HC Deb 31 July 1975 vol 896 cc2359-90

7.3 a.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

In raising the problem of runaway and homeless children, I am conscious that I am raising only one part of what is a major problem. Nevertheless, I think there is general agreement on both sides of the House—certainly it is the view of my hon. Friends and myself—that we should give special priority to policy concerning children, and for very good reasons. The interests of children need our concern and protection. If we fail to give that protection, that omission cannot be easily corrected or repaired. Failure to deal adequately with the interests of children can have serious repercussions on adult lives.

The problem of runaway children is perhaps one of the most difficult with which to deal. Each year hundreds of children leave home and make for the big cities. In many cases they go to London, but we must remember that London is not the only big city in Britain. This is a problem that is shared by other major cities such as Birmingham, where the St. Basil Centre runs a night shelter. It is the problem faced by the runaway child in Britain's maior cities upon which I shall concentrate.

Public concern has been aroused by the television programme entitled "Johnny Go Home" and by the newspaper reports following that film, and rightly so. What has been revealed is nothing less than a major scandal. It is not my intention to apportion blame, it is not my intention to offer instant solutions, rather my argument is that the case establishes the need for a full and detailed inquiry to be set up by the Government into policy in this area. It is my case that a full-scale inquiry would serve best the interests which this House should seek to protect. They are the interests of the children.

Let me briefly recap on that case. In the late 1960s a man called Roger Gleaves decided to start a series of hostels for homeless men and boys in London. With disturbing ease he registered three charities with the Charities Commission and progressively built up a chain of hostels, with the co-operation of both Government Departments and local councils. Children and young people were referred to him by official agencies and voluntary organisations, and with the co-operation of British Transport Police he regularly visited stations such as Euston and Victoria to offer shelter to new arrivals.

Unhappily, there was one major defect. That was Gleaves' record. In 1959 Gleaves had been sentenced to three years in prison for an offence concerning an Army cadet, and in 1971 he was given a two-year suspended sentence for an offence involving a 14-year-old boy. That was the man who was not only operating hostels for children and young people but also receiving official help and public money for so doing.

The story was completed this year when three men working with Gleaves were sent to prison for life for the murder of Billy McPhee, a former resident at one of Gleaves' hostels, while Gleaves himself is currently serving a four-year sentence on charges of buggery and assault.

I would suggest that those facts alone make out the case for an inquiry, for there is no disputing the evidence, and no one, I imagine, would dispute the seriousness of the offences which have been established.

Let us remember that when the Home Secretary set up an inquiry into the Court Lees approved school, what was alleged there was an excessive use of corporal punishment. What is established here is something on a far greater scale—perversion, violence and murder. But the case goes even further than that. It raises at least three specific and important questions which the Government must seek to answer this morning.

First, Gleaves had a criminal record in the very area in which he was working, yet substantial public funds were allocated to him. Will the Government say what checks are available to them before such funds are advanced in cases of this kind, what access they have to criminal records and what use they make of them?

Second, Gleaves received these funds because of the hostels he ran. Supplementary benefit was paid out to the young people staying at the hostels to cover board and lodging. There is a legal requirement upon the Department of Health and Social Security to inspect the accommodation which is provided and which it is helping to finance. How many inspections of the hostels run by Gleaves actually took place, and what did those inspections reveal?

Third, the Governor of Pentonville Prison suspected something was wrong. He checked with the Home Office and found that indeed Gleaves had a criminal record. The Home Office then issued a circular to institutions with young offenders warning them of the danger of this man and the hostels that he ran. But the Home Office did not warn the Department of Health and Social Security. It did not warn local councils. It did not warn the railway police. It did not warn voluntary organisations. It did not even warn its own institutions dealing with adult offenders. Indeed, a discharged adult prisoner from Pentonville was referred to Gleaves' hostel a week or two later after the circular was issued. Why was no action taken, and what communications links exist in this area? I think that merely to state these questions adds to the case for an inquiry in this area.

However, it is not my intention simply to rake over the past. The fundamental case for an inquiry is to act as a guide for the future, to prevent men such as Gleaves prospering and to prevent the exploitation and ill-treatment of children and young people which has taken place here recurring in future cases.

Clearly it is possible for the Government to take some action prior to an inquiry. Certainly they should set up advice centres at some of the main travel points in our cities—at stations such as Euston, King's Cross and Victoria, and at New Street in Birmingham. There is no dispute about that, and it could be argued that the Government should have done it already. It is also important for the Government to circulate their own staff and local authorities on some of the obvious lessons of this case. Both actions should now be taken, and we could argue that they should have been taken already.

But in my view such actions by themselves are not enough. They only scratch the surface of this problem. There are still fundamental questions which have to be answered. There is, for example, the question of inspection. The Department of Health and Social Security already has powers to inspect addresses to which it sends supplementary benefit payments. Yet it seems that such checks do not always take place. Thus, we have a position where substantial public funds are being used without an effective check. Purely from an economic point of view, this cannot make sense.

However, there is another issue, and that is how standards and methods are monitored. Previously, there was the Children's Inspectorate in the Home Office. Now, in the DHSS we have moved over to the advisory function. In many cases, that is right. But it should also be considered whether that advisory function by itself is adequate in all cases and whether there is not also a place for inspection. Inspections and inspectors can still guide and advise, but they can also check, and it is checking that was so desperately needed in this case.

An inquiry can also examine the kind of alternative accommodation which is required. We tend to think in terms of formal hostels, but that may not be the best solution. We may have to work towards less formal kinds of units. We should also remember that many of the children who run away are in need of help which goes much further than a roof over their heads and a meal.

One member of staff at one of the hostels working in this area made the point in a report published only recently He said: I estimate it would take at least six months to unscramble some of the kids with whom we work, and at least another six months for any kind of rebuilding process. I think that that is very true. It is not just temporary accommodation that is required but in many cases something more profound and much more lasting than that.

One further point concerns the role of the Charity Commissioners. Gleaves was undoubtedly helped by the ease with which he was able to register as a charity. I shall not make too much of the specific process, but he tricked a lot of people, and it is possible that, even without that help, he would have succeeded. However, what concerns me is that the very good voluntary organisations working in this area should not be tarred by the brush of men like Gleaves. That would be totally unjust. Indeed, it would be a tragedy.

It is for that reason that I would support a tightening up of the rules in the charity area. We now have two committees considering the reform of charity law. Inquiries are being made by the Goodman Committee and by the Select Committee of this House. They may be of assistance to the inquiry which I hope the Government will agree to set up. I believe that the inquiry should also examine the rÔle of the voluntary organisations, because without their voluntary effort the situation in this country would be much worse. We rely on them in this area as in so many others.

We sought to point out in a debate a few weeks ago that many voluntary organisations at present face a crisis. I should like to refer briefly to the report of the St. Basil Centre in Birmingham. It mentions that it is constantly under the threat of closure for one reason or another. However, it makes the fair point, in these cost-conscious times, that its annual budget is now in the region of £46,000. It reckons that it will be assisting approximately 1,000 young people in need per year. At the rate of £46,000 for 1,000 children, there will be £46 per child, per year, or 88p per week which, as it rightly points out, is quite a reasonable rate on anyone's calculation.

Therefore, I believe that an inquiry of the kind I am advocating should also examine the role of the voluntary organisations and how best they can be helped. The voluntary organisations working in this area are making tremendous contributions. If they go, the position of runaway children will become desperate. As we have pointed out on previous occasions, this is perhaps one of the unfashionable areas in which voluntary organisations work, and it is often in this area that problems of finance are so difficult.

This is an important and difficult area. The television film "Johnny Go Home" exposed the violence of the Gleaves case. However, the more serious aspect concerned the pictures of children sleeping in cardboard boxes and doorways—pictures which would seem more appropriate to a scene in Calcutta rather than in the West End of one of the world's most famous and prosperous cities. That is how some children are now existing.

I believe that it is the duty of the House to protect the interests of children and it is in their interests that an inquiry should be set up into runaway and homeless children.

7.18 a.m.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise the subject of runaway and homeless children. I echo all the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler).

I should like to congratulate Michael Deakin and Yorkshire Television on the film "Johnny Go Home" which has brought this problem to a head. The fact that two men walked out of a cutting studio in the middle of the night into a cul-de-sac off Wardour Street and stumbled upon two children may have saved many other children who would otherwise have come to grief. Some of them will have learnt a grave lesson from looking at what happened to Billy McPhee and realising the hopelessness which many young children face when they arrive at a city centre, be it in this country or abroad.

I should like to extend the scope of the problem wider than just that displayed by the film and by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield. This is not just a problem concerning children under the age of 17 years as covered by the Children and Young Persons Act 1969. The majority of single homeless people in London are between 17 and 25 years of age. However, if we can do something about the youngest end of the range, we might reduce the number of so-called adults over the age of 17 years who face homelessness and all the dangers that any capital city or major city centre can present. At least when they are over 17 one hopes that they have had a little experience and are a little wiser. But when they are 8, 9 and 10 years old and coming to London that is not the case.

It is Parliament's responsibility to make sure that all the authorities concerned with the care of children do the job which is carefully laid down in the statutes and for which we need no new law. We merely need implementation of the existing law As a non-parent I believe that a great deal more responsibility and consideration is required from the parents of children who go missing for weeks on end and whose absence is not reported to the police often for a considerable time.

Looking at the figures of homeless people in London and their roots—I apologise that I cannot give separate figures for those under and over 17 years of age—we know that about 85 per cent. come from Scotland, the North-East and the North-West. They come to London because they are bored. They are searching for adventure. There is nothing quite like London. I have seen many similar sights—similar to those seen in Soho—in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, but nothing quite like London. These young people are attracted by the bright lights and the smell of adventure. When they come to London, it is not usually the first thing they have done in getting away from home.

I think that we should begin with those who need our protection. They may not consider that they need our protection. One is aware of the problem of trying to get some wayward youngsters to listen to their parents. I hope that we can learn some lessons from what is now going on so that the problem does not continue at the same rate and these youngsters are not exposed to the dangers in city centres.

The need goes right back into the schools. It often starts with the kids who go home to no one, and that develops into truancy. As some hon. Members know, I have been a school governor in inner London for quite some time. The truancy figures in many of the inner London schools are frightening. But what is more frightening is the lack of success in getting those children back to school for a full day on a regular basis. I know of one school—not my own—where 20 children over the last two years have had less than a term's education. Indeed, most have had less than five weeks' education. It makes one wonder what our education welfare officers are doing and why there is so much lack of liaison at local level between the education welfare service and the social services departments of local authorities.

Although this matter may not be in the Minister's province in the sense that it covers the local authority and the education sphere, this is the one grave problem which "Johnny Go Home" identified. The problem time and again is the lack of liaison between education, social services in the boroughs, the DHSS, the Home Department, and so on, in involving the people concerned with the problem.

We notice this time and again when we discuss children's legislation, as the Minister will know. That is one area in which the Government could do something concrete to assist liaison between education welfare officers and the social services departments when there is truancy at school, which is where the runaway situation first starts.

I should like to put in a word for the parents. I do not blame them all the time. Many of them are at their wit's end to know what to do with their children. They need advice and help.

It is only a few weeks since a marriage guidance councillor said to me, "We are becoming more of a family guidance council for the simple reason that the families who come to us with marriage problems find that many of them are the result of the children causing grave difficulties in the home". They find that there is a grave need for help to sort out the disruption which young people seem to be bringing into so many marriages today.

If children are in this situation and parents do not understand them, there seems to be a great problem at a local level. We can rightly say that this is not the province of the Government, but it is a reflection on our society when parents cannot cope with their children. Little Tommy, the Scots boy in the television film, was taken home, but his mother did not know what to do with him so he went off again. We need to help at the roots, otherwise we shall end up with problems we feel we cannot solve.

Many of these children are bored and seeking adventure. We have got away from having goals for children to achieve. Getting prizes is not the done thing in some schools, and there is an area in education at which the Government should be looking to try to give children a better sense of achievement. That might be one of the things that would stop them wanting to run away.

As children become bored and their thirst for excitement increases, they get money, from whatever source, and set out on their adventures. It is said that two-thirds of the homeless and runaways in London are girls, but this problem is hidden. Girls are taken into people's homes more easily and there is more concern if a boy is taken from Euston station by a man than if a girl is taken. It is a tragedy that girls disappear at such a rate.

The boys become cardboard box boys. I could take hon. Members to Soho and show them the boxes. It seems almost mean to disturb the boys and the real problem is that there is nowhere else for them to go. Maybe this is the heart of the problem.

This does not just affect London, but am pleasantly—if that word can be used in this context—surprised at the few young people hanging round Liverpool Lime Street station. The police seem to have got on top of the problem there.

I am disturbed at the number of children and young people who are still around Euston station late at night. Even since this man Gleaves was committed to prison, there does not seem to have been an appreciable improvement on the station. Surely this is something the Home Office should have looked into long before "Johnny Go Home" was publicised eight days ago. The film showed someone who was apparently a community service volunteer and nothing to do with the proper organisations, and the danger now is that some people may think that volunteers who try to help with overnight accommodation may have shady backgrounds. The voluntary organisations are the problem solvers. I pay a great tribute to them and their work at what I call the grotty end. It is unfashionable and no one wants to know.

The Voluntary Service Unit has given a grant to the West End Co-ordinated Voluntary Services to improve its coordination and staffing to increase the help for young people. They are not the only ones doing a good job at the moment and some of the others should be put on the record. They include New Horizon, Centrepoint, the Soho Project, Intake, the Kingsway Day Centre, After Six, the Girls Alone in London Service and the Camden Council of Social Service. Many of them are co-ordinated by the Campaigns for Single Homeless People, known as Char. There are others doing in a less conventional way a great deal of good work. I gather that there have been discussions between Char and the Department of Health and Social Security, and I am told that there is a chance that resources might be released to provide information or travellers' aid centres at stations. I know that the Department is already talking with Westminster and Camden councils and with British Rail.

However, a great deal more can be done to find out what is going on at stations where young people are met. The practice seems innocent enough, which is why many of us do not intervene when we see people approaching young persons. More could be done, because I fear that there may be more men like Gleaves around. Not only hon. Members, but many people in the social services sphere share that anxiety, and they are viewing each other a little suspiciously about that at the moment. I would hate to think that an obvious clean-up caused men such as Gleaves to be driven underground. That is one of the things we fear in trying to solve this problem where it becomes exposed in city centres.

I echo the amazement already expressed that the 1973 Home Office circular about the man we have been discussing was not sent to the DHSS offices or other agencies. It went only to borstals and approved schools. Again this is a lack of co-ordination between the various groups involved. They have shown a lack of imagination.

I rarely criticise civil servants because they are not here to answer, but the Minister is here to answer for them. Surely if a circular is sent out about a man who is convicted of buggery, those concerned with the circular think of the people he would naturally go after and where they would gather. Not to have sent the circular to the sources of information, the sources of money or the sources of care for those people that such a man would seek out is beyond my comprehension.

It is up to every hon. Member and to people outside to keep their eyes open to solve this problem and do something about it. As long as children of 8 or 9 years are seen—passing ticket collectors at stations—with a cigarette in their mouths, fobbing off the policeman they walk past, we shall have a continuing problem in our city streets. We know of the points put forward by Char, which I know have been received by the Department. For example, there is the need for information centres at stations and at Victoria coach station because, coaches being a cheaper form of travel to London, many young people use them. Perhaps taxi drivers could help—not that these young people can afford taxis, but frequently they ask taxi drivers where to go.

One of the problems is that there are insufficient hostels and that those which exist are not supervised or investigated. Then there are the vouchers giving free social service assistance at hostels. There are vouchers for up to 20 lads—in one case I gather the number was 60—worth £9 a head and paid out on forged or certainly on incorrect national insurance cards.

There must be some way of spotting these boys. Perhaps the situation demands more vigilance. Certainly there is a great area of investigation which can be undertaken.

There are many other aspects to this problem and one in particular arises when children get to 16 and there are no jobs for them. We have been taking up this side of it with the Manpower Services Commission, and I shall continue my push on the Commission to do something about it.

However, in addition to all the points that have been raised with the Minister, I ask him to accept the suggestion that we have a thorough investigation into this matter. The short, sharp shock of return to a community home if the parent cannot cope is not always what will curb the wish of these lads and girls to be away and independent.

A great deal can be done by unconventional means, which means non-established institutions and bodies—in other words, the voluntary bodies. It is through the voluntary bodies, together with inspection, that I am convinced that we shall best cure the problem. St. Mungo's Marmite House in Vauxhall does a marvellous job for old men, but it is not the place to send youngsters. For the 16-to-17-year age group and for those who are away working or away with their parents' permission—I restrict my re- marks to the age to which the Act applies—specific hostels are needed where people are not contained and not institutionalised, because this is the one thing from which they want to escape in a city centre. They need the information and a roof over their heads.

If we can persuade local authorities and the school psychologist service of the need to give more support to the parents, which means doing something about the school psychologists' income, we might get to the root of the problem.

I end on a rather sad note. Yesterday I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will encourage local authorities not to reduce their support for voluntary organisations, in view of the need for voluntary assistance at a time of high inflation. I had a complacent and disappointing reply in which it was said that the Secretary of State accepted the importance of continued voluntary effort in many fields. But the degree of local government support for particular voluntary organisations is entirely a matter for local decision."—[Official Report, 31st July 1975; Vol. 896, c. 563.] I suggest that unless the Government want a major problem at the door of their Departments in London, they should do something about helping and advising the local authorities to get at the root of the problems which face our society.

In this debate there has been particular reference to the run-away and homeless children who start from a home or a base somewhere. It is there that we should be solving the problem in the long-term, whatever palliatives and answers we may have to give in city centres in the short-term.

7.37 a.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

The subject of homelessness is an age-old one and one that we can see close at hand. We need look no further than Charing Cross to see every night several dozen people who seem to prefer a life of drifting and sleeping in the open. For many of them it is their established way of life, despite all the efforts of local authorities and voluntary services.

Our concern this morning is with children who are not yet committed to living in this fashion—youngsters and teenagers who, perhaps because of a broken home or some emotional disturbance at home, at school or at work, have decided to leave home to seek the excitement, the bright lights and the imagined wealth and anonymity of London. Some, alas, fall into the hands of the likes of Gleaves. Some adopt a casual way of life, perhaps squatting and getting the odd job here and there. Some, unfortunately, drift into a life of crime and finish up before the courts and are sent to borstal or prison.

To cope with the pattern I have described we have the framework of the social services. We have the Children and Young Persons Act to aid in identifying and helping the disturbed and the delinquent child who exhibits these tendencies at home or at school. In this way we seek to deal with the problem before it has reached the point of leaving home. But if the child does leave home and comes, as it may well do, to London, if it is lucky it may be contacted by one of the voluntary bodies and helped, but it may pursue one of the courses I have just described. The crucial point, surely, in that particular pattern is just after leaving home, and what happens to the child in those first few hours after arriving in London.

In the film that has given rise to our debate today, Tommy arrived at Euston with a suitcase, no plans and no ideas of what to do. His is not an isolated case. I am told that there are at least two or three such cases every week at Euston alone. Where can a lad like Tommy, or a girl, find help or advice at Euston?

Some eight hours ago, when it appeared that some of our colleagues were temporarily turning this House into the Scottish Assembly and intending to do so for several hours, I took the opportunity of going to Euston to see for myself exactly what services would be available to Tommy were he to arrive there last night. The answer is that there is an office of the Transport Police on the edge of the concourse. There may be two or three Transport Police constables patrolling around the station, but it is hardly likely that a runaway lad would approach them. The Salvation Army, on their nightly patrol of the stations, can offer hot soup, but alas, little more. Their hostels are for older men, and with their limited resources they have little to offer for younger boys and girls.

Just outside Euston Station there is an advice centre run by the organisations GALS, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) referred—the Girls Alone in London Service. Unfortunately, this particular centre suffers from two limitations. One is that it is open only from Mondays to Fridays from 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.—inevitably, because it is obviously operating on a very slender budget. The second limitation, again perhaps obviously, is that it is geared to deal only with girls. For the likes of Tommy there is no advice centre at Euston at all, and no help is offered. This is where Gleaves came in.

Should we not encourage the establishment, without further delay, of some sort of advice centres at these main line stations? There are several voluntary organisations which, given funds, could provide staff to patrol the stations, to find the boys and girls, give them a cup of tea, to talk to them, to listen to them and to help them. And not only at stations. Why not elsewhere in areas where youngsters congregate?

It is unlikely that these youngsters would want to go to official-looking centres run by the Government or the local authority. They would need to be informal places where the young people feel free to go, where they could meet others with similar background and situation, where they could find a sympathetic ear and receive understanding and guidance.

Such a centre was opened in Amsterdam by the young people themselves. It is run by voluntary social workers and receives a State subsidy. At this centre the children are assured of anonymity. Children on the run from home, even children who have absconded from institutions, can go to this centre and be sure of a considerate and confidential hearing. They are given advice. It is up to them whether they follow it. They are not handed over to authority unless they agree. The need for such a centre has been amply demonstrated because when this particular centre in Amsterdam was opened it was expected that in its first year it might have about 500 cases to deal with. In fact, after the first six months, the estimates are that the first year's attendance will be about 7,000.

I agree that this approach may be an unconventional idea, particularly with its emphasis on anonymity, but of course, it is the only way to ensure confidence and that the children and young people will go there. Certainly this scheme appears to be filling a need.

My proposals will cost money. I accept that. The Department of Health and Social Security has the power, under Section 64 of the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968, to grant aid to a number of voluntary organisations for exactly this type of work. I urge the Department to use that power very extensively. I hope, too, that my words may prompt one of the bodies with experience in this field to come forward with some concrete proposals.

Children who get into trouble cost the taxpayer a great deal of money. It costs, for example, £25 or so a week to keep a child in a community home—not to mention the human misery and distress they cause to themselves and others. If modest resources could be devoted to this type of preventive work, it would be a real investment in the future, and if they saved only a proportion of these children from spending several useless, miserable and possibly dangerous years as part of London's sub-culture, it would be money well spent.

7.46 a.m.

The Under Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Meacher)

This has been a valuable and timely opportunity to debate the very grave problems, which were highlighted in the recent Yorkshire Television programme "Johnny Go Home", of runaway and homeless children. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and his hon. Friends on the reasoned and understanding manner in which they put their case.

The public conscience has been stirred, and rightly so, by the vivid way in which the almost Dickensian existence of many runaway children in London was revealed by this film. I think that we are right to be grateful to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker). I echo what she said in her thoughtful and understanding speech. We are also grateful to Yorkshire Television for its initia- tive in making this programme. Although the television programme focused on runaway and homeless children, the hazards of a rootless life are as real for many newcomers to London who are 17 and over as they are for children.

Those familiar with the problem in the centre of London tell me that the focus of the programme may have misled us: there are considerable numbers of vulnerable young people living in this strange sub-world of the rootless—and seriously damaged by their experiences in it—who are older, being in their late teens or early 20s. The hon. Lady said that the age range was between 17 and 25, which probably encompasses the majority. Most of those who used Roger Gleaves' hostels, including Billy Two-Tone and Tommy Wyley, were neither "children" nor "young persons" as defined by the legislation—that is below the age of 17—but their vulnerability was almost as great as though they had been children.

The problem is bound up, I think, with the undoubted magnetism which the metropolis and the South-East generally have for young people wishing to start life on their own, with the better job prospects for young people there than in many other regions, and with the problems of social deprivation and environmental poverty which make it hard for some young people to find sources of satisfaction in the lives offered to them by their own home towns. The problem must be bound up with the many changes which we have seen in young peoples' way of life and in their relationships within the family.

Along with all these factors bringing young people to London we find great changes and new pressures in the sphere of housing, and especially a significant loss of so much of the cheap rented or communal accommodation in which young people have traditionally started their lives as adults. Frankly, we do not know how much decline there has been in the availability of cheap private lodgings and the landlady sector, but a study of hostels and lodging houses undertaken by the office of the population and census surveys in October 1973 found 10,600 hostels and lodging house places in the GLC area in 1972 compared with 12,200 in 1965. That is a reduction of 13 per cent. over seven years, which can be compared with the 17 per cent. reduction found in England and Wales as a whole. That is a considerable reduction over a short period of time.

There has been a considerable loss of places in the big commercial and voluntary lodging houses, balanced only in part by the growth in the number of small voluntary hostels, many of which cater for specialised groups. None of that accommodation caters, except in emergencies, for children. The proportion of young people in this accommodation was very low.

Most of the homeless or rootless young people in London do not use this type of accommodation or—apart from that in Dean Street—the reception centres provided by the Supplementary Benefits Commission, but drift from friend to friend, use shelters and crash pads, join squats, and sleep where they can, in derelict houses, parks, and other haunts used by the dossers.

My Department has funded a three-year research project to find out what happens to a sample of young people, not children, newly arrived in London, and is using some of the agencies which are trying to help those who are homeless. We are hopeful that this project will tell us more about how and why these young people are vulnerable, how many fail to find their feet during their first year in the city, and in what ways they can be helped more effectively. I hope that the House will appreciate the importance of this because there is a great lack of knowledge about what happens to these persons, and why.

The problems are not to be found only in the big cities. There are other questions which we must ask. How is it, for example, when so many young people think ahead in planning a move to London, and achieve it satisfactorily, that others come relatively unprepared? Why is it that some have personalities or backgrounds that make them especially vulnerable and so shy of the proffered help of the statutory and voluntary agencies which are trying to help them? Who are the young persons on the run? To what extent are their problems, which are so familiar to the helping agencies in Central London, a result of their experiences in London or of something much more deep-seated before they reach London? To what kind of help will they respond? I think that is an important question. How can the helping agencies best reach out to contact them?

Although we have not yet received the interim results of this DHSS study, we are hopeful that we shall do so shortly and that it will give us some early help in the planning of services to assist these groups. The Department of the Environment recently agreed to sponsor a research study, under the auspices of Char, the campaign for the homeless and rootless, of what is known about the accommodation needs of homeless young people. My Department is in the middle of a similar study of what is known of the variety of counselling and advisory services, of which there is a great variety, and which have developed, and are still developing, help for young people with a great range of problems—personal, psychological and practical. We believe that it is important to have much greater knowledge of the range of these services so that they can be called upon more effectively.

For many the prime need is simply decent accommodation, perhaps with the initial support of some understanding and knowledgeable person who will help them to find work and to cope with a new way of life. The accommodation needs of others may be met within the general pool of accommodation used by other single people, although I accept, as the hon. Member for Wallasey said, that much of this accommodation is unsuitable for this very young age group. There is accommodation for other young people including students, young workers and young people of all nationalities on their travels.

The Department of the Environment is actively encouraging local authorities and housing associations to provide more single person accommodation, including flexibly designed or adapted projects, often with some element of shared accommodation or communal life which may make them especially suitable for the young. Here again, with the constraints on resources, there is competition within that scarcity to provide more places for homeless families, and I am sure the House will agree that there is perhaps an even greater priority here.

For the first time, the Housing Act 1974 makes local authorities and housing associations providing hostels eligible for the subsidy and grants available for other types of housing, and there are special arrangements for deficit grants for housing associations providing hostel projects for groups not likely to be able to claim rent allowance and capable of paying only low hostel charges.

Furthermore, a working party of the GLC and the London Boroughs Association has been studying for some time the accommodation needs of single people in London precisely to find means to afford higher priority for their housing needs. I place great emphasis on that.

Other young people, especially those whose backgrounds and personalities make them especially vulnerable, may need somewhat more support in the early stages of their life in the capital. Some may have, or acquire, problems calling for skilled health or social services assistance. But even many of these could be helped by a well and sympathetically run hostel able to offer some degree of protection in a way which takes account of the resident's own life style and aspirations to be treated as an adult and of the difficulty that many—though by no means all—find in accepting a too structured environment. I pay tribute to the work of many voluntary agencies in providing suitable accommodation for this purpose.

I have sketched this wider background because it seems to me relevant to the problem of the runaway and homeless children who form part of this wider central London scene. Among the many drifting youngsters are some who are still children in the statutory sense, that is, under 17, whom local authorities have a duty to take into care in a variety of circumstances if they seem to be at serious risk. Some of these children may, and others may not, admit to their true age. Indeed, contrary to the impression that was perhaps given by the television programme, Tommy Wyley, I understand, was not below the age of 17, But it is perfectly true, as the programme indicated, that many children gave a false impression of their age.

In the legislation relating to children, local authorities have wide powers—indeed in certain circumstances duties— which enable them to take steps to prevent children from getting into trouble—particularly under Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963—or to help them when they are in trouble or at risk. The extent to which individual authorities are able to exercise these powers depends on the resources available to them. Nevertheless, in general, local authorities take a broad view in practice of their responsibilities and will try to offer practical advice or help to all young people who seem to them to be at risk or in trouble. For example, they would help them to return home to find accommodation or work, or get into touch with one of the many voluntary agencies which might be able to help them.

There may be some misunderstanding of the duties of local authorities, so perhaps I should here spell out more precisely their powers and duties, and the limitations on them. First, the law provides clear powers for dealing with persons who entice a child under 14 from his parents, and with children in the care of local authorities who abscond. There is, however, no obligation on anyone to report to any authority the knowledge that a person over school age has left his home, unless other circumstances give grounds for thinking that the intervention of the State is necessary. Persons who are over the compulsory school attendance age are entitled to seek work, and there is no obligation on persons or local authorities to seek out those who may be in trouble, though there is an obligation to assist them if they come into their hands as needing assistance.

That is an important point, which needs further consideration, but there is this important distinction. A runaway, whether or not in the care of a local authority, may be expected to seek to avoid coming to the attention of a public authority for fear of being returned to his home, but if he comes to the attention of a local authority the authority has certain responsibilities to him through its child care functions. If it appears to the authority that the child is under 17, that he has been abandoned or lost, or that his parents or guardian are unable to provide for his "accommodation, maintenance and upbringing"—here I am quoting the technical words of the Children Act 1948—and that the intervention of the authority is necessary in the interests of the welfare of the child the authority has a duty to receive him into its care under Section 1 of the Act.

Perhaps it is relevant to say here that Westminster, for example, one of the boroughs concerned because of the number of railway termini in its area, in 1972 found 220 young persons who were drifting, and therefore exercised its powers under the legislation. But that gives no indication of the full numbers who may need assistance.

Local authorities may discharge their duty to provide accommodation and maintenance for a child in their care by boarding him out with foster parents, maintaining him in a community home or registered voluntary children's home, or making such other arrangements as may seem to the local authority appropriate. A young person considered by a local authority to need to be housed in a hostel would ordinarily be placed in a community home with hostel facilities, if a place in a suitable home were available. This may not always be possible, as the demand for the hostel places exceeds the supply. If it were not possible, the authority would try to place him in other suitable hostel accommodation. I shall come to the question of vetting such hostel accommodation. It would be the authority's responsibility to ensure that it was suitable. Authorities have powers to inspect premises for that purpose. This is in respect of community homes which may have hostel facilities.

To give some quantification, I should add that according to the plans prepared by children's regional planning committees there were on 1st April 1974, 146 hostels in the community home scheme, which together provided some 1,600 places for children in the care of local authorities who needed that type of accommodation. Those are national figures.

The plans propose the provision of a further 85 hostel-type community homes to provide 975 additional places for children in care. That is considerable increase on the existing provision, but I would not claim that it is necessarily adequate. At a time when resources for additional investment for the personal social services are so limited, progress in providing additional hostel places cannot be as rapid as either Government or local authorities would wish.

After that more general introduction to the background, particularly in respect of accommodation, I turn to the problems highlighted by the Gleaves affair. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield concentrated his speech on the problems which arose from that affair and I understand why. I am sure he would agree that we should be wrong to focus too strongly on the problems relating to the Gleaves hostel empire, because there is no evidence to suggest that the kind of emphasis presented in the film is general. It is proper to present it but there is nothing to suggest that is is typical of the problems.

There are problems dealing with how to secure accommodation—especially hostels suitable for young newcomers to the city—how to ensure that such hostels are well and responsibly run and how to bring their existence as well as the existence of other advisory services to the notice of drifting youngsters. There is the problem of how to achieve co-ordination between the voluntary and statutory services working to identify and rescue children at risk and help other vulnerable, older youngsters. I realise that these problems are not peculiar to London but are common to many other urban centres. There is no doubt that the scale of the problem in London is greater. It is with London in mind that I am first exploring possible solutions.

My Department has been actively concerned for some time about these general problems because of its responsibility for the adequacy of the health and social services response to the needs of particular groups such as this and because the Supplementary Benefits Commission, in exercising its responsibility towards those with an unsettled way of life, encounters some of these youngsters and makes grants to a number of voluntary organisations which try to help them.

I again correct the hon. Gentleman's statement that the Commission has a responsibility for assessing and in some sense registering or providing a bona fide for the accommodation where many of these young people are living. It does not have a direct responsibility of that kind. Since the Gleaves case was concluded there have been several discussions—

Mr. Norman Fowler

If the hon. Gentleman is to make that kind of statement and then move on I must ask him at this stage to say what responsibility the Commission has. I was not claiming that it had a responsibility to assess. I was saying that it had a responsibility to inspect the accommodation, which is not the same.

Mr. Meacher

It does not have the responsibility to inspect the hostels in which persons may be living who claim supplementary benefit. I will return to this point. I am not dodging it. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to return to this later.

Since the Gleaves case was concluded there have been several discussions between the Government Departments concerned, bodies such as the Charity Commissioners and the Housing Corporation and some of the voluntary organisations caring for the homeless. The London Boroughs Association has also been involved and there have been separate discussions with the social services departments of Camden and Westminster in particular—the boroughs who share responsibility for the central Soho area and the main receiving area for newcomers to London which is bounded by main line termini including such places as Victoria, Paddington, Euston and King's Cross. These discussions are continuing urgently and already have identified a number of areas about which there is general agreement that changes and better co-ordination are needed. My Department has written to the chief executives of Camden and Westminster welcoming the manner in which the authorities are now, approaching, the problem in their areas and seeking their co-operation in working out the further steps that need to be taken.

As regards co-ordination, I must add, as the hon. Member for Sutton Cold-field made particular reference to the need for some inquiry, how it was that information which was available to the Home Office was not fully disseminated within the Government. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Home Secretary has instituted a full internal inquiry to investigate what action was taken by the various departments of the Home Office and related services in connection with the Gleaves affair. We are mindful of the problem which the hon. Gentleman has highlighted. We are seeking to find out exactly what happened and why there was not the dissemination of the information to other Departments.

Mr. Norman Fowler

I am grateful for that assurance. That is an important announcement. Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the results of the inquiry will be made public?

Mr. Meacher

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. My right hon. Friend is conducting the inquiry as it was the Home Office that had possession of this information, and the hon. Gentleman should address his question to my right hon. Friend.

On the question of hostels, I am satisfied that some of the problems seen in the Gleaves hostels stem from the shortage of cheap accommodation suited to the needs of the young, and that the pressure on those who use these hostels to stay in such unsatisfactory surroundings would have been much less nad they been confident of being able to find alternative accommodation. The truth of the matter is that they were constrained to stay in such accommodation for lack of alternatives.

Housing for single people, especially the young, has not traditionally been part of the main stream of public housing. There are as yet fewer local authority hostels than are needed provided by social services departments for young people who have left school. I have given the figures. This area, and particularly the provision of hostels for "difficult"—if that is not too perjorative a word—young people is by no means an easy one in which to operate.

I am sure that it is right to pay tribute to the many voluntary organisations which provide so wide a range of different projects for young people starting life on their own. My Department grants aids to a number of organisations, and support may also be given by local authorities in a variety of ways—for example, by grants or loans, by providing property to serve as a hostel, by making use of the hostel by placing these persons needing residential care.

A recent example of help given in this area—and the hon. Member for Wallasey rightly drew attention to this—is the grant given by the Voluntary Services Unit of the Home Office. The hon. Lady said that it was not enough, and I would agree, but it is one important contribution given by the Home Office, together with Camden and Westminster, to the West End Coordinated Voluntary Services, a consortium of five projects which has amassed considerable experience of working with young newcomers to London.

Other projects have been helped through the urban programme, and as the Department of the Environment's arrangements for housing association grants gather momentum I am sure that many projects will benefit and many new projects will be started.

However, it is not enough to provide an adequate supply of such accommodation. Quality is just as important, and this is perhaps a more difficult issue. I fear that the Yorkshire Television programme may have given us an unbalanced picture of the work of voluntary hostels. I do not think there would be any doubt that the great majority are undoubtedly trying in a responsible way, and with some considerable degree of skill, to do what is in many cases a difficult task. But there is a need to guard against the possibility of occasional projects run by individuals whose motives and behaviour must cast a doubt on all that they do. There have been suggestions—this is an obvious lesson which the programme suggested—of registration. There is at present no statutory system of registration for hostels designed to meet the needs of homeless adults, or those who are simply seeking short-term communal accommodation and use hostels because they provide what they need. That is a very important point. One is not allocating blame but stating that that is the situation.

Hostels of any kind will need planning permission if a change of use is required for the property they are using, and they are subject to the requirements of the legislation on multi-occupied houses and to public health and fire prevention provisions.

I am at present examining means of monitoring the standards of hostel accommodation, but I am particularly concerned lest a system of registration by concentrating on physical standards and attempting to set standards of supervision or support, might lead to a loss of some of the voluntary projects which are succeeding, often in less than ideal physical surroundings, in going half way to meet and help some of the most alienated and difficult young people who would be unlikely to get help in any other form.

There has to be concern about physical standards, but we need to be careful that we do not set them at such a level as to force some of the valuable work being done to close. I do not intend that to be a complacent remark, but that is one of the difficulties. The other is the question of assessing the quality of relationships in these hostels, which is a much more important and difficult question to regullate.

Obviously, we cannot afford any loss of good responsible projects and must not do anything which would limit the scope for experimental work in this field, where needs are still barely understood and skills still evolving.

There are problems, too, in regard to whether registration in itself is effective in controlling such intangible things as the quality of the management in a project where, although it may be clear that all is not well, proof of illegal activity or gross misconduct may be very difficult to get.

It is worth pointing out that Osterley Park had a relatively high standard of physical provision. The question of the quality of care, which is much more relevant there, is by far the more important issue, but very difficult without intensive and prolonged relationships, which demand considerable skilled manpower to establish.

As most hostels cater for adults, it may be that there are limits beyond which it would be wrong to go in seeking to protect them from the risks of the situations in which they choose to place themselves. That is not meant to be a complacent statement, but we are dealing with persons who in the eyes of the law are adults and not children. There are, therefore, difficulties in taking steps appropriate to their health and welfare which do not diminish their rights to a proper privacy and freedom from over-structured supervision.

I accept, however, that much better means are needed of sifting and responding to complaints and other signs that all may not be well in a particular hostel. This emerges very strongly from the film. It is very difficult nowadays for any except the largest and best known charities to run any form of hostel project without a considerable degree of help from one or more of a wide range of statutory sources—providers of funds or sometimes property, like the local authority, Government Departments—the Home Office, the Department of the Environment, the Supplementary Benefits Commission, and my own Department—and referral agencies, statutory and voluntary.

We are very conscious that assistance of this kind, or even some pure formality like registration as a charity, may be taken by others as a sign that a particular project provides services of an acceptable standard, and it is obviously important that those bodies which give practical aid to voluntary groups should accept a continuing responsibility for monitoring their work and ensuring that their aid is put to good use. The mere fact of registration does not imply that the services provided by a particular agency which is registered are necessarily of an acceptable standard. That is not at the present time an implication of registration with the Charity Commission.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman said that co-ordination was necessary. I suggest that to have consulted only two boroughs—Westminster and Camden—when the problem is beginning to grow in Kensington, Lambeth, Wandsworth and Islington, is doing only half the job. I suggest that he extends his conversations with chief executives. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman spoke about finding where the problem was. I do not have the relevant provision before me, but I am sure the Department is responsible for inspecting premises to which it sends money or vouchers. That is another area which might be helpful to the hon. Gentleman in seeking out the wrong sort of hostel provision.

Mr. Meacher

I had intended to return to the registration and regulation of premises used by persons in receipt of supplementary benefit grants. Perhaps I might deal with it now.

I sought to make it clear in what I said earlier that we had been in touch not only with Camden and Westminster, though these are two critically important London boroughs. There is a working party which has been in operation for some time between the GLC and the London Boroughs Association. We are not concentrating uniquely on these two boroughs.

It is not for me to say anything about the role of the Charity Commissioners in registering charities. Obviously that is a matter for the Home Department. However, it must be emphasised that the commissioners are not empowered to pick and choose the organisations which they register. Organisations have a perfect right to registration if their objects are charitable in law, and registration as such cannot and should not be taken by anyone as a guarantee a the bona fides of an organisation, although I realise that that is how this is seen by the general public. However, the commissioners concern themselves to see that trusts are properly carried out, and they try to satisfy themselves about the financial activities of charities. But that is a very long way from regulating the precise relations which operate in a given hostel.

As the hon. Member for Sutton Cold-field said, the Goodman Committee is at present reviewing the law on charities. We shall have to wait to see whether it deals with these problems in its report.

That brings me to the responsibilities of the local offices of my Department. The programme suggested that the Department's local social security offices inspected Mr. Gleaves' hostels, referred men to him, accepted him as someone worthy of support, and paid him a considerable amount of money, some of it as a result of fraudulent claims.

I must put the record straight. Local social security officers have to take claims for and pay any benefits to which claimants are entitled. They cannot direct claimants to stay at particular addresses, and they do not inspect accommodation to assess its standard. If they are asked where accommodation may be found, they may suggest addresses or areas where rooms are usually known to be available, but it is up to the claimant to decide whether or not to stay at any particular place. The Supplementary Benefits Commission has no grounds for interference in this respect, and I do not think that it is right that there should be any direction as to where people should go. The regulation or registration of premises to which claimants go is not a matter for the commission, though I accept that it may be a responsibility for other sections of my Department.

Care is taken to deal with claimants direct and not to accept claims on their behalf without seeing them and obtaining full details of their financial circumstances. Here again, there may have been some misapprehension as a result of the programme. There is power in Section 17 of the Supplementary Benefit Act to pay all or part of an award to a third party, and this is sometimes used to pay a hostel warden direct for board and lodging provided for a claimant. This was done by the use of board and lodging vouchers in cases of residents at Mr. Gleaves' hostels. But board and lodging vouchers were issued for each individual for one week only, and not until the person concerned had first been interviewed each week by our officers. Before actual payments were made, the individual vouchers had to be returned to the issuing office with the claimant's signature to the effect that he had received the board and lodging. Payment was not made on presentation only of a list. The vouchers had to support the list. If a claimant had left the hostel without signing his voucher, payment was made up to the date of leaving, which could be represented as a day or two after the actual date. But no renewal voucher for a further week would be issued, and leaving dates could be ascertained from the claimant if he made a claim from another address after leaving.

I should also add, because it is important, that the letter of thanks to Mr. Gleaves was in response to a letter from him commiserating with the office on some adverse publicity. It had nothing to do with his hostel activities.

I cannot comment on the suggestions in the programme that men claimed more than once each week, without being given the opportunity to examine any supporting evidence. There is always that possibility, but we have certain procedures which are deliberately designed to counteract it.

I turn to the question of how to make contact with homeless young people.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Will the Minister concede that his description of the present system used by his Department indicates that it is absolutely wide open to abuse? Will he also concede that once again his lengthy speech has conveyed perhaps not personal complacency but certainly a very departmental attitude and has further emphasised the need for a full inquiry into this whole area?

Mr. Meacher

I do not concede the hon. Gentleman's allegation of complacency. I have indicated that an inquiry is being undertaken concerning the dissemination of information available to the Home Office. I have also said that an important working party is about to reach some early conclusions, based on consultations with the GLC and the London Boroughs Association, about the provision of extra accommodation for homeless single persons. We are also contacting Camden and Westminster.

We are examining the question how registration might need to be tightened up. I have indicated that there are certain difficulties which I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises. We do not want to tip out the baby with the bath water. At the same time we want to prevent a recurrence of what happened in the Gleaves case, which in any event I do not believe is typical. I have mentioned many other initiatives, but I shall not repeat them. In all fairness the hon. Gentleman cannot say that we are being complacent about this matter. I am convinced that we are taking firm action in each of the main areas, consistent with the undoubted constraint on resources in which we have to operate.

I come to the question of how to make contact with homeless young people, especially the runaway children who are the subject of this debate. We must realise that this is by no means as simple as it sounds. It is the local authority for an area that has the duty to accept responsibility for the under 17's who are in trouble and whom their parents cannot help. Runaway young people of this age cannot legitimately be helped by any other agency than the local authorities, unless in an emergency, at the authority's request.

Identifying and contacting these children is very difficult. Central London, and the centres of other big cities, are full of young people of every kind. The youngster who is trying to avoid attention may well be at pains to avoid looking lost or seeking help from an official looking source. I do not say that that is a reason why we should not examine the situation and why we cannot improve our means of locating and identifying young persons in need of help, but I hope that it will be admitted that it is not easy.

Undoubtedly the London main line termini are the entry point for some young people who have nowhere to go on arrival, but others come by bus, many must surely hitch-hike, and some—by no means the smallest group—leave home in or near London. I am aware that a number of voluntary bodies have taken or are contemplating new initiatives in contacting newcomers to London, particularly at rail termini, but I cannot expand on that matter at present, because it is a matter for them.

I am anxious that any new facilities which emerge should be sensitively and realistically planned in conjunction with the statutory bodies, particularly local authorities, the police, British Rail and the transport police, and that they should enjoy their full backing or they will not be effective. I hope that such facilities would have access to broadly based, reliable and up-to-date information about hostels and other short term accommodation. I agree that is another gap. Such information is kept by the National Association of Voluntary Hostels. That information, whilst given to agencies and social workers, is not broadly made available to the persons themselves. There is no statutory attempt to fill that gap. If such information were made available it would be able to count on the cooperation of all voluntary bodies working with the homeless.

I have made a very long speech.

Mr. Sims

I do not want to prolong the debate unnecessarily, but some of us are particularly interested in this subject and have been up all night in the hope of having this debate. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although the initiative may rest with these voluntary organisations, it would encourage them if he indicated that he would like to receive positive proposals from them regarding advice centres and that he would be willing to finance acceptable projects?

Mr. Meacher

I have spoken at considerable length on the initiatives that we are taking. We wish to receive proposals from voluntary bodies. There is a great deal of experimental work which local authorities may be able to take over.

The provision of finance, at a time of great public expenditure constraints, will depend upon competition from other demands on the resources. But we shall look at the proposals very sympathetically and we shall seek to assist them so far as we can, given the constraints on manpower and finance.

I am concerned that there should be better co-ordination—I concede that it is not as good as it should be—between Government Departments in dealing with the issues raised by the Gleaves case and the problem of runaway children. Indeed, my Department is holding a further meeting today—it is purely by accident that it coincides with the debate—of all the Departments with an interest in these special problems of homeless young people. I assure the House that we shall continue our efforts to find new methods, approaches and solutions to the ugly problems revealed in "Johnny Go Home".