HC Deb 02 August 1972 vol 842 cc639-92

7.32 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)

I want to ask the Government to take urgent action in a number of directions to help what is certainly the most distressed and under-privileged group in the community, the single homeless people. I have been helped in raising this by two reports just published, one of them the final report from the Joint Working Party on Homelessness in London produced by the Department of Health and Social Security and the other the report issued on the single homeless person produced through the Mind Campaign of the National Association for Mental Health.

Who are the people about whom I wish the Government to take action? These are people who are either without families or are cut off from their families, who have no settled home. Many are mentally sick or handicapped, many have recently been in prison. They are rootless, homeless and usually utterly miserable. Many have accommodation in common lodging houses, many are in overnight hostels provided by voluntary organisations. Many too are in Camberwell reception centre, which I visited today, and other Government centres of the same kind.

Several hundred sleep rough in half a dozen well-known places in London—under the bridge at Charing Cross, in Embankment Gardens, Temple Gardens, under the arches at Waterloo Station and behind the Strand Palace where the warm air rises through the grill on to the pavement. Studies suggest that, if we take Camberwell Centre as our starting point, one-third of the occupants have been patients in mental hospitals at one time or another. Dr. Tidmarsh of the Social Psychiatry Unit now doing research at Camberwell recently said that since 25 per cent. of the men there were mentally disordered and another 25 per cent. were alcoholics, "There are more people going through Camberwell who are mentally ill than there are going through an average mental hospital."

Professor Greve, in his well known study of this problem, said of the homeless men now in prison on short sentences that more than half "revealed heavy drinking, alcoholism, habitual use of drugs, psychiatric disturbances and severe personality disorders". As a result of new tremendous and more liberal policies in our mental hospitals there has been a great increase in the number of voluntary admissions and in the number of discharges. Nowadays 185,000 patients are discharged each year; nine-tenths of patients come out within one year and 55 per cent. come out within six weeks. This discharging from mental hospitals is admirable in itself and is something which all of us have supported and for which many of us have campaigned and continue to campaign. It is however admirable only if, when these patients come out, they get proper support and are properly looked after.

There is nothing gained if we empty a mental hospital bed simply to fill a place under Charing Cross railway bridge. This is an extremely urgent, important and growing problem. Most of the 185,000 have good prospects of getting well again and of being re-settled and re-established. Many have families who help them get back to normal life. Getting a job is difficult but many of them succeed. Many get good support in the community through case-work and industrial training and rehabilitation at day centres and so on.

Far too many do not get this kind of welcome back. Far too many people are floating between hospital, reception centres and prison and back to hostel and then to hospital. This is the problem I want to raise tonight. It is difficult to find out exactly how big the problem is because, like all neglected problems, there are no statistics. The last official survey on the problem was as long ago as 1965. There is an urgent need for a new, comprehensive official survey of the problem. How many people are we dealing with, from where have they come and what is their problem? These are facts which we urgently need to know.

For what it is worth the last official survey in 1965 showed that, at 31st December, 985 men and women were sleeping rough, 1,846 were in Government reception centres and 28,789 were in common lodging houses, a total of 31,520. Unfortunately the evidence is that the size of the problem is much greater today. As the Salvation Army, the Church Army or any of those voluntary organisations and they will say that their resources are taxed to the limit. The estimate made by St. Mungo's Community, one of the voluntary organisations, is that the number of people sleeping rough in the greater London area doubled between September, 1969, and September, 1971, when the survey was made. Recent responsible estimates suggest that we are dealing with about 50,000 of our fellow citizens.

With this disturbing increase in the size of the problem there is actually a decrease in the available accommodation. This may sound strange at first sight, but for rather strange reasons accommodation which was previously suitable and available for these people has simply disappeared. Consider the Rowton House accommodation. That used to be a great standby but if it is upgraded and used for normal commercial purposes money has to be made on it, and that is what has happened in a number of cases. It is very serious. I see that the number of beds available from the Rowton House people has fallen from 5,500 in 1960 to only 1,200 today. Equally, the figures for common lodging houses have gone down from 6,405 in 1962 to 4,708 in 1972.

This is the situation in London, but it also applies throughout the country. Slum clearance has reduced the amount of old private property which was suitable for low-rented accommodation. Such redevelopments have made the problem much more difficult. It has taken out the middle range of accommodation which is a stage up from the reception centre and a stage down from the accommodation which is perhaps more amenable but the rents for which cannot be afforded by the people I am talking about.

What needs to be done? I have a number of points to put to the Minister and I ask that they should be considered. First, we must pin overall responsibility for this problem on a single authority. There are too many fingers in the pie and there is no clear line of definition of responsibility. Obviously the buck should stay with the Department of Health and Social Security. That is where overall responsibility for the problem should rest. At the moment we have the Home Office dealing with the psychiatric and medical care and after care of prisoners. The Department of the Environment deals with housing. The Department of Employment is supposed to find jobs for people. Local authorities are responsible for Part III accommodation. In fact, the position of local authorities is anomalous because they are supposed to deal with local people and local issues, whereas by definition the people I am talking about are not local; they are extremely mobile and go not only from borough to borough in London but from city to city.

The time has come to establish under the Department of Health and Social Security a commission with the single task of dealing with the problem of homeless single people. It is time that the whole prison medical service came under the National Health Service and the Department of Health and Social Security. Certainly the psychiatric treatment of people about to be released who came homeless into prison and go out homeless should come under the Department of Health and Social Security. The after care of such prisoners should also be the responsibility of that Department. We need a common grants policy for hostels. The Government give after care grants to ex-prisoners which are not available to patients coming out of mental hospital. This is an anomaly which could be cleared up if a single Ministry instead of several was responsible. I should like to see set up a commission which was held accountable for tackling this problem, and a national plan to get on top of it.

The main question which such a commission should consider is accommodation. This is the key. There is not one front but a number of fronts on which we must advance—for example, Government reception centres. We shall not get rid of them in a hurry. They need expansion and more social workers and resettlement and rehabilitation officers attached to them. That is certainly true of the Camberwell reception centre, which carries an enormous responsibility. It is an appalling building. I do not know where in Britain I have seen such an appalling structure. It would be tempting to say, "Knock it down", but we cannot afford to do that until other provision is made for the 8,000 single homeless people who go through the centre in a year. Other facilities must be made available so that this problem can be solved. We must have a proper, custom-built reception centre at Camberwell.

I should like in passing to pay tribute to the work done at Camberwell. It is not an easy job. I was very impressed by the staff. They are professionals, but they all volunteer to work at the centre. This is the way to get the best people for the job. It is a sure fire winner if professionals volunteer for a difficult and challenging job. This is one way in which some expansion of accommodation can be achieved.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I used to work in Camberwell where this was a constant problem, because the ordinary people living in the area object most strongly to people going to the centre to which my hon. Friend has referred at about half-past one in the afternoon, sitting around and attracting other people who are drunk or who perhaps take drugs. Therefore, other people in the area are anxious that the centre should not be there.

Mr. Mayhew

I will come later to the reaction of neighbours and local people to the siting of reception centres in their areas. There will be difficulties wherever they are put. But the Camberwell reception centre takes in 8,000 people a year. It cannot be closed down at the moment. I appreciate the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Ronald Brown) has just made, but there are certain problems which the community must understand and live with and try to reconcile itself to. I see no prospect of moving the reception centre at Camberwell. We should create the conditions in which it can be altered. It should not be as big as it is.

I should like the Government to increase the grants which they give to the admirable voluntary organisations at work on this problem. That would be a very quick and administratively simple way of increasing the amount of accommodation. The community should be profoundly grateful to the Salvation Army, the Church Army, the St. Mungo's Community, the Simon Community, the Cyrenians, NACRO and other organisations. I also mention the National Association for Mental Health and its Mind Campaign, which is drawing attention to this problem. The Government should aim at having a common policy of grants for hostels along the lines I have suggested.

However, the most likely way of increasing accommodation is by working in co-operation with the local authorities. We recognise the problems of local authorities, such as homeless families and their waiting lists. No one can fail to see that it is a very difficult problem for local authorities to take on board responsibility for single homeless people, but I hope that the recommendations in the Minister's working party will be carefully considered and that local authorities will accept the obligation to provide accommodation for homeless single people, as they do for homeless families.

I hope that the homeless single person will be eligible for council accommodation, as homeless families are. I hope that, above all, the local authorities will make more hostel accommodation available. They are statutorily obliged to do this, but in practice they do not provide the accommodation needed. Will local authorities review the rules about having lodgers in council houses? This is a large possible source of increased and suitable accommodation for many of the people we are discussing.

I wonder whether local authorities can do something about spreading the load. I was horrified to learn this morning that the only Part III accommodation available to the Camberwell reception centre was that provided by the Southwark Borough Council. Why only Southwark? Camberwell is infinitely the biggest reception area in Britain, and yet one borough council is supposed to provide the Part III accommodation. This is monstrous.

I ask the Minister to bring representatives of the London boroughs together and let them take half a dozen each. There must be some agreement in this matter. Otherwise, if one local authority acts to raise standards and to provide good accommodation, a flood of homeless people will be attracted to it. There must therefore be a rationing system and we must obtain the co-operation of all the London boroughs.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

I have a huge problem concerning single homeless people. There is a very active Simon Community in St. Pancras, and, having the St. Pancras main line station in my constituency, I have many other people's problems, too. Would my hon. Friend include in what he has said about local authority accommodation people who are rendered homeless by redevelopment schemes whose only problem is that they live in an area which is being redeveloped and become homeless as a result?

Mr. Mayhew

I entirely appreciate what my hon. Friend has said about the problems in his constituency, and I know very well his intimate personal interest in them. Indeed I do, but I am not talking about those who are homeless through fire, through accident, through the cause he mentioned—redevelopment. I am talking about a rather specific group of people, although those other people also are a responsibility of local authorities.

Hastening on, I come to the third thing which I should like to ask the Minister to consider very carefully, and that is the position of mental hospitals and their attitude to this problem. I have already said that on both sides of the House we have been urging mental hospitals to discharge patients wherever and whenever they can, but I think that they must be a little more cautious about discharging patients in that they should make sure that the patients have got somewhere to go and someone to look after them if they need someone to look after them.

A second thing mental hospitals must do is to stand ready to receive back from, it may be, a Government reception centre, or from a Salvation Army hostel, people who have been patients in the mental hospitals. This seems to me essential. I was distressed to learn only quite recently that London hospitals agreed to take back only people who have been their patients within the last 12 months. I do not know why they receive back only those who have been patients within the last 12 months. I would say that anybody who has spent time in a mental hospital and is known to the medical staff there should be reaccepted if he has a relapse and ought to go back. I was horrified to learn that, outside London, hospitals will not take back their own patients when they do have a relapse and find themselves in London. This is where the Minister could act through the regional hospital boards, and I hope that he will see what can be done there.

There is the whole question of more medical and social work support for the single homeless people. This is a tremendous need. There is also need for some alcoholism units, and not only in the community, but in prisons and mental hospitals. This is a tremendous part of the problem and I ask the Minister to consider that.

To end on a more hopeful note, there are experiments being made in rehabilitating and resettling people of this category and they give solid ground for hope. I am particularly impressed by one experiment being carried on in collaboration with the Camberwell reception centre. This is the Peter Bedford project, and I ask the Minister to have a look at it.

It is too early yet to assess it, for it has been going for only three years; perhaps in another couple of years we shall see where it is leading. It is a project in which between 30 and 35 men from Camberwell, half of them paranoids and schizophrenics, and some alcoholics, have been provided with a room each in a house, with five men to a house, and each does his own cooking for himself, and has found a job which he can do. They are usually very simple jobs, cleaning jobs, something of that kind, but at least they have found jobs which men with those disabilities can do. They pay around £2.50 for a room.

So far the results have been most encouraging. Over the three years they have been showing an impressive degree of maturity. They have been no trouble at all to their neighbours or to the police, and they have held their jobs down. Apart from the two men organising the project, and whose salaries are paid by the Quaker Trust, the project is self-supporting, self-sufficient; it is not subsidised at all. It may be that this pioneering voluntary project is precisely the kind of experiment which will pave the way to massive public support when it is shown to succeed, and I ask the Minister to look at it very carefully indeed, with the possibility of helping to develop this idea to the maximum extent, because, quite apart from the narrow view of its helping to solve social problems, it is a heartening thing that men such as these, whom one could easily write off as totally unemployable and totally incapable of supporting themselves, can, if given a chance, make a real show of leading a proper, social life.

7.56 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I apologise for missing the first minutes of the speech by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) because this is a subject in which I am very much interested and I should like to have heard also his opening sentences. He has raised a very important subject.

He has been chiefly concerned with single people who encounter difficulties on medical grounds or who are exprisoners—people such as that—but there are other forms of difficulty which people encounter and which are not strictly medical and which do not relate to any criminal past. People may be somewhat inadequate in other ways and find it difficult to arrange themselves in the community. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary may know, I have a problem of this character in my own constituency. Unfortunately, these people do not seem to be anybody's business. The local authorities have their housing lists on which they give people points for various things, such as family responsibilities. Of course, single men or single women rate very low on those lists. No Minister of the Crown is directly responsible for actually housing people. It is true that we have increased the grant for hostels, but that is quite another matter from getting hostels built, and there are very few of them.

I would join the hon. Gentleman also in what he said about the work of private societies which can be very valuable indeed in this respect, but that is not only not spreading but is actually contracting, and that raises very serious problems.

We have, in addition to the medical cases, people I would describe as inadequate because they are institutionalised. They have fallen out of employment; perhaps they have gone or have been sent to a Government retraining centre. In the case of the Colnbrook hostel in my constituency they were actually directed there in the days when we had such direction. They were sent either to do specific work in the war or were sent there for training. Some of these people have been living in an industrial hostel, as it was called, for five, 10, 15, 20 years. When somebody has reached the age of about 50 or 55 and he has lived in a hospital for 15 years, he is not very fit to look after himself in the community or to find accommodation for himself anywhere. I do not know what to tell these people to do.

Again, what the hon. Gentleman said is absolutely right, that the only local authority which will look at this kind of problem is the local authority in whose area the institution is located; the other authorities around, I am afraid, say, "It is very difficult, but it is not our problem". Single people have this difficulty, either because they have medical or psychological problems or because they are—I hesitate to use the word "inadequate", which is too unkind—they have ceased to have or have never had any degree of ability to fend for themselves, although they can hold down a job and earn a living.

For such people life in a bed-sitting room, which is the only alternative, is a fairly miserable existence. It is not an ideal way for a single man to spend the decades from 30 to 60 just living in a bed-sitting room. Such men would like a form of institutional life. They are in employment, quite well paid employment, and are capable of paying for accommodation, but these institutions simply do not exist. Here is a case where my hon. Friend might take an initiative. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has been most helpful in the Colnbrook case to which I have referred, but he has no powers and can himself do nothing. He can only invite local authorities to do something, and whether they do or do not do something is a matter over which neither he nor my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has any control.

There should be some ultimate ministerial responsibility for coping with the problem. I cannot look to any Minister of the Crown and say that he is the person who in the last resort should see that the people who are inadequate for one reason or another in the matter of finding accommodation are provided with suitable accommodation. I hope my hon. Friend will pay great attention to what the hon. Member for Woolwich, East said. There is a problem here which somebody should do something about, because it is getting worse all the time and almost everybody is saying that it is somebody else's business.

8.2 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) and the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), I also believe that the problem of homelessness, as opposed to bad housing and housing shortage, in London is becoming more serious and demands a far more energetic and concerted effort by the Government and local authorities than it is getting.

I have already given to the Minister details of one recent grievous case in my constituency. On the evening of 11th July a constituent of mine called on me in the House to say that he and his wife were threatened with eviction from their home on 20th July and that they had nowhere to go. I advised him to take legal advice on the necessity of eviction, but as the accommodation was furnished the law gave him no security. At the same time, as there were no children the family was ruled out by Wandsworth Borough Council from the offer of even temporary shelter for the homeless. On 20th July, only a few days later, my constituent's wife's body was recovered from the river, and the inquest found later that she had taken her own life. On 25th July my constituent was locked out of his home by the private landlord.

I find it appalling—and I think the Minister will agree—that such a tragedy can occur in this capital city in 1972. These events happened, even though the family had for months been in touch with the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which had done its best so far as I can judge, and the Social Service Department and the Housing Department of Wandsworth Borough Council, which were unable to help.

It was only after the death of my constituent's wife that he, by the efforts of NACRO, a voluntary body, was found temporary lodging by the St. Mungo Community, another voluntary body. Even now, the borough council does not regard my constituent as having enough priority to justify his being rehoused in the present extreme and acute shortage of accommodation available. I think it is right that, amid so much complacency, these things should be known to the House and to the public.

There are two immediate reasons for this tragedy—first, the absence of security of tenure or proper legal protection for those in furnished accommodation; secondly, the refusal, or at least the inability, of London local authorities to give Part III accommodation to the homeless without children, whether it be a single person or, as this case, a couple. These two factors combined turned this couple into the streets without any alternative available to them. Yet both these are man-made decisions of policy which the Government and local authorities could, and in my view should, alter. I hope that the Minister is seriously considering those two possibilities.

Meanwhile, officers of the Wandsworth Borough Council inform me that the situation is growing worse because of the complex of forces and policies which are steadily aggravating the acute physical shortage of housing accommodation in London.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East referred to the Rowton Houses which were launched in Victorian times to accommodate the impoverished homeless. They are being downgraded into tourist hotels and are being used for other low priority purposes, thus reducing the accommodation available for the homeless from about 5,500 in 1960 to only 1,200 today. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that those figures are correct.

Although Rowton Houses were always commercial enterprises and not strictly charities, they nevertheless performed an invaluable function. It is a solemn thought that Victorian institutions launched with this purpose should have withered away in the 1960s without effective replacement. Can the Minister take any steps to stop this happening, or is he entirely powerless? If so, is there not an obligation on the public authorities to provide an effective substitute?

At least we welcome the fact that the Joint Working Party on Homelessness in London, sponsored by the Minister's Department, on 26th June this year issued its final report, "Homelessness in London". The working party has as its chairman an official of the Department and a number of London local authority officers as members. I understand that its positive recommendations, which are practical, now have to be approved by the Department and the London Boroughs Association, and I trust that the Minister will be able to join me tonight in expressing the hope and intention that these proposals will be speedily put into effect.

The working party recommends that certain homeless families or single persons without children, including those who have lost their roof through emergencies, the elderly and the physically or mentally handicapped, should in future be given the same priority for temporary help as are families with children. That is the first indispensable condition for meeting this mounting problem.

The working party also proposes that, for single persons, the rule about council house lodgers should be reviewed; that more accommodation, including hostels or lodging houses, might be provided; that any fall in the stock of accommodation for single persons should be replaced; that hospitals should not discharge patients until they are sure of a lodging—it is strange that that has to be formally recommended in 1972; that borough councils should be given early warning of evictions by county councils and rent tribunals—

Mr. Mayhew

I am sure my right hon. Friend realises that a hospital has no power to keep a voluntary patient.

Mr. Jay

The remarkable thing is that public authorities have still not worked out a procedure for seeing that this does not happen. I do not blame the hospitals.

Finally, the working party recommends that various powers in the Department of Health and Social Security should be strengthened and that if short-term reception units are found to be necessary in any area, as in London they certainly are, they should be provided by the local authority housing departments.

All these proposals together will achieve something and they appear to me to be the least that should be done in present circumstances. But the working party repeatedly points out what we all know to be true—that more shelter for the homeless must mean less hope of rehousing for those who have already waited years on the housing list, unless the total stock of council homes is increased and increased rapidly. Every honest person knows that this is the kernel of the problem and some drastic changes of policy must be made quickly if it is to be solved.

At present the desperately needed increase in the housing pool, as the working party report calls it, is being prevented for three avoidable reasons. First, council homes and flats are now being sold to private persons, with the connivance and even active encouragement of the Government. I do not want to be controversial tonight—indeed I want the Minister to act in this matter—but I must say that to sell council homes, with no condition of resale to councils, when tragedies such as I have described are happening, is not merely wrong but indefensible.

Secondly, some local authorities, notably the GLC which professes an inability to rehouse urgently families in need of shelter, are at the same moment blithely and complacently, mainly through their road building departments, demolishing perfectly good dwellings. At the recent West Cross Route public inquiry the GLC admitted that if its plans went forward it would destroy about 1,500 homes, accommodation for about 4.000 people, in order to build 2⅓ miles of motorway in West London. The GLC proposes this idea at a moment when the Minister's own working party says that it "recognises the impracticability" of local authorities finding shelter for all families in London "in present housing circumstances". If this demolition madness goes on and at the present rate—and the GLC proposes even to increase it—the problem neither of the homeless nor of the grievously badly housed in London has any chance of being solved for many years ahead. I believe that we should stop all demolition of existing homes for non-housing purposes until the shortage in London is overcome.

Thirdly, the Government and some local authorities are still not tackling the major problem of building new homes at the fastest rate possible with anything like the energy, determination and drive that is needed. This should be one of the two or three most urgent tasks of the Government, with the highest priority and strongest organisation behind it. Yet it so happens that in the same week in which I have had to protest to the GLC about a family which has waited in bad conditions for over 2½ years for rehousing, I also have had to protest that the largest housing site in my constituency available in the last 20 years, which would provide over 400 homes for about 1,500 people and which was sold to the GLC for housing ten years ago, is still lying idle and no building operations are taking place. It is surely incredible that, even allowing for all sorts of special factors in that case, the local authority, faced with the most acute of all our social problems, should allow this kind of thing to happen.

I say this not because I take any pleasure in criticising any local administration, but because I want to get something done to see that these delays do not occur. Unhappily, since the ill-starred London Government Act, which has been responsible for the piecemeal organisation of the problem of the homeless, the GLC seems to have ceased to be a real housing department in the sense of caring first and foremost about solving the housing problem.

Therefore, if the Government mean business and have taken to heart what is happening—and I hope that they will do so after this debate—they will not merely push forward the proposals of the working party but will remove and reverse all these three main brakes on the potential growth of the local authority housing pool since that alone can overcome this great and growing evil. I hope that the Minister tonight will acknowledge realistically the facts as they are, will put all prejudices aside and will tackle the problem as it needs and deserves to be tackled.

8.18 p.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I wish to refer to some of the general questions relating to the subject of homelessness in London, but there is one particular aspect of the problem with which I should like to deal. I wish to mention the situation faced by the single woman who cares for a relative, perhaps a parent, when the parent who is the tenant of the house dies. Following such an occurrence the single woman often finds herself in difficulties. I hope that we may be given some general rule that in such cases the daughter who is liable to become homeless, and in some cases is made homeless, can be protected. I know that my hon. Friend is interested in this aspect of the subject and I also know that the Under-Secretary of State takes a personal interest in it.

Mr. Ronald Brown

My hon. Friend will be aware that the GLC policy even in redevelopment areas is that in the case of the single person it will do everything other than to rehouse that single person, since it argues that such a person should be responsible for his or her own home

Mr. Hamling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that matter. I am seeking to emphasise what often happens to the daughter who is often elderly. In a great many cases she may have given up many years of her life, and very often has given up her employment, to care for her mother or father, or both. Such a woman in her declining years may well face the danger of being made homeless and of having no relative to look after her in her time of need. I believe it is our job in this House to intervene to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

I wish to refer to some of the general economic and social problems which affect my part of South-East London. I know that the Minister may be in some difficulty in replying to these points, but I gave notice that I would raise them and I shall understand if he cannot tonight reply directly to my points. I know that with his usual courtesy he will draw them to the attention of one or other of his governmental colleagues.

Particularly relevant to the general problem of homelessness is the whole problem of unemployment, which is a very pressing problem in my part of London. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), who is my Member of Parliament, mentioned this matter and it gives cause for deep concern. I live in my hon. Friend's constituency and we share this problem as one which is of mutual concern. I know that other hon. Members who represent South-East London constituencies are concerned too.

We have faced a long-term change in the pattern of employment in our part of London. We have had very large-scale redundancies in the last few years, major redundancies involving many thousands of people and affecting many homes. There is a major decline in dock transport in London. These are matters of topical concern and there are aspects of this that do, perhaps, receive attention in the House. But I suggest that some of the more human aspects of these secular changes in employment are overlooked.

It may well be that the dock areas, as we have traditionally known them in London, are becoming derelict and will all become derelict in a short period, with large-scale redundancies among dockers and catastrophic falls in income and, therefore, in purchasing power, with all that this means in its effects on dock areas in London. It may well be that the Thames, as we have known it all our lives, will become a dead river. I suggest that this need not be and that possibly there are new ways in which the river could be used, particularly for containerised traffic down to Tilbury, and that we might see again the real emergence of the Thames barge as a necessary and useful part of transport in London. This might help to relieve our overcrowded roads in South-East London from the burden of the heavy lorries that now trundle along to the danger of life and limb and cause a tremendous amount of inconvenience and pollution.

One of the questions that has exercised our minds is where all these men and women who are being made redundant are to find work. It has been suggested that they might find alternative work in the service industries. But many of the people concerned have no particular skills in that direction. They have traditional skills. Some are skilled engineers, whose skill is being wasted in this way. On behalf of our people, we have asked that methods should be found of providing alternative work which will use the existing skills of these people.

This also raises another problem which directly bears on the question of homelessness in as much as that arises from poverty—and this is very relevant—and that is the problem of low wages. Even when people who have been made redundant in South-East London get alternative jobs, they are compelled to accept those jobs at much lower pay than that to which they have been accustomed. I think of a toolmaker who lives in my borough who has had two major redundancies in the last eight years. He is now back working at his craft inside the old Arsenal wall, but at a wage which means that he is £5 a week worse off than he would have been had he not had those two redundancies. That is only one example of a very general problem.

It seems remarkable that while prices soar, especially the prices of land and houses, the aggregate disposal income of Londoners is falling relative to the rest of the region because of these major industrial changes. When wages fall in this way and when the problem arises of a decline in some of the traditional industries of London, the incentive to invest in retail, professional or leisure services declines as well.

I have mentioned the very high cost of houses and land. One of the significant aspects of this decline in industry in South-East London is the pressure of rents and living costs. Because of high costs, many of the new properties we have built in South-East London in recent years are at very high rents. Two cases came to my notice in the last week of people living in council flats and paying more than £9 a week in rent. Two young wives came to see me about this particular problem. Under the pressure of this very high rent, one family has already broken up and one of the women in question is homeless now. The other family is threatened by the same sort of pressure. The husband works in Enfield in North London and comes home to Woolwich every night. His take-home pay is £22 a week and he pays £9-odd in rent. Poverty faces that family; possibly a break-up in the family as well.

This is a problem which has become more and more general. Redundancy means that people have to find jobs elsewhere and that they have to accept jobs at much lower wages than those to which they have become accustomed; there is poverty as a result. Increasingly, people in this situation can no longer afford to live in London. Young working-class families cannot afford to buy houses in London when receiving the sort of salaries that they do. We face a declining population. We face especially a decline in the proportion of people of working age in our population, and this has effects regarding poverty.

One of the irrelevancies of this situation is the Government's Housing Finance Act. I should not really call it an irrelevance; I should call it an Act which will work to make the problem worse. The average rent in London, according to the last figure I have, for April, 1971, is £3.37. For the rest of England and Wales it is £2.33. So in London we have much higher rents than in the rest of England and Wales. As to what these rents are today, who can hazard a guess? As to what they will be in three, four or five years' time, as a result of the opera- tion of the Housing Finance Act, who can say? We all know that the situation will get far worse. We know that rents for new flats and houses are even greater than the average of £3.37. I mentioned local authority flats in my borough at more than £9 a week. In Thamesmead people are paying £12 a week for working-class flats.

I will not speak about the ridiculous stories one reads in the Evening News of penthouse flats in the Barbican at £90 a week. They are too ridiculous to quote in this debate. But ordinary working class flats now being built in my borough are beyond the capacity of the people there to afford. What will happen to them? Who can afford to live in places like Greenwich if this situation continues? What happens if subsidies are reduced globally still further? Will councils be able to continue to build? I have grave doubts whether they will be able to continue to build in that sort of situation. It may be that as a result partly of the Housing Finance Act and partly of the pressure of costs, we shall see an end to council building programmes in London.

The question then arises: where are the poor to live under the pressure of the Housing Finance Act? The answer is: in the old council estates. We shall see a concentration of the socially disadvantaged in the old council estates. This, as my hon. Friend said in opening the debate, is significant. There is tremendous pressure on small, poor areas in trying to cope with the problems of the socially disadvantaged. We sometimes refer to problem families. It may be that, particularly as a result of the operation of the Housing Finance Act, we shall see created in my borough and in other boroughs in London ghettos of the poorest people who cannot face life with any degree of optimism, unemployment and poverty being their general lot.

Mr. Ronald Brown

This is one of the policies of the GLC. There are such ghettos in my constituency. There are many urgent cases of people who ought to be transferred from those ghettos, but the council will not transfer them to the kind of places they ought to have because the places in which they now live cannot be relet. Therefore, these people are kept there even though they have medical priority for being moved.

Mr. Hamling

And, as my hon. Friend knows very well, these people cannot afford the rents in the new area. I can think of parts of my borough where this situation exists. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that my borough is much better off than his in this respect. In other parts of London—Tower Hamlets, Bethnal Green and St. Pancras—the problems are even worse than in the London Borough of Greenwich.

Mr. Stallard

I should like to bring my hon. Friend back to the position of the single homeless person in that situation. My hon. Friend has spoken about poor and problem families. Does he accept that this makes the position of single homeless people much worse, because in many cases they have no entitlement to the kind of accommodation my hon. Friend has described?

Mr. Hamling

Of course, and particularly the single person families. This raises some of the questions with which the Minister is familiar arising from our recent debate on the Finance Bill when I specifically referred to some of the problems of low income affecting single person families. My hon. Friend mentioned entitlement. It is not only entitlement. These people do not receive the incomes to enable them to deal with the family problems they have to face.

It may be that as a result of this general policy we shall see the growth of social polarisation of a kind with which we have not been familiar in London since the days of Charles Booth some 70 years ago. Most of us here are too young to recall that era, but in our studies of the social history of London we are only too familiar with the general problems of poverty in London. I see these problems staring us in the face again in the next few years.

This social and economic change has its effects on older working class people, especially those who are made redundant. They cannot get new jobs. They are slung out of work, perhaps at the age of 55, so they cannot immediately go on pension. What do they face? They face possibly 10, 15 or 20 years of grinding poverty. The hopelessness that that engenders is familiar to all who are concerned with the problems of redundancy. These are the new poor. One of the great consequences of these matters is that we have increased pressure on welfare services, especially those run by local authorities. We have declining purchasing power and declining revenue from the rates. With that decline, the possibility of local authorities meeting the renewed and extra claims of social welfare is made less possible.

Therefore, we must face declining standards of public service in the London social services. That is a matter which I am sure the Minister must have very much in mind in the next few years. We have a declining standard of public transport and social decay. We have the possibility of renewing old schools made less possible if the local authorities have reduced revenues. What possibility is there of renewing or improving our hospitals and public health services if we face that kind of decline? Our social capital must decay.

That is the story of the North, as I remember it in my youth, in places like Liverpool and Wigan. Where there is unemployment there are declining incomes. Where there is increasing poverty there is a decline in the standards of social capital. What incentive is there for people to establish new enterprises in such areas in the face of that general social decline? We face a declining population, declining industry and an ageing population. We shall see the creation of new industrial slums, especially in dock areas. We shall see in the old LCC area in the next few years the growth of huge concentrations of socially disadvantaged people.

At the same time, we have many other presures on our social amenities and our green belt. We have the coming of the motorway with all that that involves in the destruction of our social amenities and social capital. Local councils, faced with this poverty, cannot afford to pay the price of the preservation of our amenities. We see the railway arches of the 19th century being replaced with the motorway arches of 20th century London. That is how the North declined. Poverty bred poor public services which bred poor social capital, which provided major disincentives to enterprise and new employment. It is a black picture which I paint of the future of London and it is one to which I hope the Government will pay attention.

8.38 p.m.

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

It is not likely to be often that the three hon. Members who represent the borough of Greenwich will speak in the same debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) on introducing this debate, on what he said about the problems of the mentally ill and mentally handicapped, and, as I am sure the House recognises, on the important work which he does as Chairman of the National Association for Mental Health. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) was able to discuss the problems of the south east of London which are of increasing concern to all three hon. Members for the borough of Greenwich.

I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West said when comparing the situation in the North, which he knows well, with the situation which is beginning to develop in certain parts of London and which gives us great cause for concern. We were able to discuss some of these problems with the Minister for Industry when he received a deputation on Monday.

I hope that the Government will see that something positive and practical is done to improve opportunities for people living in that part of London and also try to improve the environment in which people find themselves living. When we are discussing the problems of homelessness of single people, or, indeed, of families, we are not merely talking about problems of accommodation. Everyone knows that the probems of accommodation in parts of London are extremely serious; although they are not as serious in the borough of Greenwich, we do have them there. When one is talking about the problems of the single homeless person one is talking very often about someone who, for some reason or another, is separated from all that all of us know a home can mean—more than mere accommodation, it means a kind of helpful supportive assistance which a family can give.

I want to develop the subject of the debate a little further than it has been developed so far by discussing a particular problem, but before doing so I strongly support what has been said about the need for the Government to try to co-ordinate in one Department the measures to counter the various problems with which the debate is dealing. The problem I want to discuss, for example, is shared between several Departments and therefore does not receive the amount of attention it deserves. Admittedly, something is being done, but nothing like enough.

The particular problem of homelessness of single people which I want to introduce is that of the young black person aged probably 16, 17 or 18. I believe it very important that we should understand his or her background in order to understand why it is that in London and, no doubt, in other major cities some hundreds of black youngsters are roaming the streets, sleeping rough, very often at odds with their own families, usually unemployed and also most likely, and very often for the reasons I have given, feeling at odds with society. This minority in our population is a potential danger both to itself and to society as a whole. There is no argument for complacency about this problem. It has existed for some years and only recently has it been recognised. In order to understand why youngsters in their late teens are reduced to this kind of circumstance, it is important to try to understand the background which led to their condition.

Many of them, I guess, were born in the West Indies. Their father preceded them in arrival here, perhaps arriving in the late 1950s or early 1960s before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1962, reduced the flow of heads of families to the country to a mere trickle. After the father had arrived and secured a job and perhaps some accommodation, he would send for his wife, and then later, when he perhaps was able to do so and his income was sufficient, he would send for the sons and daughters whom he had left at home in the island from which he originated.

Incidentally, I think it important that the House should also recognise that the father and mother when they came to this country were often shocked by the standard of behaviour and by the public morals they discovered—shocked because West Indian youngsters at school are taught to believe in Britain as an ideal kind of society. Arriving here, they discovered that Britain has changed from the ideal society which they thought existed and which possibly never did exist at all.

Secondly, the parents have inherited from the society from which they have come Victorian standards of discipline towards their children. I emphasise those two points because this is the family environment in which the youngster who is sent for from Jamaica or elsewhere to come and join his family in London finds himself. He has to face parents from whom he has been separated over a period of years. He comes into a situation in which his parents, naturally—for these are the standards that they have always understood—want to apply Victorian standards of discipline.

He often has to adapt himself to younger brothers and sisters who may have been born in the period during which he was separated from his own family when he was in the Caribbean, and in addition he has to adjust himself to all the stresses and strains of urban life, which is so foreign to him. In all likelihood he is used to a rural environment and to the supportive help and advice and guidance that the extended family can give. Now he moves into an urban environment in which, in places like Notting Hill, Islington and elsewhere, there is little room to play and where in all probability his family is living in a tiny flat, certainly in inadequate accommodation, with many children. There is nowhere to go outside and he is probably ill at ease with the family that he has joined.

Then he goes to school and in all likelihood he is there labelled as educationally subnormal, if the statistics published just over a year ago about the situation of West Indian children are anything to go by. Certainly my visits to schools for the educationally subnormal have confirmed my impression that a high proportion of West Indian youngsters find their way there. He is called dull, often because no proper assessment can be made of his intelligence. Worse than that, only recently has it been recognised that youngsters coming from the Caribbean have been brought up to speak West Indian English and have great difficulty communicating in the English English that children in Britain understand. It is therefore hardly sur- prising that they find it difficult to cope with the education provided in our schools.

So they are probably at odds with their families. They find it difficult to adapt themselves to their urban environment. They are unsuccessful at school. Then at 15 or 16 they leave school to face society.

These are the youngsters who sooner or later run up against the kinds of discipline which their parents naturally and reasonably apply, the kinds of discipline which, bearing in mind what they see round about them in terms of standards of behaviour and permissiveness, the youngsters find it difficult to accept.

Sooner or later, if my evidence is anything to go by, trouble arises within the family. There is open disobedience of parents. Sometimes the police are called in and sometimes the children's department is involved. Sometimes the youngster leaves home altogether and begins to sleep rough. He may find a place in a hostel, or live in some quarter or other, perhaps in a condemned house with a group of others in a similar situation.

That is the situation that I wanted to describe. I am convinced that neither the Government nor the local authorities are giving it the attention it deserves. I cannot estimate how many youngsters are behaving in this way. Recently it was estimated that there were about 500 of them in the Notting Hill Gate area alone. I know that there is a considerable number in Islington, and no doubt others in Brixton and other areas where families from the Caribbean have settled.

That is the problem. What can we do to try to meet it? I am glad to say that there have already been pioneering efforts which indicate the way in which a solution can be found. First, there is a need for accommodation of the kind which a hostel can provide. These youngsters are alienated from their families. They need the support which communal living can give. There are already in being several experiments which have proved successful. Incidentally, the institutions which are set up ought not to be too institutionalised. Something in the nature of a home is what is required for these youngsters if they are to adjust themselves to play a positive and successful rôle in society.

Often what they require is the help and advice of understanding and mature people of their own background who come from the Caribbean. A mature couple, a husband and wife, as wardens of this kind of hostel can so often do a lot of good to assist these youngsters in getting a job, in understanding their situation in society and getting them to accept the situation in which they are.

Local authorities on occasion are inclined not to face the problem because they are unwilling to undertake the cost which they imagine is involved. But I should like to emphasise that in a way this is a temporary problem, and what one is looking for is a temporary solution to it. Local authorities very often have large old houses in areas due for redevelopment, which can be converted into temporary hostels to provide homes for youngsters of this kind, and one or two useful jobs in this direction have been done. There is George Jackson House in Manchester, for instance, and in Camden there is Berry House which was given by the Greater London Council and provides the kind of accommodation which is needed.

In addition, black people have pioneered a number of self-help schemes themselves, one of them with the assistance of the Community Relations Commission, which have enabled youngsters to find accommodation and a helpful environment in which they can begin to take work, because unfortunately for those who are living rough the possibility of getting a job is clearly out of the question. Sometimes a hostel cannot provide all the assistance that is needed for these young people and, as a member of the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, I was interested to visit the Keskidee Club in Islington, a youth club designed to provide social and comfortable amenities for West Indian people. I believe that all these things can be of assistance.

Ultimately the problem which these youngsters face is that of identity, of knowing the kinds of contribution that they can make to society as a whole. No one has bothered to tell them this so far. They have come here at the behest of their parents. Often, the education they have received is irrelevant to their needs, failing to comprehend the sort of background from which they come.

I know that teachers and educationists are beginning to think of the need for education in British schools to look much more towards the kind of multi-racial society into which we are moving. The Association of Teachers for the Education of Pupils from Overseas, among other groups, is tackling the linguistic problems which West Indian youngsters face. But I am speking about those who missed out because no attempt has been made to tackle the kind of problems which they are facing.

I well understand that the Minister cannot answer all the points which I have raised, since so many Departments are involved. The Home Office is involved, because assistance has sometimes been provided through the urban aid programme, and also because the Community Relations Commission has given grants. The Department of Education and Science is involved. So also, no doubt, is the Department of the Environment, as well as his own Department.

I hope that among the various problems affecting single homeless people we shall not overlook this one and the need for Government action at the centre and the sort of initiatives which can and should be taken by local authorities.

8.56 p.m.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

Being conscious of the number of important debates yet to come and the wish of hon. Members to take part, I promise that I shall take only four or five minutes.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Hear, hear.

Mr. Stallard

I accept the implied stricture from the hon. and learned Gentleman.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) on choosing this subject after being successful in the ballot and on the way in which he introduced the debate. I align myself with much of what was said both by him and by other hon. Members. I shall not go into detail because I imagine that all hon. Members could draw examples from the cases coming to their attention each week to show the sort of hardships which single homeless people undergo. But I have a particularly heavy interest in the problem, coming as I do from St. Pancras, part of the London Borough of Camden, where we have all the main line stations. It used to be said that the furthest distance it was possible to carry a heavy suitcase from Euston was Camden Town. Camden Town is almost in the middle of my constituency, and we have had more than our fair share. I have been there for 35 years now, and one could almost say that that was how I arrived in London, as part of the general problem.

The problems which prevailed when I was a young man in the North are now becoming more and more prevalent in this part of the country, where they have never existed hitherto to any large extent. As unemployment increases throughout the country, the problem of the homeless single person becomes very much a London problem. I leave out of account for the moment the other problems of the homeless family, about which we could have another three or four hours of separate debate. With the heavy unemployment in the North, the North-East, Wales and elsewhere, people automatically make for the capital, as they have traditionally done, and most of the inner London boroughs are getting their share, though, as I say, Camden probably has more than most.

The problem of those who simply have nowhere to go is one of the gravest facing the inner London boroughs today. The problem of the down-and-outs, the alcoholics, the inebriates, and so on is on the increase. But there is another genuine problem, that of students, young teachers and young professional people coming to London to find accommodation. They move to the capital and other big cities to find employment because none is available in their own areas, and they run into familiar difficulties.

People who are involved in redevelopment schemes are becoming more and more of a problem, particularly in my borough, although I have no doubt that the problem exists in other boroughs, too. Many of them have no entitlement to be rehoused either by the local authority or by the county authority. They have earned no points. They have no real family problems. They have lived in furnished rooms for many years. I could quote scores of examples of people who have lived in furnished rooms for almost the whole of their working lives. They then find themselves in difficulty because of redevelopment or compulsory purchase orders. They have no claim to be rehoused by the local authority or by the county council. Some of them are elderly retired people, and even if they are fortunate enough to be considered for rehousing they cannot contemplate paying the rent that is required.

It has been said that Rowton Houses are on the decline. I probably have one of the only two left in London, and most of us know the problems of the other one, Butterwick in Hammersmith Road. This is not the best or cheapest accommodation. It is very much a commercial proposition. The price has gone up from the days that I remember of about 1s. 6d. a night to £4.20 a week. That is the extent of the increase. Nevertheless, this type of accommodation provides a useful service, and I should be loth to see any further decline in its provision for those who need it.

Much more assistance should be given to local authorities to enable them to take a hand in providing hostels and living accommodation for the kind of people whom I have mentioned. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) said, much is being done by the voluntary associations. I am proud of the voluntary associations in my constituency and the work that they do. I could double the list given by my hon. Friend. I have all the organisations which he mentioned, plus a headquarters, an office or a branch of almost every organisation in the country.

Camden Council has done what it can to provide short life property for use by these organisations. The property is in areas which are due for development, but is not immediately required, and it is being used to great effect by the voluntary organisations to try to deal with the problems of the homeless. But this is only a temporary expedient, and we shall soon be faced with a great mass of people having to move and there will not be enough, if any, of that kind of property to house them, yet nothing is being done to replace it.

The problem is urgent and important, and I ask the Minister to take that into consideration when he replies to the debate. It may be that the time has come to put some kind of pressure on local authorities as well as to give them assistance to provide accommodation for these people in their redevelopment schemes and in the overall planning of their areas. Such accommodation ought to be provided as a matter of deliberate policy, and not be regarded merely as an adjunct, something that is provided as an after thought. It should not be dealt with on the basis of looking round for some tatty property and saying that that will do for the time being and that the problem will disappear, that the people will move to mid-Bucks or somewhere like that. They will not. The problem will not go away. It is getting worse.

We must give local authorities the facilities and finance, as well as the directives, to include provisions in planning to deal with the problems we have outlined.

I support the excellent proposals in the working party document. I do not wish to introduce too much controversy, because so far there has not been that kind of debate here on the subject, but I have felt over the past few months that if we had expended one-tenth of the energy on this problem as we did on trying to crash through the Housing Finance Bill we could have made great strides towards its solution.

I hope that the Minister will bear in mind what I have said about redevelopment areas and the people who are having to leave their homes because of motorways and so on. It is estimated that motorway plans will force 7,000 people to leave their present homes. Many will be single, many will be retired, and many will be the kind of people I have mentioned, because of the nature of the area in which they have grown up and lived. I make an urgent and special plea for those people. I ask the Minister to give the matter his most urgent consideration and see how far he can go to implement some of the suggestions made in the debate.

9.7 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) on raising the matter. We have been dealing with it for a long time. He put his finger on the problem, which is that people do not want to know. I was on the London Boroughs Association and its predecessor when we tried desperately, throughout the London boroughs, to bring about an appreciation of the problem and agreement on what to do about it. There is no disagreement about the problem, and I suspect that there is no disagreement about its size. The disagreement comes because no one wants to be the recipient of the problem.

When I was leader of the Camberwell Council, about 15 years ago, we were trying to bring about solutions to this sort of social problem. Gordon Road, as it was then known—the name has been upgraded since, but it was and always will be only an old workhouse—was a place for the down-and-outs in the area. It was causing a big problem in the surrounding district, because the down-and-outs were coming in the late morning and sitting around in the streets and parks and even people's flats. As a result of the co-operation between the council and the then Ministry or Health agreement was reached on trying to make Gordon Road a more desirable place for people to stay in, to encourage a disciplining of the comings and goings, to obtain the co-operation of those using it, and to tell them not to misbehave themselves in the surrounding area.

One of the associated problems was drunkenness. The voluntary bodies, who were seized of the problem, set up another place not far away to try to solve the drink problem. Now there is Gordon Road and St. Giles's Vicarage, in the establishing of which I played a prominent rôle in 1958, where volunteers take those suffering from alcoholism, many of them coming from Gordon Road. A remarkable job is done in the underground room there. But the more success the volunteers achieve, the more customers they have, and the more Gordon Road is used. That is why my hon. Friend can now talk about 8,000 people going through there. I do not doubt it.

While we were looking out for the alcoholics we moved into the drug scene. Now in Gordon Road there is a place for dealing with alcoholics and there is an area to handle the drug problem. The Department said that it was a good idea to have the two places together, so now the London Borough of Southwark has these two areas.

The Department has attempted to set up a fresh area in Guy's because it says that Southwark has it all and it might as well have one in Guy's as well. It wants to make the whole area into a problem area! There have been many discussions and arguments with the other boroughs in London on the LBA as to what help could be given to Southwark to try to share the problem. I remember the arguments we had three years ago. They were tremendous. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) was then in charge of the Department and he did a great deal to encourage us to try to set up four drug withdrawal centres. He offered money for the project and we discussed it in the LBA.

There were then 28 Conservative-controlled authorities and only four Labour-controlled, one of them being Southwark. We all agreed that we needed a drug withdrawal centre in London, we all knew the problems and we had all the figures and information. But when it came to asking the London Borough of Bromley, that was the problem. It could not exactly do that. So we thought that perhaps Redbridge would do it, but there were problems there, too. We thought it might be in the London Borough of Havering; perhaps it would like it. I remember raising the matter in the House. It did not want it. We went round all the boroughs and none of them wanted a drug withdrawal centre.

Everyone had a reason. Either it was too far from London where they could get jobs, or to near London where there were too many jobs. Everyone had a reason except the true reason, namely, that if there were such a centre in their area it would destroy the amenity. That was what they meant.

As far as I am aware that project is still awaiting the go-ahead, still waiting for a site. The Department is still offering to help and the Borough of Southwark, which I no longer represent, still has the same problem, which is growing all the time. Until the hearts of men in the local authorities have changed, until they realise that it is everyone's responsibility to share this problem and to seek a solution, we shall go round and round for the next 20 years, as we have done to my knowledge for the last 20 years.

It is interesting to see how this has developed in my constituency. There is an old four-storey warehouse which no one wanted. It was derelict for some time until an entrepreneur decided that it was a good gig to buy this place and to use it for students to doss down in. It was what is known in my constituency as a "doss house". It was not long before the public health department was involved because there were not adequate toilet facilities, no proper facilities for washing and a whole lot of problems arose. The public health department said that if this person were to let the place for students he had to conform to certain minimum standards.

The entrepreneur decided that he could not afford to do that and still make a profit from the students. He sold it to someone else, who sold it to someone else, who finally sold it to a Birmingham engineer. He decided that he would take up the idea of giving students a hostel but would also try to cater for itinerants during the dull months when students are gainfully employed in their studies and do not want to use the doss house. He did a great deal of work. The public health department again moved in and insisted on his spending a sizeable amount of money to provide baths, showers, wash hand basins, toilets, and so on.

The itinerants became customers at once. As they did in Southwark, so they now do in my constituency. They arrive there at half past One with methylated spirits and drinks and all sorts of things and they hang around outside. I am in the picture now because my constituents complain bitterly about the conditions. I went to see the warehouse. This gentleman had bought a number of beds. Each floor was filled with old iron bedsteads which he was letting. There were amenities in terms of toilets, wash hand basins and showers in sufficient number for the people he was catering for.

I said to him, "But where do you get your customers from?". He said, "The worst people I get—the drunks, drug addicts and those who cause me considerable trouble—come from the Department of Health and Social Security". I said, "What do you mean?' He said, "I do not mean that they are on supplementary benefit. They are sent here by the Department, which rings me up and says, 'We have a bad one here. Would you like to take him?'. I am a good-hearted and friendly person and so I say, 'Yes, send him along'. I did not mind having one or two, but now this is a regular feature. The Department rings every day and say, 'We have some more. Will you take them?'; and down they come. They are the people who are causing the trouble".

The Department knows the size of the problem. The Under-Secretary's officials are well aware that every day they have to find somewhere for these people to sleep. They know that there are very few places for them, and so they send them to places like the warehouse to which I referred, which a speculator took over and where he provided the minimum standards in order to give such people shelter. The Minister should consider whether he is satisfied that that is an appropriate way of dealing with this problem.

I urge the Minister to examine this matter and to support the view that a Department should be established which is responsible for dealing with this problem. I realise that, although he might be responsible for it, unless it is possible for local authorities to provide the land and buildings for housing such people, he will not get very much further.

I will explain another problem with which we have had to cope in London. There were a number of common lodging houses which were satisfactory for the purposes for which they are required, but some of us had rather grandiose ideas about how people should live. We were not satisfied to allow them to live in the way that they wanted. We insisted that they should live in a better style. I recall being upbraided some years ago by an older councillor who accused me of poking my nose into matter which should not worry me. She told me that people had been going to a certain place for as long as she could remember—and she was over 60 years of age. She wanted to know why I should wish to bother about people who were satisfied to pay a few pence a night and to come and go as they wished.

The result of the intervention of myself and others was that the public health authority came into the picture. It said, "You must have toilets, wash hand basins, and so on." Then the fire brigade came on the scene because by then the Government had introduced fire regulations. It said, "You have a large number of people sleeping here. Therefore, you must have adequate fire escape facilities." By the time that the authorities were satisfied about the public standards for which we all argue, they had put her out of business because she could not possibly satisfy all the requirements of the Public Health Acts and keep the house going for people who wanted nothing more than a night's bed.

That is an aspect of this problem which is seldom considered. We seem to divide it into compartments. On the one hand, we talk about the public health and fire problems, and, on the other hand, we raise the problem of single homeless people. We do not realise that what the left hand is doing is causing problems for the right hand.

I hope that we shall hear from the Minister that he will insist that it is his responsibility to take care of this group of people and that he will push the local authorities, especially those outside the inner areas of London, into accepting their part of the responsibility. They have a problem, and it has to be shared by the outer London boroughs, as indeed so many problems have, as, for instance, in terms of housing land, but co-operation specifically is needed for dealing with this problem in particular.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Reginald Frees on (Willesden. East)

Like others in the Chamber I should very much like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) upon introducing this debate. He concentrated on a particular aspect of this question of housing the single homeless persons, on an aspect of a specialised character. If I do not make many remarks on that I want him to be assured that that will certainly not be because of any lack of interest on my part, for I have a particular interest in the whole field of mental health and welfare services stretching back over a number of years, but because I want to concentrate my remarks on the general position of homelessness amongst single people against the background of housing generally. Nevertheless, I hope that the question of care for the disabled—I use that word in the very broad sense—and who are single people will be raised again in this House so that we can get the Government and others to give effect to the many excellent recommendations being made under the general auspices of the Mind Campaign.

During my hon. Friend's remarks, and during the remarks of a number of other hon. Members, there was commendation for the most recent report, the final report of the Joint Working Party on Homelessness in London. I do not wish to knock the report. I find much of it excellent, but I must say that that part of it dealing with housing, and that is mainly the first part of the document, is unimpressive. Not that I object to what it says, but there is nothing fresh in it whatsoever. This is not necessarily a criticism of the people who participated in the work; perhaps it is a criticism of the remit they had and of the background against which they were working. Recommendations which they made so far as the homeless are concerned are good if, in some instances, put in a rather fudgey way, as I would put it; but they are not fresh, but repeats of recommendations made by other working parties. They quote one of the most important recommendations of as long ago as 1969 and from the report of the Standing Working Party on London Housing. This is a point which was touched on, quite properly and very effectively, by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard), and that is the question of rehousing from redevelopment areas.

I am not very much impressed by it. For the most part it ends up with an exhortation to local authorities, but it does not make particular recommendations which are relevant to Government action. I understand the difficulty, it being a report emanating from a Department of Government, but, nevertheless, I should have thought that some reference should have been made to the Government's rôle vis-à-vis local authorities in this work. It makes reference to what local authorities may do by way of im- proving social services, community development for certain people coming out of prison, or psychiatric treatment or mental hospitals and the like, but it makes no reference, having said that it is right that they should do certain things and be encouraged to make provision, to the rôle of central Government. I may have something to say about at least one aspect of the Department's own activities in this field which, so far as I am able to judge, has been a dismal failure. It even makes some statements which I find disturbing and questionable. For example, on page 5: So far as housing is concerned, 86,000 units are provided at the present time by councils in London for single people many of whom are elderly. It would, therefore, appear that the need for additional housing accommodation for this particular purpose is small in relation to London's total housing stock. I am completely baffled by that unargued statement which runs counter to all the known facts of the situation in London. It does not fit in with other observations on housing. To quote that figure and to make the specific statement that greater effort is not very important I find strange and disturbing when the total housing stock in London is diminishing.

Even more startling is the fact that there is no reference in the section dealing with accommodation for single people to the future of the Government's policy on reception centres such as Camberwell and other possible projects. Those are one or two general observations and, having been critical, I stress that I do not object to the recommendations that are made on housing; I am merely criticising points of default.

Several hon. Members have expressed concern at the lack of clear departmental responsibility between the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of the Environment—not to speak of the regional split of functions. I agree that there is a need for clarity, but I am not sure that services for the single person should be concentrated in one Department. There needs to be a clarification of where responsibility lies, but broadly speaking my view is that the social support services should be within the ambit of the Department of Health and Social Security. The responsibility of the Home Office should be brought right across the board, but the "bricks and mortar" of housing accommodation should clearly be the responsibility of the Department of the Environment.

Whichever way it goes, whether responsibility is concentrated in one Department or whether a clear division of function and responsibility is made, we must move rapidly away from the present fudging of responsibility for housing and accommodation between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security. That reflects what is happening in local authorities since the advent of Seebohm. More and more authorities are switching internal responsibility for housing wholly to the housing department, rather in line with what Professor Greve recommended in his report on London homelessness, and making it clear that social service support and case work should lie not with the housing department, the education department and the social services department, or spread across all the departments, but should be concentrated in the social service department in the new set-up following Seebohm. I believe that there should be distinct responsibilities but, whichever way it goes, clarity needs to be established.

In dealing with the general situation, I should like first to state the obvious, namely, that one cannot separate the question with which we are dealing in this debate from the general housing situation in London or in any other urban area. Surprisingly, the total housing stock in London has gone down, despite the tremendous amount of building which has taken place in the last 20 years. A total of about 1¼ million homes have been built in the Greater London area since the Second World War. Some 700,000 of these have been built for owner-occupation, about 9,000 by housing associations and about 500,000 by local authorities. I am giving broad figures. There has been a certain amount of modernisation and slum clearance, but the total housing stock has decreased for reasons of demolition, road building, school projects, slum clearance and the like.

At the same time the size of households has reduced. Family households are tending increasingly to move into the suburban areas, and in the inner London area there is a much greater proportion of single- and two-person households of all kinds. When I refer to households I am not referring to dwellings, but use the term "household" in its departmental sense.

This situation has exacerbated the housing position in central London. In inner London there has been a great growth in the number of single-person households. These are made up of students, elderly people, mobile workers, apprentices and other young people who move in from the suburbs and who share flats and houses. The sort of people involved are clerical, secretarial and young professional people of all kinds. The tendency towards the single-person household is increasing. It is producing the kind of situation which has caused so much concern to those who are closely linked with the Mind Campaign. Although the number of houses has reduced, the number of "households" has increased. This has been the underlying cause of many of the problems.

Against this background we must consider the rapidly decreasing number of rented dwellings in inner London. This is due in part to the reasons which I have outlined, such as demolition, redevelopment, road schemes, and so on, and also to the rapid increase in the number of sales in the private sector. The situation has been exacerbated by the use of rented occupation by, for example, organisations for the use of visiting businessmen, professional people and the like. This aspect is no longer incidental to the London housing scene. It has become a major characteristic of inner London and is reducing the number of family dwellings which are available to people with priority needs. This affects people who are at risk of losing their homes, or indeed who have lost their homes, and this applies to the two-person households, or the single-person households with which we have been dealing in this debate. Something has got to be done about this.

This is not the occasion on which to repeat the story of the work of either the standing working party on London housing of the Department of the Environment of the joint working party of the Department of Health and Social Security on homelessness in London. A number of suggestions have been made during the debate, and I want to make one or two specific suggestions.

There may be ideological reasons for arguing about rented housing as opposed to owner-occupation and the proportions of one as opposed to those of the other. There may be ideological reasons for arguing about whether there should be more public ownership and municipalisation or more and more private ownership and the sale of council houses. But the facts of the situation require that there be an increase in the number of rented dwellings, at reasonable rents, in inner London. That is a central fact. At present the number is going down although the need is growing, for the reasons I have briefly outlined. Therefore it is unfortunate—I say this with no disrespect—that in terms of the major part of the debate and the suggestions I shall make, a Minister from the DHSS is to carry the can in answering the debate. I hope that soon housing will become the responsibility of the Department of the Environment.

Mr. Mayhew

I find it wholly appropriate that this subject should be dealt with by the Department of Health and Social Security. My hon. Friend tempts me to reflect that some of the points he is making are not relevant to the debate.

Mr. Freeson

With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, apart from himself, most hon. Members in the Chamber who have participated in the debate spoke about all kinds of homelessness and not just that of those in need of the social services. We must take this matter in context. I am speaking of the need for more housing for single people and for small households. If we cannot get that, we cannot solve the problems and the special needs to which my hon. Friend referred quite appropriately. If we cannot get the houses built for rent, we cannot house the people my hon. Friend rightly wishes to see housed. One can have a difference of view as to how to rationalise responsibility. But it would be better if housing were dealt with wholly by the Department of the Environment. There can be discussion and differences of view about this, but the matter should be clarified.

In the main, local authorities need to be backed by Government to build more rented dwellings in London to meet all kinds of need, including the needs of single people which are not adequately being met today. Whether or not the Government accept it, it is also important that public authorities cease the indiscriminate sale of rented council accommodation. We are told that the Government have the aim of selling off 50,000 council dwellings in the coming year. They cannot at the same time say that there is a need to encourage the rented sector, for the reasons we have discussed, and then reduce it by selling off thousands of dwellings to the private market. That is what the Government are proposing, but they must change their minds about it.

Thirdly, it is important that local authorities move rapidly, particularly in inner London, into the area covered by the private sector, where we are at risk of this rented sector contracting so rapidly that it will almost cease to exist in any meaningful sense in a few years' time. This is happening all over central London and the inner suburbs. Rented accommodation is just disappearing. If it cannot be held in the private sector—no doubt for sound economic reasons from the private company's point of view—local authorities must take over this rôle, either themselves or in close co-operation with housing associations or the kind of voluntary bodies to which my hon. Friends have referred. This is essential in order to maintain a reasonable supply of rented accommodation for the kind of people we have been discussing.

Fourthly, where necessary, local authorities should be directed to ensure that everyone, including single people, displaced by clearance and redevelopment projects should be rehoused. I point out to the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) that powers exist—I will not go into the details now—for such directions to be issued.

Fifthly, it should be possible for the Minister to direct general hospitals, which are increasingly undertaking psychiatric work and treating the chronically sick and disabled—often these boundaries cross—if they have unused land available, to invite local authorities to provide housing on that land for such families and single people. Some hospitals could do this. The land is available. However, they do not. One hospital in my borough which has been requested on a number of occasions to do this, has taken no notice of such requests.

My last point comes directly within the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Security. Much reference has been made to the Camberwell centre. It is now at least four years since the DHSS, or its predecessor, decided that the size and location of that centre should be replaced by a number of smaller centres throughout London where more rehabilitation and social casework could be undertaken for single people who had to use the centre. I do not know what the ultimate intentions for that site were. I understand it was not to be abolished entirely, but to be reduced in size and to establish a number of smaller centres throughout London.

One such centre was to be in my borough. The building that was purchased from the Territorial Army by the Department, through the agency of the old Ministry of Public Building and Works, has stood empty for four years. No action has been taken to convert it for its proposed needs, although I was informed three to four years ago that the work was in hand with architects of the then Ministry of Public Building and Works, now in the Department of the Environment.

I understand that situation obtains elsewhere in London. Some four years ago buildings and sites were obtained with the idea of embarking on the work roughly 18 months to two years later when the design work and specifications had been drawn up. However, nothing has happened and the buildings stand empty.

This is a disgrace. I said I was startled there had been no reference to this departmental policy in the joint committee's report. I hope that we shall have some indication from the Minister on this aspect. Whatever differences there may be about housing responsibilities, the integration of accommodation and individual social casework was the greatest hope one saw.

I have visited the Camberwell centre and been greatly impressed by the remarkable, sensitive and warm-hearted work that is being done by professional people in very difficult circumstances. We had hopes that there would be a move to greater social casework being done for single people in these circumstances and that it would be undertaken in more appropriate smaller units in the various communities in London with the co-operation of local authorities. However, to this day nothing seems to have been done. I hope we shall receive an encouraging answer from the Minister on this matter.

9.45 p.m

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

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) for initiating what has been an extremely interesting and informative debate. The debate has been so wide that I am feeling like a one-man Government. I assure the House that the understandable concern which has run through the debate is shared by the Government, the local authorities and the voluntary organisations which are doing a good deal of valuable work, including the organisation of which the hon. Member for Woolwich, East is chairman, namely, the National Association for Mental Health, the Mind campaign and the publication which he mentioned.

Rootlessness, homelessness and the growing problems of mobility within our society, and, at the other end of the scale, the difficulties which the development bulldozer has created by redevelopment of areas where there has been natural cheap accommodation available, are problems which come together to produce a situation which is understandably causing concern. It is a good thing that the matter has been ventilated again. It is an immensely wide-ranging problem, as the debate has brought out so clearly.

For example, the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) reminded the House that it is not only a problem of the single homeless; it is also a problem of the family. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) mentioned the devoted care of the single daughter who often finds herself homeless when the tenant of the household dies. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West also mentioned the wider economic and social framework against which these problems have to be seen, and which can so often trigger off problems for people who are vulnerable to the difficulties and circumstances of life.

One of the difficulties which was mentioned in many speeches, including that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), is that it appears to be nobody's business. The responsibility does not appear to be fixed in any particular area. The hon. Member for Woolwich, East made the same point when he said there should be a commission to deal with the problem of homelessness. The hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) had a different view. He felt that there was something to be said for having two Departments involved. I believe that there is a great deal to be said for that approach because we are dealing with problems which concern people's whole lives and not merely one aspect of their lives.

There are, of course, many Government Departments involved. There are the local authority services and a wide range of interests. It is natural to think, as the Mind Report suggested, that by a concentration of concern in a single Ministry there would be better solutions. That, as I am sure the House will agree, would not provide a solution. What worries me about the suggestion is that although the Department of Health and Social Security clearly has the predominant rôle in care and attention, there is an important housing aspect, as the hon. Member for Willesden, East said, which belongs properly to the Department of Environment. There is a risk, if we are not careful, that to diminish the area of responsibility at the centre may be to diminish the prospect of getting better services than now exist.

What we want is not so much one Minister as a comprehensive, co-ordinated effort. From my personal involvement in the problem, I believe that the co-ordination and co-operation, both between the Government Departments concerned, and between them and the local authorities and voluntary organisations, is becoming closer and more effective than it has been hitherto. I am not saying that it is yet anything like right, but as we become more aware of the problem so the will for more effective co-operation will come increasingly to the surface.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, East also mentioned the prison medical service, feeling that perhaps there is need to bring this under one umbrella. The Butler Committee are likely to be considering this aspect of the problem and some of the considerations which he mentioned will be relevant. I am sure he will agree that it would be wise for us to await the advice of the committee before coming to a final conclusion.

The problem of homelessness covers the whole wide range of vulnerable human nature. It ranges, for example, over the difficulties of the young immigrant—the young black person who may in some cases have been born here but who in other cases has come from abroad to join the family, encountering all the difficulties mentioned by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Guy Barnett).

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) described himself as the Member of Parliament for the railway stations. Clearly his constituency has a concentration of those who sleep rough under the railway arches and the like.

In other words, this is a problem of wide range and of immense complexity. But there is some risk of labelling people with a recognisable symptom and trying to treat that. There is a risk of identifying people by the accommodation in which they are found. Many choose to live in lodging houses or hostels, while others in similar circumstances find not much difficulty in getting better accommodation. There is no sharp dividing, line between the many single people, or childless families for that matter, who manage perfectly well without help, and those whose situation we are debating. Rather, there is a continuum shading into inadequacy marked by various signs such as alcoholism, addiction or mental disorder, which might be either cause or effect. Then there is the question of mobility. Here, of course, the situation of students and others coming to London in ever-growing numbers emphasises the difficulty.

The local authority social service departments do not have only the problem of homelessness to deal with in these early days—and it is early days for them. It is just one of a whole series of social problems on their doorstep. I am not saying this in any way to suggest that there is no problem. I have freely admitted that there is and that it is growing. But equally we have to recognise that we cannot expect the local authority social service departments to do everything overnight and all at once. All we can expect is that, through the guidance and help which I shall refer to, they will be able to give a growing place to the problem in the months and years ahead.

It is equally important that we do not exaggerate the extent of the problem or think that everybody who is sleeping rough would stop doing it if only there were a bed available for them. At the moment, one-quarter of the beds in Camberwell are not occupied, and there are vacancies in Rowton houses in Camden Town, Whitechapel and Vauxhall. Some of these people like sleeping rough and will go on sleeping rough whatever facilities and whatever encouragement may be provided to them to do otherwise.

Mr. Mayhew

I do not dispute that, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises that vacancies in Rowton houses and in the Camberwell Government centres today are largely seasonal. When winter comes, these places could well be completely full and there will be a crisis. I agree that we do not know how big the problem is, but will the Department have another official inquiry into the scale of the problem?

Mr. Dean

Yes, I am coming to that. I was merely saying that vacancies are available, but there are still people sleeping rough. I am not saying that there will not be severe pressure on accommodation during the winter months, for there certainly will be.

I turn from this wide-ranging problem to the information that we have about it and what we are doing to provide more information. I warmly agree with the hon. Member for Woolwich, East that we do not know anything like as much as we should about the problem. The Supplementary Benefits Commission has commissioned the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys this autumn to undertake a census of lodging houses and hostels, whether run by local authorities, voluntary bodies, such as the Salvation Army, or commercial organisations; also hostels, crypts and shelters provided by church groups and local bodies, and hostels for special groups such as alcoholics and ex-offenders. In addition there will be interviews with samples of residents.

This information will complement information about the Supplementary Benefits Commission's own reception centres and show how far the lodging houses and hostels represent an extension of the centre's work. A survey of accommodation only has been carried out in London on behalf of the London Boroughs Association. This, too, will help.

In addition, the hon. Member for Woolwich East refered to some of the research work being undertaken. A major contribution to knowledge about the reception centre population will be made by the research team from the Institute of Psychiatry whose report has been recently completed. They have already shown how much the population of Camberwell Reception Centre is affected by illness or disorder or inadequacy of personality. Of some 8,000 passing through the centre in 1970, 1,400 suffered from mental illness, 1,500 from personality disorder, and 2,000 from alcoholism. These figures emphasise what the hon. Gentleman said about the medical needs of a large percentage of the people who use these centres. From the information we have, it is fairly clear that a similar picture applies to other reception centres in other parts of the country.

In addition to these pieces of research, the Supplementary Benefits Commission is also fostering an "action research" project over seven years undertaken by the St. Mungo's Community. The plan is to persuade men sleeping rough to go to a 15-bed "assessment centre" from which they would go to a short-stay hostel suited to their various needs. Three such hostels have already been set up. It is hoped that permanent accommodation would be found for residents. Useful data should come from research into their social and medical histories. These are some examples of the research which is going on.

There has been reference to the working parties on homelessness set up to consider problems in London, and the Bristol and the Cardiff areas. Their reports are naturally most concerned with families with children, but the final London report turns its attention to the single homeless. This report recognised that some redirection of housing policy might be necessary, with more housing suited to the needs of the single homeless and a relaxation of the rules about lodging. On the other hand, the social service departments would need to expand their social work and residential services to help single people needing care and attention.

All three reports recognise that there are problems, whether for families or others, that, particularly in London, could be dealt with sensibly only with close inter-authority working. I entirely accept the view that we cannot expect one local authority which happens to have an institution of this kind within its borders to accept the problems which flow from that. Matters must be arranged on a wider basis.

I note the strong trend to acceptance by the London boroughs of the principles in the first report. All three reports have been sent to over 100 authorities which are affected by them, and there will be discussions with those authorities in the autumn when they have had a chance to study the recommendations. Out of this we hope will come a general statement of policy and aims which can be promulgated in a circular to all authorities at the turn of the year. I hope that answers another point raised by the hon. Member.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his surprise at the fact that the work of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the reception centres is not included there. The main reason is that this report deals with the need for accommodation of a fairly permanent nature, whereas the Supplementary Benefits Commission is concerned with short-term accommodation and therefore in that sense is not within the terms of reference of the working parties.

Perhaps I may turn to the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the reception centres and say a bit more of what they are doing and what their plans are for the future. As I mentioned, the Commission has a responsibility to try to influence people without a settled way of living to lead a more settled life, and for this purpose to provide temporary board and lodging in reception centres. The Commission has no power to promote long-term accommodation whether in the lodging house category or for long- term supportive and rehabilitation purposes.

The Commission maintains 14 reception centres in various parts of the country, and a further four are run by local authorities on the Commission's behalf. These centres provide accommodation for 2,250 people; on average 1,500 beds are used each night. Half the beds are in London where there are three reception centres, one for men and two for women. A centre for men at Camberwell provides, with an annex at Battersea, 988 beds. A further 70 beds can, if need be, be brought into use. An additional annex with 100 beds is due to be opened before the end of the year. The centres for women, at Southwark and Camden provide 90 beds.

I am grateful for the tributes which have been paid during the debate to the devoted work of the staff who work very often in very difficult and trying circumstances in these reception centres. We all recognise that the Camberwell centre is out of date and that it should be replaced. Indeed, it is the policy of the Commission to replace this large antiquated building with a number of smaller centres throughout the London area. Centres are due to open at Willesden early next year and at Notting Hill later next year. Plans are in hand for two other centres. Regrettably, however, there is no immediate prospect of closing Camberwell, because of the increased demand for reception centre beds in London.

Mr. Ronald Brown

The hon. Gentleman has again named two inner London areas which are already stress areas. How many of these places that he is proposing will be built in the outer areas where there is the land and the availability to rehabilitate?

Mr. Dean

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It was for that reason that I stressed the need for this problem to be seen over a very much wider area than one single borough. That is why we are anxious to spread the load over the whole of London, so that one particular area does not feel that it has more than its fair share. Equally in siting these centres, the Commission knows from long experience that they have to be pretty central. Otherwise the people whom we hope to help simply will not go there.

I was about to deal with a point that the hon. Member for Willesden, East raised, when he asked: why the long delay in developing these sites? I have gone into this. I asked exactly the same question myself when I took responsibility for these matters.

There is a series of reasons, the main ones being the understandable difficulties involved in obtaining planning permission from the local authorities concerned and in doing all the other necessary preparatory work. But I hope that the House will agree, from what I have been able to announce, that plans are going forward to relieve the pressure on the Camberwell centre, and before long, we hope, we shall be in a position to replace it by better facilities more in keeping with the type of treatment and care which we wish nowadays to provide.

Mr. Freeson

Although I shall not pursue the point now, I do not accept that there have been such terrible difficulties over the last four years. But will the Minister make clear whether it is intended to start work early next year in Willesden and later in the year, in the summer or autumn, in another district of London, or are we to take it that the centres will open at those two points in time?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must ask hon. Members to be a little more unselfish. This debate began at half-past seven. There remain another 16 or so which have been requested, and I hope that this debate can be concluded as soon as possible.

Mr. Dean

I take note of what you have said, Mr. Speaker, and I shall be as quick as I can in answering as many as possible of the large number of points raised in the debate.

The centre at Willesden is due to open early next year, and the one at Notting Hill later that year. Both are due to open, in other words to be in business then.

The reception centres are essentially clearing houses. Their purpose is to provide a skilled assessment so that those coming to a centre may be dealt with according to their need for medical and social services, or simply for a roof. The centres try to encourage the men and women who go there to settle to a more normal life. They are invited to stay for a time so that the staff may get to know them and help them. Where appropriate and possible, they are referred to specialist services, such as those for the mentally ill. Those who stay receive any necessary medical treatment from visiting doctors, and are helped to regain the habit of work and to find lodgings outside.

Sometimes, a measure of rehabilitation is achieved, but, all too often, unfortunately, in the absence of a continued supportive environment, the good work is wasted and the men drift back to their former way of life. The multiplication of reception centre beds is, therefore, only a palliative. What is needed is action of the kind now being taken to provide appropriate long-term accommodation, particularly of the lodging-house type, or social support in a protective environment.

In that context, I shall say a word about the mental health services which, I know, are of particular concern to the hon. Member for Woolwich, East. The hon. Gentleman made a powerful plea for recognition that one of the results of the Mental Health Act, 1959, is that many more people who previously would have been within some form of institution are in fact released, and, therefore, of the need for additional support and care for them within the community. We entirely accept that. There is no doubt that many of the problems with which we are concerned here are problems with which the mental health services in the community will have to deal. It is for this reason that both those services and the services in hospital are being increased. My right hon. Friend has asked the local authorities to produce 10-year plans for the development of their personal social services, which will include the services required on the mental health side. More money is being made available for these services.

Now, a word about alcoholism, which was mentioned by several hon. Members. Part of the sum set aside for special services—about £2 million—is reserved for services for alcoholics. My Department has accepted responsibility for counselling, treatment and rehabilitation services for all people suffering from alcoholism, including ex-prisoners and other offenders, Six new units have been approved for development bringing the total to 22 with 465 beds, and further additions are being discussed. An accent will be placed on the encouragement of rehabilitation hostels.

Voluntary organisations have been mentioned, and I pay tribute to the splendid work which they are doing amongst the homeless. Equally, we recognise not only their important contribution but their need for financial support if they are to continue to do the work. As a result, both my Department and the Supplementary Benefits Commission make substantial grants to assist these bodies in the work that they do. We believe that the different approach, the informal approach which is possible, can be of considerable help in making contact with these vulnerable people.

Housing is clearly an important aspect which has been referred to and perhaps I may briefly remind the House of two things. First, the Housing Act, 1967 gives authorities all the powers which they need to provide whatever housing is needed, including lodging houses and hostels in their area. Secondly, whatever the size of the housing problem, priorities are a practical necessity. Just after the war it was for the family. In later years it has been possible to do more by way of providing smaller dwellings for the elderly. Now we are reaching the point at which it is possible, we hope, for authorities to be able to do more for the single homeless.

The housing problems of adult families and single people figure in all three working party reports to which I have referred and will figure in the discussions and policy statements which we hope to produce.

The decline in lodging houses was another point which figured largely in the debate, and the decline in the stock of lodging houses and hostels for economic reasons has been one of the disturbing features of recent years. It was highlighted in London by the closure of Butterwick House which was referred to on a number of occasions. There have, in consequence, been intensive discussions in which my Department and the Supplementary Benefits Commission have been involved with voluntary organisations and the London boroughs.

The two propositions now being considered most prominently are, first, that some form of early warning system should be set up by the Government to guard against the effect of unforeseen closures; and, secondly, that the Government should seek to secure the maintenance of an adequate stock of accommodation. Action is being taken on both those fronts, but what is needed is a clear picture of the spectrum of accommodation needs. The Supplementary Benefits Commission's and the London Boroughs Association's surveys will help greatly in this, and so will information from voluntary bodies.

I am sorry that it has not been possible in the time available to deal with all the points that have been raised in this extremely interesting debate, but I hope that I have said enough to convey to the House that the Government are as concerned as are both sides of the House about this problem. We recognise that it is growing, and I hope that I have been able to show, from what I have said, from what we have done and from the plans that we have for the future, that we intend, in co-operation with the local authorities and the voluntary organisations, to see that more is done to deal with it.