HC Deb 18 February 1977 vol 926 cc896-995

Order for Second Reading read.

11.13 a.m.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Every hon. Member who is fortunate enough to draw a low number in the annual Ballot for Bills is faced with the dilemma of choosing a subject that is worth while and that stands a real chance of getting on to the statute book. Within hours of the result of the Ballot being published I was approached by a group representing well-known voluntary bodies that do such sterling work in the housing field asking me to take up the cause of the homeless.

I admit that I hesitated, but that was solely because I knew that the Government had already indicated on a number of occasions—they had even given some pretty firm undertakings—that they intended to legislate on this subject themselves. I therefore gave the voluntary bodies an understanding that I would take up the cause provided the Government did not give a firm date early in this Session of Parliament that they would bring forward their own legislation.

Subsequently, when I learned from the Front Bench that a private Member would be welcome in this matter, I decided to go ahead. In due course, I arrived at the Department of the Environment in Marsham Street armed with a draft document. It was only then that I discovered that there was another—and, frankly, a much better—official draft already in existence. What is before us today therefore is very much the outcome of nearly two years' of patient negotiation on the part of a small group of dedicated civil servants in the Department. I should like to put on record straight away my sincere thanks—this is not always done from—Liberal Bench—for all the help that I have received from that quarter. I expect that I shall be needing a great deal more.

I should like to thank Mr. Nick Raynsford of SHAC for all his help and guidance up to date. It has been invaluable to me. I have visited his remarkable housing advice centre in the Old Brompton Road, which I am sure is known to many hon. Members, and I witnessed first hand what wonderful and time-consuming work he and his colleagues are doing there, helping the homeless. I have met local authority associations as well as the senior officials of three London boroughs. I have been down to Tower Hamlets and seen some of the problems first-hand. I have read innumerable case histories. I think, therefore, that I can claim to have informed myself of the many sides to the problem of homelessness.

Some hon. Members have been pressing for the establishment of a Select Committee on housing in an effort to obtain an all-party consensus on the policies that the country should pursue. Regrettably, we have not yet succeeded, but I am pleased to say that I have sponsors to the Bill from five political parties. I think that that is an indication of the general agreement about the need to legislate. I should like to thank those hon. Members for their support.

Since 1945 there has been a general improvement in terms of both numbers and quality of our housing stock. But, paradoxically, we still have homelessness. We have plenty of empty houses, but we still have homelessness. The causes are varied. Frankly, family life styles have changed over the years. For example, in 1931 single households represented only about 7 per cent. of households in this country. In 1971 the figure had risen to 21 per cent. It is therefore not just a lack of co-operation but a change in the style of living that has caused the problem. People nowadays want to live more on their own, and in some respects, rather regrettably, there has been a break-up of family life.

There is no more extreme form of housing need, but the present limited duty rests with social service departments and not with housing authorities. Governments of both complexions have recognised the problem. The last Conservative Administration issued the very important Circular 18/74 in February 1974, and the present shadow Secretary of State for Social Services took the Government to task for the absence of any commit- ment to legislate for homelessness in the Queen's Speech last November.

I wish to quote some of the excellent words spoken by the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) on that occasion. It was a decision of the last Conservative Government to transfer responsibility for homelesness to housing departments. Anyone who has any connection with the subject agrees that this must have some legislative backing. One director of social services told me that he had calculated that over 50 per cent. of the time of the social workers in his department was devoted in one way or another to dealings with the consequences of homelessness. That seems to be the most appalling waste of resources. The work covers the whole range—battered wives, broken families, those who lose their homes for whatever reason, such as inability to pay the rent, and so on. That should be the problem of housing departments and we regret the absence of the bill"—[Official Report. 25th November 1976; Vol. 921, c. 305.] I trust, therefore, that I can look for support today from the official Opposition. The detailed statistics now available—the figures up to June 1976 were published yesterday—show that authorities are already doing a great deal in this area. But it is vital that there should be a proper statutory framework for the exercise of duties and responsibilities so that the most appropriate form of help can be given, and given promptly, to meet individual problems.

At present, Section 21(1)(b) of the National Assistance Act 1948 lays on social service authorities—that includes metropolitan districts, London boroughs and non-metropolitan counties—a duty to provide temporary accommodation for those in urgent need in unforeseen circumstances or such other circumstances as an authority may determine.

In 1948 it was believed that a short stay in some kind of temporary accommodation would be adequate to tide people over until they could make arrangements for somewhere permanent to live. That may have been so then, but the nature of homelessness today is certainly not like that. Fires and floods still happen, certainly, but we are not now dealing with a situation in which people can sort out their own housing problems after a short stay in what is known as temporary accommodation. The need of most homeless people is a permanent solution to their problem which they have been unable to arrange for themselves. That is not a completely new situation. As far back as 1971 there were two excellent research reports by Professor Greve, published in book form, and by Mr. Glastonbury.

Professor Greve, looking particularly at London, where over 40 per cent. of homelessness occurs, showed that social service authorities were not the right people to help the homeless with their accommodation problems because they do not have the stock of houses for permanent occupation or the skill and expertise in housing management. He recommended that housing authorities should take responsibility for accommodation for the homeless because they have both the houses and the expertise.

Working parties involving central and local government were set up. Their findings confirmed those of that research. As a direct result, we had the by now famous Joint Circular 18/74, to which I have already referred. That asked housing authorities to accept the prime responsibility for helping homeless people within a corporate approach by local government as a whole. Some authorities took this advice to heart straight away. Others followed after mature consideration, including my own county council and two borough councils on the Isle of Wight, whose work I have been fortunate to witness at first hand. They are doing a very fine job in this field.

By the middle of 1975–18 months after the circular had been issued—a Government review showed that 40 per cent. of housing authorities still had not accepted that advice, although they had all the powers to do so. What emerged from the responses to the Government's review was a unanimous call by the local authority associations and the voluntary movement for a new legislative framework to change the outdated concept that homelessenes was a social work problem and to place it clearly in the sphere of housing. That is what my Bill aims to do.

I have made no secret of the fact that the Bill draws heavily on the work of the Government, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), from whom I hope that we shall hear later, will join me in expres- sing appreciation for the helpful and cooperative spirit which has been shown by the local authority associations in their approach to the preparation of this legislation. They have participated fully in the lengthy process of consultation which has gone on over the last 12 months or more, and I welcome their constructive attitude at a time of acknowledged difficulty for them. I should also like to thank the hon. Gentleman for the generous cooperation that I have received from him.

In considering the scope of the Bill, I make no secret of the fact that I wanted also to deal with a problem which bears a close relation to the problem of homelessness—namely, empty housing. Unnecessarily empty homes are a standing affront to the homeless. There are many reasons why houses may stand empty—some acceptable, some far less so—and equally there can be no single or simple remedy.

Authorities already have a range of powers in this area. Various new measures have been proposed in the past by various political parties. Both in the Labour Party and elsewhere there have been calls for empty houses to be requisitioned. Systems of penal rating for empty housing have also been proposed. All these proposals are in their own ways difficult and, frankly contentious matters.

I have therefore concluded, albeit reluctantly, that I should concentrate, in the Bill, on dealing solely with homelessness. I consider it vital that first priority be given to getting this very important and long-overdue reform before the House. I have, however, sought assurances from the Government that they intend to take initiatives to secure the fullest use of available housing to met pressing needs. I understand that some comprehensive guidance for local housing authorities is being prepared in the Department on the means available to them to secure greater use of both public and private sector housing and that action has already been taken to try to ensure that Government Departments and statutory bodies with properties temporarily or permanently surplus to requirements make them available to housing authorities at the earliest opportunity.

I believe that we should be doing something about the Rent Acts and that we should have done something about them some time ago, because some freedom in that area would help. Nevertheless, I am grateful that further notes on guidance are going out to local authorities about the problem of empty properties. The Department of the Environment, statutory authorities, the Metropolitan Police, British Railways and others have empty properties that could be leased to local authorities if only for fixed short-term periods. We must not lose sight of this issue in our deliberations, but for the sake of the smooth passage of the Bill on to the statute book I ask hon. Members to share my restraint on the subject when the Bill goes to Standing Committee, as I hope will be the case.

I turn now to what the Bill contains. It sets out to provide a general framework. Legislation cannot provide instant answers to individual problems. Homelessness takes so many different forms and can be met in so many different ways that it would be impractical to attempt that.

I have therefore sought to establish a framework within which authorities must first satisfy themselves by inquiring about the needs and circumstances of people who come to their attention and who appear to be homeless or to run the risk of homelessness and to provide some form of help for all those whom they find to be homeless or likely to become homeless in the near future.

I recognise the limitations that make it difficult in some areas to help everyone to the same extent. I have therefore retained the concept of priority groups introduced in Circular 18/74, but I hope that authorities in areas where the housing situation is less difficult—these are growing in number in some parts of the country—will not be constrained to limit their help unnecessarily and that the Government will be able to expand the range of priority need at an early opportunity.

At the outset, therefore, in the Bill I have attempted to identify the people affected—those who are homeless and in priority need. Clause 1 contains what I believe is the first statutory attempt to define homelessness. Basically, it provides that it is that situation in which a person has no accommodation in which to live with his family or, in the words of the Bill, with those who might reasonably be expected to reside with him". I shall use a singular word to describe the person and his household together, but this phrase contains an important principle to remember, because it means that authorities should no longer deliberately split homeless families unless there are good social work reasons, such as family violence. The definition also puts beyond doubt that a battered woman is to be treated as being homeless, though her housing needs may not necessarily require the allocation of a permanent tenancy of some kind.

I have also sought in Clause 1 to cover those who are threatened with homelessness, on the basis that prevention is better than cure. The Bill in fact talks of those likely to become homeless within 28 days, but I must make it clear that I hope that authorities will act in accordance with the spirit of this provision, however far in advance they learn of the possibility of homelessness. The clause also provides that the Secretary of State may, by order, prescribe circumstances in which homeless people are to be regarded as having a priority need for accommodation.

The Bill thus recognises that everyone who has no accommodation is homeless but that some have a greater need for help than others. It is inevitable and right that, in times like these, the first call on available resources in areas of housing difficulty should go to those most in need—those who are not only homeless but vulnerable. This has become an accepted principle since the concept of priority groups was introduced in Circular 18/74, and I understand that the Government have it in mind to prescribe broadly the same groups of people. I have a draft of that, and it will be made available in Committee.

Clauses 2 and 3 set out the duties of housing authorities in cases of suspected homelessness. They are to make such inquiries as will satisfy them whether a person qualifies for help under the Bill. They are to notify him of their decision and, if he requires it, give him a written statement of their reasons for not being satisfied that he qualifies. They are also to secure that accommodation is available for those whom they think may be homeless and in priority need pending the results of their inquiries. There is a [Mr. Ross.] lot of feeling that there should perhaps be an appeal procedure against a refusal by a housing authority, but to date nobody has come forward with a satisfactory solution to that problem.

Clause 3 contains the true heart of the Bill. It seeks to lay down what housing authorities are to do for those whom they are satisfied are homeless. They are to secure that accommodation is available, or does not cease to be available, to those in priority groups, and they are to advise and assist those not in priority groups in their attempts to obtain or retain accommodation. The clause thus covers both prevention and relief. It makes clear that the obligation is not necessarily that of providing council tenancies. It ensures proper help for those who are most vulnerable.

Although priority groups are to have first call on available resources, the non-priority groups are not forgotten. That is surely the right course to follow. If one is homeless, the need for accommodation is just as great if one is single and healthy as it is if one has children or if one is disabled. If one is single and healthy, one is more likely to be able to search for and find accommodation for oneself, and the duty is on the housing authority to help those who wish to take that course. I believe that in all the circumstances this represents a reasonable and practicable balance and recognises the needs and abilities of different groups to obtain accommodation.

I have sought in Clause 4 to give effect to one of the main principles in Circular No. 18/74, namely, that homelessness is not confined by local authority boundaries and that authorities should co-operate in combating it. Thus, another housing authority—or in London the GLC—is to assist the housing authority concerned in discharging its functions. So, too, are the social service authorities, if requested to do so, by exercise of their functions in relation to cases of homelessness. A housing authority will be able to call on social service support or help from another authority in seeking the most appropriate way to deal with a case.

Most of the remaining provisions arc concerned with supplementary and related matters, but I wish to draw attention to two points. First I wish to mention Clause 7, which requires authorities to have regard to guidelines issued by the Secretary of State. That is an important provision. I have already said that the Bill does not set out to give definitive answers to the way in which any particular case of homelessness shall be handled. It provides a skeleton, and this guidance will put some flesh on the legislative bones, so that authorities may deal with cases of homelessness not only along lines that accord with Government policy but in the light of other authorities' experiences. I am happy to say that consultations with the local authority associations and the voluntary bodies have recently been put in hand on the draft of the guidance, and I hope that it will be possible to have copies of a later draft available in Standing Committee.

Secondly I wish to mention Clause 8, which empowers the Secretary of State, housing authorities and the GLC to make assistance available to voluntary organisations by way of grants or loans or in the case of local authorities by making available other sorts of practical assistance. I know that relations between authorities and voluntary organisations vary considerably, but I hope that this provision will enable authorities to support the excellent work which is being done in the field by many voluntary organisations, particularly perhaps amongst those who do not look to the Establishment for help and those who are not in priority need as prescribed. There is real need for this work, and I hope that authorities will avail themselves of this power as circumstances permit. I am sure that a large number of voluntary bodies would benefit from some limited finance in carrying out this policy.

Among the sections now to be repealed is included Section 21(1)(b) of the National Assistance Act, in recognition of the fact that its concept is no longer relevant. That does not mean that social service authorities no longer have a rôle to play. That cannot be the case. Homelessness is in some cases symptomatic of a deeper complex of problems with which housing authorities are not equipped to deal. Social service authorities must be involved with these problems, just as they would be if the people had not become homeless. The tag "homeless" must not mean that one form of cure, regardless of the reason for the disease, is appropriate.

The co-operative approach to the problem advocated by Circular 18/74 remains valid today. In appropriate cases social service authorities must be involved in prevention, in the assessment of the most appropriate solution, and in the follow-up work to ensure that the problem remains solved and does not simply repeat itself.

I have outlined what my Bill does. I should also say a word about what it does not do. It does not provide an automatic right to a council house on demand. Housing authorities are required to he satisfied that a person meets the definitions in the Bill, and it gives them considerable flexibility in the solution they consider appropriate in each case. That is right, and I am sure that it is right to leave the action in individual cases within the discretion of individual local authorities in the light of the needs of the families concerned and of other claims on their resources.

The Bill is not a scrounger's charter. If an authority is not satisfied that a person comes within the definition of "homeless", it has every right to decline to extend the help under the Bill to him.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

In Clause 3(5) of the Bill, the hon. Gentleman seeks to suggest that the priority given to the homeless under his Bill is the same as the priority accorded to local authority tenants under Sections 113(2) of the Housing Act 1957. If that is so, it is plain that those who come off the beach because they are homeless, or those who who try to leave their parents' home so that they may become homeless, and, indeed, a myriad of other cases, would all he accorded equal priority with those on proper housing lists at present. As the Bill stands it is a charter for scroungers and scrimshankers. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that important point?

Mr. Ross

I note the point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not agree with his interpretation, but I may give him a more conclusive answer if I have a chance later to reply to the debate. I deny that this is a charter for scroungers. It is up to local authorities to decide on the merits of the case. I would support any local authority in refusing to give priority to a homeless person in circumstances described by the hon. and learned Gentleman. It would be left to the authority's discretion.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

This is an important point. Will the hon. Gentleman make clear whether the Bill will impose on local authorities a duty to rehouse all those who would be defined in the Bill as homeless and coming within a priority category? In other words, will the provision be mandatory?

Mr. Ross

Yes, the provision is mandatory. If a local authority simply does not have available property, that is a case in which the authority might well say that it could not assist, although it would accept that it had a duty to assist. It would hope to achieve a solution by cooperation—and that is why that clause is in the Bill—with other authorities. They would want to make much more use of properties available from housing associations, charitable bodies and others. Therefore, we want to get everybody very much involved.

There are vast numbers of properties in London and elsewhere of which more use can be made, if only as short-stay accommodation. These are avenues that we must pursue more vigorously, but that would certainly be a duty laid upon authorities. If an authority is not satisfied that a person comes within the definition of "homeless", it will have every right to decline to extend help to that person under the Bill. In some cases this may be a difficult decision, and it is a difficult area of activity, but the Bill strikes a balance between the needs of the genuinely homeless for accommodation and the resources available to authorities to meet those needs as well as those of their other customers. I believe that we can rely on the good sense of local authorities once the Bill is implemented.

In short, I trust that the Bill will come to be regarded as a legal charter for co-operation between housing authorities and voluntary bodies. There is so much that can be done by making further use of existing stock, including much short-life accommodation. It is an area that can be used to a much greater extent until the economic straitjacket can be removed.

Finally, I come to the parting of the ways in regard to my coalition with the Government. My Bill is deliberately drafted to include Scotland—although not, I hasten to add, Northern Ireland. When my intention to take up this Bill became generally known, I received many representations from organisations north of the border, and from Members in all parts of the House, including some from the land of my forefathers.

Perhaps I could mention a few of those who made representations to me. These are the British Association of Social Workers, based in Edinburgh, the Simon Community. in Glasgow, Shelter, in Scotland, the Chairman of the Lothian Regional Social Works Committee and Chairman of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities Social Work Committee, Mrs. Phyllis Herriot, Edinburgh Women's Aid—and no doubt other speakers can add to that list. I am pleased to have with us today hon. Members from north of the border to give their support of the Bill.

My attention was drawn to the recommendations of the Morris Committee, published in 1975.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Will the hon. Gentleman say what the position is about application to Scotland? We know that the Government's attitude is that it ought not to apply there. What can we expect on that in Committee?

Mr. Ross

I had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for housing. He is on the Government Front Bench this morning and no doubt he will intercede in the debate. As I understand the position, negotiations are taking place between regional and district councils. I understand that there is now an interchange of views on the matter and that reports are going to and fro. I think that there was another meeting about a week ago. I know that there was a meeting three months ago.

I do not want to anticipate what the Government will say, but I hink they feel that it is premature to legislate in this respect for Scotland. Discussions in England and Wales have been going on for about two years, but there has been no undertaking about or threat made of legislation for Scotland. The answer from the Government will be that they feel that this problem can be dealt with without legislation. My point is that the social work people in Scotland are not convinced by that argument. They say that the procedure under the 1974 circular in England and Wales has not worked and that legislation is necessary. I shall deal with this in greater detail later.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

It is the experience of many Members from Scottish constituencies that there is a clear gap in the legislative provisions dealing with housing in Scotland, and we are not content to leave the matter to continued discussions with local authorities. The opportunity ought to be taken under this Bill to cover Scotland, too.

Mr. Ross

Another argument is that housing will become a devolved power to be dealt with by the Scottish Assembly. We know that the situation relating to that organisation is somewhat dicey, to say the least.

Some of the case histories that I have read convince me of the need for legislation. I have been supplied with a substantial number of these. I do not believe that it makes sense to lose the opportunity that is at hand to legislate in this field and to put it off to another day which we know might be many years away. There is no doubt that pressure for Scotland's inclusion is increasing, and I trust that the debate will convince the Secretary of State for Scotland that it would be right to withdraw his objections.

Statistics show that up to June 1976 about 33,000 households were accepted as homeless in England and housed, although over 50,000 claimed to be homeless. These figures are, regrettably, still rising—though we hope they have reached a plateau—and they are a disgrace in a supposedly civilised and still comparatively wealthy society.

Of all the cases of homelessness, about 94 per cent. were resident in the area where they were made homeless before they applied to local authorities. We are, therefore, dealing with people the vast majority of whom are homeless in the areas in which they have resided previously. My Bill will not cure the malaise completely, but I believe that it will help reverse that trend.

If anyone is still in doubt, I ask him to read the address by Mr. Douglas Tilbe, the well-known Director of Shelter, to the Royal Society of Arts on 29th November last year. If that does not convince him, nothing will.

I ask the House to give my Bill a Second Reading.

11.44 a.m.

Mr. Fred Evans (Caerphilly)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) on his able presentation of a much-needed piece of legislation. I congratulate him, too, on the promptness of his thinking, because it had been my intention to take up this subject in a Private Member's Bill. I found that between the Thursday on which the Ballot was drawn, my going to Wales to deal with an industrial problem, and coming back to the Public Bill Office on Monday, the hon. Gentleman had pre-empted me by a number of hours.

It is right and proper that the hon. Gentleman should have introduced this Bill, because he has a great deal of expertise on the subject and has given a great deal of time to this problem. As I say, I had wished to do something in this field, but the hon. Gentleman's action enabled me to take action on another aspect of housing and to bring forward last Friday the Rentcharges Bill which I hope will end the iniquitous situation that has continued for many centuries with regard to rent charges.

We recognise today that the problem of homelessness is a deep scar on our social system. We recognise, too, that it is an increasing problem, because it is now found not only in the vast conurbations where cases receive considerable Press publicity, but in areas of the country where previously it was barely known.

In the warmer communities of my area in South Wales the feeling of a duty towards the elders in the family is still strong, but even in circumstances such as that this problem is rearing its head. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have met this kind of problem in consultations with their constituents.

I can produce many letters setting out tragic family circumstances. Only this week I received a letter about a young married man who has to live with his parents while his wife and their children have to live with her parents. Her parents are finding that the presence of the children is no longer tolerable when illness sets in, and the threat facing the daughter is that she may have to leave her parents' home. As I say, this problem is rearing its head in areas where previously it was virtually unknown.

Awareness of the problem is growing. I do not suppose that any hon. Member would deny that there is a problem, and that is one about which the legislators ought to do something. I think that everyone is agreed on that principle and would not wish to negate it.

There is all-party support for the Bill. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight told us that there had been a considerable amount of Government help and support for most of the Bill, but not for including Scotland. We know that the public are deeply conscious of the problem and the need for the legislators to do something about it.

That should be the overriding consideration, and I am sure that the dominant theme of this debate will be that this is a problem that was recognised by previous Governments and was scheduled for inclusion in the Queen's Speech hut, for some reason or other, was not. The Government themselves are prepared to give help and encouragement in trying to get something done.

The argument about Scotland is the major point of difference and no doubt many other arguments will be better hammered out in Committee. In this debate, the overriding principle is the deep social need which is recognised by all the organisations concerned with homelessness. This initiative is welcomed by local authorities and the public.

We should distinguish between Committee work and Second Reading matters—something that is not always done on Private Members' Bills. There is often confusion in this area, but Fridays are more prone to it. However much we expose this need, it is the principle which is paramount.

As for Scotland, whatever political diffferences may exist between country and country in the British Isles and whatever the attitudes—the Lord President seemed more subdued this morning—human misery and need recognised no national boundaries. The demand for human welfare to be equal as far as possible is indivisible. Fears have been expressed that Scotland should have to go through all the experimentation which has happened in England and Wales before it can benefit from this kind of legislation.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight described his Bill as the bare bones of a statute on which we are beginning to put some flesh. I hope that this debate will be looked back upon as the time when that flesh became a substantial reality. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and hope that the Bill will have an unopposed Second Reading.

11.54 a.m.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

Like the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans), I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) on introducing the Bill. However, we should point out the real difficulties that some hon. Members see in it. The problem is not as easy as one is sometimes led to believe. There is some common ground: we all accept that homelessness is the most distressing feature of the housing situation. It is increasing, it is still a terrible problem in the big cities and it is spreading to other parts of the country where it was not known previously.

Whether or not the Bill is passed, I hope no one believes that it will create one more house or flat to house anyone who is homeless. It may or may not help, but it will not create extra resources. Anyone who thinks that it will do so will only be disillusioned.

I am grateful for what both hon. Members have said about the circular of February 1974, in which I had some hand, which I have recently re-read and with most of which I still agree. The main objects of the circular were set out in paragraph 2. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) then a colleague of mine at the Department of the Environment, in a notable speech at the time supported that aim. The paragraph said: Housing authorities should increasingly undertake prime responsibility for homeless people and their accommodation. That was common ground in the House at the time. The next subparagraph set out the range of ways in which local authorities could tackle homelessness, whether they were social service authorities or housing authorities.

How much I agree with the hon. Member for Caerphilly about making the fullest use of existing housing stock. Under the last Administration, and I am sure under the present one, the Department of the Environment did everything it could to make the maximum use of its own short-life property for the benefit of homeless people. I hope that the Minister is pursuing that approach not only within his Department but with all public bodies which have houses. This can be of greatest relevance in road-widening schemes, particularly in London.

I accept the basic premise of the Bill that housing authorities should have the main statutory responsibility for helping to tackle homelessness. It has been a weakness in the past that two Government Departments have been involved. One or other should take the lead, preferably the Department of the Environment. The Minister for Housing and Construction said at Question Time earlier this week that 100,000 privately rented houses per annum were no longer being let. That shows how serious is the extent of homelessness and that it is likely to increase rather than to diminish.

There is no point in arguing now about the effects of the Rent Act 1974, about which there will not be common ground. My view has always been that to extend security of tenure to the furnished sector of rented accommodation would help in the short run those who already had furnished tenancies but would have damaging long-term consequences for anyone wanting to rent a flat in future. I know that Labour Members say that there is no hard evidence of that. We can speak only of our own subjective evidence. My subjective evidence from my constituency is that the situation has become much more difficult for those who wish to rent. The Act was a short-term help but it will be a long-term disaster. However, there is no going back: one cannot remove security of tenure from those who have it.

What is relevant in this to the Bill is what I have said before in the House, with singular lack of response—that the greatest single help to homelessness in the long term would be to get some more or less bipartisan view about the future of the private rented sector. That is probably impossible, but Ministers and those of good will in both main parties should at least make the effort. I welcome the Government's decision to review the Rent Acts. That is all the more important now because, as the private rented sector is dwindling, council housing will not be able to cope alone with those who need rented accommodation. The voluntary housing movement is making, thanks to the efforts of both parties, a larger contribution than it was a few years ago.

It would be interesting to know whether the efforts of the voluntary housing movement, which have risen, will now have to be cut back again as a result of public expenditure cuts. If so, the pressures on the private rented sector will become even greater and the voluntary housing movement, which was beginning to make a small impact on the situation, will make a smaller impact than at present. I therefore believe that the private rented sector, or perhaps a combination—a Government-cum-private agency—is essential if the problem is not to worsen.

What the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is doing, although I support it, is tinkering with the problem, because I do not think that it will cure the long-term problem of homelessness, which I think will get worse rather than better.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Would it not be right to say that, if the Government were prepared to allow those who have accommodation available to let it without being trapped within the Rent Acts, if the accommodation is free now, all the free and empty property could go on short-term letting, thereby providing accommodation for the homeless without its coming under the control of the Rent Acts? They are not prepared to let it at present for fear of the Rent Acts.

Mr. Channon

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight said that he had decided to omit some provisions about empty houses. I think he was wise to do so, because whatever he put forward in that regard would have been very controversial. Many of us know from experience that people do not let flats because they are terrified of being caught in the noose of the Rent Acts. Often they are wrong, in that if they let they would be all right. However, they do not understand the position.

The provisions of the Rent Acts are incomprehensible, and I accept my full share of responsibility for that. The Rent Acts are not only a trap for the unwary but are also very difficult to understand for the ordinary person. My hon. and learned Friend has an idea which should be pursued by the Government—of allowing people who provide for rent flats which have not been previously rented to be exempted from at least some of the provisions of the Rent Acts.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the private sector. I think that this is vital. He will agree, however, that this is not a reason why the Bill should not secure a Second Reading today. He will remember what happened to the Bill introduced by the former Member for Cambridge last year. I was a sponsor of that Bill.

Mr. Channon

I agree with the hon. Member. He has said that that is why he did not put certain provisions into the Bill.

I will come to the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman must face, which has been put to him by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) and which I am sure other hon. Members will point out. It will be said that the hon. Gentleman's Bill will increase the opportunities for those who become what used to be called self-induced homeless to try to get on to the priority waiting list because they believe that that will be the best way of jumping the queue.

The hon. Member said that the discretion would lie with local authorities in such cases. Neverthless, he must answer the point made by my hon. and learned Friend about the mandatory duty that is now put upon local authorities. This is a very important point, if not the most important point in the Bill. Under Clause 1(4) the Secretary of State can specify what sort of homeless persons can have a priority need for accommodation. Will the hon. Member please spell out what he hopes the Secretary of State will specify in those orders?

If the Government are to support the Bill, as I suspect that they will, I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Secretary of State would exercise his discretion in this way. There is a real fear among local authorities that, unless the provision in this respect is carefully worded, people will fraudulently or semifraududently become homeless so that they can jump the queue, get to the top of the waiting list and get a priority need for accommodation.

Mr. George Cunningham

Is not this the very heart of the Bill? Should it not be in the Bill rather than be left to be specified in an order to be made after the Bill is enacted?

Mr. Channon

I agree with the hon. Member. I think that it should be in the Bill, and I hope that if the Bill gets to Standing Committee the Government or the hon. Member will table an amendment to secure that. It is very important that this matter should be dealt with in the Bill so that we know what we are talking about. If that can be disposed of, the objections which some hon. Members have to the Bill will largely be dissipated.

I note what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said about the priorities in the 1974 circular. I agree with him. Those are the priorities I should like to see stipulated in the Bill.

I end on the note upon which I began. The passing of the Bill will not provide one extra house or flat. It will help some people to have a priority. A rigid duty is placed on local authorities; they will help some people only by failing to help others. Particularly in the centres of large cities—the London boroughs, for example—it is often impossible to help people even though they are in a very bad housing situation.

I was not satisfied with the hon. Member's statement that there would be a mandatory duty on a local authority to rehouse but that if it could not physically rehouse it would not be able to do so. That is not a very satisfactory way of proceeding. Either there is a statutory duty on a local authority or there is not. The one thing there should not be is a statutory duty on a local authority to do something that it physically cannot do.

I take at random the example of the London borough of Camden. I do not know how it would cope with the Bill if enacted—for example, with all the people who come down from Scotland to King's Cross Station.

Mr. Stephen Ross

The hon. Gentleman is taking this too far. I have met the chief executive officer of the London borough of Camden. The story of vast hordes of people arriving at Euston Station is not true. The London borough of Camden already has its arrangements with the London boroughs and it is actually acting according to what is in the Bill. It is the roughly 40 per cent. of authorities which are not doing this that we want to deal with.

Mr. Channon

I accept that. I merely gave the example that if the statutory duty is too rigid an impossible duty will be placed upon local authorities.

There are many points in the Bill that need to be clarified in Committee.

Mrs. Millie Miller (Ilford, North)

I am not speaking on behalf of Camden. I do not represent Camden. I want to put to the hon. Gentleman the point made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) about the duty that the GLC would have. If it were the case that Camden was not operating as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has described, I believe that there would be a bounden duty on the GLC to take over the responsibility.

Mr. Channon

I accept that, though it does not lead me to dissent from what I said earlier.

There are many points in the Bill which require detailed discussion in Standing Committee. I hope that the Bill will receive a Second Reading and will reach Standing Committee. The general basic idea that there should be a statutory duty on housing authorities rather than on social service authorities is one that I support. I therefore support the Bill today.

12.8 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Mitcham and Morden)

The time for Private Members' legislation is so precious that it is not desirable that those who support a measure should consume a great deal of that time. The House could do much more good by having more Private Members' legislation than by spending precious time discussing it on Second Reading. For that reason, tempted as I am to do so, I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) into his delving into the Rent Acts. As he is aware, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Rent Act 1974 and I am wholly convinced that it has achieved a great deal of good. We always accepted that there was an aspect of it that would act as a disincentive, but we believed that it could act as a positive incentive to resident landlords to let, provided, first, that it was clear to landlords that there would not be any change in terms of regards security of tenure if the Conservative Party should return to office.

I appeal to the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) to make more clear to the House, as he made clear in a television programme that I shared with him the other evening, that if the Conservative Party returned to office security of tenure would not be withdrawn from furnished tenants. Landlords who are holding back property because they think that when the Tories come back there will be a property bonanza would then be encouraged to realise that security of tenure is here to stay and therefore to let accommodation in which they are not themselves living and for which there is no other immediate use.

As the hon. Member for Southend, West is aware, it is the financial structure of subsidies and tax reliefs that causes people to prefer to sell property rather than let it with possible security of tenure. However, here I am straying into the scope of the Rent Act, for which I apologise.

I very much welcome the Bill and warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) on introducing it. All of us know that among local authorities, even the best local authorities, there is frequently an attitude of indifference on the part of officials who do not have a duty to perform in regard to homelessness. Some officials take the view that if they house a family they are being very kind, so they will do it at such time as is convenient to them, without telling the family when they will do it. It can cause tremendous hardship to families that a local authority is intending to rehouse if the authority waits until the family has been thrown out by the bailiffs before telling it where it is to go. It is therefore good that a statutory duty should be laid even on the good authorities.

One of the major reasons why the Bill is essential is that not all local authorities are good authorities. At present, an excessive burden is placed on those that fulfil the obligations imposed by the February 1974 circular issued by the hon. Member for Southend, West. Unfortunately, they are only moral obligations, and we know from experience that some local authorities—we do not need to speculate on their political complexion—fulfil their obligations if those obligations have legal rather than merely moral force.

The Bill will cure one absurd anomaly which bedevils the problem of homelessness, namely, that social services are often under one local authority while housing is under another, possibly controlled by a different party. The shuttling between the two authorities results in intense hardship for many people.

I welcome the power in the Bill for local authorities to take flexible action to relieve the shortage of accommodation. One of the causes of so much hardship in London in recent years has been the rapid decline of cheap hostel accommodation, such as the Rowton Houses, and the disappearance of much of the accommodation that used to be available. In 1965 there were 567 establishments providing cheap hostel accommodation. By the time of the 1970 Census, that figure had fallen to 293. I am sure that the number is still falling, because of the attractions of more profitable exploitation of property. I hope that we shall see a revival of provision of hostel accommodation by local authorities.

Mr. Rees-Davies

As a London Member, does the hon. Gentleman share my view that there is an urgent need for some form of temporary hostel accommodation in this Jubilee Year for all the young people who will be swarming into London? Has he made any representations, as I have, to the London Tourist Board, and will he persuade the Government to see whether we can get some form of temporary accommodation for these people, and to ensure that the Government do not resile from making such provision immediately?

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I shall be glad to see some form of temporary accommodation made available for tourists coming into London, but I am much more concerned about those who live in London than about provision for tourists, whether affluent or not.

There is one aspect of the Bill on which I am unhappy and to which I hope we can find a solution in Committee. Notwithstanding what the London borough of Camden may have told the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, there are excessive burdens on some local authorities, particularly those near ports of entry—one thinks of Liverpool as well as of Camden, Islington and elsewhere—where large numbers of people arrive from different parts of the country.

If a family has just arrived from Ireland we have no justification for saying that we shall do nothing about it. Of course, we must find accommodation for it. Equally, even if the Scottish National Party succeeds in making Scotland a separate State—the same applies to Wales—someone coming off the train from Cardiff or from Scotland should have an entitlement to accommodation, certainly if he falls within the priority needs.

The problem is primarily financial, and, with respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller), there is not a duty imposed by the Bill on the Greater London Council. There is provision that there shall be co-operation or the encouragement of co-operation between local authorities. But what we need is some sort of financial assistance between local authorities—I think that this will have to be operated under the Government umbrella—to ensure that those local authorities that are providing accommodation for the homeless above a certain quota receive some assistance, perhaps collected in some way from the areas of origin, though that would be difficult and cumbersome to administer, or some form of assistance from the Government to those authorities upon which an excessive burden will otherwise be placed.

In practice, I believe, we shall find that those authorities that are at present doing a good job—for example, Camden and Islington—will welcome the Bill because it will ensure that it will not be only the good authorities which bear the burden but those which are at present saying "Let someone else look after them; we shall not do it." will in future have to share the burden, too.

I very much welcome the Bill. I believe that it can be improved in Committee, and I hope that the House will give it an unopposed Second Reading.

12.17 p.m.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (South Angus)

I shall be as brief as I can, in order to allow as much time as possible for other hon. Members. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr.Ross) on introducing the Bill, and pay tribute to his sincerity in this matter and the great deal of hard work that he has done behind the scenes in bringing forward this measure. The hon. Gentleman has chosen to tackle in a positive way a serious social problem. The past system of voluntary and irregularly applied commitment on the part of local authorities will be replaced by a definite national framework in England and Wales—and, I hope, also in Scotland. With all its acknowledged faults, the Bill will provide a clear legislative framework within which the problem of homelessness can be systematically tackled.

I fully accept that the task will not be easy, and I recognise that the Bill is no panacea. A great deal of hard work, consistent effort and positive commitment will be required from all involved before the problem of homelessness is cut down to size.

The Bill will take time to be really effective, but it is an important first step in the right direction. The need to tackle homelessness has long been recognised, and the Bill has a good pedigree behind it. There is an impressive list of well-respected organisations which wish it well. Significantly, many of these organisations have long experience in coping with this human problem. They include Shelter. the British Association of Social Workers, the Scottish Consumer Council and so on—a large and impressive list. I have here a telegram sent by the BASW in Scotland to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight: Full support from social workers in Scotland. Legislation imperative to safeguard rights of children and families in danger of separation. Establish basic responsibility by statute. Then code of practice for guidance. I hope that that voice from Edinburgh will be heard.

Mr. Rees-Davies

That is like all of this argument—it begs the issue. It is all very well being emotional about it, but every word that the hon. Gentleman has said depends upon the code of practice. Under the Bill as it stands all the scrimshankers and scroungers could get in on the act. Even someone who wanted to get away from their in-laws could benefit. A code of practice is needed before the Bill.

Mr. Welsh

I recognise the importance of the code of practice, but the local authorities will have discretion and areas of choice when working out their priorities.

I hope that the list of support will help to swing the Secretary of State for Scotland towards the Bill. I hope that he will take into account the all-party support that the Bill has and will swing his support behind it.

In England and Wales the old system of voluntary agreements has proved to be inadequate in practice. Unlike what happened with the disasters caused by local government reorganisation, I hope that Scotland will learn from past mistakes in England and Wales and act accordingly.

The Bill is needed in Scotland to take its place in the war against long-standing bad housing conditions. We must treat homelessness as part of the general Scottish social and economic problems. We must see it in the context of a long history of urban deprivation, as illustrated by the Department of Environment Census Indicators of Urban Deprivation produced in 1971.

Homelessness must be seen in the context of Scotland's history of unemployment and poor housing conditions. We have today 160,000 houses which are below minimum tolerable standards. That is the formidable problem that faces any Government. The Bill is a small part of what should be a concerted effort by everyone to declare war on Scotland's past legacy of urban decay and squalor. Homelessness must be treated as an integral part of a more general housing strategy for Scotland. By offering assistance and advice; setting out priority areas for action; making the authorities involved both responsible and answerable publicly for their decisions; linking organisations that are already working closely with the statutory authorities, the Bill must be welcomed as a move towards a more comprehensive housing system. The Morris Committee recommendation of making homelessness a Housing Department responsibility rather than a social work responsibility goes a long way towards rationalising the potentially inefficient division between regional and district authorities.

If those recommendations are accepted, homelessness will take its place under one authority's umbrella and can thus be dealt with in a more coordinated manner. Unless Scotland is included in the provisions of the Bill, anomalies could arise that are similar to those which existed before my hon. Friend the Member for Argyle (Mr. MacCormick) introduced his divorce reform Bill. Obviously, once authorities apply the code they may suffer because of those who do not apply it.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

It is a bit much for the hon. Gentleman to blame the fact that we have separate Scottish legislation for the housing situation when we all press for separate legislation for Scotland.

Mr. Welsh

I blame not Scottish action but Scottish inaction. That is the problem. It is the hon. Gentleman's Government that is in power, not mine. Important anomalies could be created. I used the divorce law analogy deliberately. The authorities that apply the rules and regulations will suffer because of those that do not.

The drift of young people from Scotland, especially to London, is already placing a great burden on English housing authorities. Young Scots are attracted by the lure of London and other English cities. They are repulsed by the conditions in some of our urban centres. By that I mean the dole queues, dead-end jobs and the inability of our present "regionalised" Scotland to provide our people with 20th century social standards that are taken for granted elsewhere.

Mr. George Cunningham

National legislation for housing in Scotland has, on the whole, been better than national legislation for housing in England. The percentage stock of council housing in Scotland is higher than in England. The fault lies primarily with domestic Scottish authorities in the past, not with the Government in London.

Mr. Welsh

The Government are lagging behind. Certainly Scotland has a larger number of council houses but there are good historic reasons for that. As the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) said, human misery and need has no national boundaries, but inaction by the Scottish Office will result in such boundaries and will lead to an increased exodus of Scots from Scotland, which will place a greater burden on English authorities.

Young Scots, especially from areas like Strathclyde, are being attracted by the bright lights of London. I pay tribute to the valiant efforts of groups such as the West End Coordinated Voluntary Services for the work that they do in dealing with the housing and other problems of these people. The Bill has that organisation's support. It believes that it can help in its essential work.

I welcome the provision in the Bill for specific cash aid for such groups, to help them with their overheads and to pay for premises. Voluntary co-operation with local authorities has proved to be insufficient.

I broadly welcome the Bill as an effort towards ending the bed-and-breakfast solution to homelessness and as an attempt to go beyond the present hostel solution—although hostels will still play their part. The Bill goes beyond coping with the aftermath of natural disasters and it is to be welcomed as a more permanent concerted drive to cure a longterm, deep-seated problem.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

The hon. Gentleman just said that young people in Scotland were leaving to come to England, particularly to London. How does he square that with the statement in The Times by his hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing), who said that Scotland holds out a glittering future for the youth of Scotland?

Mr. Welsh

That is exactly the point. The future of Scotland lies in self-government. The Westminster system is driving the people out. Present conditions in Scotland have forced them to leave. The Westminster system has created unemployment, neglect and a waste of potential. Under self-government we hope to give our people a future, and we hope that we shall not be left behind with important legislation, as has happened under the Scottish Office. I welcome the Bill as a move towards a more permanent solution to the problem of homelessness.

12.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Hugh D. Brown)

It may be for the convenience of the House if I make a brief intervention. It will save the time of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, although I do not wish to anticipate his catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend will be presenting the Government's overall welcome for the Bill with the one reservation concerning our attitude towards Scotland. I resist the temptation to take part in the debate. I shall merely point out to my English and Welsh colleagues that what they have seen so far involving Scottish Members is the sort of thing from which they will suffer if we are driven into Committee.

I shall make one propaganda point. I find it odd that the SNP should talk about the voice of Edinburgh and yet should want to include Scotland in the Bill when it is know that 40 per cent. of the problem relates to London. It is an odd doctrine for the SNP, as put forward by the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh), to say that Scotland wishes to be associated in detail with legislation which, as most of my hon. Friends representing English seats will recognise, is largely meant to deal with a London problem.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has accepted the recommendation of the Morris Committee dealing with links between housing and social work that primary responsibility for securing accommodation for the homeless should lie with housing authorities. This was announced on 9th November last year in reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). On 20th December—I ask hon. Members to note the date—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who has responsibility for social work in Scotland and I met the housing and social work committees of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss the practical problems of implementing the decision that responsibility should lie with housing authorities. We have only one Convention to consult in Scotland, unlike my colleagues in England and Wales. It was a major step forward to be sitting down discussing the practical application of the decision we had announced a month earlier.

Mr. Welsh rose

Mr. Brown

It was agreed at the meeting with the Convention that, for the first time, the Convention would set up a working party with representatives of both housing authorities and social work authorities to prepare a code of practice and report within three months. That was not our timetable but the timetable suggested by the Convention. In the meantime, a number of local authorities have set up provisional working arrangements. Scottish Members, at least, will be aware of Glasgow's District Council's view that this Bill would prejudice the development and smooth operation of such arrangements. The efforts of Scottish local authorities to reach an agreement to deal with the problems of the homeless on a basis of voluntary co-operation have led us to conclude that the Bill should not apply to Scotland.

I assure my English colleagues that circumstances are different. Relationships between housing and social work authorities are different in Scotland. It is because of that that I humbly suggest, with natural Scots modesty, that we are ahead of England and Wales in our discussions and in the degree of co-operation that has been achieved.

Mr. George Cunningham

The truth of the matter is that Scotland may be moving ahead on this issue but it has been behind England for years. That is unusual in relation to matters between Scotland and England. Is my hon. Friend seriously suggesting that if the Bill is passed and applies only to England, and if one of my constituents moves to Glasgow, he should lose a legal entitlement and become subject to good will but that if one of my hon. Friend's constituents moves down to London he becomes the beneficiary of a legal entitlement? If he is suggesting that, it will be over my dead body.

Mr. Brown

Even bearing in mind my hon. Friend's attitude towards devolution, I would not wish that. There are obviously practical difficulties if legislation is moving at a different pace or in different ways in Scotland and in England and Wales. One of our strengths is our ability to operate in this different way. I will not, however, be drawn into these specific problems. My hon. Friend had better wait and see whether this is a problem—whether the single people involved would rate as a high priority.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I understand my hon. Friend's view that legislation for Scotland is not necessary in view of the discussions he is currently having with Scottish local authorities and in view of their internal discussions. My hon. Friend is, however, faced with a different problem now. Scotland is included in the Bill. Instead of being able to resist the inclusion of Scotland in the Bill, he must apply his mind to what the attitude is now that Scotland is included. It would be disastrous if he were to say that he wanted Scotland taken out. There is great merit in leaving Scotland in.

Mr. Brown

I am coming to that. (Laughter.] There is nothing unusual or funny about this. It is a problem that has been created for us. We have not ruled out the possibility of legislation. If that proves necessary, it will be prepared in consultation with the Scottish local authorities and the outside agencies and will be designed to meet the needs of the Scottish situation.

I had intended this to be a helpful contribution. I hope that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) will respond to it in the same spirit as he has shown when we have discussed the Bill with him. As I understand it, part of the agreement or understanding that he reached with the Department of the Environment was that the Government's support for the Bill was conditional on the Bill applying only to England and Wales. I am not asking the hon. Gentleman for an off-the-cuff reaction. I believe that Government support was conditional on that point.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I agree entirely that the commitment was related to a Bill dealing only with England and Wales. It is a little difficult, however, when I receive support, and a request that Scotland should be included, from the chairman of the social work committee of the Convention. What would the Minister like to say to that?

Mr. Brown

I would like to take part in the debate, but I am really only making a statement about our intention. I am not dealing with the problem of homelessness. It is grossly unfair of the chairman of the Lothian Social Work Committee to make a statement of support when she is a party to the agreement that the social work and housing authorities would sit down together and work out a code of practice. She is a charming lady and a most efficient convener but her statement is slightly outwith the normal run of consultation. I am concerned with housing matters in Scotland, and everyone knows that it is the housing authorities which will carry the burden.

The hon. Member must appreciate that, since I have to negotiate with the housing authorities and gain their agreement and willingness to co-operate, it makes it difficult for me when I am being forced to concede legislation without prior consultation. The hon. Member, with his local authority experience, would be the first to complain if the Government tried to push something down the throat of his authority without prior consultation. I am sure that my hon. Friends recognise the Government's difficulties in terms of Scotland.

Mr. Welsh rose

Mr. Brown

I think that it would be better if I did not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I am not arguing the case of the homeless. I shall listen carefully to the discussions so that, in the event of legislation being required for Scotland—it has not been ruled out—we can gain from the experience and from the undoubted trouble that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will get into in Committee once hon. Members begin to examine the details of the Bill. We shall be able to learn some lessons from that. It will be useful to follow the Committee's deliberations. What is more, I shall discuss with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and others who have made representations to me what we need to do, given the implications involved in Scotland being included in the Bill.

I have put the onus on the Member for Isle of Wight. I recognise that the power proposed in Clause 13(3) leaves the discretion to the Secretary of State—and that covers the Secretary of State for Scotland—about when the legislation is to come into force. It could be done separately for Scotland. It also leaves discretion to the Secretary of State for Scotland, as I understand the legal position, in that even the guidelines could also be done separately in Scotland.

I do not hide behind that. I could be accused of using that as a delaying tactic until I had had discussions with the local authorities. My difficulty in making any statement in the general context of the clause and the subsection is that the position could be altered drastically, depending on what happened in Committee. It depends what the Committee decides to include in the Bill rather than in the guidelines. Therefore, it is difficult for me to give a blanket assurance that we shall accept the Bill as it emerges finally from the Committee.

Mr. Rees-Davies

When does the Minister think that the code of practice which is the subject of discussion in Scotland and which could lay down the right criteria is likely to be ready. Will it be three months, six months, or cannot the hon. Gentleman say?

Mr. Brown

I have said already that we have been promised by the Convention that we shall have it within a month from now. It should be ready within a month from now, because it was in December that we had our meeting. But whether it will go into the detail which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will be producing in terms of guidelines covering England and Wales I cannot say. They will be Scottish guidelines dealing with the problem in Scotland, and they will come from the Convention rather than from the discussions which the Department of the Environment has had with interested parties.

We shall not do anything to obstruct the passage of the Bill. I hope, however, that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight will find it possible to take the necessary action in Committee to give us all time to sit down and look at the possible application of the Bill to Scotland and to have discussions with the authorities in Scotland.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I see much to welcome in the Bill. I am sure that the motives are compassionate. I welcome especially the transfer of responsibility for the homeless from the social security departments to the housing departments of local authorities, the concern for priority groups, and that for battered wives.

I see the housing shortage in London, continuing as it does, as a major social evil, of which the problem of homelessness is a part. Some action must be taken to deal with it. But I have the profoundest misgivings about one of the basic points of the Bill to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and others alluded, which is self-induced homelessness. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) said that the Bill was a charter for scrimshankers and scroungers. I do not go quite as far as that. But in my view the Bill may be a charter for queue-jumpers, and I do not think that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) has taken this possibility sufficiently into account.

I predict that if the Bill becomes law there will be a vast increase in the numbers of homeless families—or those who claim to be homeless—which will be greatly to the detriment of families on regular waiting lists for council houses. For every additional homeless family rehoused, one family on a waiting list will not be rehoused.

Several hon. Members present represent inner London constituencies. They will confirm that hardly a day goes by when they do not receive letters or visits from constituents with young families who are on waiting lists and are in acute need of rehousing. Many of them are grossly overcrowded, often with two parents and two or three children living in one or two rooms. The marriages of those families are put under strain. Their situation is thoroughly unpleasant and undesirable from almost every point of view. Although it must be acknowledged that there are many families on waiting lists who are not in housing need, those are not likely to get to the top of housing lists. But there are many families near the tops of lists who are in acute need; and that need will be frustrated if the Bill becomes law.

The needs of families on waiting lists are less loudly trumpeted than those of homeless families. But this House should not overlook them on that account. The local authority in my constituency, the Richmond on Thames Borough Council, had applications last year from 128 families who claimed to be homeless. As it happens, it housed half that number, and it turned down the remaining 64. The families who claimed to be homeless ranged very wide in their conditions and needs. I give three examples to illustrate what I mean.

One case referred to me two days ago concerned a family renting a private house whose owner has been working abroad for two years and now needs to recover possession, on his return home, to house his own family. If the matter is taken to court, he will be given possession of his home, with the result that the family living in it at present will become homeless. I have been in touch with the local authority about the case. There is no doubt that the family will be rehoused, and rehoused without any need for this Bill.

The family involved in the second case is in a rather different position. The father is Italian, the mother is French, and there are three children of the marriage. They have a £12,000 mortgage on a house. However, they have got heavily into debt as a result of some unsuccessful business ventures, and owe an additional £18,000. They are unable to meet their mortgage repayments and the building society has put in train the necessary action to take possession of the house. That family is not being rehoused by my local authority. It takes the view that there is no reason why the family should be rehoused in preference to a British family on its waiting list. The family will have to go back to Italy and try to find housing there.

Yet under this Bill the local authority would have a duty to rehouse that family because it fell within the definition of being homeless. In consequence, the family at the top of the waiting list would not be rehoused.

The third case is that of a young couple who came from Ireland and lived in my constituency for six months. They then decided to return to Ireland, where, unfortunately, the marriage broke up and they separated. The mother returned to my constituency with her young child and said that she was homeless. The authority, rightly or wrongly, rehoused the family. It did so without any need for this Bill.

Local authorities now have discretion to decide whether to rehouse homeless families. Most of them use that discretion responsibly and sensibly. If they err, they tend to err on the side of compassion. But they can and do also take into account the position of families on the waiting list in acute need of rehousing. Some of the pressure groups campaigning against homelessness do not.

Under the Bill it will be easy for any family to jump the queue, if it is in privately rented accommodation, simply by not paying the rent. That family will be evicted. Under the Bill, the local authority will have to rehouse that family, because it is homeless, to the detriment of others on the waiting list. That is not fair or just. If the Bill gets a Second Reading, I hope that there will be stringent amendments in Committee to impose a fair and thorough code of practice.

Families can contrive to make themselves homeless by stirring up family quarrels. I heard of a case where a family rented a house from the father's uncle. They asked the uncle to serve them with a notice to quit because they had not paid the rent, and subsequently they got to the front of the housing queue.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does the hon. Gentleman want things to remain as they are?

Mr. Jessel

I want the balance tilted slightly further in favour of the homeless, but I do not believe that we should go as far as this Bill. To do so would be grossly unfair to families in acute housing need, near the top of the local authority waiting list, who cannot contrive to be homeless and who are not in a position to jump the queue. The Bill is likely to be abused.

Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the case to which he is objecting, ironically, applies at the moment. If someone is under a possession order from the county court he finds himself in an emergency housing situation. In that situation he would go to the top of the queue.

Mr. Jessel

Local authorities usually rehouse such cases. I have not heard cases of genuine unavoidable homelessness which local authorities have refused to rehouse. Many families become homeless through their own acts of omission or commission and I do not want to see families who contrive to be homeless given preferential treatment over families in acute need on council waiting lists.

Mr. Stephen Ross

A Government circular gives guidance to local authorities on how to deal with people who do not pay their rent. No one is saying that people who deliberately make themselves homeless should be permanently rehoused. They might be housed in what would not be regarded as top-class accommodation. Local authorities provide this sort of thing now. No one suggests that they should be placed straight into a council house. The fact is that 46 per cent. of authorities—probably not the hon. Gentleman's borough, as that is in London—have not taken note of Circular 18/74. There have been some glaring cases, notably in Dorchester and in the North-East, where social workers are saying that they can deal only with families that have been in that situation for 28 days. Does the hon. Gentleman really want to live in a country that allows such things to happen?

Mr. Jessel

Of course we do not want that sort of thing to happen. I am saying that the Bill tilts the balance unfairly against families on waiting lists. They will be deprived of accommodation by the Bill's including, in the definition of "homelessness", families who make themselves homeless through act of commission or omission by, for example, not paying their rent.

I am unhappy about the Bill as it stands. Those of us who have misgivings about it would like the Minister to set our minds at rest on the points that we have raised.

Service families who cannot get on to the waiting lists because they have to move about should be included in the Bill. This subject was raised in a Question yesterday to the Prime Minister, but it was not satisfactorily answered. This problem was best met in a circular from the Department of Housing in 1955, when Lord Duncan-Sandys was Minister. It states: Sailors, soldiers and airmen, returning to civil life after a period of years in the Forces, as often as not possess no fixed abode anywhere at all. To insist, in such circumstances, on a residential qualification is to make it quite impossible for many of them to get their names put onto the housing list, however great may be their need. That these men should be penalised in this way, solely by reason of the fact that they have been serving their country, is a most grievous injustice, which should not be allowed to continue. I consider that an application for a council house, made within one year of his leaving the Forces, by a regular ex-Serviceman, who has found employment in or near the district, or who has family connections with it, should be considered exclusively on the basis of his housing needs, without any regard whatsoever for the length of his residence in the locality. I should like to see this incorporated into the Bill.

It seems to me utterly wrong that a soldier, keeping the peace in Northern Ireland or stationed in Germany, should fail to qualify for points, by length of residence, on a council housing list and should be in an inferior position to anyone else. I hope that the Bill will be amended to cover that point.

12.58 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) apparently regards this as a bad Bill and as something that will do harm. I take the opposite view. The inference from what the hon. Gentleman said is that he would like things to remain as they are—in other words, he says that councils already have powers to deal with the matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) for seizing this opportunity to introduce the Bill. I congratulate him also on his excellent presentation of this matter, in view of the failure of successive Governments, whether through lack of time or otherwise, to deal with what I consider is a most urgent problem.

I was privileged to be a Member of the House when the National Assistance Act 1948 was passed. Until then, homelessness was dealt with in even more unsatisfactory terms than now under the Poor Law and the Vagrancy Acts. In the 1948 Act we imposed a duty upon local authorities to provide: temporary accommodation for persons who are in urgent need thereof, being need arising in circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen or in such other circumstances as the authority may in any particular case determine. These words seemed pretty wide. We thought then that we were providing some real assistance for the homeless, but local authorities varied considerably in their interpretation of that duty. The hon. Member for Twickenham should note that it was considered to apply to homeless families and not to homeless single people, and there is still no duty on local authorities to deal with single people.

The Local Government Act 1972 altered the 1948 duty to a power, but it was reimposed by a circular—not in legislation—from the Department setting out recommendations to local authorities on provision for the homeless. Circulars may contain recommendations, but they have no legislative authority, and the result was that the position in regard to the homeless became chaotic and was made even more chaotic because the duty to make arrangements was placed on social service authorities, who, in turn, had to call upon local housing authorities to take any practical steps.

These problems were recognised by the Minister in June 1974, when he said that the Government intended to initiate a wide-ranging review in consultation with local authority associations and representatives of voluntary organisations and that it would cover the need for new legislation on homelessness. Two and a half years have passed since that announcement and our thanks are due to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for giving us our first opportunity since then to deal with the long-overdue treatment of the Problem. Whatever the hon. Member for Twickenham says, this is a dreadful problem.

No doubt hon. Members have read the memorandum issued by CHAR and other groups, and they will doubtless have studied details of the extent of homelessness and the cases quoted in the memorandum. They could be multiplied many times, and they show how great is the hardship and how necessary is the need for action. Whatever the cause of homelessness—whether it is eviction, a dispute among relatives with people leaving their homes, the difficulties of one-parent families, battered wives or pregnant women, they are all heart-breaking cases, and perhaps the most significant feature is the failure to deal with the homeless single people, particularly those sleeping rough.

I have been studying the statistics. It is appalling to think that in 1975, the last year for which official figures are available, 51,000 applications from homeless families were recorded by councils in England—an increase of 23,000 on the 1972 figure. We must remember that even those figures do not include the single homeless and those who have not been recorded by councils.

As a London Member, I am particularly interested in the situation in the capital. We have the heaviest recorded homelessness in England. In 1968, 37.5 per cent. of all the homeless people in England were in London, and no doubt that figure has increased considerably since then. I am told that, in my own borough of Hackney, quite apart from the 14,000 people on the council house waiting list 15 homeless families apply to the council each week and, with the help of the GLC, more than 900 homeless families are rehoused each year.

In 1975–76 more than £400,000 was spent by the council of Hackney on providing bed and breakfast accommodation. What can the council do? It can deal only with homeless families—not with single people—and only by using bed-and-breakfast accommodation, making temporary use of empty properties or, in some cases, through reciprocal arrangements with other boroughs.

Mr. Jessel

Are there families on the waiting list in the hon. Gentleman's borough who are in acute housing need? If so, what would he do to ensure that, if the Bill were passed, their rehousing was not jeopardised or prejudiced by the rehousing of families who contrived to make themselves homeless by, for example, failing to pay rent?

Mr. Weitzman

I have said that we have a housing list of probably more than 14,000 in Hackney. I recognise the difficulties, but we cannot shut our eyes to the problem of homelessness. It is not be- ing dealt with—and I want it dealt with—on a legislative basis. We know that it may create difficulties, but we must deal with the problem.

My borough, like others, has to pay particular regard to homeless families with children, so that they are not taken into care and the families separated.

The voluntary organisations, including After Six, New Horizon and Centrepoint, have all done yeoman work for single people, but how can they cope with a problem of this magnitude? The joint circular on homelessness, No. 18/74, said that those with no roof over their heads. or those who were likely to lose their shelter within a month, should be helped to secure accommodation and that the first claim should be given to priority groups. Clause 3 of the Bill adopts this priority need, but it is left for the Secretary of State, who "may"— not "shall"—specify in Clause 1(4) what is meant by priority need. We must look very carefully at what this means. Will it include young single people, or people who were dispossessed when they held premises under a service agreement?

I attach great importance to Clause 4, and co-operation between local authorities. I am told that at present it is only when a family has moved from one borough to another within a short period that the original borough will assist. There will be considerable variations in the needs to rehouse the homeless in different boroughs, particularly in London, but I should have thought that there would be considerable scope for co-operation between authorities and for reciprocal arrangements which would assist in dealing with the problem. I welcome the clause because it will enable discussion to take place and, if necessary, amendments to be tabled to it.

Clause 6 is important in providing that financial and other assistance should be given to voluntary organisations concerned with homelessness. They render great assistance and could do even more in future with the help foreshadowed for them in the Bill.

I draw attention also to the position of squatters, which may raise difficulties. The House will at some time be considering the provisions of the Criminal Law Bill—now in another place. That measure creates a number of offences that may well affect squatters. It will be necessary to consider their position in respect of the definition of homeless persons that is contained in Clause 1.

The presenter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, has set out a basis upon which considerable attention should be given to many aspects. For example, there is the position of the homeless single person, the sort of accommodation that must be provided, the need to keep families together and the storage of furniture and household effects. No doubt those are issues that can be considered in Committee.

I utter a word of warning. I am intrigued by the reference in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum under the heading "Financial Effects of the Bill", which states: The main effect of the Bill is to replace the present duty on local social services authorities by duties to be fulfilled by the local housing authorities. This Bill will require a transfer of resources from social services to housing authorities to meet the commitments hitherto met by the former for payments for hotel (bed and breakfast) accommodation and for providing and managing temporary accommodation. It then states: There will be no net addition to public expenditure. I doubt whether that last sentence is correct. I am told by the chairman of my local social services committee that its resources are already cut to the bone and that the duties now to be imposed—in my view, rightly—must mean a considerable increase in expenditure. It has always been the case—I know that this is true in my borough—that many councils have been greatly hampered in dealing with the homeless, because of the tremendous expense and the lack of resources. I hope that the implications of the Bill in this direction will be spelled out carefully.

Given the problem of homelessness, especially in the present economic position, and the enormity of housing difficulties generally, it might be said by some that the Bill deals only with the tip of the problem. Nevertheless, it seems to resolve a chaotic situation. It provides a framework of legislation and does not merely rely upon advice contained in the circulars issued by Government Departments, which have no legal effect.

I do not deprecate those circulars. They are important in putting forward recommendations, but it must not be forgotten that they have no legislative effect. That is the answer to the criticism made by the hon. Member for Twickenham. We require a legislative basis.

Our thanks are due to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for providing this opportunity. I hope that the Bill will find its way on to the statute book and enable some assistance to be given to the needs of the homeless.

1.13 p.m.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

I welcome the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) not only on his good luck in the Ballot but in selecting this measure to bring forward. I think that a number of hon. Members would have been eager to have done likewise had they had his good fortune. I also congratulate and thank a number of pressure groups, such as CHAR, SHACK, Shelter and others, which have put pressure on Members on both sides of the House and have focused attention on this important issue. Without their work we should have been further away from moving towards a solution.

Speaking as a Welsh Member, I am glad that in facing the Welsh Office I do not have the same problems that my Scottish colleagues have when facing the Scottish Office when dealing with these matters. Housing in Wales is different from that in England and Scotland, but we need the provisions of the Bill. I understand that a number of Scottish Members feel that there is a siimlar need in Scotland.

I underline a matter that may not have emerged from the discussions that we have had so far today. Homelessness is not merely an urban problem. There is such a thing as rural homelessness. That is a feature from which I and other hon. Members from rural Welsh constituencies suffer. The degree may not be quite as great, but there are circumstances where it is acute and where it is a problem.

At present in my constituency, which is a reasonably small constituency, there are over 1,500 families on the waiting list for local authority accommodation in the Arfon and Dwyfor District Council areas. There are a smaller number of families than can be strictly classified as homeless, but outside that number there are many that would be classified as homeless if it were not for the general compassion of the community within which I live. In other words, there may be a husband living with his relatives while his wife lives with her relatives. That is not satisfactory housing. I hope that the provisions in Clause 1 which states: he, together with any other person who might be expected to reside with him', will deal with that sort of hidden homelessness that exists in many areas.

In surgeries in my constituency we have come across the sad situations that are known to other Members. There have been cases of people literally sleeping in the car park for days and sometimes for weeks. The position is aggravated by the problem of second homes. I shall not go into that matter in any depth, but it is a serious problem. There are a great many second homes in my constituency that are occupied for only a small portion of the year. There are a greater number of such homes than there are families on the waiting list for local authority housing.

We know as surely as spring follows winter that in March-April we shall have the grand turning-out season, when people who have been in second homes for the winter will be turned out on to the streets. They will become the homeless for the duration of the summer.

Mr. Fred Evans

I do not want to be too controversial, but surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that many of the so-called second homes in Wales are former agricultural properties and other properties that were largely in a state of breakdown and would not be residential if people had not restored them.

Mr. Wigley

There was a time when that was probably the largest source of second homes, but that time has long since passed in my constituency. There are a proportion of such properties, but they are not more than 10 per cent. of the second-home phenomenon. There are villages that have second homes to the extent of 40 to 50 per cent, of the total accommodation. In one instance, a village has gone completely second-home. People in these areas are looking for houses. There are 1,500 homeless families in my constituency that are on the waiting lists of the two district councils.

I move on to the guts of the Bill. It is a ridiculous situation where responsibility is placed on the social service departments for homelessness where they very often have no direct access to housing stock. Unless there is co-operation with the district councils and the housing authorities in areas such as mine, the social services can be screaming all night but the housing authorities may not move.

I refer to Circular 18/74, which is the background to so much of this discussion in at least one of the district councils in my area. Paragraph 18 states: The Secretaries of State are confident that housing authorities will, increasingly, take the broadest view of their statutory housing functions; and that they will accept their responsibility for helping those who have special housing needs or who suffer from special disadvantages in the housing market. Unfortunately, that has not been applied in the way that was hoped. Probably the anomaly arises from the structure of local government. We should be in a much stronger position if we had unitary authorities, if the same authority were responsible for social services and housing. In any future reorganisation of local government there will be a major opportunity to bring the two bodies together.

Even after the provisions of the Bill become enacted—I hope that that will be the result—there may still be the problem that responsibility may rest totally with the housing authorities, although there should be a spin-off responsibility on the social services. We may perhaps see the ridiculous situation in which the social service departments do not follow up difficult housing cases to the extent that they should because they will have no housing responsibility. We shall not find a long-term answer until there are unitary authorities with the responsibility that is required.

There is another good reason why the primary responsibility should be on housing authorities. Some people in certain housing authorities have been trigger-happy in dealing with problem families who have not paid the rent or have not behaved themselves. These families have been evicted. I do not believe that that sort of action answers any problem. Making a family homeless, breaking it up and sending the children to a home is not only more expensive to the community in terms of maintenance costs but in the longer term will cause much greater problems than if the family could be kept together. Side by side with the provisions of the Bill we should be looking for new means of avoiding the eviction of families from their homes. possibly by extending rent deduction powers.

Some hon. Members have referred to the possibility of families making themselves homeless in order to jump the housing list. In my heart I cannot believe that a family, unless it is in desperately poor housing circumstances, would opt to take the risk of being without a home for any length of time in order to jump the queue. The desperation of being homeless is such that that course of action would be taken by a family only if its existing circumstances were particularly bad. Of course there may be one or two who try to fiddle the system, but there will always be such people. The broad provision of any Bill that we bring forward should be aimed at trying to cater for the 99 per cent. of people who will be genuinely helped by it.

In the long term, the only answer to homelessness is the provision of more houses, and that means more resources. However, there is a serious state of affairs surrounding the finances of public housing. The Public Works Loan Board is charging rates of 14 or 15 per cent., and that puts a question mark over the financing of public authority housing. I am certain that in future there will have to be a greater shift of resources towards housing than is at present planned if we are to overcome this problem, whether in the rural areas such as my constituency or in the urban areas. I warmly welcome the Bill and I wish it well.

1.23 p.m.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)

Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill and I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) on using his success in the Ballot to introduce it. I hope that it will receive a Second Reading. I have some reservations about it as it is drawn, and I hope that these matters can be resolved in Committee.

The Bill is necessary not for the majority of housing authorities but for those which so far have refused to implement the Government's circular and are not pursuing an adequate policy on homelessness. Many authorities are already functioning reasonably well in their handling of homelessness at present, and it may be that the Bill will make not very much difference to them. Most housing managers and housing departments would prefer not to have mandatory duties imposed upon them because in some ways they interfere with flexibility in handling housing cases.

My own housing authority has told me, for example, that it must keep a balance between the people on the register and the people who are homeless. Sometimes it is not an easy balance to maintain, especially in view of the complexity of cases which come before it. Some of the speeches made today indicate practical problems which have to be dealt with.

In the city of Birmingham, in the last year about 1,800 cases of homelessness were dealt with. The people have been found accommodation. One of the problems with which the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is not familiar is that the old remedy of putting these people in substandard accommodation may not be available today as the amount of such accommodation has shrunk. The homeless have to be given accommodation, and in many cases it must be equivalent to that given to people already in the housing queue who may have been in the queue for a long time. This is one of the practical problems that we must bear in mind. It particularly affects areas like Birmingham, which have proceeded fairly rapidly to demolish the slums. Most of the slums have gone, but that does not necessarily case the general housing shortage or the pressure on houses.

There are, therefore, one or two matters in the Bill about which I am doubtful. I entirely agree that there should be some mandatory provision by all authorities, but it should be of a more general rather than a specific nature. This is a matter which can be discussed. Certainly the problem should be dealt with by the housing authority. I have heard no voice of dissent in this respect during the debate.

The National Assistance Act 1948 was designed to deal with circumstances quite different from the cases of homelessness which occur today. Section 21 of that Act states: It shall be the duty of every local authority … to provide … temporary accommodation for persons who are in urgent need thereof, being need arising in circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen or in such other circumstances as the authority may in any particular case determine. The Government's circular of guidance issued at the time made it quite clear that this referred to emergency provision of temporary accommodation—what I think used to be called Part III accommodation, usually hostel accommodation, for dealing with emergencies, not for dealing with the sort of homeless cases which come before the councils today.

It is essential, therefore, that the housing authority should deal with the matter, first because of the number of cases which are dealt with. I mentioned the 1,800 cases in Birmingham. The social services could not deal with those. Even if some of those cases are provided with temporary accommodation in hostels or with bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is extremely expensive, at some stage that must come to an end, and when it does who deals with it? The housing authority must house these cases and, therefore, sooner or later the cases are bound to come back to the authority.

I am somewhat doubtful about Clause 3, which imposes a personal duty and obligation towards the homeless person. I am not sure what that means in law when it says in subsection (1) that a housing authority shall be subject to a duty towards him under this section". I am not clear whether this has been thought out, whether it is an enforceable duty in law either by civil action or by action of mandamus in the courts against the local authority. I am not sure what the legal effect of that will be. There is at present no legally enforceable obligation towards any person on the waiting list who has been in the most flearidden hovel for, say, the past five years. There is at present no equivalent duty.

Local authorities will have many problems in exercising this duty. There is the problem of people who have taken steps to dehouse themselves. This has already been mentioned, and I accept that it happens. I know that it happens. Those of us who have surgeries know that it happens.

I am not adopting an attitude of condemnation towards people who admittedly are under great stress—probably family conflict. I do not blame them for taking these steps—for example, getting their in-laws to issue a summons against them and obtaining an eviction order. Obviously there is great stress and they want to be rehoused. But their position must be considered in relation to others in similar circumstances who are also in the queue. The local authority housing committee has to decide not merely whether a case is genuine but its relation to other housing need cases.

Mention has been made of people who are turned out for not paying their rent. What are local authorities to do? There has been a terrific amount of publicity about local authorities allowing rent arrears to build up. Articles appear in the evening papers almost every day about the laxity of certain housing authorities.

There are various reasons why people do not or cannot pay their rent. Sometimes it is because of sickness or improvidence. In a number of cases, people do not want to pay rent. What is the local authority to do in those circumstances? If it turns such people out, it has to take the children into care, and it costs more to keep children in care than to allow arrears in rent. Authorities face that dilemma. That is what happens now.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

; There is a solution, is there not? Surely, whether the failure to pay rent is wilful, improvidence or anything else, there must be accommodation of a healthy but uncomfortable kind available to the local authority, whether a county or district council, for dealing with such cases. If the authority merely turns such people out of the front door and they come in at the back door, it makes a farce of the whole system. There must be two clearly defined categories of accommodation: healthy but uncomfortable accommodation for the bad cases, and other accommodation for people who are not so blameworthy in that respect.

Mr. Silverman

Before the hon. and learned Gentleman came into the Chamber, I dealt with this very point. No doubt he was otherwise importantly engaged.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I was having my lunch.

Mr. Silverman

The hon. and learned Gentleman did not hear me say that a few years ago there was substandard accommodation available into which the council could put such bad cases. The alternative now is to put them in a hostel, which is expensive and there is not sufficient accommodation, or to give them bed-and-breakfast accommodation in a hotel, which is almost ruinously expensive. Therefore, the options open to a council are very limited. That is the dilemma.

Mr. Wigley

There is another possibility for families which often cannot manage their own affairs and find that by the end of the week the money has gone. Could not the rent be deducted from benefits or from income which they may receive?

Mr. Silverman

There are some objections to that being done. I am not sure to what extent it could be legally applied to rent. I think that it can be dealt with by means of supplementary benefits. For some reason, local authorities do not like doing it in that way because it presents certain administrative difficulties. I should have no objection, but I understand that there are administrative difficulties and that councils do not like to proceed in that way.

I should not like it to be thought that a person who does not pay his rent automatically has the right as a priority case to approach the council afterwards and say "I am a priority case. The Government have defined me as such. Therefore, whether I paid my rent in the past does not matter. You must rehouse me." The local authority might rehouse him anyway. However, I am saying that such a person should not, being aware of this measure, think that he has an absolute right to be rehoused. That would be wrong. Therefore, some amendment is required in that respect.

I should prefer the duty to be defined as a general duty, probably under the supervision of a Minister to whom a report should be made every year or every six months about the number of applications made and how they were dealt with rather than as a specific duty apparently enforceable—I do not know in what way—as set out in the Bill.

The duty is dealt with in Clause 3. If there is a priority need, housing authorities must provide accommodation. Where they are not satisfied that he has a priority need, their duty is to furnish him with advice and with such assistance as they consider appropriate in the circumstances in any attempts that he may make to ensure that accommodation becomes or does not cease to be available for his occupation. I cannot see that Clause 3(3) will help the applicant very much if he is not a priority case.

Clause 6 deals with offences. I know that some voluntary bodies have objected to this part of the Bill, which provides for certain fines to be inflicted. For example, subsection (5) provides that A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £500. That, applied to a homeless person, seems ridiculous. That subsection is of no value at all. There is a similar provision in the 1948 Act, which, as far as I know, has not been and is not likely to be acted upon. After all, the sanction for the local housing authority is to turn the person out of his accommodation. It can do that because he is not a protected person.

I welcome Clause 8, which provides for Financial and other assistance to voluntary organisations concerned with homelessness. The Bill will do little for single people —what I call the flotsam and jetsam of the homeless—whom we see in various places in London underneath the arches near railway stations. They are pathetic people who should have hostel or other accommodation. Some of the so-called hotels which used to cater for them have been closed. Therefore, the facilities have contracted. Something should be done to assist the organisations which help those people. The Bill will not provide any special provision for them, because they can hardly be considered as priority cases though they are pathetic people.

Clause 4 deals with co-operation between authorities. There is no provision for deciding how and when co-operation between authorities will take place, who should co-operate and what financial arrangements there should be between authorites. That is left entirely vague.

These are Committee points, and I hope that there will be certain alterations in the Bill that will ensure that the measure will commend itself to councils which pursue reasonable policies towards the homeless and which have implemented the Government's circular. With these factors in mind, I shall support the Second Reading of the Bill. I hope that it will go quickly through the House and will emerge as a useful social measure.

1.40 p.m.

Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

I am glad to have the opportunity of making a short contribution to the debate, not only as a Member of the House but currently as chairman of my county council's social services committee. I accept that in the Committee stage of the Bill the problems of housing authorities and those who have been waiting on housing lists for many years will merit detailed consideration. But I know that many of my colleagues in the social services warmly welcome the Bill. I know that the county councils also welcome the measure, and I believe that the Association of District Councils will be happier when the financial picture is clearer. I believe that the passing of the Bill, despite what has been said today, will not be a charter for queue-jumping.

The development of the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation to house those who are temporarily homeless has been a singularly unfortunate policy. The effect on a family of being expected to leave accommodation during the day, and of the recriminations levelled at such families who, in the eyes of the general public, are receiving an undue share of the social services while being in the category of the undeserved, presents the family with a considerable personal dilemma. Such a family must stay in the area to gain housing from the local authority. On the other hand, the pressures exerted on the family suggest that its interests would be better served by moving.

Clause 4(1) of the Bill, referring to cooperation between authorities in rendering assistance to housing authorities, requires considerable good will and support on the part of social service authorities.

Considerable point is made of the unlikelihood of further resources becoming available for housing. Undoubtedly, it has been this issue that has led to the failure in all parts of the country of a voluntary policy to house the homeless. Nevertheless, inherent in the Bill is the requirement that housing management shall be more broadly based than has been the case hitherto. Every effort must be made to prevent arrears reaching the figures which have occurred in numerous instances. The fear of eviction must be replaced by attitudes developed through good communications and mutual and reasonable understanding.

The social service staffs have often had reason to think that, in attempting to work with families which are experiencing acute financial difficulties, their problems have not been entirely understood by the housing authorities. It is in this field that both committees and housing staff will have to extend their knowledge and understanding.

The situation of the single homeless person is one for which too little concern has been shown, and the need for joint action is at its greatest for those at the point of discharge from prison and from psychiatric hospitals. My own concern in this field has shown the shortcomings of our present policy for homelessness, and the housing authorities will need to have particular regard for this category of special need.

All social services committees and departments will welcome the introduction of the Bill to place responsibility for the care of the homeless with housing authorities. For too long have the homeless been, so to speak, taking a chance in a geographical lottery, since administration for homelessness is chaotic. A Department of the Environment survey published a year or so ago revealed that 28 per cent. of housing authorities had taken complete responsibility for the homeless and 31 per cent. accepted the main responsibility but shared part of it with social services, while the remainder dealt with it in different ways. Needless to say, these anomalies should end.

Refusal by some housing authorities to take full responsibility has led to two main difficulties. Many social services departments have transferred the housing, temporary accommodation, as it used to be called, which they previously controlled to housing departments, and so are now forced to subsidise more and more the homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Furthermore, in non-metropolitan areas housing is controlled at district level, leading to families being shuttle-cocked back and forth between housing authorities and social service departments.

Homelessness illustrates a central issue which must be faced by policy-makers. Too often social services departments are expected to deal with problems that other specialist services failed to resolve. Children who cannot be contained by the educational system, patients who disrupt the Health Service, the poor who create special problems for the social security system and difficult tenants who present problems to housing departments are all liable to be regarded as the province of the social services department.

The Seebohm, Cullingworth and Finer Reports and Government White Papers and circulars have all reiterated the need for housing authorities to shake off their narrow housing management outlook and become concerned in the total housing needs and resources of their own areas. Until housing authorities accept full responsibility for housing the homeless. there will not be a unified and rational public policy for those in need.

Unfortunately, until firm statutory obligations are placed upon housing authorities, there will inevitably be some which fail to accept their full responsibilities. In my constituency I am glad to say that the housing authority is among the more enlightened. Housing authorities command considerable resources of housing stocks, and it is only logical that the problem of homelessness can and should be met within that provision. Unfortunately, as with much other legislation, the good intention of the Bill will fail unless adequate reasons are available to housing authorities.

I warmly support the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) on bringing it forward.

1.49 p.m.

Mr. George Rodgers (Chorley)

I, too, commend the Bill, which I support, and I extend warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) and all those associated with the measure.

I say that despite some anxieties about certain aspects of the Bill. The rather chilling absence of a Money Resolution illustrates that the only way in which we shall eventually deal with the situation of the homeless is by the provision of an abundant number of houses. None the less, am pleased that the nettle is at last being firmly grasped and that it is now recognised that we can no longer tolerate a system that is vague and hazy, and leaves so much to be desired in the approach to the problems of homeless people.

I find it astonishing that there is no specific legislation to deal with the issue of homelessness, strangely, we have endeavoured to meet the problem with a hotch-potch of circulars, the Poor Law, the Vagrancy Act and the National Assistant Act. The joint circular that has been referred to—No. 18/74—issued by the Department of the Environment and entitled "Homelessness" made many useful and helpful recommendations, each of which was widely ignored or totally rejected by local authorities.

It has become abundantly clear that statutory measures, including an adequate default procedure, are necessary if we intend to remedy the many miseries of homelessness, for there can be little doubt that in the absence of such provision the problem is rapidly worsening. During 1975, more than 51,000 applications from homeless people were recorded by councils in England alone. That was about 23,000 more than the number in 1972, and the figure is conservative, for it is fairly certain that not all local authorities recorded all applications. They concentrated their attention to a great degree upon those cases with which they were directly involved.

The number of single people seeking to live in cheap hostel accommodation has increased dramatically over recent years and during the same period the availability of such accommodation has declined.

I am not prepared to generalise about the development of squatting, though in many instances this has come about as a direct consequence of homelessness. The ultimate solution lies with housing and social policies rather than with policy activity. Perhaps the saddest of all homeless people are those who have been discharged from mental institutions without proper preparation for their reception into the community beyond the hospital walls. All too frequently, an unthinking and unfeeling system has released these hapless but certainly harmless people into what has proved a hostile environment.

A policy that was considered to be enlightened some years ago removed patients who had spent years in a protected society out on to the streets to fend for themselves. It was found that local authorities lacked the funds, and often the will, to provide the "halfway" accommodation that was essential if we were to nurse the bewildered ex-patient back into the community. The private housing sector is not even remotely interested in social cases of this nature. Inevitably, a great number of those who had been wrongly detained in institutions for many years were flung back into the harsh realities of the outside world and became rootless wanderers, often sleeping rough and frequently ending up by sleeping in a police cell.

There are many fallacies about homeless people. In truth, the vast majority are neither criminals nor layabouts, but simply the victims of harsh circumstances. A fair number are homeless because they have experienced domestic friction. Most are poor, and some are inadequate, but society itself is surely woefully inadequate if it is to penalise people because they are not able to cope with domestic disasters, or because they lack wealth and substance.

I find it satisfying and heartening that the Bill, so ably presented by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, has received a warm welcome from the seven premier charities that are concerned with housing and its associated problems. The people who serve these bodies have a deep knowledge of the calamity of homelessness and its impact on domestic life—especially upon the lives of children who, whatever the sins of their parents, are surely innocent victims of the situation.

The voluntary societies recognise that the prime virtue of the Bill is that it defines where the responsibility for dealing with the problem lies, and that is with the local authority housing depart- ment. It establishes, too, procedures for assessing applications and stressing needs, so clearly the swift passage of the Bill will be advantageous to people who are deprived, poor, and whose plight is often desperate.

I think that we should pay tribute to those members of voluntary societies who are concerned with housing needs. They deal with the problem not, as it is our good fortune to do, in the comfort of this Chamber but in housing aid centres, and frequently among the dossers and in the company of alcoholics and other human misfits who, perhaps understandably, are reluctant to approach the statutory agencies.

It is, therefore, good to know that the Bill contains powers to assist the voluntary bodies, for there is need for continuous and constructive co-operation between the voluntary organisations and local government. Without doubt, the Bill is a great leap forward. None the less, I agree with those who have said that we must face the truth that as the legislation resolves some problems it simultaneously creates others.

The hazard will arise that facilities designed to serve the needy will be commandeered by the greedy. We must beware the activities of those who would artificially and maliciously become homeless in order to jump the housing queue, thus depriving patient or unfortunate people who have waited many years for accommodation.

Nor can there be any question of providing instant accommodation for the nomads who simply move into a district from another region, or possibly another country, and demand accommodation. There must be substantial evidence of genuine and serious need before housing stock which belongs to the wide community is made available to newcomers.

Special provision must be made for those local authorities that are placed in an exposed position because within their boundary there is a major rail or air terminal, or both. It may be that there should be a national responsibility and a formula whereby all local authorities are levied and the housing authorities that are most vulnerable to the terms of the legislation are allowed to draw financial recompense from a pool of financial resources. However, I agree that these are items for consideration in Committee, and it would be churlish at this stage if I were to concentrate my comments on the difficulties that may emerge, especially at a time when I believe there is much to acclaim. I expect that the Bill will attract good will from both sides of the House, and I wish it well.

1.58 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), first, on his success in being so high up in the draw for Private Members' Bills and, secondly, on choosing a subject that is of so much concern to all hon. Members. This hideous problem of homelessness has not only been with us for a long time; it seems to be getting worse year in and year out.

I should have been much happier if the hon. Member for Isle of Wight had chosen the Bill proposed by my colleague the former Member for Cambridge, Mr. David Lane. The hon. Gentleman was a co-sponsor of that measure, which sought to deal with the cause of homelessness and to expand the availability of accommodation by various changes in our existing laws. This Bill on the other hand, seeks to deal more with the effect, and does not tackle the cause. To that extent I feel that the measure is defective, but I can understand the hon. Gentleman's dilemma.

The hon. Gentleman, like any hon. Member who is given the opportunity of presenting a Private Member's Bill, is anxious to produce something that will get on to the statute book. He prefers a modest gain to a gallant failure, and I can understand his picking up a Bill that was already in the Department of the Environment. But we must not lose sight of the fact that this is a Government Bill, to which we are giving Private Members' time. It being a Government Bill, hon. Members will not be surprised if I approach it with a certain degree of circumspection. Any welcome that I give it must be a cautious one.

I accept at once that the transfer of responsibility for the homeless from the social services departments of local authorities to housing departments is necessary. That makes sense. It is, in- deed, what my own Government proposed in Circular 18/74, when I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment.

I understand that since the publication of that circular, about 60 per cent. of the local authorities have responded—but 40 per cent. have not. That has brought about continuing and recurring problems. For example. within the Greater London area, which I know best, the GLC is the housing authority. It decides to get very tough with tenants who do not pay their rent, because it has an enormous arrears bill and understandably wants to end that situation.

However, as a result, the responsibility for dealing with the families that the GLC decides to evict falls upon the London boroughs, which are the social service authorities. That leads to friction, because those boroughs, being themselves housing authorities, have their own problems and housing lists to contend with. Thus, an unhappy situation exists.

One merit of the Bill is that it would put back on the GLC, as housing authority, the responsibility for people who are already its responsibility as tenants. Apart from the aspect that I have mentioned, I do not think that the Bill helps the London boroughs one way or the other, because they are both social service authorities and housing authorities, and it becomes simply a matter of internal administration and division of function among officers. If they do not do it properly, there is something very wrong with the administration of the borough concerned, but it is not an insurmountable difficulty when it is the authority exercising both those responsibilities.

However, outside Greater London and the metropolitan areas there is a problem where the counties are the social services authorities and the district councils are the housing authorities. Difficulties undoubtedly exist there. I know, from a memorandum that all hon. Members will have received, that the Association of County Councils is quite happy to shuffle off this duty under its social service responsibilities on to the district councils, but that the district councils, according to a memorandum that they have published, are not quite so happy about taking on that responsibility if additional resources are not made available to them. The Explanatory Memorandum attached to the Bill was no doubt drafted in the Department of the Environment. From an answer that the Minister gave me to a question the other day, it seems that it is the intention not to produce additional resources but merely to shuffle around the existing resources. Obviously, that means that some other aspect of housing will have to suffer if the districts show that they have a cogent, powerful and justifiable need for this additional responsibility that Parliament is being asked to place upon them.

Therefore, the Committee will certainly have to consider, while this transfer of duty or responsibility is being transferred from county to district, whether or not resources should be transferred at the same time. The duties of the county will be diminished and those of the district increased. I do not know whether provision is being made for that, but no doubt we shall be told in due course.

However, subject to these technical administrative matters, one gives that part of the Bill an unreserved welcome. The part of the Bill which causes me and other hon. Members concern— this has been reflected in several speeches from both sides—is the absolute nature of the duty to house the homeless which will be placed upon district authorities. The imposition of this duty implies in turn a right to accommodation. One can see cases arising—hon. Members have reflected this in their speeches—of self-induced homelessness.

One can imagine the scenario. Someone living in depressing housing conditions in the private rented sector, for example, would see the opportunity to become the tenant of a £24,000 brand-new council house or flat at a highly subsidised rent of £6 or £7. It would be expecting too much of human nature to think that no one would seek to do whatever he could to move out of poor accommodation into that other accommodation, particularly if a generous subsidy were attached to the rent.

One can therefore foresee some tenants deciding to stop paying rent, thereby forcing their landlords to go to the county court for possession orders. As the Bill stands, the local authorities would be under a duty to rehouse. Other hon. Members have referred to the possibility that districts with seaports, airports and main railway termini within their areas will become magnets for people looking for jobs and therefore making demands on the local authorities.

I wonder whether the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has considered a further possibility, which may affect his own constituency. Under the 1974 Rent Act, winter lettings of holiday accommodation are exempt from protection. A seaside landlady who lets a flat in the summer months to holidaymakers may let for eight months in the winter to families who, for those eight months, have no protection under the Rent Acts. Such people could claim to be rehoused by the Isle of Wight authority in priority to the people on the Isle of Wight housing waiting lists.

I take reassurance and hope from the hon. Gentleman's statement that it was not his intention that the Bill should become a scrounger's charter, but as it is drafted, and as I read it, the Bill would not give effect to his intentions. I think that he will find, when we consider these matters in more detail in Committee, that he will have to apply his mind much more closely than he has done to the wide definition of homelessness contained in the Bill.

Although the hon. Gentleman says that the authority has a discretion about whom it considers homeless, the Bill itself defines who shall be homeless. The authority will be able to make inquiries to satisfy itself that the factors exist which apply the Bill, but once a person falls within the definition of homelessness, the duty in Clause 3 follows as night follows day.

Hon. Members should look at the duty that is being imposed upon local authorities. Where the question is simply one of homelessness, under Clause 3(3) the authority's duty to a homeless person is …to furnish him with advice and with such assistance as they consider appropriate in the circumstances in any attempts that he may make to ensure that accommodation becomes or does not cease to be available for his occupation. That is not a very high duty. The phrase does not cease to be available for his occupation means that the local authority will have power to join in or to subsidise legal proceedings against the landlord where the situation arises of winter-let tenants not wishing to move out of holiday accommodation. There will then be additional litigation at public expense.

"Priority need" is not defined in the Bill; it is to be left to a direction by the Secretary of State. That is not desirable. There was an interesting dialogue between hon. Members from Scotland. The Scots say that they will not commit themselves to this kind of legislation until they have finished their consultations, until they have themselves decided what shall be the categories of priority. They want those details, worked out before, not after, they have their Bill.

What is more, the Scottish Minister said that he wants to gain from the experience that England and Wales will have. The Scots are very canny. They will not jump into things readily. They want to see whether we have any problems from the way the legislation operates in England and Wales. I hope that in Committee we shall be able to deal with some of these questions so that the problems that I visualise arising do not arise.

Mr. Stephen Ross

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of his own Administration's circular 18/74, which contained detailed notes of guidance. Will he take it from me that the guidance notes that are before local authorities in England and Wales and that will be available in Committee do not detract greatly from the guidelines in Circular 18/74? They may vary as to detail, but the priorities remain very much the same.

Mr. Rossi

I am gratified to hear that. The circular produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and myself is an excellent precedent for the hon. Member, but I should like to see it spelt out a little more precisely in the Bill than it is, now that we have reached the point of legislation.

We as a Government were prepared to deal with this matter in a more flexible manner by way of circular, and to guide local authorities rather than to impose upon them a blanket, absolute duty. We had a certain amount of regard for the autonomy of local authorities in this question. We recognised that they have knowledge of the difficulties of their areas. We did not feel it necessary to say to them "You must in all circumstances look after these people irrespective of how they became homeless, whether their plight was self-induced, and rehouse them as a priority."

Priority in respect of whom? We are told that there are not to be any additional resources and that they are to go on the general waiting list. The poor people who for years have sat patiently on local authority housing lists in areas of urban stress will see newcomers to their localities who, because they can say "We are homeless" will jump the queue because of the duty which is to be imposed on local authorities.

I do not know how I shall be able to face such of those constituents of mine who come to my surgery regularly with their housing problems and say "I have been on the Harringey housing list for four or five years. Five of us are living in two dingy rooms with water running down the walls. When are we to be rehoused?", especially when they learn that someone who has only recently arrived from Dundee—despite the quality of his accommodation up there— has been able to get in front of them on the housing queue and be rehoused because he has been thrown out by his landlord.

This is why, when we were in government, we gave local authorities a certain amount of flexibility and relied upon their good faith and humanitarianism to make their resources available as justly as they could between the competing demands that were inevitably made upon them. The hon. Gentleman now seeks to leapfrog over that situation.

I believe that the definition of "homelessness" will cause tremendous problems. Circular 13/74 issued by the Department of Health and Social Security was a practical and sensible approach to this problem. In that circular the Secretary of State said that the duty of the local authority should be (a) to provide residential accommodation for persons who are ordinarily resident in the area of the Council those are the long-term residents who have been waiting patiently— or for other persons who are in urgent need thereof and who by reason of age, infirmity or any other circumstances are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them ". The priority is given to the general waiting list, but a discretion is given to the local authority to provide residential accommodation for the old, the infirm or generally where the local authority in its discretion considers that the circumstances are such that there is a need for housing of the more recent comers to the area.

A second duty that was imposed was (b) to provide temporary accommodation for persons who are in urgent need thereof, being need arising in circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen or in such circumstances as the authority may in any particular case determine". What is wrong with that? The criterion is that circumstances not reasonably foreseen have brought about the homelessness. The application of a formula such as that would mean that the fears of hon. Members on both sides as to queue jumping, self-inflicted homelessness, collusion between landlord and tenant, and deliberate misbehaviour on the part of a tenant in order to get himself evicted would be groundless and those circumstances would not impose an absolute obligation upon the housing authority to rehouse.

Mr. George Cunningham

In case I do not have time to make this point—it now seems likely that I shall not—will the hon. Gentleman make the point that the categories he has just defined in the passage he has read out are the beneficiaries at present of a legally binding obligation, because that circular was issued as a directive under the Local Government Act 1972 and is, therefore, legally binding; it is not exhortation?

Mr. Rossi

That is right. It would have been better for the Department of the Environment to investigate the situations in local authorities in respect of which it has been complained that they are not implementing the obligation imposed upon them in the circular. That is the valid complaint that has been made by Shelter and other organisations—that some local authorities have not been paying heed to the obligation imposed upon them. If local authorities do not pay heed to a law such as that, is there any guarantee that they will pay any heed to any other law if they are not provided with the resources to match the obligations which are being imposed upon them?

It is to the question of resources that I want to direct the attention of the House for a few moments. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum states that no additional resources will be needed. The Association of District Councils questions this. We must pay heed to what the association says, because it will be charged with the responsibility of implementing the Bill. It says: The extended nature of the duty to secure accommodation for priority homeless. If there is no net addition to public expenditure, the extra accommodation required would have to be at the expense of other housing applicants, for example"— the Minister will be aware of this point— those from tied agricultural accommodation … who in a recent Act Parliament has decided must be a priority obligation on the part of the local authority where a farmer obtains a certificate that they be rehoused, in the interests of farming efficiency. More staff will be needed for the preliminary duties outlined in Clause 2 in suspected cases of homelessness to make enquiries and for dealing with appeals to the Courts against the Local Authority's decision to which this Bill appears to be an open door". If a local authority decides not to rehouse, it seems that it will be open to court action—so the local authorities think—brought against it, no doubt by Shelter and these other good organisations acting on behalf of their clients to force it to comply with its statutory duty. Extra expenditure will be needed to defend those cases.

Next, says the Association of District Councils: Additional resources will be needed to fulfil the duty of providing advice and assistance to non-priority homeless cases and those threatened with eviction under Clause 3. Those are three heads of expenditure. I shall not mention in detail all the possibilities, but there are no fewer than five heads under which the local authorities feel that they will be in urgent need of additional resources to carry out their obligations under the Bill if it is not to act to detriment of those who are already on council waiting lists.

I turn now to the voluntary bodies, which are extremely and understandably keen to have greater definition of the responsibilities of local authorities. because of their experience with some authorities. I pay tribute here to the sterling work that the voluntary bodies have done in helping people with their personal housing problems.

Nevertheless, I feel that at times they appear to have got things wrong. For example, when we have our debates on the Rent Acts, we are told by the Minister for Housing and Construction and by the voluntary organisations that in many respects support him, that there is no evidence that the Rent Acts have dried up the supply of accommodation. Yet in support of this Bill the voluntary organisations have sent us a memorandum containing some quite extraordinary figures.

We are told that After Six, for instance, says that between November 1973 and January 1974 it received 874 inquiries from single people wanting accommodation, and between August 1974, within a month or so of the passing of the Rent Act 1974, and October 1974, the number of inquiries suddenly jumped to a little under 2,000. New Horizon, an organisation to help the young homeless, saw 2,030 individuals in 1974 compared with 1,429 in 1973. Centrepoint, which also deals with young homeless, made 7,725 admissions in 1974 compared with 5,238 in 1973. So it goes on.

The figures show that there was a remarkable jump in the number of young people seeking homes after the passing of the Rent Act 1974, and these were precisely the category of people who were the natural tenants of furnished accommodation, the mobile young moving into cities for their first jobs. They are the traditional occupants of furnished accommodation, as all our studies, including Francis and Milner Holland, have shown. Yet, within a few months of the passing of the 1974 Act, there was a sudden great rise in the number of applications for help to these great and good voluntary organisations.

We must pause to reflect on that. I return to my original point, when I asked the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, in effect, why he would not prefer to bring back Mr. David Lane's Bill, which tried to deal with the cause of homelessness and not the effects. The aim of Mr. Lane's Bill—it was generally supported throughout the House, except by the Government — was to expand the avail- ability of accommodation not by removing security of tenure from those who already had it but by making such modifications to the Rent Act as would bring forward an increased supply of untapped and unused accommodation. This House would spend its time far more profitably if it tried to devise ways of increasing the supply of accommodation for people—producing homes rather than talking in terms of absolute obligations on local authorities, which we all know are not now and for some time, because of the country's economic situation, will not be, in a position to discharge their obligations under a measure which, as is clear from the advice coming from both sides of the House, is likely to bring about as many problems as those which it seeks to cure.

2.24 p.m.

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

Precisely a year ago, on the third Friday in February 1976, I gave an assurance to the House that the Government were committed to legislate on homelessness and indicated that discussions were taking place between local authorities and my Department as well as with the voluntary bodies with a concern in the housing field. It was not possible to include legislation in the Queen's Speech at the start of the present session but, as was made clear in the debate following the speech, our commitment remains unaltered.

When the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) was lucky in the Ballot and declared his intention to introduce a Bill to deal with homelessness we were glad to assist him. I congratulate him on his good fortune in this Ballot and on his choice of subject, and on the way in which he presented his Bill today.

Except for one matter—its extension to Scotland—the Bill is drafted in the same terms as a Government measure would have been. With that exception—which I was happy to leave to my hon. Friend the Minister at the Scottish Office to deal with—I am happy to give Government endorsement to the proposals in the Bill. I hope that they will be supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Since the issue by the previous Administration of Circular 18/74 we have had consultations with local authority associations and appropriate voluntary organisations. Without their help and co-operation we could not have reached the present stage. I certainly would not claim that all the provisions of the Bill will receive an unqualified welcome from those who have been involved, but I do believe that on the main principles of the Bill—that homelessness is primarily a housing problem and that responsibility in relation to housing accommodation must rest with housing authorities—there is nothing between us.

Of course, housing authorities who have the difficult, heartbreaking task, month after month, of deciding between categories of housing need—I know from personal experience, having been a member of a housing authority in the North of England before I came to the House —are sensitive about any kind of statutory guidance on priorities. We in the Department recognise these worries and I have no doubt that we shall have full discussion of the issues in Committee.

On the other hand, the voluntary organisations which are sensitive to the desperate need of those without a roof over their heads wonder and make representations about whether codes of guidance are enough. Again, these are matters for full consideration in Committee. What I want to do as briefly as I can is to secure the passage of a practical and sensible measure to secure a proper framework for dealing with homelessness.

Homelessness is a grievous misfortune. It rightly arouses strong emotions. But housing committees have to make judgments about degrees of need. No housing need can be quite as acute as that of homelessness, but priority for the homeless implies, inevitably, that some others who feel themselves to be in desperate need and may have been on a housing list for some time will have to accept a lower priority. So I must caution against allowing our emotions to cloud our judgment. We must keep a clear sense of proportion about the extent of homelessness, the acuteness and urgency of the need it represents, and the extent to which authorities are already meeting and dealing successfully with individual problems.

Recent statistics gathered by my Department show that in the year from July 1975 to June 1976, 51,500 households applied to local authorities claiming that they were homeless and 33,500 were recognised as such. During the same period, 30,000 were placed in permanent accommodation. At the end of the period there were 6,700 households in temporary homeless accommodation, compared with 9,000 at the beginning. These figures show that many local authorities, despite all the difficulties and the limited resources, are meeting their obligations in a commendable way.

The main object of the Bill is to give welcome and long overdue statutory effect to the recommendations contained in the joint homelessness circular issued in 1974.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight has clearly and ably described the main provisions in the Bill. I should like to touch on three aspects briefly. The first is the concept of priority need. I have no doubt that there are many people who want to see a Bill which extends the same degree of help to all who are homeless, but it is no good believing that we can simply legislate and that all will be well. The problem of homelessness itself is a reflection of the often complex but undoubtedly real shortage of accommodation, particularly in the metropolis and the major conurbations. We therefore have to identify priorities and give priority to those who are the most vulnerable.

This is not the occasion to reach conclusions on the groups to be prescribed. Hon. Members have made a number of points about this, and I undertake to consider the case made for those who have been mentioned and also for any others who may yet be mentioned. I am sure that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight will give careful consideration to all that has been said today. We are legislating for changing circumstances; as the housing situation changes, so we can review the range of those included in the priority groups. The order-making procedure provides the most appropriate way of handling that.

A number of hon. Members have commented on the flexibility of the provisions in the Bill, and the making of orders helps towards that end.

Mr. George Cunningham

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Armstrong

I shall give way only for a Second Reading point and not a Committee point.

Mr. George Cunningham

Mine is a Second Reading point. It would be possible to have a provision whereby the definition of the beneficiaries and an application could be amended by Order in Council, hopefully subject to an affirmative resolution rather than a negative resolution, as provided for in the Bill. Surely it would be better to start off with the first definition in the Bill. Otherwise we shall get into the habit of saying "We have the following obligation to category X but do not bother us about what category X is—we shall see to that later". That is an appalling way to legislate.

Mr. Armstrong

If the Bill had been brought in 10 years ago and had we examined statistics for homelessness—for the single homeless, for instance—we would have found that the situation was nothing like the situation of today. Circumstances change. We can argue about this, but my judgment is that flexibility is best approached in the manner that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight provides for in the Bill.

Next I want to speak about co-operation, which I regard as one of the most important features in the Bill. It works in two ways. I attach importance to co-operation between housing authorities. The value of that is clearer in the great conurbations, in some of which working agreements already exist, but it is by no means only in those cases that I see a need for constructive co-operation between authorities.

Equally, I attach importance to cooperation between housing and social service authorities. It must not be assumed that the Bill is writing out or writing off the rôle of social services authorities. The Bill is concerned essentially with the question of accommodation. I hat is not a duty which social service authorities can rightly be asked to undertake, except, of course, in the case of those for whom special accommodation, including care and support, is the right answer. For many homeless people it will be a sufficient answer to secure the provision of accommodation, but there are those cases—amongst the most difficult, I have no doubt—where homelessness is but one of a range of problems. There will be other cases where early social work advice can help to avert homelessness, and others where continued counselling after accommodation has been secured will be necessary.

Close liaison at the working level is essential in these areas, and I ask authorities to do all that they can to fulfil the spirit of these provisions. Although it is not directly provided for in the Bill, I hope that they will seek to cooperate as fully as possible with responsible voluntary agencies advising and assisting people in their areas.

Thirdly, a word about resources—money and manpower. I know and understand the local authority view that "additional tasks" require "additional resources", but in present circumstances we have to establish priorities and shift resources because additional funds are not available.

Having established that this Bill cannot for the time being lead to a net increase in local government expenditure, there are three further points about resources that I should like to make.

First, provision of accommodation for the homeless will attract Exchequer subsidy as part of the provision that a housing authority makes to meet local housing needs. This is right, because the Bill sets the relief of homelessness within the total context of an authority's housing responsibilities.

Secondly, those housing expenses which do not attract Exchequer subsidy as a rule but are met from the rate fund, are taken into account in the calculation of rate support grant. I agree that the needs element of rate support grant is not paid direct to housing authorities outside London and the provincial metropolitan counties, but it seems wrong to make special arrangements in respect of such expenses arising from homelessness that are likely to be very small in comparison with the total of housing expenses treated in this way.

Thirdly, about three-quarters of the authorities in London and the English metropolitan districts, where about 60 per cent. of homelessness occurs, and over 50 per cent. of other district authorities, are already carrying out the main requirements of the Bill. I accept that, nevertheless, there are problems that we should look into, and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering a request from the Association of District Councils to discuss resource implications of the Bill with him. I can assure the House that arrangements will be made for a thorough discussion with the association in the very near future.

If I may I should now like to talk in rather broader terms. We see the attack on homelessness as an integral part of a housing authority's comprehensive housing responsibilities. We are aware of the difficulties that face particularly the most vulnerable members of our community in securing access to decent housing. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight has recognised that these problems are not capable of single or simple solutions. Our objective must be to seek to ensure that housing policy and practice respond to the essential social needs within our community. I believe that this measure represents a major step forward to this end.

Our approach has been to tackle the housing problems of the most vulnerable, both generally and with respect to special needs. We have, as a Government, ensured the maintenance of a high level of investment in housing and we have particularly aimed to ensure that resources are directed so far as possible towards dealing with the areas where the housing pressures are most acute.

Our proposals for housing investment programmes will carry this approach further forward, establishing a new way of identifying the urgent housing needs in each area and enabling us and the local authorities to direct resources more effectively to meet those needs in the most appropriate way. These programmes will take full account of the needs of the most vulnerable, of the level of homelessness, of the needs of old and disabled people for specialised forms of housing, and the needs of others who have difficulties in securing access to housing. In this way we are seeking to maintain priority for housing investment and directing it to the areas and the people who need it most.

I must make one qualification to my general welcome of the Bill. The Government agreed to support the Bill on the clear understanding that it would ex- tend only to England and Wales. For reasons which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has made clear, the Government do not support the extension of the Bill to Scotland.

I do, however, join in asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading. We can then take it to Committee and hammer out the many interesting points that have been raised today.

2.40 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

I will deal at once with that final point made by the Minister. It is clear why the Government do not wish to include Scotland in the Bill. The canny Scottish Office has seen that the problems raised by the Bill are grievous indeed. First of all, it recognises that what has to constitute a priority need—that is "the specification of circumstances" which at some stage are to be laid down by the Secretary of State under this measure—is something which is being considered in Scotland and that there will come forward in due course a code of practice which can be relied upon to ensure that the right priorities prevail. But this English Government are apparently not willing to tell the House what they regard as the proper priorities which should be contained in an order—an order of which they are not even prepared to give us a glimpse at this stage. I put that point as a pipe-opener to the realities of the debate.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) was obviously intending to do good by the introduction of his Bill. I can think of nothing more likely to arouse greater emotional stress than the problem of homelessness. At the same time, I can think of few subjects on which it is more easy to be thoroughly emotive than to recognise the practical difficulties which have to be translated into effect by a Bill of this nature. Therefore, the hon. Member elected to introduce a Bill dealing with the homeless. I entirely recognise not only his good faith and sincerity but his desire to do something for the benefit of the people.

That the hon. Member will not do so I have little doubt. That is hardly, initially, his fault. It is the fault of the Government because this is a Government Bill. It is the fault of the Government because they are putting this measure into the hands of a private Member at a time when the Bill is premature, when they have not arrived at the conclusions they wish to reach. The Government seek to use the Committee procedure of this House over a considerable period to iron out the difficult problems contained in the Bill, problems they have not the courage to decide for themselves before passing on the Bill to a private Member.

We must be realistic about what these problems are. I begin by speaking of what is clearly good in the Bill. What is good, first of all, is the recognition of the fact that it is high time that we took away from the Department of Health and Social Security and the social services all the problems relating to housing and put them fairly and squarely on to the housing authorities. It is also a good thing that in the main, with the exception of the London area, that will mean that the job will be in the hands of the district council housing authorities throughout this country and, I would hope, throughout Scotland. There is a further element which is undoubtedly good, and that is the power which is taken in Clause 8 to enable the Government to give grants and assistance to voluntary housing associations. Both these things are admirable principles. However, neither requires a Private Member's Bill at this stage.

We are told that at the moment and as a matter of urgency the Government are considering further rent legislation. They intend to introduce such legislation this year, presumably, which will have effects on the Rent Acts. That legislation would be a perfect vehicle with which to deal with these matters. If that is so, it seems that there is no reason why the Government should not wait a short time to bring forward an effective measure.

What are the matters of complaint about the Bill? There are three. The first is that in Clause 3(5) it is intended to introduce the principle that anyone who is a homeless person shall have precisely the same priorities as are contained in Section 113 of the Housing Act 1957 —that is to say, the priorities affecting selection by local authorities of tenants shall apply to a homeless person as they apply to those currently on the housing list.

That is telling the district council authorities that they must give the same priority to any person who is homeless as they would give to those who are on their lists at the present time, often with a high priority. The effect of this is to say that where a person is without a roof, or is in danger of becoming without a roof, that person will come into the same bracket as the local people residing in an area who are entitled to seek priorities and benefits from the local authority.

By Clause 1(4), the Home Secretary is to be the person who will specify circumstances in which homeless persons and persons threatened with homelessness have a priority need for accommodation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) has pointed out, we in the Conservative Party have hitherto given a large measure of discretion to the local authorities. I do not want to see the Secretary of State laying down criteria which will set the priorities in every instance. I would rather that the Thanet District Council should decide the priorities for its own area. We are more likely to have the flexibility which is required if we do not lay down the same criteria willy-nilly throughout the whole of England, Scotland and Wales. Things may be different in different areas. Certainly the priorities will be different between one area and another.

If the Bill receives a Second Reading, the criteria should be incorporated into it. I would prefer that the Bill was flexible and said that the local authorities should lay down for their own areas the criteria upon which they will act. There are two important matters there. The first concerns the question whether it is right that the Secretary of State should carry this into effect, and the second is whether it is right that the local authority should lay down the criteria. In either case, they should be laid down. I do not accept the view expressed by the Under-Secretary that matters can be left in this nebulous—as he calls it, flexible —state. That is not flexibility; it is shirking the problem altogether.

My third point is the most important of the three. Clause 2(3) says that if the authority has reason to suspect that a person is homeless and has a priority need, the authority shall secure that accommodation is made available". I cannot accept that. With my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and others, including the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), I have spent a great many anxious hours, with the same Minister as appears on the Front Bench today, fighting hard and with some gusto to try to secure that those in tied cottages shall have the right to accommodation. The Minister said then that it was intolerable that the Association of District Councils and the county councils were not willing to agree to this. We fought hard, and to some degree across the Benches, to get the Government to give way on this matter.

We were told at that time that a Bill dealing with the homeless was coming along soon and that we might jeopardise that measure. Why should I support a measure like this, which may well give a total stranger to Thanet a priority over, for example, a person who has worked there for years and for whom one wants accommodation under priority conditions?

That is just one example to illustrate why I do not believe that it is necessary or desirable to impose an absolute duty upon the local authority to rehouse as is laid down in Clause 2. It goes too far. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) pointed out, the fact is that not one unit of accommodation, not one additional house, not even a pound note, will be provided for additional accommodation.

In my view this is most undesirable, and it is a situation in which we should take the greatest care. If the Bill is about nothing else, it is about priorities for the homeless. If there is no further money and no further accommodation to be provided by reason of this measure, we are then looking at the accommodation which exists in our local authorities and we are saying to them "Under this Bill, you must accommodate Mr. X, Mrs. Y or Miss Z because we say that under the criteria laid down by the Secretary of State our list of priorities is more important than yours."

In the Kent area we have managed to deal with this problem fairly well. In April 1976 the Kent County Council transferred to each of its local authorities the problems relating to these special emergency housing cases. Thanet took over in my area, and the local authorities in Kent did the same.

That covered what I call the "B and B" or bed-and-breakfast cases. It also covered the rehousing of certain families and single people. As a result, for those cases, in Thanet and elsewhere in Kent, provision has been made to take over and provide the temporary accommodation which is necessary, and I was informed this morning by my local authority that there is no problem there. But it is the view of the local authority as well as my own that the Bill, unamended. is a charter for the rent-dodger, for the scrounger, and for the encouragement of the home-leaver.

First, let me take the rent-dodger under the position as it is. We know of a very large number of cases up and down the country where, for one reason or another. people are not meeting their rent obligations, many of them quite deliberately so. A number of them are in receipt of supplementary benefit and are not paying it over by way of rent to the council as they should. As an aside, I hope that that will be changed and that soon it will be made impossible for anyone to receive and pocket his rent and not pay it over to the local authority.

That is one class of rent dodger that we have at the moment. There are others. There are quite a number who let rooms in their homes, quite often illegally, pocket the rent of their sub-tenants and do not pay it over to the local authority. Very bad cases exist. If such people have proceedings taken against them and they are turned out, under the Bill they become homeless. It is seriously to be said that they should go back on to the list in some way and get other houses? I will not wear that kind of behaviour for a moment.

I am of the opinion—and it is shared at any rate by some of those who advise in Thanet—that the only way to deal with people of that kind is to find them, under the existing law, some form of accommodation. It is unfortunate that frequently they are men and women with young children, which means that the children have to suffer for the sins of their parents who have been totally irresponsible. The only way to do it is to find some accommodation with the assistance of other local authorities. The right way to do it is to give clean and decent accommodation of the very minimum standard so that they will find it undesirable to remain in it for very long. That is better than nothing. The alternative is to leave them to ferry round the countryside in an aimless way because they can no longer be given accommodation where they were originally, and something must be found for them somewhere.

The second category which comes to mind—and I have confirmed that it happens regularly—is the people who come to the seaside in the summer and literally come "off the beach" and go to the local authority with their wives and children saying that they are totally homeless and that there is no accommodation to be obtained in Margate or the surrounding area. In the high season, they probably cannot find a place and they throw themselves on the local authority saying that they are homeless. These are the scroungers. They have the money to come to Margate on holiday. When they have spent it, they throw themselves on the local authority. Is it to be said that those people, who are undoubtedly homeless because they have left their former homes, are to be treated with a priority over people who have been waiting patiently on the waiting list?

Equally, I do not think that strangers to an area should be treated in the same way as those who are resident in the area. This is especially true of the seaside resorts. With respect to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, he has not understood the problems of the Isle of Wight or of Thanet and the situation which arises in the month of August. The Isle of Wight is nearly as popular as the Isle of Thanet, and the hon. Gentleman has to recognise that a grave problem arises with strangers coming to the area wanting to get into the area.

There are those who come to areas like Thanet, the Isle of Wight, Blackpool and so on who want, if they can, to remain there. They are attractive places in which to live. They have excellent schools, charming environments and beautiful weather. With all these advan- tages, if anyone can work himself on to the homeless list, he can do very well.

There are two aspects to the fourth category, of which I have personal knowledge from my own postbag, and it worries me greatly that this should be the position under the existing law. There is what I call the in-laws and then there is the winter lettings case. The in-laws case is where a family go to stay with retired in-laws in Thanet and after a while get kicked out because they are causing too much friction in the home, there is overcrowding or the wife is pregnant and the family already have a child. They are then homeless and go to the local authority and try to crash the queue, which sometimes they succeed in doing. I am not complaining that they go to the local authority; it is a reasonable thing to do. It is quite wrong, however, that people who have a perfectly good home elsewhere should leave it and go to an area such as Thanet or other seaside resorts, stay with friends or relatives, become homeless and then get rehoused by the local authority.

The other system which is perpetrated is that a family moves to a seaside resort in the winter. In seaside resorts and places such as Cheltenham, there is considerable winter accommodation. My hon. Friend the Member for Homsey and I, in many long and anxious hours in Committee on the Rent Act, fought for and obtained a special clause in the Act to allow winter lettings in seaside resorts. It was really crucial that they should be covered by the Rent Act, and we were thankful for that concession.

The result is that there are now a large number of winter lettings. People take advantage of this, and we have to be sharp to ensure that they leave in the spring so that the small hoteliers, lodging keepers and so on can get on with their summer letting in the ordinary way. As the House will readily imagine, it is upsetting suddenly to find that one cannot stay in that accommodation or that if one does it will be at a much higher summer letting rent. Consequently, many people in that situation become de facto homeless. They go to the local authority and in certain cases are rehoused. In Thanet we have supplied a certain amount of accommodation; admittedly it is not the best or the most encouraging. but it is there and it is satisfactory. When the situation I have described arises, we rehouse the people in that accommodation. Under this Bill, there is no reason why those people should not be treated in the same way and given equivalent priority as those on the housing waiting list.

These are some of the problems which are created by a measure of this kind when the Government allow it to come forward as a Private Member's Bill before it is ready and before all considerations have been discussed thoroughly. Not only have they done that; they have also shown a certain amount of cynicism. The Minister virtually said that he conceded that there were problems and difficulties with the measure but that it was a wonderful opportunity for us to take it off his hands in a Standing Committee. I have grave doubts about that. It would be much better for the Government, having had the advantage of hearing the criticisms and all these matters, to say that they would take it back rather than send it to a Standing Committee which might involve with such a Bill, some 12 to 15 sittings. That is my estimate only if it is to remain in the hands of the skilled operators in the House at the moment.

If we have Members like my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and my hon. Friends the Members for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) and Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) on the Committee, we may make headway reasonably quickly. But even if we do it will need 12 to 15 sittings, which will take several months. It would be better for the Government to say that they have had an opportunity for debate, that they admire and respect the sincerity and the objects of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight in bringing forward the Bill, that they recognise that it has been for the best to have a full debate of this nature and that they will consider the matter and bring it forward later. I have no doubt that they would have the encouragement of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, and we would pay the hon. Gentleman due regard for having presented the Bill to the House. The Bill is no good, because it must be combined with the provision of today's real need for short-term accommodation.

It is relevant to point out to the Government that they have done nothing about this in the London market. In this Jubilee year, people are writing to ask the Chairman of the London Tourist Board—a distinguished member of the Labour Party—and Sir Mark Henig, Chairman of the English Tourist Board, and others to try to ensure that there is accommodation not only for foreigners but for our own tourists and young people coming to London from the country for the Jubilee celebrations. There is no sign of the additional accommodation, even prefabricated accommodation, or the hostels that will be needed in the London area. There is no intention of giving a grant, which could be fairly small, to provide the accommodation that we need for battered wives. I know this because I am on the Select Committee dealing with this topic. There is to be no additional short-stay accommodation grant for district councils in the country.

All this action is needed if we are to have an effective policy on homelessness. It is not enough just to juggle with the existing situation and to alter priorities. That will be valuable only if we provide additional accommodation, short-stay or otherwise, to help those with no roof over their heads or with nowhere to live —and this must take into account the problems of squatters.

All these matters are tied up with the operation of the Rent Act. As I said in an earlier intervention, if the Government would forget their Socialist philosophies for a moment they would recognise that the private landlord could help them to solve the homelessness problem, particularly in London. The Government may think that it is wrong that there should be landlords making profits, but if, for the sake of the nation, they will allow those landlords to provide accommodation, either through local councils or on their own behalf, at reasonable and controlled rents, but without giving tenants security of tenure, they will get all the accommodation they need for the homeless. I can assure the Government that this is so. I know the London markets, and estate agents have told me this time and again. It is time the Government realised that we cannot have security of tenure without also having homelessness.

If we resist that security for those for whom accommodation is provided we shall be able to achieve something worthwhile. The House could pass such a measure quickly, perhaps on the nod from this side, and we would solve the problem of homelessness. Perhaps I am alone, but I do not believe that this Bill would be of any benefit. It would be better for us to reconsider it and to bring it back later and amend it so that it is truly to the benefit of the nation.

3.3 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) on his good fortune in the Ballot, and I welcome his sensitivity in recognising that the problem of homelessness is not peculiar to England and Wales but extends to Scotland as well. The hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Welsh) is not here at the moment, but I was pleased that he recognised that the problem was capable of solution in a measure that is broadly in a United Kingdom context and does not have to be dealt with in Scotland alone.

It is rare that the hon. Gentleman and I seek the same objectives, but I must say that he was speaking a lot of nonsense when he talked about the difficulties of achieving divorce law reform in Scotland because of United Kingdom legislation. There have been seven attempts to get divorce law reform in Scotland. I started with a Private Member's Bill and I received many letters from members of the SNP urging me to stop dragging Scotland along on England's coat tails. They were outraged that the law of Scotland was being brought into line with the law of England. It then became popular to advocate divorce law reform, and the SNP members said that England was holding Scotland back and that the Scots should have had the reform at the same time as it was introduced in England.

The hon. Gentleman should also recall, to his shame, that one of the occasions when we tried to reform the divorce law of Scotland was initiated by his right hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart).

Mr. Welsh rose

Mr. Hughes

No, I shall not give way.

We are concerned with the problem of homlessness, which has been with us for a long time. It has been estimated that in Scotland about 1,000 children are in voluntary care because their parents are homeless. We have been concerned about the homeless in Scotland for some considerable time. The two previous Secretaries of State for Scotland set up a committee under the chairmanship of Mrs. Jean Morris. Its report is entitled "Housing and Social Work: A Joint Approach". It was appointed in 1973. The final report was brought forward in 1975, although an interim report was issued in 1974. Time is short and I shall not quote the committee's recommendations at length, but it made the point, which must remain even after the Bill is passed, as I hope it will, that homelessness is of mutual concern both to housing departments and social work authorities.

The committee recognised that the problem of homelessness is a growing one. The waiting lists for local authority houses are lengthening and difficulty is caused by the disappearance of older properties that might have been available to tenants. These factors have obviously exacerbated the problem.

What did the committee recommend to the Secretary of State to deal with the problem? It said that it basically supported the proposition that primary responsibility for housing the homeless should in future rest with housing authorities. The main ground for taking that position was that the housing needs of the homeless are no different in kind from those of people who are fortunate enough to have a home. They differ only in being more urgent. The committee went on to try to ascertain how that general posture could be put into practice. In recommendation 54 it stated that Primary responsibility for housing the homeless should rest with housing authorities. The Scottish Development Department should initiate discussions with the local authority associations on means of ensuring a smooth transfer from social work to housing authorities of responsibility for the provision of temporary housing accommodation. It is fair to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown), the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, has made it clear that there have been discussions between social work authorities and housing authorities. He and his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Queens Park (Mr. McElhone), the other Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who deals with social work matters, have had individual and joint discussions with the local authorities on how the transfer should be made between social work and housing departments both in temporary accommodation and in the provision of permanent accommodation when dealing with homelessness. That transfer is borne out by the Morris Committee in another recommendation.

There was a Scottish Housing Advisory Committee report in 1967 about the allocation of council houses. One of the recommendations, which was advocated by the then Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. W. Ross), was that waiting lists in terms of residential qualifications—that is having to live in an area for a specific period before being put on the waiting list or being given a house—should be abolished. More than one circular has been sent out from the Scottish Development Department over the past 10 years advocating that policy but it has rarely happened that there has been a move towards that position. There has been a gradual reduction of residential qualifications before being put on a housing list although they have not disappeared. It seems that persuasion and discussion can take far too long when dealing with a problem that everyone agrees is extremely urgent.

The Morris Committee, which might be classed as the Bible on this issue, stated, in recommendation 55: A specific statutory duty to provide housing for the homeless should be placed on housing authorities. It went further than that by saying, in paragraph 8.22: There appear to be good reasons for legislation on responsibility for the homeless north and south of the Border being broadly similar. We recommend, therefore, that the Scottish Development Department should make close contact with the English review of the need for new legislation to which we referred in paragraph 8.17 with a view to adapting its conclusions to Scottish circumstances, while taking due account of the views which we have expressed on this matter. This was a distinguished committee of people intimately concerned with housing matters—local authority members, social work members and assessors, including officials who had been housing officials in the local authorities.

The committee looked at the problem and was satisfied that if it was to be dealt with properly it was necessary for the onus to be placed fairly and squarely and in statute upon the housing authorities. It went on to say that, having discussed the various Department of the Environment representations, it believed that the law north and south of the border ought to be similar. We know that there have to be slight differences in the law because of the technicalities. But the principle is clearly established.

My right hon. Friend said that, broadly, the Government accepted the Morris Report and its conclusions. I do not believe that they accept every detail of it, but these recommendations are extremely powerful and ought to make my right hon. Friend think carefully before he persists in his present attitude towards this legislation.

Of course we know that discussions with local authorities are necessary, but I do not believe that the passage of a Private Member's Bill allows him, in the period until the Bill becomes law, necessarily to prejudice these discussions. It is necessary for local authorities to be consulted.

I have the greatest respect for local authority councillors who have to grapple with the problem of trying to determine priorities and satisfy everybody. It might be said that in the allocation of housing an authority does less injustice to some people by its housing allocation than it does to others, because there can be no absolute priority which satisfies the individual family need in areas of housing stress. I have the greatest respect for local authority councillors who are under attack from all quarters. No one quarrels with their being under attack because of political or administrative decisions. But I think that some of the attacks that have been made on local authority councillors because they claim expenses are quite despicable.

Let me put on record that members of the Liberal Party in Aberdeen are engaged in such a smear exercise. One of their candidates is employed by Shelter, a voluntary organisation. I believe that people who work for voluntary organisations should be well paid. I do not quarrel with that, but I quarrel with them when, sitting with fairly secure jobs and not facing a loss of wages because of political activities, they criticise others not in that position. These people should have some sense of responsibility in how they behave towards local authority councillors who lose money by their voluntary work for the authority.

The funny thing is that since this campaign started in Aberdeen, the Liberal councillors there have stopped claiming their own allowances. I hope that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight will join me in condemning these tactics. We can agree on many things, and we can argue politics on many things, but I hope that he will agree that that kind of tactic against local authority councillors doing splendid work in difficult circumstances should cease forthwith.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has always said—he said it again in a recent letter to me—that he does not favour Scotland being included in the Bill. He said that that was because of the stage his work had reached. But he is now faced with a different problem. The Bill includes Scotland, and my hon. Friend cannot argue that it should be taken out. That is a totally different argument from saying that Scotland should be put in.

Notwithstanding his reservations about the difficulties that it might cause him in his negotiations, I believe that Back Bench opinion in all quarters of the House favours the inclusion of Scotland and favours the Bill, which is a useful measure. I therefore hope that he will think again about this matter and realise that one further reason why we must have the Bill is that the housing authorities have never really buckled down in trying to work out solutions to the various problems which face them because it has not really been their responsibility. In Scotland it is their responsibility under the Social Work Act. Until they realise that there is a statutory duty, they will not give the problems of the homeless individual priority as of right or in relation to their priority to others on the housing list in the way that they should.

This is a limited but welcome Bill. I give it my wholehearted support. I hope that the Scottish Office will seriously think again and read the Morris Report in the kind of detail which, because of lack of time, I have not been able to put on record today.

3.20 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)

Together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Knox) I am a sponsor of the Bill. Therefore, it goes without saying that I want it to receive a Second Reading this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) introduced the Bill most comprehensively in an admirable speech. Therefore, I shall restrict myself to a few short points, as other hon. Members still wish to take part in the debate.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) that it would have been preferable to get the Lane Bill on to the statute book. That Bill would not only have incorporated this principle; it would have done something constructive about the anomalies and unfairnesses within the Rent Acts. I believe that it would have brought forward accommodation that is at present being withheld from use. It is interesting that the reason given for the withholding of Government support for the Lane Bill was that the Government's review of housing generally was in the pipeline. I should like to know when we shall see anything from it. There are sinister rumours about lack of interest by the Secretary of State. No doubt we shall hear about it one day.

Hon. Members should not be surprised if I use this opportunity to urge the Minister to lean on his right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council regarding the establishment of a Select Committee on Housing. I believe that many of the points that have come up in discussion today could have been dealt with satisfactorily by a Select Committee considering the problems of homelessness and that we might have had a better consensus for agreed progress. The establishment of a Select Committee on this subject would help not only Ministers in their jobs, but the development of a continuing housing policy, which would benefit all people.

I turn now to the Bill itself. It is important to deal with the point made several times, but most notably by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies), about scroungers.

The code of practice is presently being discussed with local authorities. It is right that if local authorities have to implement it they should have the opportunity to look at it in detail and make their observations on it. I suggest that in Committee we might consider whether it should be attached as a schedule to the Bill. I do not think that it detracts from the flexibility about which the Minister was talking earlier.

Scrounging has been talked about so much that people outside who read our debates may gain the impression that we think that the vast majority of the homeless are scroungers, whereas in fact they are homeless through no fault of their own. Most of them are subject to many pressures. Therefore, it is right that we should take steps now to improve their lot.

One question that has been raised, about which I have had representations —I am sure that other hon. Members have also been approached—concerns the single homeless and our continuing inability to do much to help them, even within the terms of this Bill, because clearly they do not represent a high priority. However, I hope that we shall look at some categories of the single homeless to see whether we can do more to help them. As Chairman of the Trustees of Crisis at Christmas, which specifically sets out to help the single homeless, I am only too well aware of the rate at which this problem is growing and how it is affecting young people.

I express the hope that the provisions of Clause 8 regarding financial support for the voluntary agencies will be applied to the needs of the single homeless. In my judgment a considerable proportion of the single homeless would be more likely to be effectively helped by voluntary agencies than by statutory authorities. Many homeless people have a natural resistance to becoming involved with authority in any shape or form. Voluntary agencies are able to cope more flexibly and more imaginatively with the varying needs of the different groups that make up the overall category whom we call the single homeless.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) said that the Bill would not produce a single extra home. That is true, but it might give some impetus to the maximising of the use of our existing housing stock. I hope that the Government will carefully examine the idea of the housing emergency office, about which there has been a great deal of talk in seeking to bring short-life accommodation into use.

There is a housing association on whose management committee I serve which has set up a housing emergency office to take over some properties, largely from public authorities, and to put them in a decent state, for whatever life is left to them. They are then rented to local authorities to use as an alternative to bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Perhaps the Government will be prepared to examine a pump-priming exercise on that score. It would not need very much public activity, but it could be organised within the auspices of the voluntary movement.

Finally, I wish to refer to resources and to the idea of co-operation in the Bill. The inner London boroughs—the boroughs that contain the railway termini and airports—have a particular problem and require some extra help. I hope that within the terms of the Bill and of the financial support provided it will be possible to do more to help such boroughs. My own borough of Kensington and Chelsea has marked problems in this respect. It is worth mentioning a particular problem that is beginning to face us. The Malawi Government have said that all United Kingdom passport holders will have to leave Malawi by March 1978. We are already beginning to see a flow of those passport holders into the United Kingdom. Some of them are destitute, and are becoming a responsibility of local authorities and voluntary agencies. We have a clear duty to admit them to this country, but it would be intolerable if a few boroughs had to bear the burden of housing those refugees without receiving additional help.

When the Ugandan Asians were quite properly admitted, it was treated as a national effort that we should receive and resettle them, and extra resources were found to achieve that end. Although the scale of the Malawi problem is not as serious as that which was thrown up by the Ugandan situation, it is important that extra resources should be made available. So far the efforts of the Royal Borough, the Greater London Council and the United Kingdom immigrant advisory services have proved fruitless in trying to persuade the Home Office to give extra help for this purpose. I hope that the Government will take on board the fact that this problem will have a serious effect in this country in the next year and will therefore plan to handle the problem responsibly.

I commend the Bill to the House. It is not a great leap forward, but it is a modest step in the right direction.

3.29 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

My borough of Islington is one of the most severe stress areas in the country for housing. Given that fact, before coming to my critical remarks on the Bill it is only fair to say to the House that it is the view of those on my borough council who carry the primary responsibility for both housing and social service matters that a Bill of this nature—they have expressed no firm view about the details—is desirable and one which they, exercising their responsibility in one of the most difficult aspects of this whole matter, would like to see on the statute book.

But that is not my view. Although I have gone over the matter with those concerned on the borough council, I hold the view that there are severe criticisms that can be made of the Bill, at least as it stands now. However, I give an assurance to the House that I have no intention of talking the Bill out this afternoon.

The primary defect of the Bill is totally divorced from the content and subject matter of it. As I indicated in an earlier intervention, we ought never to pass a Bill that says there will be a legally enforceable obligation and then put off to some time later the only difficult and important part of the task, which is to define the exact people in respect of whom it must be discharged. That is the easy way out. It is cheating.

I should like to know whose Bill this is. I want to know whom we shall be able to blame in two or three years' time when we are panning the Bill, as we panned Section 105 of the Housing Act. Some of us were unpopular for saying that that section would be regretted. I want to know whom I shall be able to blame for the Bill when, in two or three years' time, everyone recognises what some of us are saying now. I want to know whether I shall be able to blame only the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) or only the Government, or both.

Mr. Rees-Davies

It is a Liberal-Labour pact.

Mr. Cunningham

It is no Labour pact. I shall regard them both as having totally separate responsibility for the Bill. We must not get into the habit of passing legislation in this form. It is dishonest. it is cheating and it is avoiding the real difficulties.

We have done it before. We passed the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act because everybody said that we must create an obligation in this respect, but then we renaged in the small print. We laid what, on the face of it, looked to be an inescapable obligation upon local authorities, but we qualified that by saying that they could do it only in conditions where they were satisfied that they had to do it.

Something like that will happen with this Bill. The definition of the priority needs will be such, I believe—if we are finally vouchsafed the sight of it—that local authorities will be able to escape because the Department will have got cold feet, if it has not got them already. The Department will be persuaded by local authorities that a totally inescapable obligation of the kind about which people are talking today will not do. They will say that they cannot physically do it and that in many cases they do not have the accommodation to provide it. Therefore, there will be a let-out. There might be a phrase about having to be satisfied that they can discharge the obligation, that they are satisfied that the person could not have looked after himself, and so on. There will be some let-out. That is not the form in which to pass sensible legislation.

The Minister has pleaded for flexibility. I agree that if we accept the framework of the Bill the definition of the priority groups ought to be something that is subsequently amendable, and preferably something that is amendable other than by principal legislation. That is not uncommon.

We often put into Bills clauses that can be amended later by Statutory Instrument, and we could have done so in this case. We could have put in the initial definition of priority needs and provided for that to be amendable by Statutory Instrument, subject to affirmative order by the House. That is what we ought to do in Committee, and if, as I hope, I am on the Committee I shall argue for that to be done.

At the very least, the Government should not come forward and say that the definition that is the whole heart of the Bill should be amendable by Statutory Instrument, subject to the negative procedure. We know what that means. It means that we shall not get a look at it at all and we shall not be able to amend it. If I may refer to previous occasions, which the Minister may remember, when we have asked to see things before they come to the House, sometimes we have been told that that is contrary to the time-honoured traditions of Parliament. That is the kind of way in which negative orders are sometimes dealt with. We must therefore do something about that when the Bill goes into Committee.

To listen to some speeches in this debate, one would think that local authorities were not subject to any mandatory provision with regard to housing the homeless. I shall not go over the ground dealt with by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi). He referred, but he was the only hon. Member to do so, to the circular which matters on this subject, which is DHSS Circular 13 issued in February 1974. The interesting thing about that circular is that one would find perhaps one councillor in a thousand who had heard of it.

If councillors are confused, one cannot blame them, because if ever there was a confusing way of setting out the law of the land, my God, Circular 13/74 is the one. The statutory background to it is confused, the circular itself sets out powers, not duties, and then, in a throwaway paragraph which transforms the powers in part into a duty, it says that councils are thereby directed to regard some of the powers as duties.

When, a few months ago, I urged the Department of the Environment to put out a new circular so that councillors could be brought up to date on the situation, I was told that there was no need to do so and that everybody knew the position. I suggest that people do not know the position at the moment and that a goodly part of the pressure for the Bill or something like it derives from people who are inadequately informed on the true nature of the present mandatory provision, which is, of course, worded almost exactly the same in the circular to which I have referred as it was in the 1948 Act.

It has been said that we should not really worry because the priority groups, when they come to be defined, are likely to be defined in terms very similar to the language of the other circular, the pure guidance circular, also, unfortunately, of February 1974-Circular 18/74, issued by the Department of the Environment. Although that circular was very long, only five lines were devoted to defining the priority groups. Although that might have been sufficient for defining the people to benefit from an exhortatory provision, it certainly is not sufficient to define those who are to be the beneficiaries of an inescapable and legal obligation.

Reference has already been made to the kind of people who might, unless steps are taken in the definition to exclude them, be covered by the obligation. There are those who do not pay rent. There is no reference to them in the five lines in the exhortatory circular of 1974. There is reference to not paying rent, but in the definition of the priority groups in paragraph 10 there is no exclusion for people who have not paid rent, whatever the reason for their not paying rent.

There is no reference to people who are expelled from a housing association flat because they played bagpipes in the middle of the night or something of that nature. There is no reference to people simply expelled from accommodation in which they are not currently secure: that applies to local authorities and to housing associations. What will be the position of travellers and gipsies, which has been referred to in some of the Press comment? That is a subject matter which is dealt with already in legislation —in my view, most unsatisfactorily. Is this legislation to duplicate it, to contradict it, to extend it?

What about the family who move from, let us say, Glasgow to Coventry? Let us assume that they are a couple with a child. I gather that it is intended to include pregnancy as a ground for getting into the priority groups. Let us not prejudge that and merely say that a couple with a child move from Glasgow to Coventry.

Under the Bill as drafted and talked about, Coventry will have an obligation to house that family. Let us assume that the family become fed up with Coventry and want to move to London. Islington, say, then becomes obliged to house the family. When the family become fed up with Islington, Lambeth will be obliged to house the family if they want to move there. We must have some method of dealing with such a situation.

Reference has been made to the priority groups and to the guidance. It will not be a guidance. It will be a definition which will be testable in court. I assume, subject to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman), that the obligation we are proposing to place upon local authorities will be enforceable in the courts, if only my means of mandamus. That appears to be the expectation of the co-father of the Bill. In that case we are talking not about guidance but about a definition which will have to be as verbally precise as if it had been put into statute. We are not talking about paragraph upon paragraph with qualifications. It must be verbally precise. We shall have to deal with people who become fed up with one area and move to another.

What about the over 18-year-olds who are married or engaged to be married and who want to leave their parents' home? That is one of the most deserving cases of near homelessness that I should like to see met. Are all such cases to be part of the obligation upon local authorities? That is what it is all about. The part that the hon. Gentleman and the Department of the Environment have written in is the easiest part. This is rather like writing a book when one has written only the title: the part that really matters and the difficult bit is still to come.

There is no suggestion that there should be any provision for local residents. There is a great problem nowadays, especially in London, because the sense of local community is being lost through the natural switching of population. That will happen whatever we do. We should try not to enact legislation that makes it more difficult to accommodate in an area the sons and daughters of that given area.

In London nobody is a Londoner. One belongs to Islington or, in my area, to Finsbury. A person wants to identify to a small area. That is the only way in which it is possible to have a sense of community. We have already paid a small price, and I believe that we shall pay a greater price if we give up the residence test in imposing this obligation.

It has been said that all that the Bill will do is to force the bad authorities to come up to the standard of the good authorities. This is a fallacy. The good authorities, of which mine is one, are adhering to the exhortations contained in the 1974 circular. However, the demand upon them is as nothing to what the demand upon them will be when they have an obligation to meet it in legal terms. That is the great difficulty. There will be some savings to an area like mine, because some people who at present come to such an area knowing that they will get better treatment there than they would elsewhere might not come there because they would be able to look for accommodation in the area where they are at present situated. But that will be more than compensated for by an increase in the numbers in respect of whom the authority has an obligation within its own area.

Let it be remembered also that local authorities, at least in England and Wales, have only 30 per cent. of the total stock of accommodation available, yet it is proposed to place upon them an obligation in respect of 100 per cent. of a defined part of the population. There is an inherent contradiction there which must be faced.

Moreover, we might find ourselves exacerbating the trend from council housing to welfare housing. Already a significant part of local authority accommodation is not like council estates of 30 or 40 years ago but can be said to have a high proportion of problem families, including families with problems well above the average—some self-made, but many not so. It would be very sad if in this country public accommodation came to be something close to welfare accommodation as one knows it in the United States. If time allowed, I should wish to read into the record some of the many criticisms of the Bill made in the brief sent to all hon. Members by the Association of District Councils. However, since time does not allow, I merely urge the House to take those points on board and to bear them in mind in the rather hectic improvements and changes in the Bill which plainly will be necessary in Committee.

I believe that we shall regret the Bill. I recognise that the majority of right hon. and hon. Members want to see it passed, but I consider that it has been not ill thought out—I do not say that—but insufficiently thought out. I fear that we shall come to regret it, but if we do enough heavy surgery in Standing Committee it just might do some good to balance the harm which it will also do.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

I listened with care to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), because he has a deep knowledge of these matters. I have some knowledge of his borough, too. In my view, he is right to say that there will be a need for a fair degree of surgery in Committee but it seems to me that it is no bad thing for hon. Members on both sides with experience of the problem to get down to some of the nitty-gritty of legislation. Indeed, I go so far as to suggest that our experience is certainly no worse than that of the Department of the Environment, and in many cases is considerably better-informed. I should be glad to serve on the Standing Committee and should welcome the prospect that it would take us 12 or 14 sittings to do the job properly.

I welcome the Bill in principle. I am glad to note that there is a consensus across the House on the need to act on homelessness. I welcome also what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) about the possible need to extend our consideration further into the realm of a Select Committee on Housing at which so many aspects of the matter could be discussed. It is right that homelessness should be treated as a public problem—a problem with which public housing should deal.

With regard to priority needs, I lay some emphasis on Clause 8, in which reference is made to the voluntary organisations. Over the course of time, some of us have seen the work of the Southwark Forum. It does a great deal, and there is a job to be done in providing hostel accommodation.

Hon. Members have been right to express their worries about such questions as queue jumping, length of stay in the local area, and so on. However, those of us who have been chairmen of housing committees have always had to separate one priority from another—a certain number of medical cases, a certain priority for teachers in the inner London boroughs. a certain priority for Service men, and so on. It does not seem to me that there is an insurmountable problem.

I, too, am worried that there is to be no extra money provided, especially for voluntary help. I urge the Government —and I even make an offer—to say that new towns should be asked to provide a small amount of money towards this end. New towns would be willing to see a small amount of their budgets siphoned off if that money was to be used specifically for the homeless. There are other areas where something effective could be done. I do not really need to say any more, because so much has already been said by hon. Members.

I came to the House solely because of the two years that I spent in Calcutta, where I saw such bad housing conditions. I welcome the fact that hon. Members from both sides of the House want to get to grips with the problem. It is there to be dealt with, and hon. Members can use their own experiences to produce a Bill that is worth while and that will go some way towards dealing with the problem. I accept some of the difficulties raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) and the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. We shall not solve them all, but we shall go some way along the road towards solving them.

3.51 p.m.

Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)

On balance I welcome the Bill, but there are a number of failings in it, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) was fair in his criticisms.

The situation is unorthodox. A Government Bill has been fished out from the back of a file, adopted by an hon. Member of another party, and introduced as a Private Member's Bill to deal with a public problem. I do not wish to be churlish. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) deserves our thanks, if only because his Bill has given the House another opportunity to discuss the intolerable housing problem. For that we must be grateful. It is easy to pick holes in the Bill and to say—particularly of Clause l(4)—that there are difficulties involved in trying to place upon authorities statutory obligations that are ill-defined and for which there is no clear indication from where the resources are to be found.

It is ironic that every hon. Member has made out a case, at least by inference, for more Government expenditure. Perhaps it is reasonable to accept that we shall not have this tirade against extra Government expenditure to which we are accustomed from Opposition hon. Members, except when it involves defence or their own constituencies.

More resources must be made available for housing. Hon. Members implied that, at any rate for the time being, there should be no more sales of council houses. We want to keep the stock of public housing that is available, because it is that which provides us with the accommodation for those who are most in need. Opposition Members frequently express the criticism that we do not use our stock of council housing in as appropriate a way as we might. That may be right, but there can be no justification, so long as there are homeless, for reducing gratuitously the stock of public housing.

I represent a stress area with acute housing problems. A large number of people who live there come within the definition of "homeless". They may include a number of people who would be castigated as being undeserving, but my impression is that the majority are people who are victims of the social services and who should not be insulted by being called scroungers.

This Bill has some engaging possibilities. We have seen developing over the last few years the willingness of various bodies to undertake mandamus proceedings to force public bodies into complying with obligations. Although the Bill certainly does not create any original extension of that concept, if it became law it would undoubtedly provide a weapon in the hands of various pressure groups which could be applied to various laggard authorities. That is not new, but it is no bad thing that we should provide extra weapons for those who seek to act on behalf of those who are often among the least articulate and least able to assist themselves in an area in which they are peculiarly vulnerable.

At the same time, I must associate myself with some of the criticisms made about certain parts of the Bill. It will not do for us to place obligations upon authorities and then to leave aside any definition of those obligations. Before we go very much further we must have, in the definition clause of the Bill, a clear indication of what is meant by a priority need. If we do not have that there will be either disappointment or endless confusion.

Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)

This is an important point. In areas like Basingstoke, where there is much more employment than in other parts, people come in for jobs and automatically put themselves in a priority situation, above those already on the local waiting list. This can be desperately unfair. I am worried about a measure that might have that effect receiving a Second Reading.

Mr. Lee

I quite understand that. The hon. Member has not been present for the debate, but that is a perfectly fair point to make. I do not resent the fact that he has come in late to make it. We ought to be increasing our stock of public housing, not only to satisfy the needs of local authority housing lists—although that is most important-but to promote a greater degree of mobility. With the current level of unemployment there is bound to be a large number of people moving around seeking other occupations. I have always looked to a Labour Government to bring work to the worker. If we do not do that, with 1⅓ million unemployed the least we can do is to assist them when they have to move around to find work elsewhere. While this is bound to cause resentment, it is a perfectly reasonable obligation to place upon local authorities. I intervened earlier to point out that some criticisms of the Bill are not peculiar to this situation. We all know instances of people who jump the queue under the present system because a county court possession order has been made against them. They go along to the local authority, wave the order at it and force the authority to put them to the top of the queue. That is not something created by the Bill.

The Bill may suffer from certain other limitations. The greatest deficiency is the failure adequately to define priorities of housing. It cannot be said that the Bill creates for the first time the bizarre situation of a person who may not be in the most morally deserving situation being able to jump the queue. I have appeared in county court actions where there have been collusive situations. A landlord has been produced and he and the tenant are delighted to have an order for possession. That is taken to the local authority and the tenant goes to the top of the queue. I support the Bill. It will need some extensive surgery, but I hope—

Mr. Stephen Ross rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second Time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).