HC Deb 29 June 1971 vol 820 cc353-64

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

10.53 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

Some few weeks ago, Christian Action and an organisation called the Cyrenians produced a booklet and a set of principles, as it were, which have become known amongst those who have shown interest in this subject as "The Dossers' Charter". The charter and the subject matter of this debate are about people— people of no fixed abode, people with problems, people who, for various reasons, in the main because they are single or unattached, have slipped through much of the net of the welfare provisions that we like to believe embrace most people with problems or who are in difficulties.

Christian Action approached me and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cardle)—who is to share the debate with me, and therefore I shall keep my remarks short so that he can put his point of view. The problem I want to highlight is mainly that of the single but unattached people who come under the category of what is generally known as "of no fixed abode".

These are usually people who are classified as homeless, even if they are living somewhere temporarily. Everyone is aware that local authorities and those concerned with housing tend to concentrate on homeless families and not so much on the individual. We are all aware of the difficulties encountered when we try to plead the troubles of someone who is not a pensioner but who is in need of accommodation.

There are those who have chosen to have no fixed abode—and I am not concerned for the moment with them. That is their choice and as long as they do not interfere with anyone else, I do not want to make an issue of them. The people about whom Christian Action is concerned, and the people mentioned in the booklet, are those who have not chosen to live without any fixed abode but whom society has in some way or other forced to live in this way.

There is the further complication that many of these people are not attractive and do not arouse our sympathy and compassion in the same way as perhaps the homeless family or the child in need of care and protection. The fact that they are homeless is often because they have severe problems. They may be dependent on drugs or they may be alcoholics—and alcoholics form a large proportion of the group about whom I am talking. They may be people who were discharged from mental hospitals and who are unable to cope adequately on their own and who drift around society. This problem is greater in our large cities because these people tend to come to them thinking that they will find some comfort there.

There are these categories of people who are not particularly lovable, who do not arouse our compassion and yet who are in the greatest need of support and help from the community and social services. A great deal is done to give supporting help to those in these categories. Even when we have these services and voluntary groups it is inevitable that some will slip through the net, and it is with these that I am concerned.

To give one example, which was mentioned recently in the national Press, there was one young woman who had spent a year in a mental hospital. She had nowhere to go and had severe problems. She was given the addresses of two hostels, but neither would give her accommodation because of her mental illness. They felt that she would be a problem for them. She wandered around for some time until she was given hospitality by Christian Action, which is one of the organisations that tries in a voluntary way to make provision for such people. I know that there are many cases where care has been given and people have been followed through, but there are also instances when this does not happen and it is these which should concern us all. The trouble is that we talk in overall terms and tend to miss such people. Not many seem to care what happens to them.

Another complication is that even where such people are capable of maintaining themselves there is a tremendous reduction in the amount of available accommodation in terms of lodging houses. The number is decreasing in our large cities where they tend to congregate. Even if they can look after themselves, many avenues are closed to them and they tend to drift, taking up unsatisfactory accommodation. To complicate this, the fact that they are unable to find accommodation and are wandering accentuates the problem of giving them support. This is particularly true of alcoholics. It is also true of ex-prisoners. The support available to them is nothing like sufficient, and they tend to be thrown back into the situation which led them to prison. They are rootless, homeless and tend to wander around and inevitably they finish up in trouble.

I ask the Minister to set up an inquiry into the size and nature of this problem. We tend to put these people under one heading, whereas there are various groupings of them. We have tended to look at them as people with no fixed abode and have not broken them up into different categories. We need a survey to find out the nature of the problem and to see how these people can be helped. We need something for which many of us have argued for a long time, and that is the extension of housing provision by local authorities for these people, because I cannot see them getting assistance elsewhere. We must try to help the voluntary bodies which are coping with this problem so that we may know more about the nature of what they are trying to do and bring about much more coordination with Government Departments. I make the plea that we should try to find out in much greater detail why these people are homeless, because they do not all start from the same starting point. They arrive at it from very different backgrounds.

I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to my request for greater cor-ordination between his Department and other Departments which are dealing with this problem. With greater co-ordination between Government Departments, local authorities and voluntary bodies, we might be able to establish how we can help these people and make provision for them.

We need far more follow-ups to find out what happens to people who are discharged from prison and mental hospitals. I understand from Christian Action and others that there are about 50,000 people in Greater London alone who are living in what is supposed to be temporary accommodation but which has become permanent accommodation because there is no other place to which they can go. The tragedy is that they can include 16-year-old boys or girls. Many of these people are men who have left home and have fallen into undesirable company. They can include old lags who spend only a few weeks there and presumably again go to prison. These are examples of the two extremes for which we must provide. Many of these people are not attractive personalities and perhaps they should not be given top priority, but they are one of our top priorities in the social services, not only for their own sake, but because of the problems they cause and the difficulties and cost they cause society.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

I thank the hon. Lady the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) for allowing me a few minutes to speak on this important subject and to put my case as I see it to the Minister.

With the hon. Lady, I met a deputation in the House from what could be called "the dossers" and from the various groups attached to them, such as Christian Action and the Cyrenians. I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Lady presented her Motion, and I hope that in his reply, and in taking action thereafter, the Minister will note that feeling on this subject is not confined to one side of the House. I hope that he will give a satisfactory answer in respect of these unfortunate people.

Perhaps he will recall that the policy of giving greater help and more effective priority to those in greatest need was one of the primary themes on which the Conservative Party fought the last election. In the problems of those about whom we are talking today there lies an important gap in our modern social provision—a gap which anyone who endorses the philosophy of our election manifesto should now be seeking to fill.

Having said that, however, it must at once be said that like so many of the persistent residual problems in what we have become accustomed to think of as an affluent society, it is not a problem to which there is any single, easy, clear-cut solution. The number of people involved is surprisingly large. Estimates are inevitably imprecise and somewhat varied, but I think it would be generally accepted that there are now at least 30,000 "dossiers" in Britain today, and probably as many as 40,000. It is a sad and depressing—indeed, perhaps even alarming—commentary on the casualty rate of a civilised and prosperous industrial country. In this debate they are described as the "unattached homeless". It is a valid and accurate description in that it singles out what is in effect the symptom of their problems rather than the problems themselves.

It would perhaps be a better guide to action if we acknowledged that we are, in fact, talking about a whole range of inadequate people who, for one reason or another, simply cannot cope in a normal society. They include alcoholics and people who are mentally ill, discharged prisoners, drug addicts, men who have fallen on hard times and have been unable to pull themselves up again, and an increasing number of roofless young people. It is in this immense variation of personal circumstance and background, as well as in the fact of homeless-ness and isolation, that the difficulty of policy lies.

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough has already referred to the work of the Cyrenians. I should like to endorse what she said. These unselfish young people are a credit to a Christian community. What we should be seeking to do—the task which faces the Minister—is to see that this type of effort is given the maximum help, co-operation and encouragement by public authorities, instead of being left too often to battle against indifference or bureaucratic buck-passing.

Let me once again remind the Minister, this time in more precise detail, of a passage from the Conservative Party's last manifesto. I am encouraged to do so by the Prime Minister's recent revelation in the Sunday Times interview of 20th June last. Many of his colleagues take a copy of it to Cabinet meetings. This is the passage: We recognise the important contribution to social welfare that volunteers and voluntary organisations are already making, and we believe there is scope for considerable expansion and development. We are convinced that many of the social problems that now scar society can only be solved through a genuine partnership of effort between statutory and voluntary organisations—between the professional and the volunteer. We will give active support, both financially and legislatively, so that new opportunities may be created in cooperation with the local authorities for all those—and in particular the young people and the retired people—who want to do voluntary social work. It is well put. It is right. It is exactly what is needed in the matter under discussion today. Is it happening at the moment? I very much doubt it. I doubt it when I see the police simply moving on these unhappy human wrecks from some attempted place of rest in a railway station or other public place. I doubt it when we all know full well that there are thousands of people in mental hospitals and prisons who will have nowhere to go when they come out.

What, then, should the Minister do? The hon. Member for Eton and Slough has made a number of specific suggestions, which I endorse. But it seems to me that the basic central requirement is for the Minister to make quite clear to the many statutory bodies involved the Government's concern about the problem and the responsibilities which they bear. Employment exchanges, Social Security offices, hospitals, the police and, no doubt, many others will have to play their part.

Most important of all, it must surely be made clear to local authorities what their responsibilities are; that there must be a point where—to quote President Truman's alleged notice—the buck stops. Now that we have unified local welfare establishments along the lines urged by the Seebohm Report it should not be difficult to achieve, but it will also be vital to ensure that the needs of the homeless are taken properly into account. They certainly are not always taken into account at present when local authorities are drawing up housing and development programmes.

The present plight of the 30,000 or 40,000 people is a national disgrace which demands proper recognition and early action. I hope that it will not be long before we see, as a start, an appropriate circular to local authorities.

11.11 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Paul Dean)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) for raising this subject tonight. It is a subject that has not been discussed as much as it should have been in the House. This debate gives us the opportunity to do just that. It is preeminently a subject for active compassion. It is a many-sided problem, requiring a many-sided solution. A variety of needs are involved—mental, physical, material and spiritual—but there is one common factor in all these men and women—their homelessness.

In a short debate of this nature we can only hope to scratch the surface, but I can assure the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend that a great deal of work is being done. A great deal of active thought is going on, not only in Government but amongst local authorities and voluntary bodies. I pay a tribute to the work being done by voluntary bodies in this field. For many years they have led the way. They have brought enthusiasm, sympathy and—perhaps most important— informality in dealing with this problem. They have built up a great deal of knowledge about it over the years.

Equally, local authorities who are now gearing themselves up with their new social service departments are also responding. Then there is the Supplementary Benefits Commission, and the work done through the Government in reception and resettlement centres. All these have a part to play in what we freely recognise to be a growing problem—a problem that is growing for a number of reasons. I can assure the House that the Government intend to respond to the growing need to encourage those already working in the field to give active help.

The hon. Lady mentioned the need for co-ordination, as did my hon. Friend. This is a need, because, as this is a many-sided problem, so many people are involved. Many Government Departments are involved, as are many voluntary bodies. I entirely take the point that if we are to make the best use of the resources and enthusiasm, activities must be fully co-ordinated. We aim to do just that.

The hon. Lady and my hon. Friend mentioned some figures concerning the number of people involved. No one can give an authoritative answer at present. An inquiry was carried out on single homeless persons by the National Assistance Board in 1965. That was a long time ago, but it gives us some information on which to build. It included a count of those sleeping rough, reports on 550 lodging houses and shelters and interviews with a sample of men sleeping in them. There was also a special count of the men in reception centres at that time and, later, a sample of men in reception centres was medically examined.

What were the findings? Six out of 10 of the 27,000 men in the lodging houses and shelters in Great Britain and about two-thirds of the 1,900 women had been living in that establishment for six months or more. About the same proportion of the men and 40 per cent. of the women had been living in lodging houses for five years or more. About a quarter of the men said that they also used reception centres, and about three out of 10 said that they sometimes slept rough, though only 4 per cent. said that they frequently did so. About 200 of the women sometimes slept rough.

Putting all this information together the inquiry report suggested that at that time between 13,000 and 14,000 men and women sometimes slept rough or used reception centres. Of these, in the particular week of the inquiry, about 1,000 men and women, very few women, were actually found sleeping rough. These numbers have probably increased to some extent since then—there is little doubt about that—but, equally, some reports are almost certainly exaggerated. The evidence is that some people live in lodging houses as a matter of choice. To some people, a lodging house is a home. In saying that I do not for a moment want in any way to minimise the extent of the problem, but I merely suggest that some of the figures which have been given may be an exaggeration of the extent of the problem.

Hostel and lodging house accommodation is tending to diminish in number partly through redevelopment schemes in the centres of cities and so on, just at a time when one needs more. It is fortunate that voluntary organisations such as the Salvation Army and the Church Army are building new lodging houses of a good standard and converting others which are not up to the standard which we expect today. There is no doubt that more are needed and it is possible that as the process of modernising takes place, it tends to reduce the number of beds available for the men seeking a basic minimum of accommodation. Organisations like Christian Action, the Cyreneans and the Simon Community have steped in here, and I gladly pay tribute to their work in this respect.

What are the Government doing to assess the problem and to give greater help? The Supplementary Benefits Commission has asked for an inquiry into the extent and quality of lodging house and hostel accommodation and wants to obtain as much information as possible. We are making plans for a survey, and the leading voluntary organisations in this work will be invited to co-operate.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission has the position in each region under close review and is taking active steps to help those voluntary organisations which are carrying out work analogous to that in its own reception centres and in areas which are not easily accessible to our centres. In London St. Mungo's Community, which operates a soup run for people sleeping rough, plans a systematic extension of homes to which people may be taken from the streets, and my Department is discussing with it ways in which this project may be given support and backing. This shows clearly that we are anxious to co-operate with voluntary organisations and to give them every help.

Equally, the work going on in our own Government centres run by the Supplementary Benefits Commission is of considerable importance, working alongside the voluntary bodies. For example, good pioneering work is being done by a psychiatric social worker who has been stationed at the Camberwell reception centre for two years, and since April, 1970, a psychiatrist and a sociologist have been working there full time. Their report will be ready next spring and an interim report has given us valuable information.

The hon. Lady and my hon. Friend may be interested to know that in the course of the year some 8,000 men passed through the Camberwell centre. About 750 men now sleep there each night, about half the total in all reception centres. About half of these arrive on a casual basis and would otherwise sleep rough and about half stay in either for a few days to get over some crisis which has left them temporarily in need of support until they can find their own feet or for a few weeks while the staff try to find accommodation for them in homes offering permanent support. I pay tribute—as the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend would also wish to do—to the devoted work done in Camberwell in very difficult circumstances.

The hon. Lady mentioned the problem of those people coming out of mental hospitals with no place to go. I am glad to be able to tell her that the number of places in local authority hostels for the mentally ill is being increased. There is in the pipeline a fairly substantial programme of increasing these places which will be coming into operation in the next few years. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that there is great need for more places, and I assure her that it is in the programme, because it is important that local authorities, too, should be associated with this work. My hon. Friend, in particular, drew attention to that point. The local authorities must be closely involved in all schemes to provide more hostels. It is they who are often best able to express a view of the need in relation to the provision of other allied services and accommodation.

My Department intends to have early talks with representatives of local authorities to discuss how local authorities and the Department can do more to help the voluntary bodies. It is accepted that this is a field in which public fund raising may face initial difficulties and that the Department and the local authorities must use their powers to give some financial aid—what might be described as pump-priming aid— to the voluntary bodies working in the area concerned. I am sure that the co-operation of the local authorities can be counted on, but the talks with their representatives must be the next step in working out the best means of providing further help.

I hope, therefore, that in the very brief outline that I have been able to give in the time available I have shown that the Government are fully conscious of the problem which exists—a problem which is growing and to which we are responding, both through the surveys which I have mentioned and through the offers of financial help to those voluntary organisations—

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

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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