HC Deb 25 May 1978 vol 950 cc1892-904

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Graham.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I am grateful for the opportunity to try to clear some of the misconceptions about the legal implications of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 which I had the responsibility of piloting through the House last summer. I also hope to draw the attention of the House to some possible loopholes which, I accept, may present problems in future, particularly in holiday areas.

I start by reminding the House that the Act reached the statute book with all-party support. Although some hon. Members on both sides expressed misgivings at the time, the Government and I went out of our way to try to meet the legitimate requests of the housing authorities, in particular the Association of District Councils, by accepting amendments dealing with those controversial matters which have come to be known as intentional homelessness and local connections.

Therefore, I greatly resent certain comments—mostly emanating from Tory Members—which have appeared in the Press and have been made in the House which seek deliberately to misrepresent the true position about the provisions of the Act.

The editor of the Daily Express has been conspicuous, for some reason best known to himself, because he has chosen to give banner headlines to the limited number of people who have unfortunately found themselves homeless within the jurisdiction of the borough of Slough and has presented in that newspaper a one-sided account of the cases concerned.

In February, we were given the treatment about poor, unfortunate Mrs. O'Shaughnessy, who, we read, had come over from Ireland with her three children in search of her husband. Nowhere were we told that the lady was English and that she had been deserted in Ireland by her husband who over her head had sold the caravan in which they were living and had disappeared. Therefore, not unnaturally, she came back to this country to seek a home. She had been here for at least a year before finally being housed by the Slough council. For part of that time the children were in care. Surely that is something that we should desperately try to avoid.

If I have learnt one thing in my dealings with this legislation, it is that the kind of environment in which children spend the early days of their lives is most likely to have the greatest effect on their later attitudes to the community. Therefore, I applaud the action of the voluntary bodies which obliged the Slough council to face its responsibilities.

But that was not enough. On 28th April, the Daily Express was off again. We had the banner headline Migrants paid to go home. In that article on the front page we were told that the deputy leader of the Slough council, Councillor Richard Stephenson, said: Under this iniquitous Homeless Persons Act we are obliged to house anyone who is homeless regardless of the circumstances or where they come from. He went on to say: We are very vulnerable under this Act because we are only a 9p bus side from Heathrow with people coming to this country from Bombay and Brisbane. The first local authority they arrive at is Slough. A little later we read: Since the Act came in"— on 1st December 1977— the council has housed nine families who came to the borough from Eire and Asia. We had a better record in The Daily Telegraph of the following day. Mr. Brian Hurrell, the deputy housing manager for Slough, said that the majority of the 50 applicants so far vetted were people from the area"— that is, the area of Slough itself— who had accommodation problems such as threats of eviction by landlords or domestic troubles. Only 10 had come from outside the area and of these only two had been offered their fare home. Mr. Hurrell went on later to say: A good case has to be presented by anyone demanding accommodation under the Act and it will be thoroughly checked out. If people come here from another part of the country they will be advised to go back. Further on, the report says: The community relations officer for Slough said yesterday that few first-time immigrants now arrive in Slough. Who is telling the truth? Is it the Daily Express or is it the officers—who ought to know—of the Slough council?

I believe that Slough has very good housing provision. Slough has 8,300 council houses and a waiting list of 1,300 applicants for homes, of which 850 are families and 450 are elderly people. Some parts of this country and my own Medina Borough Council would like to swap the 1,300 figure, because we have more applicants. So it is not so impossible. Slough apparently housed a family from Rhodesia with no squeals whatsoever. There may be a lesson in that.

In my constituency, the chairman of the local Conservative Party recently said about me: So far his real achievements seem to have been to get a Bill through Parliament for the homeless—this means that homeless people can move round the country and jump to the top of the housing lists—and he has also supported a Bill for hairdressers. That is apparently the total of my achievements, but the comment about the Act is blatantly untrue, as I hope to show in a few minutes' time.

In the House the night before last, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) said something similar. He promised to let me have some facts and figures, and they arrived about two hours ago. I have been given the case records of nine people. I find nothing alarming in those records. The majority of them have some local connection with the Bournemouth area. They are either from Poole or from Fordingbridge, which is not many miles away. There is someone from Wales—a miner of 64—who came to live with his sister in Poole, and it did not work out. There is someone from Australia and someone from Rhodesia. Then there are one or two other cases, but they do not seem to me from their case records to be people who are deliberately using the Act to jump the queue.

Nowhere in the Act, although it is mentioned in the Press handouts and by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, did we legislate on the question of a six-month rule. This was agreed between the authorities. It may have been a sensible thing to agree, but it was not laid down by the House.

Neither Bournemouth nor Slough took notice of circular 18/74 introduced by the former Conservative Government. If they had done so, the Act might not have been necessary. I was talking to the chairman of a Conservative housing committee in Hertfordshire last night. He welcomed the legislation. They had operated circular 18/74, and he said that it had brought recalcitrant authorities into line and taken pressure off those who were doing their duty.

These remarks, unfortunately, rub off, as they are intended to do. Some of my constituents have accused me of introducing a layabout's charter. I considered, therefore, the position in my own council, the Medina Borough Council, and I received the up-to-date figures today. There are within the borough council some 68 potentially homeless people. Of those, 24 will probably have to be dealt with in the next six weeks. Nineteen of those 68 have been resident on the Isle of Wight for over 20 years. Most of them have been on the housing list for a long time. Six of them have been resident for between 10 and 20 years, nine have been resident between five and 10 years and 13 for less than five years. That takes 47 out of the 68—the vast majority. The other 21 have not yet been properly processed, so I cannot give the figures for them.

There is no evidence of people moving into the Isle of Wight to jump ahead in the housing queue by taking furnished winter accommodation. They are mainly cases that we ought to have dealt with long ago, if only we had had the facilities to do so. The vast majority are local people and most are already on the housing list.

What are the main causes of homelessness? Of course, they are extremely varied—building society foreclosures, notices to quit, desertion by husband or wife, end of service tenancy or wife battering. Many in holiday areas are terminations of winter lets, and I shall come back to that.

The Act came into force on 1st December and the Government are known to be monitoring its progress, but I am indebted to the nine voluntary bodies which have published their appraisal of the first four months' working. They have already concluded that significant improvements in dealing with homelessness have been achieved. They highlight those authorities that are deliberately abusing the term "intentionally homeless" and point to Nottingham as one in particular, but they have great praise for boroughs such as Kensington and Lambeth and the city of Leeds. We have gone right across the political spectrum.

I hope that the Department will take full note of their comments and will keep up the pressure on authorities that are dragging their feet, if necessary by issuing a further circular highlighting the requirements in the code of guidance. This does not seem to have been taken fully on board by some authorities.

Will the Minister have discussions at an early date with those members of the voluntary bodies who prepared the report to see what improvements can be implemented? There was a very good liaison when the Bill was going through Parliament, and I hope that it can be continued.

There is a need to ensure that all housing authorities comply with the terms of the Act. I suspect that certain authorities are not always giving reasons for refusal in writing. Some have been very slow in getting themselves equipped. I have found in one or two places that not all the requirements are being met.

We urgently need more housing advice centres. What is being done in this respect? Some authorities, such as Blackpool, where someone I know was actually housed in private accommodation through the local authority housing advice centre, are doing good work, but this is an area where we ought to be doing a great deal more.

How many voluntary bodies have applied for financial aid under the Act and how much has been allocated so far? I do not ask for the answer straight away, but I hope that it can be provided. Can we do a little more for the late middle-aged single women to whom some councils are helpful but others are not? I have had such cases, and I am sure that the Minister knows of some. We ought to be trying to do rather more for them.

Are the social services co-operating as much as they should? I have reason to doubt this in some areas. There has been departmental separation in some districts, and on the change-over day one department has said to another "It is your responsibility now. We are backing out." That is a mistake, and I hope that the situation is being watched I know that, where vulnerability is suspected, some councils would welcome the advice of medical officers and community physicians in addition to that of social workers.

Above all, we need more resources, particularly in the rural areas. These are the parts of the country where we have lower income groups which are naturally more dependent on local authority housing but where such housing is in shortest supply. For example, in my constituency only 10 per cent. of our housing provision comes under local authorities, and that is very low in the list, yet we have a lower-than-average weekly wage.

Housing investment programmes in these areas have been particularly harshly treated. Indeed, they have been slashed. Last year Medina built 45 new homes, this year it is scheduled to have about 95, but with the list of homeless people that I have mentioned it does not look as if the council will be able to do much about taking new people off the list.

I know that money is about. Cannot some of it that has not been taken up by Conservative councils and others which are not going on with their building programmes be transferred to other councils which could make better use of it?

Homelessness is becoming more of a problem in rural areas than in the inner cities. One reason is that rural areas have no short-life accommodation of the sort that abounds in parts of London and can be renovated and used by housing associations. I have seen some such provision in Edinburgh. I was amazed when I saw that homeless people in Edinburgh were being put in purpose-built flats that were erected in 1935. We in the Isle of Wight would give our right arms to have some such property.

In Portsmouth, of all places, we have the dreadful situation of perfectly reasonable houses being bulldozed. I understand that there have been nine arrests today of people trying to stop the bulldozer. The time has come to ban demolition in some cases.

I foresee a problem of winter lets in holiday areas. It can be a way of jumping the waiting list. I do not think that it has happened yet because I do not think people appreciate the fact, but with all the publicity it could be a problem next winter. I urge those with this sort of accommodation to liaise with local authorities to try to get agreement about to whom they let their properties, and perhaps they could take off the list of people who are already fairly high up in priority.

I am pleased to say that in my constituency discussions have already taken place with the self-catering holiday accommodation proprietors. Perhaps we should warn them that earlier notice of possession should be given when the time is coming to termination. One can see this as a loophole, and we should take cognisance of the representations that are coming from places like Bournemouth. I take them on board.

If only the Government would publish the Rent Act review and do something about releasing from the povisions of the Rent Act 1974 some of this furnished accommodation, that would undoubtedly help the situation. We live and hope for the best, yet nothing seems to happen in that respect, but at least let us try to make sensible arrangements now before this develops into a real issue.

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act has placed responsibility where it obviously should belong. It contains detailed provisions for sorting out reciprocal arrangements between authorities, but this is either not understood or is deliberately being misconstrued. The courts could on occasion be more helpful. Be cause of the existence of the Act, they are now apt to give no extension to orders for possession. But, despite these teething troubles, I believe that we have got off to a fair start, and with co-operation all round and less back-biting and party politicking—this cuts right across party boundaries—the Act can and must be made to work.

10.16 p.m.

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

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) for giving us the opportunity to talk tonight about the working of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act—an Act which, if I may say so, reflects very positively the work he put in on it last Session. It is still early days. The Act has been in force only some six months. It is bound to take at least a little time to settle down, and, although I hope our comments will be helpful to the House and to the local authorities which have to work the Act, they cannot amount as yet to a proper review.

My impression, which I think is borne out by what has been said by the hon. Gentleman is that the Act has enabled quick and effective help to be given to many homeless people—and that is something we are all pleased about. Inevitably, there will be a few problems and these will attract publicity. But I do not want to lose the general perspective. The Act had all-party support and was designed to provide a proper framework for meeting the acute housing needs of the most vulnerable sections of the community. This surely is a real step forward in social policy.

I said during the passage of the Bill that we would be keeping a close watch on how it worked out in practice. To this end, the Department's system of collecting statistics from local authorities has been revised by a working group with local authority representation. I am grateful to them for their work, and for the response by authorities, whose returns are coming in very well.

We hope soon to be able to bring together and publish a set of figures covering the whole of the first four months since the Act came into force, showing the numbers of households for whom authorities have secured accommodation and a number of other analyses.

To increase our understanding of homelessness, we have research projects in hand, including a follow-up study of families who have been homeless and a project on the single homeless, which will take account of the middle-aged single homeless. We shall be considering what further projects may be of value.

I have, of course, also seen the report by the charities on the implementation of the Act so far. I join with the hon. Member in congratulating them. It is an interesting report and I was impressed that it was produced so quickly. I think that it confirms my general impression that the Act has been of positive help, although it quite understandably highlights cases in which difficulties appear to have arisen. I was particularly glad to see that a number of authorities have been able to secure accommodation for homeless people who are not strictly speaking, in "priority need" as defined in the Act. I very much hope that all authorities will do all that they can to extend the help they give to the homeless as widely as possible.

But concern has been expressed tonight about the attitudes adopted towards their responsibilities under the Act by what seems, fortunately, to be a very small number of authorities, and particularly on the controversial issue of intentional homelessless. Our statistics, when we have them, will tell us more about the extent to which authorities are using these provisions, but the early indications available to me as I go around the country suggest, I am glad to say, that despite the publicity given to certain cases, few authorities are finding it necessary to confine the help they give to those in priority need strictly to the discharge of their duty to secure accommodation for a limited period only.

The House well knows the history of the Act's provisions on intentional homelessness. Perhaps the attitudes of some authorities serve to reinforce the importance that we attached—as did the hon. Member—to ensuring that there should be a basic statutory duty imposed on them. But, as I said during the Bill's passage, I believe that there can be no fully satisfactory substitute for a willingness on the part of individual housing authorities to adopt a sensitive and humane approach which takes the particular needs of homeless applicants as its starting point.

I suppose that there will always be a few applicants who may be attempting to abuse the system for their own advantage. However, each case must be dealt with humanely on its own merits. I share with the hon. Member his concern about some of the generalisations that have been made. Each case of homelessness is a sensitive matter and has to be considered as an individual case.

Blanket policies on what does and does not constitute intentional homelessness are inappropriate even at local level, and the Act clearly requires authorities to set down their reasons in writing in each case where they decide that an applicant is homeless intentionally. It is not for me or my colleagues to review the decisions that authorities reach in individual cases, nor is it helpful to look to the courts to solve each argument. But the statement of reasons will provide those involved in cases where they consider that mistakes have been made with a basis on which they can make their case to the authorities concerned.

Most importantly, as we said in the code of guidance, I very much hope that authorities will discharge their responsibilities in such a way that no one in priority need is denied some shelter.

Indeed, the Act requires that an authority secures that even in the case of the intentional homeless accommodation is available for a reasonable period to enable those in priority need to secure accommodation for themselves. Here again, I do not believe that one can lay down a definition of what constitutes a "reasonable period" in all cases. In each case the applicant's circumstances, the housing circumstances of the area and the efforts being made by the applicant on his or her own behalf must be taken into account.

I am, of course, aware of the arguments about the pressures on attractive areas and the difficulty regarding holiday lets, though I remember that in Committee we were advised from all sides that all areas were indeed attractive. The Act provides machinery which enables the duty to secure accommodation to be transferred in those cases in which an applicant has no local connection with the area of the authority to which he applies but does have a connection with the area of another authority. We have established arrangements under orders applying throughout Great Britain to cover disputes between authorities in such cases, and this procedure seems to be working satisfactorily.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I think that this is a very relevant point. There will be pressure within the local authorities to get the Association of District Councils to agree to an extension of the six-month rule, which the councils have actually fixed between themselves, to 12 months. I am not sure that I really want to see that happen, but it is something that we must take on board. It could happen that people will take holiday lets in, say, September through to the following May. They would then qualify. This will lead to problems. Therefore, it is something at which we ought to be looking. I accept that it is a problem.

Mr. Armstrong

As the hon. Member knows, we had very helpful discussions with local authorities and with charities about the Bill, and we particularly discussed this provision with the authorities. We gave an assurance that when we had experience of the Act in operation we would be very willing to go into further discussions. That is why I am saying that it really is early days to come to any great conclusions. We shall have to wait until we have analysed the returns that are now coming in.

The Act defines a "local connection" in terms of normal residence, employment, family associations or other special circumstances. This definition closely follows the discussion in this House and the views expressed here and elsewhere. It was agreed that an authority should not be able to avoid responsibility for those who had a proper local connection with their area. It does not seem unreasonable that the authority should discharge such a responsibility in the case of those, for example, who work in the town and support the economy. But the concern emerging now appears to be that some people move about the country and claim a local connection only because they have been able to secure a holiday letting. In due course we shall be discussing the working of the Act with the local authority associations, and I have little doubt that this is one of the areas we shall find ourselves discussing. I would only say at this stage that we really must avoid reverting to a situation in which people can be shunted about the country while authorities argue about responsibility. I do not think that that is what the associations or the authorities concerned have in mind, but I stress the need to keep consideration of this issue in the wider context of the working of the Act as a whole.

I must not let this occasion pass without paying tribute to the positive way in which the vast majority of local authorities have implemented the Act. We have now made sure that homelessness is dealt with by housing authorities and not social services authorities, although we need the co-operation of both. I think that even the critics of the Act agree that this is as it should be. In many areas the transition had, of course, already taken place before the Act. In others the change has been more sudden and we need to wait a little before reaching a firm judgment about the Act's operation after so short a period.

The reply to the query about voluntary bodies is that the Secretary of State has received four applications for Section 13 grants, and so far £92,000 has been offered.

I know, of course, that some authorities are still concerned about the effect of the Act on resources, and the hon. Gentleman mentioned rural areas. While, as I said during the passage of the Act, in national terms there should be no overall increase in public expenditure, I accept that the effects at local level are bound to differ. We have said that homelessness is one of the factors we will take into account in the distribution of available capital expenditure for housing.

It remains our firm intention to respond to the best of our ability to all housing need wherever it exists, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall be paying very careful attention to the claims of all areas, whether rural or not.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned possible underspending on housing programmes. I and my colleagues took measures in the latter part of the last financial year to reduce underspending to a minimum. For the current year, we have been urging authorities to press ahead with their agreed programmes. Only yesterday we issued a new circular to local authorities on housing investment programmes which reaffirms this advice. It goes on to invite authorities which encounter difficulties later in the year in carrying out agreed programmes within their original allocation to discuss their difficulties with the Department's regional offices.

It is important to take a balanced view. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments, I know his great concern and I share it. Homelessness is the most acute form of need. I am delighted that we have taken this great step forward to cater for those who find themselves in such desperate need. We were bound to have teething troubles. We keep these matters under constant review. When we have the analysis—we are working on it as quickly as we can—we shall discuss with those concerned, particularly the housing authorities, some of the problems that have been raised tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.