HC Deb 02 March 1973 vol 851 cc1945-56

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

The growing crisis among homeless single people is perhaps the most telling indictment of the indifference and unconcern bred by affluence in a market system, and in response I believe that both the central Government and local gov- ernment have either connived or reacted too feebly and too late.

The crisis springs from the combined effect of two more or less similar trends: one the continually increasing number of homeless single people, and the other the continually decreasing amount of cheap lodging-house accommodation. The crisis is all the more serious because homeless single people are known to be among the most psychologically damaged members of society and least able to tolerate the extra strains put on them by homelessness. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the situation is the manner in which the State has increasingly withdrawn from its social responsibilities in this field, while local authorities all too often fail to rehouse those who are displaced and robbed of shelter by city centre redevelopment.

Estimates of the number of homeless single people in Britain range between 30,000 and 50,000, but there is no certainty because, regrettably, the Government have not carried out any further national survey beyond that which was undertaken by the last Government in December 1965. That survey showed that there were then 985 people sleeping rough, 1,850 people resident in Government reception centres and nearly 29,000 people in common lodging houses, a total of about 31,500 people.

All relevant organisations concerned with this problem agree that the numbers are much larger now. The St. Mungo's Community estimates that the number of people sleeping rough in greater London doubled in the two years to September 1971. A further survey which was carried out at the end of October 1972 found that there were nearly 1,500 people sleeping rough in inner London alone. Undoubtedly this understates the true position because advance publicity enabled a number of dossers to avoid the count, and even the Government admit that the situation is worsening.

In the debate on 19th June 1971 the Under-Secretary of State, after noting that the 1965 report showed there were between 13,000 and 14,000 men and women who sometimes slept rough or were in Government reception centres, said: These numbers have probably increased to some extent since then—there is little doubt about that. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1971; Vol. 820, c. 361.] In circular 32/72, sent out to local authorities six months ago, the Government stated: Since 1970 both the numbers of men using Camberwell reception centre and the numbers sleeping rough in London have increased. The reasons behind this considerable increase are, of course, many but in part it stems from the earlier discharge procedures under the Mental Health Act 1959, in part from the increasing prison turnover and the known high rate of homelessness among ex-prisoners, in part from the growing dimensions of drug addiction and the fact that many victims of that are known to be particularly rootless, but above all from city centre development and the rapid eroding of cheap rented accommodation in most major cities throughout Britain.

The extent of that decline has been accelerating in the last few years. The classic symptom of this trend was the demolition in 1972 of Butterwick House by Hammersmith borough, since it housed 750 men nightly and it was replaced by office blocks and a luxury hotel in conjunction with the West London Air Terminal, with, be it noted, a £1,000-a-bed subsidy provided by taxpayers. Help was given for building that hotel but apparently it is not forthcoming either to save or to rehouse single men thus deprived of basic shelter.

The same trends have been apparent elsewhere in the country. The Elephant and Castle Rowton House was lost two years ago when its 880 places at 45p a night for the homeless were replaced by yet another two-guinea a night hotel. Lodging-houses have been closed recently, for example, in Glasgow, Southampton, Colnbrook, Edinburgh and Liverpool.

The decline in the number of beds has also been steep. Christian Action, which has made the most recent estimates, has indicated that the number of common lodging house beds in London has gone down over the last decade by more than 25 per cent. from some 6,400 to 4,700, and the number of Rowton beds in London has declined even more steeply, from more than 4,500 to fewer than 2,200. In Birmingham over the same period the drop has been even greater—by 40 per cent. from over 800 to 485. Nor, indeed, are there any signs of any halt to this process. In Southwark, for example, there are proposals for the gigantic redevelopment of the Hay's Wharf complex which would drastically reduce the amount of cheap lodging accommodation for the homeless in this part of London.

All this growing problem is compounded by the gradual but decisive ebb of State responsibility in this area of need. In 1948 there were some 250 reception centres in Britain. Now there are only 17 or 18. Statutory bodies, it would seem, have withdrawn from this work, because the work is very untidy, often extremely demanding, the customers often ungrateful and even violent; but the social rehabilitation work which is done in reception centres, which is entirely lacking from private lodging houses, is particularly crucial. The Under-Secretary of State has said that of 8,000 persons passing through Camberwell centre in 1970, 1,400 suffered from mental illness, 1,500 from personality disorder and 2,000 from alcoholism. That shows the importance of keeping up the numbers of these centres. It is all very well to quote the excellent work done in one centre by Dr. Tidmarsh's very good social psychiatry unit. The important issue is that there are far more persons suffering from alcoholism, mental depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, tuberculosis and drug and meths addiction who are either living rough or in lodging houses, and nothing by way of rehabilitation is being done for them.

The problem is further aggravated by the reprehensible reluctance of local authorities to rehouse those who are deprived of shelter. Hammersmith made plans for only about 20 per cent. of those who lost shelter when Butterwick House was destroyed. Local authorities have chosen to restrict their responsibilities under Section 21 of the 1948 Act to the rehousing of homeless families, although the Act speaks specifically of homeless persons. Without justification, local authorities have tended to accept only single persons who are either aged or infirm and to neglect the discharged mental patients, ex-prisoners and drifters without families who are not aged or infirm but who equally need help.

One further twist to the situation is Section 195 and Schedule 23 of the Local Government Act 1972, which have been interpreted by local authorities as effectively weakening their duties under Sections 21 and 24 of the National Assistance Act 1948. Previously, according to that Act, local authorities had a duty to the homeless. Now they are merely empowered to take the necessary measures, although, correspondingly, central Government obligations have been increased, in that local authorities are empowered to take action to such an extent as the Secretary of State shall direct. We shall look with interest to see how those powers are used.

I am well aware that the Government have taken certain action. For example, the Supplementary Benefits Commission asked in the autumn of last year for an OPCS survey of lodging houses and other places frequented by homeless single persons. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will give us the results of that survey so that we may know how far the position has worsened and where the pressures are greatest.

In paragraph 5 of circular 32/72 the Government told local authorities: As a first step it is suggested that authorities should consider in whatever depths seems appropriate what needs there may exist in adults with personality disorders in their area and, in the light of their findings, what action they should take to discover for themselves how best to meet those needs. What has been the result of that circular, and how have local authorities responded? This is a crucial point, as the Under-Secretary of State himself said: … 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd August 1972; Vol. 842, c. 691.] The circular I have mentioned states: The Secretary of State is inviting local authorities at this stage to promote modest experimental schemes to determine which methods of rehabilitation are most successful, how many people are in need of this type of help, what proportion can be helped to return to a normal life in the community and to establish some criteria of success. What tangible results have been achieved by local authorities, according to the information that the Under-Secretary of State has?

My main point is that, given the urgency of this siuation, such mild, exhortatory advice as is contained in that circular is scarcely enough.

I wish to make several policy proposals. The first is the obvious but essential one that the Government should request local authorities to prevent, or at least discourage, any further reduction in cheap lodging house accommodation in their areas. I recognise that this may require the compensating of local authorities in specified circumstances for any rating loss that might be involved in forgoing commercial redevelopment of dosshouse areas. That is merely to reassert a human need against the immediate requirements of commercial exploitation. That is the least that the Government should do.

Having left too much responsibility for too long with voluntary organisations, the Government should much more vigorously promote statutory action, not merely one or two model research projects.

Circular 32/72 states: It may be that some of these people can at a later stage become residents of small specialised hostels but meanwhile it is important that their existing social work needs be recognised and assessed and arrangements made to provide whatever help is available directly or in association with voluntary organisations. But I believe that the provision of small community psychiatric hostels, plus small units for groups such as alcoholics, should not be so easily put off for the future. On the basis of a careful survey of local need, all major towns in Britain should be required to make fully adequate provision of this kind within their current 10-year health and welfare plans.

Thirdly, collaboration with voluntary bodies should be more far-reaching and effective. I quote once again from circular 32/72: Local authorities might consider approaching suitable voluntary bodies and encouraging them to set up homes to provide long-term care with appropriate financial help from the local authority under the 1968 Act or by accepting financial liability for the care of individuals. How far has that proposal been actively used?

The important point is that once the extent of need has been identified and located by a new national survey, local authorities should be required within an acceptable period either to make provision for this need through full and effective support of voluntary bodies or to provide the necessary accommodation themselves. This surely is the least to be expected. The Department, however, has said that it will consider giving loan approval for projects of this kind undertaken directly by an authority or by way of capital grant to a voluntary organisation.

Fourthly, the overriding requirement must be to ensure that local authorities use such powers as they possess for this purpose. Since under the 1948 Act they are required to guarantee temporary accommodation for homeless persons in accordance with the recommendation of the two Department of Health and Social Service working parties which reported last July, single people and childless couples should not be excluded from temporary accommodation for the homeless provided by local authorities. Furthermore, where a local authority is clearly still failing in its responsibility towards the homeless, the Secretary of State should use his powers under the National Assistance Act 1948, as reinforced by the Local Government Act 1972, to order a council to act and, where still necessary, he should override the local authority's housing powers to guarantee the right to a home. If the Government are prepared to use such powers to force up rents under the Housing Finance Act, they should at least do as much to give minimum protection to the homeless.

4.18 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for raising this important subject. This topic has been discussed in the House a number of times recently, and this shows the growing interest and concern in this problem. It is an unhappy manifestation of the modern, mobile, restless society in which we live. It reflects the strains on family life and on moral standards, and the backlash of permissiveness. It is not a new problem. It is as old as human nature and as varied. It is a growing problem with disturbing new features.

The availability of accommodation, as the hon. Gentleman said, is shrinking, particularly lodging houses and hostels, and the impact of redevelopment and rising costs tend to aggravate the situation.

The Government are concerned about both aspects of this problem, and we are acting directly and with local authorities and voluntary organisations. Our approach is on the lines that single homeless people first need compassion and understanding and then, as appropriate, a home, care and treatment—I say "as appropriate" because conditions and needs vary. At one end of the scale is the man who is single or living away from his family who is fit in mind and body and has a job but needs lodgings—a landlady or Rowton House. Then there are those who need not only a roof but sympathetic support in coping with the ordinary pressures of life. There are those with mental or drink problems who need care and specialist treatment. Some have sunk to the bottom and given up the battle. One stage in the downward cycle can easily slide into the next and the next. But there are many encouraging examples where this downward cycle has been prevented from setting in or has been arrested after it has started. Prevention is the aim. Cure comes in when this fails.

I have had the opportunity of seeing at first hand a little of the work done with the homeless, and I pay warm tribute to voluntary bodies, local authorities and reception centres for the dedication and enthusiasm that they bring to their mission. For a century or more, voluntary bodies with a strong religious motivation, such as the Salvation Army and the Church Army, have been working effectively among the homeless. In recent years new organisations, in which young people are prominent, have joined them. We believe that the volunteers will continue to have a major rôle, and the Government are eager to help in every way possible.

What is the scale of the problem? As the hon. Member for Oldham, West said, there are sparse figures available and any which are available must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Often when figures are available there is no clear definition of what is regarded as the homeless category. Some of the figures have included people living in lodging houses even though they do so from choice and remain there for many years. Some include people in prison who have no fixed address at the time even though many may obtain accommodation when they are discharged. Others include people in hospitals. Inflating the size of the problem does not help solve it. What is more, it is not possible to count the exact numbers sleeping rough. No figure can be accepted as exact. Some people hide themselves away and may be missed. Others move about in the night and may be counted twice. There is no way of counting those dossing in private "crash pads".

For these reasons it seemed better for the Department to concentrate efforts on finding both temporary and long-term ways of helping rather than to expend staff time and energy on a repetition of the count undertaken by the National Assistance Board in 1965 which found fewer than 1,000 people sleeping rough in Great Britain, a figure challenged even by the organisations which helped to make the count.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West referred to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which carried out a survey of the lodging house accommodation. We hope later in the year to have its report on both the quantity of beds and the amenities offered in this kind of accommodation. Preliminary results show that a great many lodging houses and hostels have closed during the past eight years but that a substantial number have opened and that there has been a net loss of about one bed in six in that period.

What is being done to deal with the problem? First, better understanding and co-ordination between those involved is very important—the Home Office with its responsibility for discharged prisoners, the Department of the Environment with its responsibility for housing along with the local authorities, the Department of Health and Social Security with its responsibilities for health and welfare, local authorities and the voluntary organisations. Substantial progress has been made in recent times in getting these different groups round the same table to discuss common problems and a joint approach.

Undoubtedly, more research is needed, and the growing interest in the problems of homeless single people exemplified in the recent study of men in Camberwell by David Tidmarsh is welcome.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the circular sent to local authorities and voluntary organisations last year. Before sending that circular we reviewed, in con- sultation with them, the ways in which more help could be given to single adults without permanent homes who because of personality disorders were in need of long-term accommodation and support. Such persons without a settled way of life circulate through reception centres, lodging houses, prisons, hospitals and sleeping rough, and organised objective information about them is only slowly accumulating, so that it is not possible to recommend any precise pattern of service to meet the need.

In the circular issued to local authorities last September, it was suggested that they should consider what need existed among adults with personality disorders in their area and decide, in the light of what they found, the best action to take to meet that need. It suggested ways in which support and rehabilitation might be provided for this group, and authorities were invited to promote experimental schemes to determine which methods of rehabilitation are most successful, how many people are in need of this type of help, and what proportion can be helped to return to a normal life in the community, and to establish some criteria of success.

The Department is prepared to consider giving loan approval for projects undertaken directly by an authority or by way of capital grant to a voluntary organisation in this work. The Government have found an encouraging response, despite the many other claims on the resources of local authorities, both for housing and for social services, but it is still too early to be able to give the hon. Gentleman any specific information.

Then there are the working parties on homelessness, which have been operating in London and in the South-West. They have now reported, and their reports are being considered. As far as the London end is concerned, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction met representatives of the London Boroughs Association and of the Greater London Council in January to discuss implementation of the recommendations of the first report of the working party which concentrated on homeless families. The London boroughs are still considering the recommendations contained in the final report, which dealt with, among other things, homeless single people, but they have been assured that Ministers are prepared to discuss these recommendations with them as soon as they are ready to do so.

These, then, are some of the main examples of research and joint planning to improve the services.

I turn now to the question of reception centres. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said about them, we now have a £2 million four-year programme to improve them. For example, we have just opened a new reception centre in Leeds. Two new reception centres are being constructed in former drill halls in Willesden and Notting Hill and will open later this spring and summer. Another centre, in Sittingbourne, will open in the autumn. We have plans for centres in South London, Southampton and Leicester. Several others, notably those in Newbury, South Wales, Derby and Sheffield, are being extended. It is interesting to note that throughout the winter there have been spare beds in the reception centres in London. There has been more accommodation this winter but less demand for it. For example, at no time during the winter has the Camberwell centre been full.

I turn now to the question of the voluntry bodies, which the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned. We are making considerable use of the powers available whereby the central Government can aid voluntary bodies. I am considering here both my Department and the Supplementary Benefits Commission. I will give the hon. Gentleman figures to illustrate the increase in support which has been given.

Grants have doubled recently. In 1971–72 they totalled about £60,000; in 1972–73 the figure is up to £150,000. A number of the smaller voluntary bodies concerned have decided to come together to pool their knowledge and combine their talents in an organisation called "CHAR"—the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless. The Department recently agreed to grant aid to this new venture for an experimental period. In addition to this, local authorities and growing numbers of people are providing assistance through their own funds for voluntary schemes in their own areas. These figures show clearly the substantial additional support which is being given for housing, but a great deal more remains to be done.

The Furnished Lettings (Rent Allowances) Bill will provide rent allowances for the first time for some vulnerable single people in furnished accommodation. Another useful contribution is an increase from £15 to £30 to be made in the rate of hostel subsidy under the provisions of the Housing Finance Act.

However, the Government are keenly aware that much more will have to be done to meet the needs of those single people who are most vulnerable to the pressures on accommodation of the cheaper sort. We recognise that more adequate arrangements must be made, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services are looking urgently at this problem.

I hope that in the short time that has been available to me I have been able to convey to the House that, while we recognise there is a growing problem here, equally a great deal more has been done in recent times to help meet it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.