem in London's housing is utterly desperate. There is a shortage of about 100,000 in inner London with a further 150,000 unfit or unlikely to be improved by the year 1974. Within four weeks of coming into power we published this report which gives a much more up-to-date picture of the London housing situation than the figures I have seen in the draft Greve Report. We have not stood still on this. Despite the fact that we knew that the draft was likely to be substantially revised, our Departments have been preparing as far as they can for action on the recommendations in the draft report on the assumption that many would stand at the end of the day.

It would be wrong for me, although I am tempted to do so, to comment in detail on the Greve Report until I have seen the final version. It is clear that the report is not a blueprint for a quick and easy solution to the problem of homelessness. It is however a most useful contribution which the Government intend to discuss shortly with the authorities concerned, as soon as the revised version is received. We intend to have meaningful talks with all the interested parties. This deals with the point raised by the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury.

Meanwhile the Government are continuing to press local authorities to provide more and better welfare accommodation to meet the immediate needs of families.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

Now that the hon. Gentleman is turning to the question of persuasion of local authorities, may I point out the situation in my constituency, with which he is no doubt familiar. There, as he well knows, the Conservatives cut the housing programme from 2,000 to 600. What representations is he making about that situation? Has he indicted that local authority as he ought to have done?

Mr. Channon

What I would like to do, if the House will allow me, is to deal in some detail with the situation of London's housing. I will not shirk the point raised by the hon. Member. We are pressing for more and better welfare accommodation to meet the immediate needs of families. We have made it clear that no financial bar will be raised to acceptable proposals for providing such accommodation. The House may like to know that last year loan sanction amounting to £244,877 was given to London boroughs to provide temporary accommodation. So far this year £312,085 has been given. I cannot do the percentages in my head but it is a substantial increase this year.

Generally, London authorities are responding well in a very difficult situation and we are continuing to give advice and to prompt them where necessary. We intend, however, to have further general discussions with the London authorities about some of the difficulties and the problems which the Greve Report has indicated.

To turn to the wider question, because homelessness is only part of the London housing problem as a whole, it is not enough simply to provide welfare accommodation on a temporary basis for homeless families. The aim must be to resettle them in permanent homes as quickly as possible. At the same time, we must do all we can to relieve the urgent needs of those living in overcrowded conditions and in unsatisfactory and substandard housing. This means that the housing drive in London must be maintained.

Again, the Government are taking action. One of the first things that we did was to publish a report. The hon. Lady will have seen the circular letter which went out with it from my right hon. Friend the then Minister, now Secretary of State, asking housing authorities to give the report serious consideration, to pursue a vigorous building programme, to bear in mind the need for the outer areas of London to help the inner areas, to make the greatest posssible use of improvement grants and to push ahead with housing advisory services to the public.

In October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Construction met representatives of the Greater London Council and the London Boroughs Association. That meeting agreed that Outer London must help Inner London by providing for the rehousing of Londoners from the centre in outer districts, that there should be a big improvement campaign and that a high level of local authority building must be maintained.

That does not mean—I hope that no side of the House believes it to mean—that local authority building is the only way of helping. We are actively looking for ways to increase the contribution of private enterprise in London and, above all, of housing associations in London. We had an interesting debate on this in the House only a few days ago. My right hon. Friend has asked the Standing Working Party on London Housing to consider these aspects of private housing and housing associations in addition to the local authorities' own programmes.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Southall)

We are perfectly aware that there are many ideas on housing, including local authority housing, but is it not the fact that under the previous Government many local authorities under Tory control deliberately, without regard to the totality of the problem, stood back their local housing programmes?

Mr. Clinton Davis

Like Hackney.

Mr. Bidwell

Like Ealing.

Mr. Channon

If the hon. Member wishes to introduce that note into the debate, I shall answer him in due course in my speech. I utterly repudiate what he is saying.

We are, of course, urging inner London itself to build wherever possible in its own areas and we are instituting a fresh search for surplus and other land throughout London which might be used for housing. Despite all this, Outer London must continue to help Inner London.

I entirely accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead said, that another important direction in which we can have help for London is in a vigorous new towns programme and sensible overspill arrangements. There is, however, no point in providing new towns where people do not have jobs and where they are not prepared to go. It is important that we should pursue a policy that will provide both opportunities for employment and houses outside London in overspill and new town schemes.

One of the things that disturbs me is to read occasionally in overspill schemes of numbers of empty houses. That seems to me to show that in many cases this whole situation needs radical review.

Mr. Selwyn Gummer (Lewisham, West)


Mr. Speaker

Order. Interventions prolong speeches and I know that the Minister wants other hon. Members to speak in what was supposed to be a half-hour debate.

Mr. Gummer

Does not my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important parts of the new towns policy must be to let those who might go to new towns know where they are and where the opportunities are? Many people in my constituency would go to a new town if it were not so difficult to find out where the jobs and homes are.

Mr. Channon

I entirely agree. I believe that the provision of housing aid centres, which, again, we shall encourage as far as possible, will make an important effect upon that. Far too little is known about these schemes. Many local authorities are enterprising in getting them known, but there are some which are not. I entirely accept that more publicity is required for new towns and overspill schemes and about where there are empty houses. Indeed, I know of boroughs which have got to work with a new town or an overspill development and a number of people have been persuaded to go to a new town and have not regretted it.

In November my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Construction wrote to each of the London boroughs emphasising the need for this high level of authority building saying that officers of the Department would be discussing their problems with the borough councils. After this. I am only too anxious to meet any London authority which wishes to discuss its problem with me, and I hope very much many of them will. Initial meetings with London boroughs are taking place at the present time.

I must point out to the hon. Member for Southall, as I said to his hon. Friend at Question Time the other day, that hon. Members on the opposite side of the House seem often to give the impression that as though by the wave of some magic wand the housing problem in London started on 19th June, 1970. It is a fact that in the last year of Labour Government, from whom we inherited the problem, after five years we had fewer houses started in London than there were in 1964.

Mr. Latham

Mr. Speaker, may I register protest at the fact that we have had one speech from one back bencher from the Government side, and that the Minister is now making a very lengthy reply, and replying to points which have not been raised in the debate, though my hon. Friend was very careful to avoid partisan points, and emphasised that fact—and the Minister complimented her on having done that? Yet he is replying to points which he said were raised at Question time on a previous occasion. I think that this is something of a farce in an Adjournment debate, that a Minister should choose to intervene when he did, and prevent other hon. Members from making contributions.

Mr. Speaker

It is an interesting point, but it is not a point of order. It is a point of argument. The hon. Member does not like what the Minister says.

Mr. Channon

He will like it a good deal less in a few moments' time I expect, but hon. Members opposite have attacked us and implied that the London housing problem started in June of this year—

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that hon. Members will not keep on intervening, because many hon. Members want to speak in this debate, if the Minister will let them.

Mr. Channon

The hon. Lady spoke for 35 minutes—

Mr. Latham

Then reply to what she said.

Mr. Channon

I know the hon. Member does not like what I am saying, but surely I am entitled, as I was trying to do, to reply to her argument about the London housing problem.

Mr. Ronald Brown

I am interested in what the Minister is saying, but he must realise that we are not suggesting or complaining that the housing problem started in June this year. We have talked about 1968 and how the situation has been exacerbated, and I hope that he will address himself to that point.

Mr. Speaker

That is a point of argument.

Mr. Channon

Yes, I will certainly try to deal with this point if I am allowed to continue with my speech. I was saying that we had inherited a situation which the previous Government had allowed to develop, and in the last year of the Labour Government, after five years in power, they started fewer houses both in London and the country as a whole than in 1964.

One other thing the Government have done is—and I am sure the hon. Lady will be pleased to hear it—is that we are spending £250,000 this year on a massive publicity campaign to inform people about the grants for improving their houses. It is particularly important in London if we are to make the best use of our housing stock and to avoid the growing problem of obsolescence in London in the 'seventies and 'eighties. We shall have a massive campaign in London and it will certainly be launched next year. Housing associations also have a part to play here as an additional effort to the work which local authorities should undertake in the improvement schemes. [Interruption.] Peripheral it may be, but it is improvement.

The hon. Lady talked about tenants' rights and the harassment of tenants. On that very point, we had a debate in the House a short time ago. She knows that the Francis Committee is sitting, and we very much hope to receive its report very soon, and I can certainly assure her and the House that we shall study it with care.

One of the earliest things my right hon. Friend did when he took office was to increase by a quite considerable sum the amount spent on advertising to try to help tenants to know what their rights are, and no doubt hon. Members have seen the advertisements in the newspapers. We are hoping to be able to include in rent books statutory obligations that every tenant shall have his rights whether he is in a local authority dwelling or a private dwelling.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Hitchen)

Can the Minister say something about the increasing harassment of tenants trying to carry out their rights, especially in the operation of a fair rents policy? It would be a great help if the Minister could say something about the backing that the Government will give to the carrying out of existing laws which in some cases are upsetting landlords.

Mr. Channon

I am not sure that I understand the hon. Lady's point. The law is quite clear. The duty is on local authorities to prosecute. The Francis Committee is considering that aspect, and if there are improvements to be made we shall be only too anxious to make them. We have no wish to see any tenant harassed by his landlord. It is a serious problem in a limited number of areas.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

The Minister has referred on three occasions to different things which he thought were the first things that his Government did to improve the housing situation. Does he recall that one of the first things he did was to issue, 11 days after the Election, a circular encouraging local authorities to sell council accommodation? Has he noticed that in the Borough of Islington the attempt to give effect to that policy has resulted in a disastrous situation and that the scheme has been withdrawn? Will he relate that policy to the policy of encouraging Outer London boroughs to assist inner London boroughs? How can they do so if London boroughs are selling off large parts of their council accommodation stock, as some are?

Mr. Channon

I do not accept what the hon. Member says about that. It is a very important point, and I wish that I had more time to develop it. The fallacy in the argument of many hon. Members opposite is that it is impossible to generalise; the situation varies from one part of the country to another. Because a council house is sold, it does not follow that the housing problem is made worse. The tenant in the house in almost every case is going to stay there as long as he lives, and the sale has no positive or negative effect on the problem. But this policy enables people to buy the houses in which many of them have lived for years.

On the question of the sale of council houses I should point out that the new circular, which was one of the first things—

Mrs. Jeger

On a point of order. We must asked your protection, Mr. Speaker. I had this Adjournment debate. It was nothing to do with the sale of council houses. If one hon. Member is out of order, I do not see why the Minister should use the rest of the time in this way.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Lady must listen to the answer.

Mr. Channon

I am only answering the question that was raised. If the hon. Lady does not like it, I cannot help it. Hon. Member complain that I am speaking for too long. I have had to deal with about 25 interventions, all but one from hon. Members opposite. I could not have been fairer. Perhaps I should not have given way to any of the interventions. Then I would have finished earlier.

Mr. Latham

The hon. Member should read the report of the debate and take action on the points raised.

Mr. Channon

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will read it. Naturally there will be controversy in connection with what any Government do in housing. What we want to do, above all, is to have a fair rental policy in both the private and public sector, with rebates for tenants in the private sector—rebates for the poorest people. That will make a great contribution.

Mr. Freeson

The point that the hon. Gentleman is making has nothing to do with building more new homes to house the homeless; it has to do with housing the homeless. What action does he propose to take about local authorities in London which, since 1968—not June, 1970—have been drastically cutting back on their housing programmes under Conservative control? That is what London wants to know. What action will the Minister take to get Tory local authorities to increase their house-building programmes? We want no bromides; we want some action, which has been needed ever since 1968.

Mr. Channon

Needless to say, the hon. Member is sensitive about the record of the Labour Government, who broke every pledge in housing. They did not build the houses; they clamped down on mortgage plans; the number of homeless has risen—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is too much noise from the Opposition Front Bench.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.