HC Deb 21 December 1973 vol 866 cc1803-11

1.0 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I dare say that today a family with four children would be considered large and that a family blessed with six or more children would be considered very large. A hundred years ago a family of six children was probably considered normal. But a family of 12 children, which is the size of the family which I have particularly in mind in this debate on the housing problems of very large families, would be considered to be exceptionally large by any standards.

This short debate is particularly concerned with a specific family, that of Mr. and Mrs. Boneham. There are many other large families in the country, but I know of only perhaps one or two others which are blessed with as many as 12 children, which is an exceptionally large family. The case about which I am talking today is very rare indeed. Therefore, it is probably understandable that, with all the other occupations of a Government today, the very exceptional cases which exist are not, perhaps, examined with the care that they would be if they were more numerous.

As far as I am aware, no special attention has been paid by the departments of housing and local government or, indeed, by any other Government Department in recent years to the problems which are associated with these exceptionally large families. The sort of thing which I should have liked to see introduced and considered for the housing problems of exceptionally large families is a form of directive issued by my right hon. Friend the Minister to local authorities indicating how they should handle their housing needs. It is simply because these cases are so exceptionally rare that, in the hustle and bustle of ministerial affairs today, such a directive has not been issued.

Many of us who have the problems of very large families on our hands in our constituencies feel that not only their housing problems should receive special attention but also their educational and health problems.

I should like to make it clear that I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for being present to answer the debate, because the basic problem of the particular family that I have in mind, that of Mr. and Mrs. Bone-ham, concerns their 12 children and the three-bedroomed council house in which they exist. Knowing well how generous and helpful he is in these matters, I should be most grateful if my hon. Friend can do what he can to help them.

I visited Mr. and Mrs. Boneham's council house at No. 5 Turnville Road, Gilmorton, Lutterworth. Frankly, the conditions under which they exist are such that no Member of Parliament can ever rest until some form of satisfaction is obtained and the matter put right. It may help the House if I give a short description of the conditions under which this very large family live. They have three upstairs bedrooms in this semidetached council house. They are occupied respectively by four children, three children and three children. Mr. and Mrs. Boneham sleep in the living-room downstairs with their two youngest children. The house is well decorated inside and as clean as it possibly can be in view of the stress under which the whole family is living. There is a television set in the living room which may be viewed only by sitting on the bed of one of the four people who sleep in that room.

Mr. Boneham works for English Electric, near Rugby. He has entered into an arrangement with Lutterworth Rural District Council to buy his council house, a course which I am sure my hon. Friend will applaud, as, indeed, do I. I should explain to my hon. Friend that this council house which Mr. Boneham is buying is a semi-detached house, being one of a pair. An opportunity to solve this problem arose for the housing authority, Lutterworth Rural District Council, last year when the other house of the pair fell vacant. At that time Mr. Boneham applied to rent the house next door from the council, with the intention of providing his family with another three bedrooms and extra downstairs accommodation via a new access which would have had to be constructed through the dividing wall. Very unfortunately, however, the Lutterworth Rural District Council decided against that course of action and let the house to another family. Despite continued efforts on my part, the council has not been able to respond and to meet this problem.

I mentioned a little earlier my wish that there had been a departmental directive issued to local authorities on the subject of housing problems of exceptionally large families. If the Department of the Environment had issued such a directive and if that directive had indicated the desirability of local authorities letting a pair of houses to one tenant in these circumstances, the local council would have solved this problem. If such a directive had been issued and if the local authority had taken the advice which it would have given, the need for this debate would not have arisen.

Mr. Boneham was quite prepared to pay the normal rent for the additional council house in addition to the payments for the house which he is now buying. With 14 people in the family, the average number in each of the houses would then have been seven, which is equivalent to a family of two parents and five children, that is, still far larger than the size of the average family in occupation of council houses.

I have raised this matter today to call attention to this particularly exasperating case. I can safely say that I have omitted no channel of investigation. I have approached the Medical Officer of Health for Leicestershire and the social services director, both of whom have tried to their utmost to find a solution to this problem. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services calling attention to the overcrowding in Mr. Boneham's house in the hope that he would be able to interest himself specifically in this problem but, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows, he passed the file to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who on 23rd November wrote to me to say, in the nicest possible way, that he did not see how he could help.

It is very difficult to enjoy Christmas and all that it means when one is aware of families in 20th-century England living in such circumstances. Discounting the large immigrant families, some of whom are perhaps recently arrived in this country and may have relations living with them only temporarily, I believe the case of the Boneham family to be unique. I know of no other example in the country of 12 children living with their parents in a three-bedroom council house.

I hope that my hon. Friend will use the full weight of his Department in the new year to achieve a solution to this unhappy problem, which is urgently desired.

1.11 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) is a most diligent champion of the rights of his constituents.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important question of housing for very large families. In overall terms they do not represent a large proportion of the population, and that proportion is declining. A recent sample survey shows that less than 1½ per cent. of all households have five or more children. At the same time the stock of large houses available is also decreasing. Slum clearance is removing many; others are being converted for use by smaller households. In many areas this decline in the number of larger old houses has gone so far as to make it difficult for large families to obtain the accommodation they need.

The Committee on Local Authority and Allied Personal Social Services commented in its report in 1968 that the large families were among those which were at greater risk than others of becoming homeless or grossly ill-housed. They can be particularly vulnerable, however strong the family unit is. Sometimes income plays a part in this. Another factor is the tendency of the family to be mobile and to gravitate to areas where the pressure on housing is already great.

Housing law has recognised the vulnerability and the need of such families for a long time. There is little detailed provision about the way in which local authorities choose their tenants and allocate their houses. My hon. Friend will understand that the duties in that respect must rest with the local auhorities, which have a detailed knowledge of the local circumstances. One requirement, however, is made quite clear. This is that local authorities shall ensure that a reasonable preference is given to people who are occupying insanitary or overcrowded houses, have large families or are living under unsatisfactory housing conditions.

Local authorities had their attention drawn to the special needs of large families at the end of 1969, when a sub-committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee looked at many aspects of local authority housing management. In its report "Council Housing: Purposes, Procedures and Priorities" the committee made it clear that an important need existed which was in danger of being overlooked and suggested that all local authorities should consider providing a number of large houses in every major housing development. That chapter of the report, which dealt with a number of important needs, was particularly commended to local authorities when they were sent a copy of a report with an accompanying circular, No. 91/69. My hon. Friend will be glad to hear that and will note it particularly in regard to his comments about directives.

In discussing this problem in detail, the report drew on the evidence of local authorities which were alive to the need and had found ways of adapting existing houses, for example by joining two together, by building a side addition to an end-terrace or semi-detached house or by acquiring and improving larger older houses. The committee commended these practices, and I should like to take this opportunity of making clear to local authorities the need to use their ingenuity in these or similar ways.

My hon. Friend referred in particular to the case of his constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Boneham and their family. The Boneham family present a particularly difficult problem. They are a very large family—14 in all—and are at present living in a three-bedroom non-parlour-type house which they are buying from Lutterworth Rural District Council. But I think we have to accept that it would not be reasonable to expect any authority to have immediately available the size of house that the Bonehams obviously need. It is particularly unfortunate that they live in an area where there are very few council-owned dwellings and that they are reluctant to move. Gilmorton is their home, and that is where they want to stay. But the total housing stock of the Lutterworth RDC in the village is only 37 houses, and it is a rare occurrence for a family to move out.

The council will consider the Bonehams' claim for any vacancy that occurs but points out that it cannot forecast when the next house will become available or even that another family, for example one that has no room at all, might not have an even better claim, or that the next vacancy will be in any way suitable to the Bonehams' needs. But in any case the allocation of council houses to tenants is a matter that is entirely the responsibility of the local authority.

Whether a local authority should use its powers to buy an existing house to suit a particular family is also for the authority to decide in the light of financial and other considerations. In the case of the Lutterworth Rural District Council, one of the problems it must weigh is what happens should the Bonehams decide to leave the area or when the children leave home. A house suitable for 14 people, even if one can be acquired in the Gilmorton area, may well not be suitable for other families on the housing list and may also be difficult to sell. These are all matters in which it would be quite wrong for my Department to intervene.

I understand my hon. Friend's feelings, but in all the variety of circumstances of cases throughout the country it would not be possible for a Department such as mine to issue directives to local authorites on the specific way in which they are to discharge their responsibilities.

On the general issues, the acquisition and improvement of existing houses for large families by local authorities and housing associations attract Government assistance through the medium of improvement contributions and additionally, in the case of local authorities, through subsidies payable under the Housing Finance Act 1972, provided those authorities are in deficit on their housing revenue account.

In view of the higher costs in Greater London, increased limits on the Government's contribution apply both to local authorities and housing associations under a special determination. Outside London the limit on the amount of the contribution for housing associations acquiring and improving houses was also increased recently and was weighted in favour of large units to take account of the higher cost of providing them. And in the current review of the grants and subsidies available to housing associations we are bearing in mind the need to ensure that the system does not operate against the interests of large families.

I am pleased to inform hon. Members that the availability of Exchequer help in these respects will not be affected by the measures which were announced last Monday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Since the war, local authorities have concentrated on meeting by new building the overriding need for average-size family homes. Many local authorities are now beginning to look more carefully at the balance of their housing stock and its suitability for the needs of their areas. They are trying to ensure that they know where the deficiencies are and to cater accordingly.

In the last five years the proportion of homes with four or more bedrooms which local authorities have been building has gradually increased from just over 4½ per cent. to just over 7 per cent. At the other end of the scale, the proportion of one- and two-bedroomed dwellings has increased. That is a welcome trend and one which we shall continue to encourage. It makes for a better balance of stock and introduces a greater all-round flexibility of which local authorities can take advantage in developing sensible policies for building, allocation and transfer to meet the needs of their areas. It will work to the benefit of the large family in cramped conditions and, for example, the elderly single person or couple in a dwelling which is too large and which a growing family could put to better use.

Our two White Papers on housing make it clear that we expect local authorities, much more consciously than ever before, to tailor their programmes, both new building and conversion and improvement, to suit the needs which they have discovered and which have shown themselves. When those needs include larger housing units, their programmes should reflect that need.

We shall strongly support councils and housing associations which get on with the job of providing the housing which is needed. Under the present Government there has been no restriction on the numbers and the types of dwelling which a local authority may build in the light of its assessment of the housing needs of its area. The exemption of housing from the reductions in public expenditure announced on 17th December maintains that position.

The introduction of the first national schemes of rent rebates for council tenants and rent allowances for private tenants by the Housing Finance Act 1972 now helps all tenants who are unable to afford the rent of accommodation suited to their needs. The provisions of these schemes have been up-rated twice this year to make them even more generous and to contain rent increases for those receiving this help. The help is matched carefully to the family circumstances of tenants, being most generous for families with dependent children. Each dependent child enhances the eligibility for a rebate or allowance. The adequacy of the provisions of these schemes for all classes of tenants is the main responsibility of the Advisory Committee on Rent Rebates and Rent Allowances set up by the 1972 Act. The committee is ready to receive representations on any difficulties or inadequacies.

I hope that my hon. Friend and hon. Members will agree that the range of housing measures which have been taken or are proposed, although essentially designed to benefit the whole community, will make a considerable contribution to alleviating the housing problems of large families.

Mr. Farr

I am most grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. Bearing in mind that the new district councils will take effect on 1st April 1974, will he ensure that the new district council of Market Harborough, which will include the Lutterworth Rural District Council, is aware of and will have a copy of the regulations and the directives issued in 1969 to which he has referred?

Mr. Eyre

I shall be glad to help my hon. Friend in that respect.