HC Deb 19 December 1975 vol 902 cc2032-44

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)

I suppose that most hon. Members over the next week will more than once hear the words of the second chapter of St. Luke's Gospel about the plight of the most famous homeless, if only temporarily, family of all time. It is right at Christmas that our thoughts should turn to those families who are without a home and that Government and voluntary effort should be directed to their needs.

I want, in this last debate before the recess, to draw attention to the plight of an increasing number of single people in our major cities who are without a home. Before embarking on my main remarks, I should declare an interest—although in no way a financial one—as chairman of the trustees of the charity "Crisis at Christmas" and as chairman of a voluntary housing association.

The charity Crisis at Christmas, to which the right hon. Member for Newham, North- East (Mr. Prentice) and the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) give an all-party flavour, is active only at this time of the year in raising funds for the agencies dealing with the single homeless and providing food and shelter over the period for several hundred single homeless people in central London. Incidentally, any hon. Member who is approached by the British Poultry Federation with the offer of a free turkey, as has been suggested in one national newspaper this morning, need fear no accusation of accepting a bribe: he can pass it on to Crisis at Christmas, and we shall make sure that it goes into the stomachs of those who would otherwise have no sort of proper Christmas dinner.

In the course of 1975, the House will have become aware that there is a serious and growing problem of single homelessness, highlighted perhaps most dramatically in the film "Johnny Come Home", which hon. Members will have seen either in the Grand Committee Room or in their homes. It shows how grim the situation is. Any hon. Member who represents an inner city constituency knows how young men and women arrive at city centres, for one reason or another lose their accommodation, and then may easily lose their jobs and get into a vicious downward spiral which leads to their becoming down and out. The unemployment which faces us at the moment makes the dangers of young people and old people alike being caught up in this vicious spiral very much greater, and we know that prospects for increasing unemployment, both generally and particularly among the young, must be very grave for the foreseeable future.

Even though I am raising this matter in what I hope will be almost entirely a non-political spirit, I must mention the impact of the Rent Act 1974 in drying up the supply of furnished accommodation, which was the traditional resort of young people coming to the city for the first time. I do not know whether the Under- Secretary is yet able to give any evidence of the working of the Act, but I take the announcement of the Secretary of State that the system of rent control is to be reviewed as being at least in part an acknowledgement that the Act of 1974 may not have operated entirely satisfactorily in this regard. We also know of the problem of young West Indians who, in domestic clashes, opt to leave home to sleep rough and who present a problem in London and in one or two other cities.

It is a real and growing problem. Of its nature, it is almost impossible to quantify with any precision. But in the annual report of Crisis at Christmas the assertion is made that we must think in terms of about 100,000 single homeless people this Christmas.

At the same time as the problem is growing so fast, so the voluntary bodies seeking to deal with it are being hit from several sides. In the first place, the increased demand which they face places them very much in a Catch 22 situation. The vast majority of the agencies would wish not only to be able to engage in rescue work for people actually homeless at present, and not only to be able to work on the rehabilitation of those who have gone down this vicious spiral and found themselves homeless, but to be beginning to undertake preventive work where this is possible and so to minimise the problem for the future. So great has been the increase in demand for their rescue services that many of them are having to stop preventive and rehabilitation work which they were planning and in some cases had actually started in recent years.

Secondly, like every other institution and individual, they have been ravaged by the impact of inflation upon their affairs. The examples of the closure of Salvation Army hostels in Liverpool and Bath and the Church Army hostel in Liverpool, the collapse of the Cure Hostel in London and even the collapse of the Cyrenian Homes were all examples of inflation and the way in which organisations with fixed grants have had their work disrupted by increasing costs.

Again, although in no party political sense, I put a comment from the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless: A series of economic measures have been taken by the Government to emphasise the serious decline in our national wealth. For single homeless people, and the voluntary organisations which provide for so many single people their only escape from the streets, the effect of these measures has been serious in 1974–5 and could be devastating in 1975–6. Inflation, public finance policy and the impact on fund raising have all had their effect on these charitable bodies. They are not alone.

All charities have suffered to one degree or another from this impact. It is inevitable that when, for the first time for many years, many individuals and families find their own standard of living and security being threatened, their concern for their fellow men and women who are less fortunate should move further down the agenda. It has been estimated by Mr. Mooney of the Charities Aid Foundation that the impact of inflation alone on services in the country as a whole means that some £65 million will be needed to compensate them.

There we have the problem. No one doubts that it is serious and growing. What can we do about it? In the long and medium term we can take several steps. The Government have announced their decision to place statutory responsibility on housing authorities to provide for the homeless, but I imagine that such provision would ignore the single homeless. Certainly in the past, once one reached the age of 17, unless one was under the control of a probation officer, there was no provision for the single homeless, and it would be an immense encouragement to everyone working in this area if the hon. Gentleman could tell us when the legislation will include the single homeless, although I doubt whether he will be able to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) has a motion on the Order Paper proposing a Select Committee of the House to study the problem. Does that suggestion find favour with the Secretary of State?

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane), who has been fortunate in the Ballot for Private Member's Bills, has a Bill in draft which would both tackle the question of statutory responsibility for the homeless and restore in one form or another, yet to be finally decided, the provision of short- term terminable leases in an attempt to bring back into use some of the private empty property which would be suitable for the housing of single people. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be more forthcoming than the Department has so far been in looking afresh at these proposals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) has put forward a Bill along these lines. Both Shelter and Booker and Gray have made suggestions for a housing emergency office, which is an alternative approach to the same problem. It is essential, if we are to check the increase in homelessness, that something be done to cope not simply with the empty properties in public hands, but with empty properties in private hands, which, for one reason or another, owners are reluctant to put on the market at present.

The Minister reminded me at Question Time the other day that he had encouraged local authorities to let their tenants take in lodgers rather than discourage them in the way that had been traditional in the past. I should like to see this encouragement to maximise the use of our housing stock—and I understand the Secretary of State's target—extended in a more imaginative way. I wonder whether he could persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to exempt from income tax the first tranche of income received from letting off rooms in an owner- occupier's own home. I believe that in any case there is widespread evasion of this tax, and I do not suppose that my suggestion would cost the Treasury very much. It might be a major encouragement to people who are not using the whole of their accommodation as efficiently as they might to take in lodgers and thus help in providing accommodation for young people.

The Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless has made various suggestions, ranging from the provision of information booths at the main railway terminals in London to the extension of small hostels and the re- emphasis in the general housing policy of the needs of the single homeless. All these suggestions have merit in them and ought to be considered with great care, but we are faced with an immediate crisis with which these measures cannot begin to cope in time. We are faced with a crisis in which the numbers of single homeless are growing, and the agencies provided for them are cutting back their services and some, indeed, are in danger of collapsing. Unless we are prepared to stand by and watch this happen, we must examine alternative solutions. They may, indeed, not be alternative but may have to go hand in hand.

First, we need more generosity from the public. I believe that there is a growing awareness of the sort of hell that is represented by homelessness. If at this time of Christmas, when we are reminded of the problem, the public could not only financially but in terms of their own time and voluntary effort give higher priority to the needs of the homeless, and the plight of the young homeless in particular, we should all very much welcome such an approach.

The second possibility is Government help. I know that this is no time to be advocating new priorities for public expenditure. Yet I have to enter—and I do it only in passing—a query whether the Government have their priorities right in launching a monster like the Community Land Bill, at a time when there are many smaller steps which they could take to help those who are homeless or otherwise in need in our society.

I do not want to see a huge programme of Government- sponsored hostels set up all over the country. The most efficient and flexible way for the Government to help in the plight of the single homeless would be to give help to the voluntary agencies facing this cash crisis. The voluntary agencies are able to cope much more flexibly with the conditions of the single homeless. They spend their money more economically than the local authorities are able to do.

By definition, many of the single homeless at the moment would be extremely reluctant, as they see it, to come into the grips of a local authority or a statutory organisation. But, because of the differing provisions which can be made by voluntary agencies, they are able to catch many of these unfortunate men and women in their net.

This has been all too brief an opportunity to raise the subject of this increasing problem. We have a crisis this Christmas of single homelessness. My fear is that it will get worse in 1976. I hope that this brief debate will do something to make the general public more aware of the problem and to prompt the Government to begin to do something about it.

4.14 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) for raising this serious human problem, and I pay tribute to his own involvement in the important voluntary activity to which he referred. As he said, it is fitting that we in the House of Commons, in this very last debate before the Christmas Recess, should be reminded of the acute problem of single people who are homeless.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his recent speech to the local authority associations, there is an unhappy paradox in the existence nationally of more houses than we have households and the coexistence of acute housing difficulties and homelessness. Succeeding Governments in fact seem to have been least successful at helping the poorest or the unluckiest 10 per cent., who include many of the single homeless to whom the hon. Gentleman referred.

Homeless single people are not a homogeneous group. Nobody knows just how many there are. I think that everyone would accept as homeless those sleeping out at night, the 1,800 in reception centres, those who have to move around from one lodging house to another, and some who end up in prison overnight or have nowhere to go on discharge from hospital. But we must remember that many live in lodging houses year in and year out, from choice, and many of those who enter prison or hospital from no fixed abode are able to obtain accommodation on discharge.

It is difficult to form an accurate idea of the numbers of those sleeping rough. They do not like being counted and some can disappear if they learn that a count is to be made. They also move around in the night, and it is easy to count them twice. It is impossible to produce accurate estimates of young people "crash- padding" with friends.

A count of homeless single persons organised by the National Assistance Board in 1965 found 965 persons, of whom 45 were women, sleeping rough in Great Britain. The figures for London were 247 men and 28 women. The St. Mungo Community Trust organised a count of people sleeping rough on the night of 20th October 1972, and it found 1,225 men and 190 women in 14 central London boroughs.

The basic causes of homelessness among single people include the increasing number of single-person householders and a reduction in the amount of suitable accommodation for them.

In 1931 the proportion of one- person householders in the total population was only 7 per cent. Forty years on, by the 1971 Census, this proportion had increased to 20 per cent. The evidence of Scandinavia and Switzerland suggests that the proportion could rise further yet. There are increasing numbers of old people, who now live longer, often alone. There is the breakdown of marriages, and the wish of more young people to set up earlier on their own or to move away from home for their work or education. The private rented sector, on which many single people have depended, to which the hon. Gentleman made proper reference, has continued to decline at the rate of about 100,000 lettings a year—and, in fact, it has gone on over 20 years. We are looking at the effect of the Rent Act and so on, and we are concerned about this aspect of the matter.

Some cheaper accommodation has disappeared on redevelopment. With changing social patterns and the growth of affluence, fewer people wish or need to take in lodgers, and some of those least able to compote or cope have been forced out of the housing market into homelessness.

The variety of the needs of single people can be as great as that of homeless families. The family itself usually provides stability and support. But among the most vulnerable are the single people who, as research has shown, are beset by a variety of other problems than the fact or the risk of homelessness—heavy drinking, alcoholism, the habitual use of drugs, psychiatric disturbances and personality disorders. Many homeless single people, too, are probationers or have been in prison or borstal, and follow the miserable cycle of hospital, prison and pad.

The Gleaves Affair and the television programme "Johnny Go Home" have drawn further attention this year to the plight of young people adrift in the centre of large cities, especially London. The main problem does not concern juveniles, who are covered by the various pieces of children's legislation, but concerns those perhaps between 17 and 25 who, through lack of foresight or resources, or just bad luck, find themselves in an unfamiliar city without a roof over their heads and so vulnerable to sexual or financial exploitation.

The Government have been active in seeking ways of combating this problem, which is very difficult. We are far from complacent. We are concerned about what can be done. After the Gleaves case, discussions were held between the Government Departments principally concerned, local authorities and representatives of the many voluntary organisations in this field. Following the showing of the television film "Johnny Go Home", a stronger working group was formed with wider representation in order to consider fully the accommodation and Other needs of homeless young people in inner city areas. The topics being reviewed by the working group include measures to dissuade young people from coming to London and other large cities without making proper plans; improving information services at travel termini; better monitoring by statutory bodies of the voluntary organizations they help; and a more effective information network to ensure that helping-organisations are aware of hostels with problems.

Work with homeless single people, whether they need care and support or not, has traditionally been a field for voluntary effort. We cannot overemphasize the tremendous work done by individuals in this area. Although the statutory services—the Supplementary Benefits Commission, the probation and social services, the hospitals and the youth service—have a very important and growing part to play, many of the people who need longer-term help find that difficult to accept unless it is offered in a way which falls in with their own ideas and does not smack of authority. Voluntary bodies have responded to this challenge, and have been able to offer the dedication and approach to which these men and women are most likely to respond.

The help required by those who not only lack a roof over their heads but have other problems can range from the mutual support derived from living with others to the intensive care needed by those with problems of alcoholism and personality disorders. It includes first-aid and rescue work, soup runs and night shelters. It is in the field of providing a roof-plus that the voluntary bodies, it seems to me, are particularly good. It is here that the personal touch is most important. In saying this, I do not forget all those in the probation service, in the reception centers and in local authority social services departments who likewise display a high sense of dedication.

The bulk of accommodation for those single people at risk of being homeless is provided by large bodies, but increasing numbers of small local groups are opening accommodation of the hostel or shelter type with varying degrees of social work support. But it is not enough simply to provide accommodation. Those who have no employment require somewhere to go during the day, and a few day- centers have been opened which seek To combine warmth and companionship with work of a therapeutic nature. In some areas local authority social workers and probation officers work closely with voluntary projects, and we as a Government intend to encourage the development of this type of facility.

We must improve co-ordination between all the official and voluntary organizations. We have gone some way in Government. Indeed, I am speaking today on behalf of a number of Departments. In addition, the House will know of the statement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction on Monday, saying that we are calling a series of meetings with Government, local government and voluntary bodies to consider the intended legislation on homelessness responsibilities.

I sympathise with those who feel that the plight of the single homeless is so serious that nothing should stand in the way of giving to the voluntary organizations which work with them as much money as they think necessary. Resources will never, under any Government, be enough to do right away all the things that are needed. Certainly, in the general climate of economy and restraint in which we live today, the disagreeable fact must be faced that choices have to be made between many deserving proposals, and we have to take decisions about priorities. I believe that, without being in any way complacent, we should recognize the level of resources that is being provided. Our policy is to keep going those voluntary initiatives which are most useful and valuable. There is a variety of ways in which Government help is made available to voluntary bodies. The Urban Aid Programme, the Voluntary Services Unit, prison after-care, the Department of Health and Social Security and the Supplementary Benefits Commission are all involved.

I want to spend two or three minutes on the main theme which runs through all the discussion on homelessness—the need to provide housing of the right sort in the places where people need it. When all is said and done, all of those who are homeless, whether single or not, have a basic need for housing accommodation. For the relatively few, that shelter might have to take the form of institutional care but not for most people.

The impact on the housing market of demographic changes which have led to more than half the households in Britain consisting of only one or two people is only now being appreciated. Attention was drawn to the situation in Department of the Environment Circular 24/75. A large part of our housing problems is due to the mis- match between the present housing stock and the nature of the needs and demands that the families and people of today are making on it. We see single people not in isolation but as part of this complex of supply and demand, while recognizing what I think will be common ground, which they have not in the past, had sufficient place in housing policy.

The importance of the Housing Act 1974 for single people has, in my view, not yet been properly appreciated. It introduced greatly increased help through housing association grant and housing deficit grant for registered housing associations whose experience in meeting the needs of particular groups should be especially useful to single people. It recognized for the first time that hostels were a form of housing eligible for the same subsidies and housing association grant as self- contained dwellings. There was also a special form of hostel deficit grant.

Substantial financial help is thus now available for the construction, conversion or improvement, and the management, of a range of accommodation to meet all single people's needs. In introducing the changes relating to hostels we had particularly in mind the need to provide for those people at the bottom of the social and housing ladder to whom the Crisis at Christmas publication "Out in the Cold" refers.

The answer lies not only in adding to our housing stock but in correcting our past failure to make the best use of the stock that already exists. We are pursuing a number of lines of action. We look to the new possibility of bringing into use new forms of tenure. I do not suggest that we can rest content in the belief that the support we are giving to voluntary organizations will meet all the needs of the single homeless, but I hold that, taken together, they represent a substantial contribution.

As regards legislation, we are in consultation with the local authorities and The voluntary bodies. The discussions will include the position of single people who may become homeless. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall take a very special note of the suggestions that he has made.

I have tried to indicate some of the difficult problems associated with single homelessness. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that we are doing more than is sometimes appreciated to help the voluntary bodies and through our broader housing policies, some of which are particularly designed to alleviate the housing stress of single people. But our concern does not stop there. I assure the House that we regard this matter as urgent and serious. It is a great human social problem and it is appropriate that it should be raised at this time. We hope that the legislation that is coming forward and the discussions we are having with those voluntary bodies which know a good deal about the problem will result in a lessening and in a eventual solution of this terrible problem.

As I am the last person to address the House today. I convey my Christmas greetings to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to Mr. Speaker's Department, to all who are concerned with the running of the House and to all those who help us in so many ways. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a very merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

I thank the Minister for his kind remarks, which are much appreciated. I reciprocate the hon. Gentleman's good wishes.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock till Monday 12th January, pursuant to the resolution of the House yesterday.