HC Deb 29 February 1980 vol 979 cc1812-24

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

2.37 pm
Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

I wish to make clear at the beginning of this debate on the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 that nothing that I say is intended to deflect local authorities from doing their best to help those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves homeless and in genuine need of assistance.

The burden of my speech is that the present Act is working badly and that while it was passed into law with the best of intentions, good intentions—unless accompanied by careful thought—can lead to bad law and on this occasion have done so. The consequences in some parts of London have been disastrous to many deserving families.

If quote mainly from the example of my borough of Wandsworth, I hope that I shall be forgiven. Many of the points that and my hon. Friends will seek to raise will show that the picture in Wandsworth is substantially that to be seen across the whole of London.

The first malignant effect of the Act in Wandsworth has been to signal the end of the housing list system. There are nearly 8,000 people on the waiting list in Wandsworth, and many of those have waited patiently for a long time for accommodation to be offered to them. The truth is that they have little or no chance of getting that accommodation because of the artificial priorities created by the Act, which have dictated the policies of the council on allocation.

In 1979, 1,500 properties in Wandsworth became available for letting. Of those, the council was obliged to give 1,300 to people who were classed as having priority under the Act. The question is whether they are more deserving than those who are prevented from having accommodation by the artificial priorities of the Act. Some two-thirds of those people gave domestic disputes as their reason for being homeless. Many of them were single-parent families. Sixty per cent. of them were under the age of 24. Twenty per cent. were under the age of 20. Many of them were girls who were pregnant or had young babies and who had left accommodation, where they were not overcrowded, because of disputes with their parents and probably because of a desire to live on their own, with or without cohabitants.

Under the Act, they have an absolute right to be rehoused. The question that we should be asking ourselves is whether this vast amount of local authority resources should be devoted to helping that section of the community almost to the exclusion of others.

Having pregnancy as a criterion for allocating a flat surely is an invitation to the irresponsible. In effect, that is what is being said to a young couple who years ago may have waited patiently with their name on a housing list to get a home and then waited a few more years before starting a family. Couples in that position now have no chance of getting accommodation in Wandsworth and certain other boroughs. What is being said to girls in that position is "Get pregnant, and you will get a home."

People are playing the system in a way which is described graphically in one case which is well documented in the archives of Wandsworth town hall. A girl went to the council with a certificate from her doctor to the effect that she was pregnant. She then had an abortion. She went back to the town hall with a cushion strapped round her waist and tried to persuade officials that she was still pregnant and should have a home. Conduct of that kind is being encouraged by the Act, just as people are being encouraged to be disruptive in accommodation in the private sector in order that the landlord will take action against them.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mellor

No. This is a timed debate as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Private landlords are saying to me at my advice centre that people are trying to be disruptive in order to be evicted so that they have to be rehoused by the council.

I turn to the subject of previous residence. It was bad enough when the Act was thought to provide that there had to be at least some prior contact with the borough in which the person concerned was claiming accommodation. That meant that squatters who had broken into accommodation could still obtain priority under the Act when they were evicted. But now the Divisional Court tells us that no contact even with the country is necessary. I suggest that this places an intolerable burden on those housing authorities in London which have to bear the brunt of these matters. I suspect that two of my hon. Friends who represent the borough of Hillingdon will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to make that point.

I turn to the problem of intentional homelessness. That is not well defined in the Act. But even where intentional homelessness is established there is still an obligation on the council to provide bed and breakfast accommodation for a reasonable period for those who are, and have made themselves, intentionally homeless, at a cost to the ratepayer in a difficult financial time of up to £100 a week.

The social effects of the Act in Wandsworth are quite serious. Not only is there the frustration of those on the waiting list; not only is there the incentive to be irresponsible and start a family merely to get a flat—

Mr. Soley

Will the hon. Gentleman now give way?

Mr. Mellor

I have already said that I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He knows the position in an Adjournment debate.

Forty to 45 per cent. of new allocations in certain estates in my constituency are being given to single-parent families, to such an extent that even social workers are concerned about the implications for the district that this involves.

It is not true to say, and I do not say, that every single-parent family is undeserving of assistance. However, many single-parent families are not as deserving of assistance as many others are. What is more, a high aggregation of single-parent families in an area can lead to social problems, including anti-social behaviour which leads long-established residents in tower blocks in my constituency to come in a steady stream to councillors and to my advice centre say-that a pleasant environment on an estate has been disrupted by the advent of these people. Life is made even worse for those long-established residents when they know that their own sons and daughters cannot be granted the accommodation that they require and have instead to move and live a long way away.

I wish to conclude so that certain of my hon. Friends can take part in the debate. It can easily be said that anyone who attacks a matter such as this lacks compassion. But I do not think that such a charge would be fair. I have compassion, but for a much broader category of people than the category favoured by the Act. Many of those who have claimed to be deserving of compassion, and who have obtained the assistance of the Act, do not deserve it half as much as some others who are being cheated of what would otherwise be their rights by this wholly artificial priority.

I do not think that it was the intention of the sponsor of the Act, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), whom I am glad to see in his place, that even to a limited extent it should become a charter for the irresponsible and feckless. However, in parts of London it has become so, and something must be done about it.

2.46 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip—Northwood)

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) has done the House a great service in bringing this matter to its attention. I merely want to touch on one aspect of the legislation which is having pernicious effects. That concerns the responsibility which is at present incumbent upon local authorities which have ports of entry within their boundaries. These local authorities are at present required to house homeless people who come in from overseas. Having to do so means not only that they are spending resources which should properly be devoted to those in housing need in their areas but also that those in housing need in their areas find that they cannot obtain accommodation, although they may have been on the waiting list for a considerable time.

On two occasions I have written to Ministers. At the end of last year I wrote to the Minister for Housing and Construction and I also wrote to the Minister of State, Home Office. My local authority of Hillingdon has raised the matter with the Government. It is urgent that something should be done to rectify something which is bringing this legislation, which is good in intention, into serious disrepute.

2.47 pm
Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

In rising to support what my hon. Friends have said, I should like to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment the fact that this problem relates only to a tiny number of boroughs, many of which are concentrated in Greater London. Of the 33 local authorities in Greater London, 14 accommodate no people under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act and six accommodate fewer than 10. That makes a total of 20 out of 33 which effectively have no problem at all. But for other Greater London boroughs this is a serious problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) mentioned the pressures for the Hillingdon borough because it has London airport within its boundary. Hammersmith and Fulham fall within my constituency, and, whereas Hillingdon has between 70 and 80 families in bed and breakfast accommodation, Hammersmith and Fulham have 233.

Mr. Soley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stevens

No, I will not. As a result, the ratepayer pays a 3p in the pound rate. In the coming year, more than £1 million will be spent on bed and breakfast accommodation alone, and the number of people with which Hammersmith and Fulham must cope under the Act is more than the total number of council allocations for the coming year.

I am not asking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make material alterations in the Act. All I am asking is that he takes powers under the Housing Act to exempt certain boroughs—it would probably not be more than a dozen throughout the country as a whole—from all or some of the effects of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. He does not have to exempt them for ever. He can exempt them for a fixed period, and he need only do so after a close examination of the facts in respect of each borough.

We cannot expect primary legislation to be introduced on this subject, but I ask my right hon. Friend to take the power that I have suggested so that at his leisure, and with fairness to all, he can consider the figures which the London Boroughs Association produced in January. For example, he could consider the figures in regard to Hammersmith and Fulham. If he thinks that it is fair and right, he should give some relief so that people who are on the housing waiting list, in many cases for 10 or 20 years, have a fair crack of the whip compared with those who have never set foot in the borough.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I support what has been said by my hon. Friends. In the Second Reading debate on the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill on 18 February 1977, I said: I predict that if the Bill becomes law there will be a vast increase in the number 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."—[Official Report, 18 February 1977; Vol. 926, c. 929.] That is what has happened.

This morning I spoke to the housing manager of the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, which includes my constituency, Twickenham. He told me that since the Housing (Homeless) Persons Bill became law new lettings for homeless families had increased from about 10 per cent. to 26 per cent. of all the new lettings—an increase from 60 to 140 a year. Of that increment of 80, about three-quarters were young couples who had quarrelled with their parents, their parents-in-law or their friends with whom they were living.

In the old days they would have been sent back to their families, who would take them in. Now, they are told of their rights by Shelter and slim and other such bodies. They are often in collusion with their relatives or friends who turn them out—although that is difficult to prove. In the eyes of the law they are technically homeless families within the meaning of the Act. That is extremely unfair. They jump the housing queue, which is unfair to other young couples who are on the waiting list and who are often living in conditions which are as bad or worse. There needs to be some discretion by local housing authorities. I hope that the law can be amended.

2.52 pm
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) for allowing me to intervene. I believe that amendment of the Act is vital and urgent. My constituency of Uxbridge is situated in the London borough of Hillingdon. Heathrow airport is also situated in that borough. Local authorities which have a port of entry within their boundaries should be exempted from the provisions of the Act. Alternatively, the applicants for housing must have a local connection. They must become homeless within the area of the local authority concerned.

The housing of immigrants is a national problem, not simply a local problem. There is no way that I can explain to homeless young couples in my constituency who have lived there all their lives that Parliament has enacted a Bill that gives priority to a person from Ethiopia to have a local authority flat or house in advance of a person who has lived there all his life. That is obviously absurd, and it must be changed urgently.

I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) that Ministers should have power under the Act to exempt by order local authorities that have a housing need. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will also direct his attention to that possibility.

I mention those matters not simply because they are of grave concern to me and my colleagues in the London borough of Hillingdon, but they are also of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). In Ealing there is a serious problem of a similar character, generated by the proximity of the airport. Many of the people for whom Hillingdon is obliged to provide accommodation under the provisions of the Act are in bed and breakfast accommodation in Ealing.

There is no way in which a local authority, such as Hillingdon, with a vast port of entry within its boundaries can possibly implement the Act in a way which will enable it to be seen as fair and just by the indigenous population of the borough. It is vital that changes are made without further ado. We cannot have young people—my constituents—being denied homes because people from abroad are going into them.

I remind my hon. Friend that in Hillingdon, where we have a vigorous and progressive shared purchase scheme, there are young people who at this moment are queueing outside the Hillingdon civic centre for houses which will be placed on the market, under the shared purchase scheme, on 17 March. They are prepared to queue night and day in order to have a home. They will certainly not tolerate the continuation of a position that was, I am sure, never envisaged by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) when he introduced the Bill into the House of Commons.

I ask the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight and his hon. Friends, who sponsored the Bill with the best of intentions, whether they had ever contemplated the kinds of problems that we experience because of the presence of Heathrow airport, the biggest airport in the world, generating an influx of immigrants, placing us in an intolerable position.

I hope that when my hon. Friend replies to the debate he will be able to give us some encouragement that urgent remedy is on the way.

2.56 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) for initiating the debate and providing an opportunity to talk today about the operation of the Act in London.

I ought perhaps to say that it is a subject with which I am somewhat familiar, because my own London borough of Camden has rather a high figure of acceptances. In the whole of Greater London it has the highest level of acceptances per 1,000 population. It is a subject, therefore, on which I feel deeply and which I understand.

The timing of the debate is opportune. As the House knows, the Government will shortly conclude a review of the working of the Act in the light of experience gained during the two years or so in which it has been in force. The principal voluntary organisations and the local authority associations have been asked for their views, and we have recently received the last invited contribution. We have also received comments from some individual authorities and from others.

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney and my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), Fulham (Mr. Stevens), Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), have all highlighted a number of important points. I shall see that they are carefully considered when we come to our conclusions.

Mr. Soley


Mr. Finsberg

With great respect, I am answering my hon. Friend the Member for Putney, who had the initiative to initiate the debate, but if I have time to give way to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) when I have finished my remarks, I shall do so with pleasure.

Against this background, however, I am sure that the House will understand if I do not respond in detail to all the points this afternoon. If I did that, it would be prejudging the outcome of the review before we have had a full chance to place in perspective the comments which have been made in the House today and to look at those in the light of what has been said to us by the voluntary bodies and by the local authority associations—and, indeed, by the individual local authorities.

Although I do not wish to say anything today that would prejudge the outcome of the review, there are a number of points to which I might offer a preliminary response, following what has been said this afternoon. There is the view, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Putney has shown considerable concern, that the Act enables homeless people to jump the queue, to the disadvantage of people patiently waiting their turn on the local housing waiting list. I confess that, from my own experience in Camden, I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend on this points at least, inasmuch as the local authority may suspect collusion. He has given one example and I have certainly heard of others. There have been cases where homelessness is claimed following a dispute with relatives or friends, as has already been said, but where the authority sometimes doubts the claim.

The Act requires authorities to make appropriate inquiries into the circumstances of each individual case and to satisfy itself whether those concerned are homeless. It appears to me, therefore—subject to any court decision—that if an authority is satisfied that collusion is involved, it may be entitled to conclude that those concerned are either not homeless or that, if they are, they are intentionally homeless.

I should like also to make some points about the right to access to council houses by households whose claims are not in question, as I am not certain that my hon. Friends took full account of them in giving their views on queue jumping.

First, waiting lists do not always necessarily provide a good index of housing needs. A substantial number of authorities do not even bother to vet their waiting lists or bring them up to date yet base their claims upon an inflated list. There are, for example, indications—known, I suspect, to almost every hon. Member in Greater London—that people on the waiting list refuse one or two offers of any properties offered to them in the normal course of events. In some areas the properties would be offered not to normal waiting list people but only to homeless people. Secondly, there is evidence that many homeless people are entitled to be on the waiting list, if, indeed, they are not already on it. Thirdly, there remain, even in London, a not insignificant number of empty local authority dwellings owned by authorities—such as Lambeth, Camden or Brent—which, unlike the GLC, refuse to operate homesteading for purely doctrinaire reasons. They prefer to let the houses rot, knowing that the public will pick up the tab.

I reiterate: I am talking here about homeless people whose need for accommodation is urgent and the authenticity of whose claim is not in doubt; and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney made it clear that that was not the section that he was attacking. In this wider context it does not seem entirely unfair that authorities should be asked to meet some of the most acute and genuine housing need from their stock. However, I must add that the Act does not require authorities to provide council accommodation in every case. The code of guidance outlines a range of options, and authorities have discretion to decide the appropriate housing solution in each individual case.

A few authorities in London have made representations about their responsibilities under the Act towards homeless immigrants. I have met a deputation from Westminster city council during which this point was raised. We have been in contact with the London borough of Hillingdon and I am shortly to receive a deputation led by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge.

The general question about the application of the Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, was also raised with my Department both by my hon. Friend and by the local authority associations. Following consultations with both the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my Department has been able to give the associations some clarification which I hope will be helpful.

I should stress that it is clear from the returns sent to us by authorities that arrivals from overseas form a small proportion of the total number accepted under the Act, although I recognise that those areas where there are airports—or, indeed, in Camden, where there are three railway termini—suffer from particular problems.

The statistics show interesting variations between London boroughs. Some have accepted relatively few homeless people and yet nevertheless use bed and breakfast. Others have a larger number of acceptances but have managed to avoid the use of bed and breakfast altogether.

The last specific point I want to make is to deal with the vexed question of rent arrears. It is important to clarify this issue. The Act requires authorities to make appropriate inquiries in the circumstances of each application to be treated as homeless. In cases where the applicant is already known to the authority because of a history of rent arrears, I would not expect these inquiries to take long. The code of guidance states that a person who has lost his home because of wilful and persistent refusal to pay rent would in most cases be regarded as having become homeless intentionally. Any obligation on the authority to secure accommodation of some kind is therefore clearly limited. It extends only to the period that the authority considers will provide those concerned with a reasonable opportunity to secure accommodation themselves.

However, I have not overlooked the fact—none of us who have served in local government could—that a dilemma may still confront an authority once any such duty has been discharged, especially if the applicant has not succeeded in finding somewhere else to live and dependent children are involved. The alternatives, which may include taking them into care, could be very expensive and unsatisfactory. Clearly, the authority needs to consider this when coming to a conclusion.

This strikes me as an intractable problem and I assure hon. Members that we will be giving it attention in an attempt to find an answer that combines the need for a humane solution with proper safeguards against deliberate exploitation and sponging.

I return to the point I made at the outset. It is essential that a balanced view is taken and that we do not lose sight of the general perspective. As has been said, there were bound to be problems with this Act, as, indeed, there are with almost all new pieces of legislation. I am indebted to my hon. Friends for their comments. I assure them that we shall keep them very much in mind in considering the conclusions to be drawn from our review.

Let me give the House a couple of other figures which I think it will find interesting. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney was talking about the problems that the housing of homeless people had caused in relation to waiting list applications. In the first half of 1979, the London borough of Wandsworth accepted 606 homeless households. That was the highest figure in inner London, followed very closely by the London borough of Camden with 600. With its 606 acceptances, Wandsworth has put 105 into bed and breakfast, whereas Camden, with 600 acceptances, had put only 83 into bed and breakfast.

The acceptances per thousand households are even more interesting. Let me take the boroughs that have been mentioned, and first the London borough of Wandsworth, where 5.5 was the figure of acceptances per thousand households. In Hillingdon the figure was 1.6, and the Hillingdon figure of 128 families is about half of the figure for outer London in individual boroughs. The total in outer London in the first six months of acceptances was 3,341 families, with an inner London total of 4,659 families. We are looking at those figures very carefully, because I want to be in a position to announce as soon as possible just what our intentions are about the Act.

Mr. Jessel

Will my hon. Friend indicate what the position would be if a local authority suspected collusion between someone purporting to be homeless and someone purporting to evict him, if that could not be proved? Would the local authority have to house the family?

Mr. Firtsberg

The position is that if the local authority suspected that, it would have a duty to investigate and to come to a conclusion, and I should have thought that if its conclusion were based upon reason it would be very difficult for any impartial organisation, or, indeed, for any Ministry, to say that a conclusion reached in a reasonable fashion was going to be one that was unreasonably held, or—

The Question having been proposed after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Three o'clock.