HC Deb 14 December 1984 vol 69 cc1323-81 9.47 am
Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

I beg to move, That this House, in view of the appalling conditions, harassment, exploitation and high fire risks in houses of multiple occupation, calls upon the Government to introduce legislation to regulate conditions and charges in such houses; further to make single payments available for all claimants obtaining unfurnished accommodation; to review its latest proposals for board and lodgings payments; and to increase the provision of secure rented accommodation by local authorities and housing associations.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to initiate a debate on a subject which concerns all hon. Members. During the past five years there has been a sustained increase in the number of people who are forced to use board and lodging houses. In 1979 all or part of the boarding charges for 41,000 households were paid for by supplementary benefit. The number had risen to 139,000 by 1984, according to official Department of Health and Social Security figures.

Today I shall demonstrate the need to introduce legislation to regulate conditions and charges in houses of multiple occupation which I shall refer to as HMOs. I shall deal in particular with harassment—young women being pressurised to provide sexual gratification to landlords in exchange for rent reductions; exploitation—residents are sometimes forced to sign over their benefit giros to management under threat of assault; fire risk—there are 10 times more chances of being in a fire in an HMO than in self-contained accommodation; conditions — which can be bad physically; and the food provided. I shall also comment on the furniture grant system and the Government's recent proposals being considered by the Social Security Advisory Committee.

First, I shall deal with the conditions that prevail in many boarding houses which can be classified as HMOs. The Institute of Environmental Health Officers estimates that about 85 per cent. of HMOs in England and Wales fall well below the minimum housing standards, as laid down by various Acts. From my local knowledge, I know that much boarding accommodation is used by unemployed people and is characterised by damp bedrooms, inadequate heating, overcrowded washing facilities and the enforced sharing of rooms with strangers, sometimes even with members of the opposite sex. There is inadequate maintenance which constitutes a health and safety hazard, with cases of bad wiring, broken windows and defective plasterwork. There are examples of poor quality food provided by the owners, and, in general, poor maintenance standards.

A report on Newcastle HMOs was published in April this year by an organisation in my area. Its authors included local authority representatives. The report gave the views of 62 residents of 13 establishements within the DHSS board and lodging limit. According to the report, half the residents complained of damp bedrooms, and more than half found the rooms too cold. Only one in five had exclusive use of a hand basin, and some residents had to share a bathroom with between 10 and 20 others. One resident in four compained about the food. They complained of tiny quantities and in some cases of food poisoning. Some so-called hotels did not even provide food, and, although full hotel services were charged for, the residents had to wash their own bed linen. Another factor of great concern is the lack of fire precautions in such places. According to the latest figures from official Government sources, 600 people were killed in fires in HMOs between 1978 and 1982. Residents in such accommodation are 10 times more likely to die or to be seriously injured than people living in self-contained accommodation.

Three weeks ago, on 20 November, there was a fire at a bed-and-breakfast establishment in Camden owned by a company called London Lets, the proprietor of which is Mr. J. Doniger. On 3 December, Salman Rushdie, an author of some renown, wrote an article in The Guardian in which he described the situation in the house at the time of the fire: When it started, no alarm rang. It had been switched off. The fire extingishers were empty. The fire exits were blocked. It was night time but the stairs were in darkness because there were no bulbs in the lighting sockets. And in the single, cramped top floor room, where the cooker was next to the bed, Mrs. Abdul Karim. a Bangladeshi woman, and her 5 year old son and 3 year old daughter died of suffocation. All hon. Members would agree that the conditions were disgraceful and outrageous, yet a local councillor has estimated that the cost of housing such a family in that accommodation was £280 a week. As Mr. Rushdie commented, death traps are not always economical.

I am critical of the Secretary of State for the Environment for not adding to the statutory order requiring all local authorities to inspect all HMOs with three or more storeys and a gross floor space of more than 500 sq m. Only 2 per cent. of HMOs are of that type. The majority of those who have died in fires were living in smaller establishments.

Chris Holmes, the respected director of the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless, told Nick Fielding in an article in London Housing: The fire at Glouscester Place tragically shows the need for there to be a legal duty on local authorities to inspect this kind of property. If an HMO Act had existed that family need not have died". In September 1983 the DOE asked local authority associations and others whether the existing minimum protection should be extended. However, as late as July 1984, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who I am glad to see in his place, said: The implications of any extension in the scope of the existing order are receiving careful study. My right hon. Friend will make a statement as soon as this is completed."—[Official Report, 11 July 1984; Vol. 63, c. 539.] That statement is long overdue. It is urgently needed. I ask the Minister to urge his right hon. Friend to make a statement to the House in early 1985, because the Under-Secretary informed my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) in January 1984 that consultation had been completed.

The consultation, therefore, had been completed a year ago. I have a catalogue of replies to letters and parliamentary questions which record the way in which the matter has been continually delayed throughout 1984.

The Government should also introduce legislation on conditions in multi-occupied housing, because there is clear evidence of the failure of the bewildering array of housing and public health Acts and circulars to make any significant impact on conditions in such accommodation. For example, in 1982, on an estimated 145,000 substandard HMOs, local authorities served only 627 repair notices, 1,414 notices about basic amenities, 651 closing orders and about 4,000 management orders. Only in 17 cases did the local authorities take control of HMOs because the health, safety and welfare of residents were at risk.

In June this year, a major report by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers revealed: Few local authorities throughout the country have a comprehensive approach … or even a coherent policy". It is clear that existing legislation is inadequate and ineffectual in requiring local authorities to maintain proper standards in HMOs. However, the Government still insist that there is no need for new legislation. They consistently failed to support the HMO Bill that was before the House at the time of the general election.

Residents of HMOs suffer harassment and financial exploitation. Through my contacts with residents in board and lodging accommodation in the north-east and with the agencies concerned with their circumstances, I can vouch for the existence of systematic harassment of residents by landlords in many establishments. Residents are forced to hand over their benefit giros for cashing by the management, under threat of assault. Landlords' "heavies" wait at offices to catch residents receiving personal issue giros and ensure that the giros are signed over to the management. Residents are threatened or assaulted for complaining about standards of food.

Especially disturbing is the evidence of sexual harassment of women residents by landlords. Pressure is put on women to provide sexual gratification for landlords in return for rent reductions or in lieu of eviction when benefit giros are delayed.

These occurrences are not hearsay. I am aware of sworn affidavits from residents supporting such allegations, and I have been supplied with written and signed statements by other residents. I shall not apologise to hon. Members for reading extracts from three such statements. The first statement is from Mr. C: Whilst I was resident in a b & b establishment in Newcastle, I saw first hand how the landlord would physically hurt some of his tenants and how he sexually harassed some of the female residents by way of suggestions of other ways to pay the rent. There is also a statement from a young female whom I shall call Miss X: When I moved to an annex I thought I would be safe because there were other young girls living there. I soon found out that the owner was coming to see these girls who had a special arrangement with the owner, one girl was short of money and was foolish to borrow money from him which she could not afford to pay back. The only way to pay him was on one or two visits a week from him. She used to hide in my room or run out the back door when the owner was visiting the building. He offered me a loan. When I said no, he offered me enough money to see me through till my giro came. For this he told me I had only had to use my hand to satisfy his needs. I objected to this, and when I knew he was visiting I used to lock my door, or go out.

My final quotation on this subject is a statement by someone to whom I shall refer as Mr. B. He said: I have seen a bed covered in excrement and soaking wet, and the landlord's remarks were, 'turn it over—they won't know'. If you were lucky enough to get good sheets you hung onto them like they were gold. You took them to the laundry and cleaned them yourself. You would not dare to complain as the landlord would put you onto the street, or his bullyboy mate would call to see you late at night and he had keys to get into any room or building that he wants to get into. Young girls would run out the back door or hide in the wardrobes when the landlord called as he always 'had something to discuss with them'. But I could go on for hours about the things that go on in these bed and breakfast establishments. People go into these places as a stepping stone to their own house or flat and they end up in prison. I was lucky, I escaped!

I hope that the House found those accounts as harrowing to hear as I did to read them. They are representative of the evidence that I have been given in preparation for the debate. They are not exaggerated and I assure the House that, given time, I could have read or mentioned much more harrowing events.

It is regrettable that residents in such accommodation have virtually no security of tenure and no redress against such harrassment. I should like to pay tribute to Newcastle city council which is so worried about what is happening in its area that it has guaranteed that any resident who is evicted for complaining or campaigning about conditions will be rehoused.

I shall now consider costs. Board and lodging provides a lucrative business for landlords who have cashed in on the growing homelessness. DHSS expenditure on keeping people in such accommodation has soared recently. In 1979, about £52 million was spent each year and the predicted sum for 1984 is £380 million. It might rise even higher. Such expenditure cannot be equated with any notion of value for money, bearing in mind the conditions that residents have to endure. Such expenditure guarantees the wealth of landlords, however. One Newcastle landlord is estimated to have a gross annual income of £160,000 a year from six properties. According to a competent group of researchers in the north-east, that is by no means exceptional.

I am worried about the Government's proposal to curb expenditure. The current proposals which are with the Social Security Advisory Committee will do nothing to prevent harrassment, nothing to reduce profiteering and nothing to improve conditions in HMOs. On 29 November, the Secretary of State issued a paper, the theme of which was that expenditure needed to be brought under control. During 1983, there was a massive increase in expenditure from about £200 million to £380 million a year. If my figures are not quite what the Government think they are, I am sure that the Minister will correct me. I understand that the cost is projected to increase by a further 125 per cent. during 1984–85. That would take the total to more than £500 million. If the new arrangements are brought into operation on 1 April 1985, Shelter—another highly respected pressure group—predicts that there will be more homeless people on the streets.

It is interesting that we are discussing this topic on the eve of Christmas. The slogan "Crisis at Christmas" is deeply relevant to the people who live in the type of acommodation of which I am speaking. They have virtually no security of tenure and some of them may find themselves on the streets during Christmas. It is certain that, unless the Secretary of State modifies his proposals, many people will suffer dire and serious consequences.

I shall not read all the Secretary of State's proposals but shall select a few that will have a serious effect. One is his proposal to limit benefit ceilings of £60 to £70 a week in London and £50 to £60 outside London. That would cut the amount of benefit received without there being any effect on the charge made for accommodation by rent regulations. Few landlords will drop their charges, so residents will be forced to pay rent out of their meal and personal allowance or move to cheaper accommodation, if such a thing is available. If they can find such accommodation, I have no doubt that it will be even more inferior. The choice could be between starving or moving. Some people might have to do both.

The DHSS's proposal states that the new limits may mean that, in some expensive places such as central London, claimants will have to accept only basic shared accommodation or live in cheaper areas. However, if residents look for accommodation elsewhere, they will quickly cease to receive any benefit, because the Government propose to limit board and lodging payments for people who move to accommodation outside their local DHSS office area, after two or four weeks. After that time, benefit will not be paid. We are all anxious about young people in these difficult social and economic times and yet they are to be especially penalised by the proposals. To 16 and 17-year-olds in boarding accommodation, the Government propose to pay only the non-householder rate of benefit, which will inevitably be less than the charge made. It is about £17. I am pleased to see the Minister for Housing and Construction nodding agreement.

If introduced, the proposals will have several effects. First, by reducing the amounts payable for lodgings, they will force claimants into worse accommodation. Overcrowding will therefore be increased and the availability of better quality accommodation will be drastically reduced. The already critical problem of residents in boarding accommodation will be made even worse. Secondly, people will be forced to move but if they move into another DHSS office area—there are several such areas in many towns and cities — they will be entitled to benefit for an extremely short time. Presumably they will then be forced penniless on to the streets. I cannot believe that even the present Government have that intention.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I understand that hostels and night shelters are not exempt from the limits and that some may have to close down because of the reduction in incomes from residents. The Government have encouraged housing associations to enter agreements with local voluntary organisations to set up hostel projects for homeless people. Many such projects in Wales, for example, will not be able to continue if the proposals are implemented. I ask the Government to re-examine that matter—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. I hope that the hon. Lady will be brief—this is an intervention.

Mrs. Clwyd

Perhaps my hon. Friend will ask the Government to re-examine the proposal. Some local authorities such as Swansea city council are to be congratulated on enforcing limits on houses in multiple occupation from 1 January. It is to impose heavy penalties for infringements.

Mr. Boyes

I note what my hon. Friend has said and applaud what Swansea city council has done. I hope that many other authorities will follow its lead.

What I cannot understand is that young people have been singled out for especially harsh treatment. The proposal to pay them even less than the proposed reduced maximum will mean that 16 and 17-year-olds will not be able to use boarding accommodation, despite the lack of alternatives.

In their obsessive pursuit of public expenditure cuts, the Government have either failed to recognise the dramatic social effects of the proposals or are callously ignoring them. I estimate that about 50,000 claimants are likely to be affected by the proposals and forced to live in dangerous and squalid conditions. That can only increase the already serious threat of death or injury from fire, or make them homeless and penniless. If ever there was a charter for a return to conditions experienced by the poor in Victorian times, the Secretary of State has produced it.

I ask the Government seriously to consider the consequences of the proposals that they will seek to introduce early in 1985. I do not think that they have thought out what will happen to our youngsters if the proposals become law.

I object to the notion that is perpetrated that some people are scroungers. The notion that thousands of people, especially youngsters, are living the good life in boarding accommodation at taxpayers' expense underlies the announcement. That is not so. Given the conditions and insecurity and harassment in such accommodation, it is clear that people do not choose to live in it. They are forced to live in it because of a lack of alternatives. They are not happy in it. Hon. Members may be aware of the occupation of Camden town hall by residents of the boarding house to which I referred earlier. They are demanding decent, self-contained housing where they can live normal independent lives. They are calling on the council to empty the boarding houses within six months. To judge by the support and encouragement that they have received for their campaign, they are not alone in that demand.

The Government are well aware of people's views. On Channel 4 in February the Minister for Housing and Construction said of boarding accommodation: It is very expensive, on the whole people don't like it and it's much more economical that people should be in houses or flats or in hostels specially designed for the homeless than it this kind of bed and breakfast accommodation. If the Minister is correct, why are people forced to accept such accommodation? It is too simplistic to make judgments in terms of abuse and exploitation of the system by young people, as Conservative Members have suggested.

Shelter suggests that the following three points should be considered. First, no mention is made of the impact of youth or adult unemployment on the cohesion of the family. Secondly, no mention is made of the impact of the cutting of the housing addition of £3.10 from the weekly benefit of unemployed young people living in their parent's homes. Thirdly, no mention is made of the effects of denying furniture grants to young people who may be able to acquire a district council or housing association tenancy.

The rule that requires claimants to take suitable furnished accommodation where it is available has forced many young people into board and lodging accommodation. In the long term that is extremely expensive for the DHSS. That seems to fly in the face of Conservative party philosophy.

Homelessness among young people has reached crisis proportions in small towns, cities and conurbations. It is not the result of a rapid growth in the attraction of young people to the so-called bright lights of large cities. In many instances they have been forced to leave home because of the breakdown of relationships with parents. It is no coincidence that that has arisen at a time of record unemployment.

The chairman of housing in Newcastle—priority is given to housing all homeless 16 and 17-year-olds—was reported in the Evening Chronicle of 26 November as saying: These are not runaways with comfortable homes to return to, but are the casualties of the increasing economic pressures on many families, particularly in this region. There is not one mention of the concept of value for money in the Secretary of State's statement. It is vital for people who live in such accommodation that charges should relate to standards. We are seeking legislation about that.

Many hon. Members are worried about the refusal of the DHSS to make furniture grants available to single people and childless couples moving into unfurnished council houses. Despite dwindling housing resources, some local authorities are attempting to meet the housing needs of residents of boarding houses, but those laudable intentions are being effectively torpedoed by the regulations governing single payments for furniture and household equipment.

Whereas the entitlement to such payments for claimants who are pensioners, sick, or disabled, who have dependent children or who are pregnant, is based on the need for furniture, there are further conditions for single people and childless couples. They must already have been receiving supplementary benefit for six months, and they must also show that there is no suitable alternative furnished accommodation available. That involves obtaining as many as 15 refusals of such accommodation from landlords.

In addition, because the regulations and policy guidance instructions are so complex and tortuous, it is almost impossible for claimants to know whether they qualify. There is evidence from advice centres that many claimants who are entitled to payments receive them only after substantial negotiation and with assistance from advisers and Members of Parliament.

In numerous cases board and lodging accommodation is regarded by the DHSS as being a suitable alternative, despite its insecurity and often appalling conditions. In other instances the homes of parents, friends and relatives where the claimant has been staying are regarded as suitable, even if the claimant has been asked to leave or has been thrown out. That is totally unwarranted discrimination against single people and childless couples. It fails to acknowledge that they have genuine housing needs and no means of providing themselves with furniture.

In many areas the offer of unfurnished accommodation is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of the acute shortage of such housing. To be unable to take up a tenancy because of the refusal of a payment for furniture is devastating. It is ironic in the light of the Government's concern about the increasing use of board and lodging accommodation by supplementary benefit claimants that the provisions governing single payments for furniture force many claimants into board and lodging houses. The Government, I am sure, will see the logic of that argument. It does not make economic sense.

Calculations made in the north-east of England show that the DHSS will pay £3,900 a year to keep a single person in boarding accommodation at the current local maximum, as against £2,433 a year for an average council flat, which would mean a saving of £1,500 per person a year. If a grant of £400 a year for furniture was made to enable a person to move into unfurnished accommodation, which he or she will clearly want, the DHSS would still save money and enable that person to live a normal life.

It would even be cheaper to build council houses. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment stated in a written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) that the average cost of providing a one-bedroom council flat was less than £17 a week, including subsidy. That is far less than the average board and lodging payment for a single person.

I submit that Government policies are forcing many thousands of people to live in squalid and dangerous conditions — against their will — in which many are likely to die. The profits accruing to landlords represent a misuse of public funds that should be put towards providing housing for rent and grants to assist those on benefit to furnish their accommodation.

I therefore call upon the Government immediately to announce an extension of the fire precaution regulations under schedule 24 of the Housing Act 1980 to all houses in multiple occupation; to introduce legislation to control standards in such housing as provided in the Housing (Houses in Multiple Occupation) Bill 1983; to withdraw recently announced proposals to restrict payments for board and lodgings; to provide furniture grants according to the needs of those on benefits to enable them to furnish newly acquired accommodation; and to amend the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 to afford rights to permanent housing for those single people and childless couples currently excluded from its provisions.

I share the Government's anxiety about board and lodging payments — they line the pockets of a new generation of slum landlords. If real progress is to be made, the cause not the symptoms must be tackled. The system must be amended, not its victims punished even more.

The programme that I have outlined represents a cost-effective and socially responsible response to squalor and exploitation. The Government's response will show whether they seriously want to tackle the problem or simply to continue to increase the misery of those who have no option.

I wish to pay tribute to all those voluntary organisations such as CHAR, Shelter and Single Homeless on Tyneside in Newcastle and others in many parts of the country which are asking the Government to improve the living standards of young people living in such homes. Although I have not mentioned all the organisations by name, I assure them that their views and the documentation that I have received in preparation for this debate have been taken into account. I and my colleagues shall continue to press the Government until the living standards and accommodation that homeless people are entitled to and deserve have been achieved.

10.22 am
Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

The House should express its thanks to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) for introducing this motion. It includes within it a number of aspects of the problems which are of great interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of cases which should worry us. I am sure that if the evidence is available the people involved will be punished. However, when he has heard what I have to say it will remain to be seen whether he will say that he is pleased that he raised the subject.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's motion has arisen out of a move by the Government, which I strongly welcome, to change the present procedure. I thank all the Ministers who have responded quickly to the anxiety which has been expressed in various parts of the country.

I pay tribute to various people in my constituency, who were among the first to bring this matter to light. It subsequently featured fairly loudly in the press. The people to whom I am referring include members of the chamber of commerce, the local council, the district council, the police, local officers of the DHSS and various others who have co-operated by providing figures and information about what has been going on.

Newquay is an extremely attractive, well-known tourist centre, to which many people from all over the country go on holiday. It has attracted an unfortunate element to it, and also publicity arising from the board and lodging allowances. Being highly tourist-oriented, my constituency has a number of establishments which in recent years have gone over to the care of the elderly who are in receipt of supplementary benefit for their board and lodging.

I shall seek to touch on the development of the process which has brought us to the present state of affairs and then to comment more specifically on the proposals which the Government have laid before the House and upon which they seek consultation.

I regret to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that, having thought about the matter deeply and analysed the problem, I am fearful that the Government's proposals will not achieve the results that he hopes, and I urge further changes.

In 1982 the board and lodging allowance for unemployed people and those receiving residential care in nursing homes amounted to £205 million. That figure rose in 1983 to £380 million. It is estimated that during the current year it will be £580 million, of which £380 million goes to those receiving board and lodging allowance.

I congratulate my hon. Friends at the Department of Health and Social Services making it plain that they do not intend to push elderly, disabled or handicapped people out of nursing homes. That would be wrong and reprehensible, but when one considers the present system, it is evident that drastic changes are necessary.

Under the supplementary benefit system, the cost of board, lodging and meals is paid, and there is an extra personal allowance for clothing. In 1983 it became plain that the locally fixed arrangements were getting out of hand, and in November 1983 local DHSS offices were asked to fix maxima for their areas.

I shall cite Newquay as an example. Hon Members on both sides of the House may recall that national publicity was attracted to the fact that many young people were coming from the north-west to take up board and lodging in Newquay and were able to occupy premises there and greatly enhance the amount that they could obtain on benefit. Stories were reported of people coming to Newquay and instead of being able to claim £26.80 as a single person living in accommodation with cooking facilities, they could claim £43.30 for board and lodging and an extra £8.85 for personal expenses. It hit the press that those people were living in that lovely town, not doing any work, and claiming those sums of money.

I responded to that publicity, and the various organisations that I have mentioned took the matter up with the Government. I must confess that I had not realised the circumstances which prevailed across the country. A national scandal has been exposed and the figures show that, far from Newquay being extravagant, the DHSS officials there are among the most frugal and careful with taxpayers' money of any in the country.

At this point I refer hon. Members to a circular entitled "Supplementary Benefit local limits on board and lodging payments to be adopted by the Secretary of State for Social Services under the Supplementary Benefit (Requirements) Amendment and Temporary Provisions Regulations 1984", a copy of which is in the Library. This document sets out the limits for all towns and areas, including those represented by hon. Members who are present today. I discovered to my amazement that if, in the west country, three young people were discussing their entitlement and one said that he came from Newquay and was claiming £43 a week plus personal clothing allowance and so on, making up to about £52 a week, he would not be getting the most. If the second young man came from Plymouth, he would be able to say that he could claim £55 a week. To my embarrassment, I discovered that the third young man, if he were living in my constituency, in Launceston, would be claiming £65 a week, and receiving it.

There is an extraordinary discrepancy between the amounts that people can claim in various parts of the west country. In London there are just as many discrepancies. For example, somebody claiming benefit in Hendon as an ordinary individual with board and lodging can receive £77 a week. The residential care allowance that can be claimed is £154 a week. The claim for nursing home residence goes down to £110 a week. However, along the road, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), the board and lodging payment is £82.30 per week and residential care is £200 a week, and for a nursing home it is £275 a week.

The figures show that board and lodging payments acros the country stretch from £40 a week to £110 a week. Residential care allowances go from as low as £51 a week to £215 a week and nursing home allowances from £80 a week to £299 a week. If any right hon. or hon. Member can justify that, I should like to hear his reasons.

Various criticisms were made by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington about the way in which the system is working. I shall criticise it from a different point of view. At the moment, it is difficult to check the costs within these homes. Clearly, cartels are being operated between homes. It is interesting to note that there are examples of people going to find out whether there is accommodation for them, particularly in residential care, and being given one price if they are on DHSS benefit arid a lower figure if they are paying privately. That is scandalous, and it shows that the Government have to pay far more than is necessary. There is an increasing mix-up between the responsibilities of the councils and those of the DHSS.

In the board and lodging sector in my constituency and elsewhere there have been reports of the most disturbing arrangements, and some prosecutions, of hoteliers and claimants getting into agreements to defeat the system. If the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington is under any illusion, he need not suspect my constituency of being a high-paid area because, guile to the contrary, it is a low-paid area. I say to every Labour Member who sincerely champions the cause of the low-paid that the indignation among the low-paid in my constituency about the high sums of money being paid to board and lodging claimants is unbelievable. They are very angry. They do not see any justification for this, and they want it to be stopped.

Considerable numbers of young people are coming to my constituency. I have it from various sources that at least 1,000 in Newquay alone have come from the northwest, and recent suggestions are that this figure has risen to over 2,000. A fundamental point needs to be made. The figures show apparently large-scale unemployment in Newquay. In May of this year, for example, in a town of about 17,000 people, 2,071 were unemployed. Only 35 of those were school leavers. An analysis of the figures shows that 52 per cent. of the unemployed males in Newquay are under 29 and 40 per cent. are under 24. It is impossible for Newquay, of its own accord, to have that number of unemployed people.

If any hon. Member disbelieves me, I have here a letter from the local tourist information office, which represents the Newquay hoteliers' and caterers' association, with about 750 establishments. It tells me that, despite the level of unemployment, and despite the fact that every week in the past few weeks as many as two dozen youngsters have been arriving in Newquay, more than 100 vacancies for work have been available in hotels and restaurants in Newquay alone which it has been unable to fill. That is intolerable.

The freeze on the limits is welcome, as are the limits that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is putting on 16 and 17-year-olds. They mean that we have told young people of that age that they should rely on the home, with certain exceptional circumstances which are listed in the consultation paper. It is clear from what my hon. Friend has said that he intends to hear any views, and I am sure that he will be listening to the debate to see if the "exceptions" need to be extended. However, he has placed certain eminently fair and sensible provisos on that restriction.

My hon. Friend has made his aims known to the House. The new board and lodging allowance should be made available only to those who need that form of accommodation, and he is to be congratulated on that. The aim to improve the equity between those on supplementary benefit and those with low incomes is also welcome. To remove disincentives to work is most important. It is also important to dissuade the unscrupulous landlord, as the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington pointed out.

My hon. Friend talks about limits being proposed in London of £60 to £70, and outside London of £50 to £60. However, I remind him that this anxiety arose in no small part from the feeling of scandal, annoyance and indignation in the west country, where more than £43 a week is paid, and here we are thinking in terms of increasing it still further. Any hon. Member going round my constituency can find a wide range of available accommodation. In my view, if the limits could be set as low as £43 a week in Newquay, I fail to see why, with the obvious exception of London, they cannot be set much lower than my hon. Friend proposes.

On the consultation paper, I beg to differ strongly from my hon. Friend about those who are between 17 and 25 and the proposal to restrict their claims to two to four weeks. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington that it should be widened. I go in the opposite direction.

The Government are facing two ways already. To illustrate what I mean, I give an example of what happens at present. Let us suppose that there is a married man living in Padstow, in my constituency, who has two children and has been unemployed for nine months. His nephew, who is also unemployed, is a single man and lives with his uncle and his family, claiming the £26. The uncle sees an advertisement for a job in Oxford. He gets the job. He goes back to his excited family saying that nine months of unemployment are over. He assumes that he and his wife and children can move because he can get help to do so from the benefit office under the employment transfer allowance. He goes to the office, only to be told that he cannot get a penny under the scheme because there are local unemployed people who are deemed to be suitable for the job. He has got the job, but that does not matter. Over nine months he has run out of resources, so he cannot take the job because he cannot afford to make the move.

On hearing about this, his nephew decides that he would prefer to go to Oxford to live. He turns up at the benefit office in Oxford and claims the benefit, which from memory is more than £60. He can live there for as long as he likes, simply because he is available for work.

That must be wrong. Either the Department of Employment is correct, in which case my hon. Friend must change these regulations, or the Department of Employment is wrong and must provide help for anyone who gets on his bike and looks for work.

One way out of this is to say to anyone who is proposing to move from an area where under existing arrangements he is able to claim £26 a week, to another area which will involve him in board and lodging, that under the new scheme he will be able to obtain the board and lodging allowance only if there are no locally born suitable unemployed people available to fill vacancies in that area. If that were the case, anyone in that position would have to go at his own risk and expense.

We cannot have one law for one and another law for another. Much more research should go into this to establish a much fairer system for people living in constituencies such as mine where there are high levels of unemployment. They do not want to see their own job prospects put further at risk. More particularly, they do not want to see around them people on the dole drawing not only much more money than they are getting themselves, but much more than they could ever earn in the area. My hon. Friend should take this strongly into account during his deliberations. In areas such as mine it would bring great comfort and reassurance to many millions of people living on low incomes, having been born there, who are unable to find work.

I am sorry to have spoken at length on this subject, but I hope that the House will appreciate that I feel strongly about it and have some experience of it in my own area.

10.46 am
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

This is a very important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on choosing this subject. It is an issue which affects many thousands of our young people.

Over the past few weeks all right hon. and hon. Members have received a great deal of information from organisations which work with homeless people. In my constituency I have the Threshold housing association, which operates in the London borough of Wandsworth and also in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

At the outset of my remarks I want to refer to one or two of Threshold's comments, because they are the views of people who over many years have tried to specialise in the services that they provide for young people, especially for young homeless people.

Threshold held its annual general meeting on Wednesday of this week. I attended as the local Member of Parliament, and I heard some of the sorrowful stories told by people working with Threshold of the problems which they have to try to resolve day in and day out. Its annual report, published only recently, says, under the heading "Young people in bed and breakfast": Finding homes for teenagers is a mammoth task. As workers of Threshold know the chances of obtaining suitable secure local accommodation are practically non-existent. This results in large numbers of young people facing a future in bed and breakfast establishments with no privacy or security on which to build a future. The problems of living in bed and breakfast are numerous, particularly for young people, risks of financial and sexual exploitation coming high on the list. A person is placed in a highly stressful situation while trying to cope with natural adolescent emotional growth. This type of accommodation is expensive and far from suitable for young people, many of whom are trying to fend for themselves for the first time in their lives, and with limited financial and social skills it is easy for them to end up in debt and homeless again. Threshold says that 29 per cent. of all its clients have left home because of family disputes, and 21 per cent. were already in temporary accommodation when they came to see officials of Threshold.

The report continues: Some people leave home because it is overcrowded. Others leave because they are physically abused by their parents. Many people leave home because they are evicted by their parents. Often this is because parents expect their children to get jobs once they leave school and do not understand it when they fail to do so.

Those are the views of a respected housing association. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House could give similar examples. Both the House and the country have to realise that youngsters who are placed in this position are not scroungers. They are facing a housing problem in many areas of the country as a direct result of Government policy. Youngsters will come to my advice service tonight and say, "You are the local MP. You are the person who is supposed to advise and help people. Tell me where I can get a job. Tell me of any firms in this locality where I can go on Monday and say 'I am without work, but I want to work.'" I shall have to say to them, "I cannot help." There are no jobs in my area, even for adults with experience, so there are even fewer jobs for young people.

The problems faced by youngsters such as those referred to by the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale), are caused by the actions of the Government. That is the real indictment. A few months ago two senior members of the Government—the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry — made speeches about this problem. In a speech that she made somewhere in south Wales the Prime Minister said, "If you cannot get a job in this locality, move somewhere else," but she did not say that even if people could get a job somewhere else they might not find somewhere to live. We remember the speech of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the Conservative party conference. He said, "If you cannot get a job, be like my old Dad; get on your bike and find one." Even if somebody is fortunate enough to find a job elsewhere, he may be unable to find a place in which to live. Those two comments indicate the lack of understanding of the problem by very senior Ministers.

For many years youngsters have left home quite happily, thinking that is was time they began to build their own lives. They were able to move to many parts of the country where they could find a job and somewhere to live, but it is virtually impossible to do so now, either in London or in any of our large cities. Ministers should not need me to tell them that this is not just a problem which affects big cities. One can go to some of our smaller cities and find that they are faced 'with the same problems as are to be found in the London borough of Wandsworth. I shall read later a letter which illustrates this point.

We should not support abuse of this kind any more than we support tax avoidance abuse. Unfortunately, the Government do not appear to be so concerned about the millions of pounds which are not collected each year by the Inland Revenue because certain individuals have the means with which to obtain professional advice to avoid the payment of tax. We do not hear so much about tax avoidance abuse, although it is state money.

The Government ought to be helping people of all ages who become homeless. Families become homeless. That is what we should be talking about. In many parts of the country very little local authority accommodation is being built. In the London borough of Wandsworth, hardly any local authority accommodation is being built, because of the Government's policy. No doubt the Minister will tell us that this is because the Government wish to encourage incentive by the sale of thousands of council houses. In my area and in many other parts of the country, homes have been deliberately boarded up. When local authorities are asked to justify the fact that they are putting people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation when hundreds of homes have been boarded up, their reply is that, although they do not like it, they do not have the money with which to put these homes back into use. Young people and adults who are homeless do not want to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

The Minister must be aware of the Department of the Environment report "The Single and the Homeless". It was based on about 7,000 interviews. It dealt with the kind of accommodation which homeless people would like to have. It demonstrated that they want decent, reasonably priced accommodation in which they can prepare their own meals and live their own lives. The problem is where to find such accommodation in the United Kingdom., coupled with the opportunity to get a job. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us where they can find it. I do not believe that it is to be found anywhere in the London area.

I mentioned earlier that although we think that this is a big city problem, it is not. I received a letter this week which is a terrible indictment of life in this country in 1984. It was written by a young man who lives in my constituency. He said: I have been living in Northampton for the last 14 weeks. I did not find it a very pleasant experience. I was very lonely and depressed. I have now landed at my mum's doorstep last night absolutely homeless. I have been staying in bed and breakfast since I came down from Northampton for the last few nights, which has drained me of most of the money I had left. I went to social security. They gave me a list of bed-and-breakfast accommodation which is approved and they paid for it. These premises were fully booked so I had no alternative other than sleeping on a park bench because Mum has Jim and Ann at home and there really is no room for me other than spending a few nights on a soft camp bed. This is not a sponger or somebody who is trying to abuse or work the system, but a young man who has a genuine problem. Where does he turn for help?

Today we are debating the abuse, so we are told, of social security payments. What a different attitude the Government showed last week when we were debating student grants. They do not want to see people fiddling the state of £50 and are determined to put such people in their place. We were not talking last week about the children of low-paid people. Had we been, I should have been in the forefront giving my support. We were talking about the children of people in Britain who are extremely well paid and who have done well out of the Government since they came to power in 1979. What a different attitude we are seeing today.

There is already much accommodation throughout Britain which could be made available to those in need. All that is needed is Government money to enable those properties to be brought into use. However, what we really should be talking about are standards. About three weeks ago I was a member of a Committee of the House which looked at standards in residential care accommodation. We all know the rackets that exist there. We all know the sudden great anxiety of hundreds of people throughout Britain to look after the elderly, the disabled or the sick. That is because they now realise that by setting up residential care homes large sums of money can be claimed from the DHSS to pay for the care of people in those homes. If people genuinely want to look after elderly, disabled or sick people, I applaud that, but I reject completely those who have jumped on to that bandwagon because they realise that there is a great deal of money to be made.

We know from what my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington said, and from the Threshold annual report which I read out, that standards in much bed-and-breakfast accommodation are deplorable. The Government cannot say that that situation has just arisen and that they are worried about it. They should tell us what they intend to do.

My hon. Friend talked about fire prevention. Sadly, we hear about too many fires. There is much abuse by people running such establishments. They are free to sit on their backsides and not worry about regulations, because the accommodation that they provide is needed. They believe that the powers that be will not be too difficult. It is a terrible thing to say in 1984, but it would be far more acceptable for some people to be in prison than have to live in some of the conditions that homeless people face. Wandsworth prison is in my constituency, and I know that prison can be an unpleasant place, but at least certain standards have to be observed there. In much bed-and-breakfast accommodation there are virtually none.

We heard this week that in next year's Budget tax concessions will be a top priority. That may or may not be a good thing. It will depend on who those tax concessions go to. The Government should give priority to those genuinely in need. That is something that we have not yet seen.

Life will continue to become more and more difficult for homeless people, and, in particular, for young homeless people. I hope that we shall see a much greater Government commitment to dealing with those problems. The Government know the problems that exist. All too often the Labour party is accused of believing that abuses should take place. We do not believe that. I have already mentioned those who, with great regularity, avoid paying income tax year after year. However, we do not hear much from the Government about stopping such abuses. We are entitled to expect a real commitment from the Government to provide suitable housing. Local authorities should be able to give help and advice to homeless people, especially young homeless people.

This week we have discussed the Local Government Bill, and we have commented upon the ever-increasing problems of ratecapping. It will become more and more difficult for local authorities genuinely to help people in their areas. I hope that we shall see much stronger and more sensitive legislation to tackle abuses, not only those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation but against those who have to live in such accommodation.

We do not want to hear the Government say that they are concerned about the problem but that they will leave it to local authorities to deal with. I could give countless examples of assurances from the Secretary of State for Transport that my local authority will honour a promise that he has made. My local authority is one of the greatest supporters that the Prime Minister has in local government. However, it goes out of its way to avoid any commitment to do anything. If the Government genuinely wish to see progress, they should ensure that sufficient money is ploughed into local authorities to enable them to provide the necessary services.

Until that happens, all the problems that have been mentioned here today will continue and the suffering will remain. That is a deplorable indictment against the Government in 1984. The real problems of homelessness, and those associated with it, are the direct result of the Government's policies since 1979.

11.7 am

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)

I join the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) in congratulating the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on having secured first place in the ballot. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman also on having chosen an important subject. I hope that he will not think it presumptuous if I congratulate him further on his meticulous research in preparing his speech.

I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House if I intervene at this stage to comment on some of the housing matters that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman's motion. If he should catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security will comment on those matters which fall within his responsibility.

Let me deal first with the duties of local authorities under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. Their main duty is to secure accommodation for those who are genuinely homeless in the priority need categories. Those categories include families with dependent children, pregnant women, those made homeless through fire or other emergency, and those vulnerable through old age or mental or physical disability, or for some other special reason.

In our code of guidance, which was revised in July 1983, to which authorities are required to have regard, we asked them to treat as vulnerable battered women without children and young people at risk of sexual or financial exploitation. That was a particular matter to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Those priority need categories were decided by Parliament when it approved the 1977 Act. As the House knows, we considered carefully whether any change should be made when we reviewed the operation of the Act in 1982. We received many representations during that review, some in favour of extension and some against. We decided in the end to make no changes to the Act. I consider that the present categories are the right ones and that to extend them to other single people would disadvantage those in housing need on council waiting lists.

While I do not favour extending to homeless people outside the present priority need categories the duty laid on local authorities to secure accommodation, I hope that authorities will act as generously as they can in providing the advice and appropriate assistance for the non-priority homeless to which section 4 of the Act refers.

It is for local authorities to decide how to discharge the duty laid on them—whether to provide general advice, lists of agencies or accommodation or to secure or provide accommodation. As for the provision of council accommodation, the House will know that, under section 6 of the Act, authorities have a duty in the selection of council tenants to give "reasonable preference" to homeless people.

Figures for the first six months of 1984 show that about 9 per cent. of those for whom authorities secured accommodation under the Act were outside the priority need categories laid down in section 2.

It is for local authorities to decide how the homeless should he accommodated. The duty to secure accommodation can be met by placing people in private sector or housing association property, as well as in the council's own housing stock. In some cases — while they are making inquiries to determine the extent of their duty under the Act. when they are satisfied that the applicant is in priority need, but intentionally homeless, and while arranging for a transfer to another authority with whose area the applicant has a local connection—councils have a duty to provide temporary accommodation only. Here again it is for authorities to decide how to fulfil their duty, and our code of guidance makes a number of suggestions.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

The Minister cannot so easily pass responsibilities on to local authorities. Does he accept that it is impossible for them to provide all that is needed for the homeless, because of the huge cuts in housing investment programmes that have occurred under this Government?

The root of the problem is the dramatic rundown in local authority house building. It is not only better, but cheaper, to enable local authorities and other socially responsible agencies to provide proper, permanent accommodation than to pay through the nose to commercial landlords who provide squalid alternative accommodation in bed-and-breakfast establishments.

Mr. Gow

I shall be dealing with resources. I was reminding the House that responsibilities are laid on local authorities under the 1977 Act. It is up to local authorities, first, to discharge their statutory duty and, secondly, to determine their own priorities after we have made our HIP allocations. No one disagrees with the hon. Gentleman when he says that the resources available for housing are a material factor.

The suggestions in our code of guidance include the use of short-life council dwellings and the taking of a short-term lease on empty private sector property. It is a continuing scandal that 25,300 local authority -owned houses and flats have been empty for more than 12 months. If some of those could be brought into use we would make a significant contribution to solving some of the problems that we are considering.

There will always be financial constraints. We would always like to be able to spend more on a range of socially desirable purposes. Because there will always be financial constraints, it is particularly important to ensure that the fullest use is made of all existing dwellings.

As the House knows, my Department has just completed a study of the problems of the 30 authorities with the most long-term empty dwellings, and we are taking action in two ways. First, I am extending the eligibility for housing association grant to short-life properties in local authority ownership.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

About time too.

Mr. Gow

I am glad to have the support of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). We have been considering taking such action and I believe that it will make a valuable contribution. The extension of the grant will enable housing associations to put local authority dwellings back into use. We are also making a grant to the empty property unit established by Shelter to further its work in providing advice and information to housing associations and others about the short-term use of empty property. Housing advice centres — the hon. Member for Tooting made this point—contribute to the fuller use of existing property by advising people about vacant accommodation or agencies which may be able to assist them. Many authorities provide useful help in that way.

I pay tribute to the dedicated people who work in the centres run by voluntary bodies and deal sympathetically and helpfully with a wide range of complex housing problems. We have recognised the value of the work done in the voluntary sector by giving grants to bodies operating at national and regional level. They include the London Housing Aid Centre and the Housing Advice Switchboard for the London area, the Shelter National Housing Aid Trust for many areas outside London, and, more recently, the Tyneside Housing Aid Centre, which covers the Houghton and Washington constituency.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I hope to raise in detail and quietly the problem of the Scots, often teenagers, who leave home, come to London under the illusion that they will find work, cannot do so and get into all sorts of difficulties.

Is it the Minister's impression that housing centres and voluntary bodies pay sufficient attention to such teenagers —from the north in general, and not just in Scotland—who arrive in London and get into difficulties, perhaps partly of their own making, which create endless problems? Does the Department have a view on that matter?

Mr. Gow

It is precisely to give help to those people, who are sometimes very young and may never have been outside Scotland before, that the advice- centres exist. Some hon. Members will be familiar with the excellent work done by those centres and the sympathetic advice that is given. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has drawn our attention to an important subject.

I was describing the initiatives that the Government are taking. I shall be giving fresh advice to local authorities, describing the ways in which better management practices can reduce the number of empty dwellings. I shall be emphasising the scope for using short-life schemes and short-term lettings to bring empty properties back into use and to rehouse families accepted as homeless and others in the greatest housing need.

Our code of guidance under the 1977 Act makes it clear that, in securing accommodation for the homeless, local authorities should regard bed and breakfast very much as a last resort. I do not quarrel with some of the descriptions used by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington. Like other hon. Members, I have seen some of that accommodation myself. Even as a temporary expedient, it is unsatisfactory.

Homelessness is taken into account in deciding housing investment programme allocations. The Government recognise the increasingly serious problem of the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I have just approved a research project to be carried out by my Department. The results of that research will be available to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and to me. The project will include a survey of a sample of bed-and-breakfast landlords and the experience of those who live in that type of accommodation.

The Government share the concern that has been expressed by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington about houses in multiple occupation. Local authorities have extensive statutory powers governing means of escape from fire, which were strengthened by schedule 24 to the Housing Act 1980. Since December 1981, local authorities have been under a duty to exercise their powers to require the necessary means of escape from the largest HMOs, where the potential risk is greatest.

We have amended the Housing Act 1974 to enable special grant to be paid for means of escape from fire in HMOs, and for the payment of grant to be mandatory where work is required by notice under section 15 of the Housing Act 1961 for standard amenities, or under schedule 24. Through the Housing Act 1980, and the Criminal Justice Act 1982, we have increased fines for offences relating to houses in multiple occupation. Many of the increases have been substantial. In 1982 we issued a circular to housing and fire authorities in England and Wales giving guidance on the changes in the law and clarifying the scope of the statutory powers and responsibilities that authorities have for improving fire safety.

The powers available to local authorities are mostly discretionary, because the Government believe that each authority is best placed to apply these powers as it thinks fit, bearing in mind its specialised knowledge of the area and of the properties concerned. Section 70 of the Housing Act 1969 places a duty on local authorities to make inspections to see what action needs to be taken under the Housing Acts. Part II of the Housing Act 1961 and part IV of the Housing Act 1964 provide local authorities with discretionary powers to require improvements in the management and physical condition of HMOs. They can also require the provision of standard amenities, or alternatively limit the number of occupants. Local authorities can also make a control order, which allows them to take over the management of an HMO to protect the safety, welfare and health of those living there.

Some who live in HMOs may be tenants who are protected by the Rent Act 1977. In that case, they may have full security of tenure and be entitled to apply to the rent officer for a fair rent. Whether or not they are protected by the Rent Act, they are likely to be protected by the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. That Act prohibits harassment and illegal eviction of any tenants or licensees. However, I take very seriously some of the examples given by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, and I should be glad to discuss with him later the examples to which he drew the attention of the House. Indeed, I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing our attention to some very terrifying examples.

I remind the House that it is a criminal offence for anyone to turn a tenant out of his home without a court order, or to try to make him leave by intimidation or violence, or by withholding services such as gas or electricity. If a tenant considers that he is being harassed he should complain to his local authority, which has powers to prosecute under the Protection from Eviction Act.

I turn now to rented accommodation owned by local authorities. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) asked about the resources available for public sector housing. In the coming financial year, total gross public sector housing provision will be £3,056 million. That is to say, it will be £65 million less than the target announced last year, but that is still a very substantial sum.

Mr. Chris Smith

The Minister may think that there is a "mere" reduction of £65 million on what was originally scheduled, but does he agree that that sum depends on estimates of considerably increased capital receipts for local authorities during the course of next year? Are not those expectations totally unrealistic?

Mr. Gow

The Government's estimates for the sale of council houses are the best that we can make. One can never be absolutely certain about the extent to which tenants will want to take advantage of the substantially more favourable terms introduced by the Housing and Building Control Act 1984, but the House will remember that the Labour party, and even, I think, the Liberal party — which is not represented in the Chamber today —voted against the 1984 Act.

In view of the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Tooting about the right to buy, I was particularly interested to notice that the Birmingham Post of Tuesday had the following headline: Labour Party pledge to sell council homes". I congratulate the Labour party on its conversion. It is a long time since the Labour party began to tiptoe onto the middle ground of politics. Indeed, I welcome the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), in which he promised that his party — which went into the last election pledged to repeal the right to buy — had now abandoned its pledge to repeal that provision. As time proceeds, I hope that Labour Members will be persuaded by the strength of our arguments, not only on home ownership, but on wider elements of denationalisation. I shall gladly give way to the hon. Member for Oldham, West if he wishes to comment on the Labour party's policy on council house sales.

Of course, part of the problem of housing is the condition of our housing stock. In a debate such as this it is relevant to remind hon. Members that in the year ended 31 March 1984 more than £900 million was spent on improvement and repair grants. Even in this financial year, our latest estimate is that some £700 million will be spent on improvement and repair grants. I remind the hon. Member for Oldham, West that in the last year of the Labour Administration that he adorned, total expenditure on improvement and repair grants was £90 million.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be announcing the housing investment programme allocations shortly. We are making a change in the method of making housing investment programme allocations which is related specifically to the problems of homelessness being debated today. The national total of resources is distributed using the generalised needs index. The index is also used, in part, for distribution to individual local authorities. One of the indicators in the index is the homelessness indicator, which takes up 10 per cent. of the total GNI. The indicator is based on the number of lettings to homeless households. In the past we have used the number of secure lettings for this indicator, but, following discussion with the local authority associations, for 1985.86 we will be including non-secure as well as secure lettings. This is a useful change in the methodology.

The motion refers to housing associations. I pay tribute to the enormous contribution that the voluntary housing movement has made, and continues to make, in meeting housing needs. Our acknowledgement of their contribution is reflected in our allocation to the Housing Corporation this year of £687 million. Our allocation for next year will, I hope, be announced at the same time as the housing investment programme allocation. In making our allocations we will take full account of the fact that the housing association movement provides good quality homes and manages and maintains them well, and that it caters for the special needs of the frail, elderly and disabled, as well as for single people, one-parent families and the homeless.

With the Housing Corporation, the housing association movement has been invaluable in taking up the challenge provided by our hostels initiative. Launched in 1980, that initiative has provided the first major expansion for many years in the provision of hostels and other forms of shared housing. Since the Government came to power, the Housing Corporation has approved accommodation of that type for more than 8,500 of those who are least able to help themselves. Much of that accommodation is for the single homeless, including the elderly.

Development finance is available for housing associations from the Housing Corporation. Where necessary, my Department pays deficit grants to meet the shortfall in housing running costs. The hostels initiative is something of which the Government have every reason to be proud. They have made a major contribution towards solving the real problems of homelessness.

The motion refers to board and lodging payments. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington will understand if I leave that matter for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I hope to be in the House for almost all of the remainder of the debate. My hon. Friend will reply to the social security aspects. If hon. Members raise other housing matters, I shall, of course, write to them.

11.32 am
Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) both on his success in the ballot and on using this opportunity to highlight an extremely important problem. We are all concerned about the massive rise in the number of supplementary payment claimants in board and lodging and its cost. The figures provided by the Campaign for Single Homeless People show that the numbers of claimants in ordinary board and lodging has shot up from 41,000 in 1979 to an estimated 139,000 this year. The expenditure involved has risen from £52 million in 1979 to £380 million. The average payment has risen from £20.40 a week to £52.35.

Like other Members on the Opposition Benches, I object to the way in which the Government view the problem solely in financial terms — something to be sorted out through the social security system. Instead, they should be tackling the root causes of the problem — homelessness and the lack of appropriate housing provision. In recent years, the problem has been very much aggravated by the increase in unemployment, especially among young people, and by the increasing shortage of private rented accommodation.

I wish to concentrate my remarks on the problems of single people who, I believe, are most at risk. The 1981 census showed that there were more than 9 million lone adults in Britain of working age. Despite their aspirations, only about one third of them have a home of their own. Only 7 per cent. of council tenants are single people of working age. We know that a number of local authorities simply do not consider housing applications from single people. The shrinkage in the private rented sector has aggravated that problem considerably.

I understand the Government's case about abuses of the social security system. However, what the Government are doing—and they do it so often—in trying to tackle the general problem of abuse is to create real hardship for genuine cases. The idea of a reduction in payment levels for 16 and 17-year-olds seems to be based on the idea that young people deliberately leave their homes in order to claim benefit. That is nothing but a myth. The great majority of young people in temporary accommodation, or those who are potentially homeless, are staying with friends or relations. That trend is growing. It has become unusual at my Friday surgery not to have one young person coming to me because he is homeless. He might have been turned out by his parents because of overcrowding or a family row. The family may have moved away from London and the young person is left high and dry. The youngsters sometimes sleep in cars or sleep rough but, more often than not, they sleep on floors at the homes of friends and relations until their welcome is worn out. That is a subjective judgment, but it is borne out by some expert assessment.

The Minister referred to the Housing Advice Switchboard, which provides help for single homeless people in London. I am proud to be a sponsor of that body. It collects statistics about those who contact it for advice. Last year 980 young people under the age of 18 contacted it for advice. Of those, 43 per cent. were already homeless, 25 per cent. were in temporary accommodation and 15 per cent. expected to be made homeless within a month. Of the latter two categories, 75 per cent. were staying with friends or relatives, only 10 per cent. were with their parents, 6 per cent. were in hostels and 6 per cent. in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Those figures have increased during the past three years. The trend is clearly towards young people staying with friends or relations. There is no evidence in London of a massive abuse of the benefit system by young homeless people.

I was concerned by the suggestion that boarders who are outside what is known as their usual DHSS office area would receive payments for only two to four weeks if unemployed and without children. That suggests that those people need only a short time to sort out their affairs. A survey by the Housing Advice Switchboard of 9,000 people of all ages in the London area showed how permanent "temporary" accommodation can be. Of those in temporary accommodation, almost 45 per cent. had been there for between two years and three years, and 26 per cent. —more than a quarter—had been there for four years or more.

I endorse what the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington said about furniture grants. All too often it becomes a Catch-22. Claimants who, at last, have found their way out of temporary accommodation into perhaps a permanent unfurnished home provided by the local authority or a housing association, then discover a whole new bureaucratic minefield that they must negotiate. I know of a gentleman in his fifties in my constituency who was in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for 11 years. He at last found a small unfurnished flat through a housing association. He thought that at last his problems were solved. He went to the DHSS and asked only for a bed and a cooker—a very modest request. He was met with the response that he must demonstrate and prove that there was not adequate furnished accommodation in the area that he could take up, instead of becoming a tenant in unfurnished accommodation in his own right. Much public money could be saved by that one individual move, when the Department of Health and Social Security is paying out over £50 a week for bed-and-breakfast accommodation and meals out. Less than half that amount would be involved in someone living in a home of his own.

I should like to recount one other personal experience showing just what can happen to young single people who are homeless. A hostel was established in my constituency in a former doctor's surgery acquired by the Department of Transport in advance of the east London river crossing road scheme. The hostel was at 291 Plumstead high street. After the Department acquired it, two individuals produced a scheme for a hostel for young homeless men. In February 1983, planning permission was given by the London borough of Greenwich for a group home for six homeless boys which opened in the middle of 1983. Earlier this year I started to receive considerable complaints from residents about noise, rowdiness, vandalism and break-ins, and the police were involved regularly.

My investigations revealed that the Department had not been paid a penny piece in rent and was owed about £5,000 in rent by the operators of the hostel. My investigations established from former residents of the hostel that there were major complaints of overcrowding. There was planning permission for up to six people, but sometimes 15 were resident in the hostel. There were complaints of glue sniffing, drug taking and all sorts of crime. There was no supervision of the hostel. Although the residents paid for an evening meal, it was served at 4.30 in the afternoon, and if a resident was not present he did not get it.

I then discovered that the DHSS had been referring people to the hostel and paying £50 a week for that service. I established from the local office that that was correct. The manager told me in a letter dated 26 November that in March 1984 the charge for bed and breakfast and an evening meal had increased from £36 a week to £50 a week. With the other allowances made to those resident at the hostel, a total of £68.85 a week was being paid to residents. The manager told me frankly that it was not the responsibility of the DHSS to check that that was an appropriate place for young people. The Department's job is simply to ensure that the money is paid to the young people. In this case, the charges were paid by the young people, but unfortunately those who ran the hostel did not think it appropriate to go on paying their rent to the Department of Transport. As a result the hostel suddenly closed in November and it is reputed that another is opening up somewhere else in south London.

In that case there was no supervision by the DHSS and no check on whether that was an appropriate place for young people. There was no supervision or investigation by the London borough of Greenwich, although its planning stipulations had been massively exceeded. What is most worrying is the fact that young people were being put at risk and thousands of pounds of public money was being spent on what I can charitably describe only as an extremely inferior service.

All of us must recognise that the problems of single homelessness, particularly of young people, are increasing not just in the inner cities where they have been a traditional problem, but throughout our major towns and cities. We shall solve the problem not by altering the operation of the benefits system, but only by providing more appropriate housing for single people at rents that they can afford. That would enable single people to do what they want — live independently and in some dignity. As other hon. Members have said, that would be a much better investment, providing better value for money than what the Government are now doing in funding bed-and-breakfast accommodation and similar accommodation.

I welcome the steps that the Minister announced in his speech. They were useful as far as they went in terms of tackling the scandal of empty local authority property and helping effective advice services. However, what the Minister said falls far short of what is needed. Local authorities and housing associations need more financial encouragement to enable them to undertake the specific housing programme directed at single people. Unless we tackle the problem with determination, the scandal of single homelessness will go on haunting us for many years to come.

11.45 am
Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on securing the debate. I enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who always speaks with great strength of feeling on this subject, although sometimes with rather one-sided logic.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that no one in the community should be without a roof over his head, warmth and food. We are all united about that. The problem comes when either side of the House becomes so taken with one side as to ignore the other. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington was very anti-landlord. I am very pro-landlord, although not all landlords. We need more landlords and a bigger rented sector so that people can get homes and there is mobility of labour.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction used marvellous, magic words in saying that it is our job to look after the genuinely homeless. Nobody contests that for a second. The genuinely homeless must be looked after. However, I have seen and I know the abuses. If the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington does not believe that they exist, he can join my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) or come to Ilfracombe or Barnstaple in my part of the world and see those abuses, which are perpetrated by both sides of the set-up, on the one side by the bad landlord, and on the other by young people whom we are forcing—I mean forcing—to become pensioners of the state in their youth. I fear that many will remain pensioners of the state throughout their adult life, into old age and when they go beyond, to whatever happens then.

The present system of benefit is well intentioned, well meaning, but oh so vast that only one or two voluntary organisations ever seem able to interpret the various rules and regulations, which make it virtually impossible for a young person of limited skills to secure and be able to afford to take up gainful employment.

On occasions such as this, it is a habit to talk about what is happening in our constituencies. I shall give two simple examples. A young lady was offered a position in a business with which I am connected—the shopkeeping business. She wished to take it, but said that the basic salary was not enough to cover the benefit now that she had left home of her own free will. It was a good home, reasonably prosperous—I know it—but because she had left it the total benefit for that young girl of 18, who was reasonably qualified, was about £61 net per week. To get that amount one has to earn about £100 gross. Alas, £100 gross is not earned by a junior shop worker, certainly not in the depressed west country. That is the first problem, of the person who wants to work.

My second example concerns someone a few years older, a panel beater, who was offered a job at £125 a week, which, in our part of the world, is not a bad basic weekly wage. His problem was that he had a wife and two children and had been unemployed for some time. He would have been worse off in work than out of work.

A debate such as this gives us the opportunity to ask where we are going wrong when, with the best will in the world, both sides wish to help, but, alas, people in the Opposition, such as the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, say that all the folly and all the fault is on one side. The hon. Gentleman said that there are no scroungers. I say that, unfortunately, there are too many. He said that there are bad landlords. I agree, but there are also good ones. We must find the balance.

I should like to reverse the normal procedure and give my conclusions first, while my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing Construction is still here, on some of the things that we need to change. Then, in the best Reader's Digest tradition, I shall give some potted — though I trust not potty—arguments on why those changes should be made.

We need a fresh definition of houses in multiple occupation and of common lodging houses. We need to amend existing planning law to control the vast increase in the number of so-called houses in multiple occupation. We need a definition of the regulations so that we can enforce control of houses in multiple occupation. The abuses are vast.

Something must be done in the DHSS to give incentives, to young single claimants in particular, to remain within their family units. It is lunacy to encourage young people to ask the state for rent payment when they have a safe, secure and happy home in which they could remain.

We must give local authorities powers to set locally determined limits. A maximum for London inevitably becomes the limit elsewhere, where the costs are different. As a result, all rents go up. It is easier to attract a young unemployed person to a property than it is to attract a working tenant who cannot afford £60 a week rent. People at all levels in my part of the world cannot afford such a sum.

Savings can be made. We should extend rent legislation to include HMOs and common lodging houses. We should help housing associations, non-profit-making charitable organisations and local authorities to widen the choice of single accommodation for the young single person and for older widows, widowers and divorcees. We must organise better inspections of lodging house accommodation before vast sums are handed over to them.

Like other constituencies, mine has the advantage of having good voluntary and self-help organisations They help hon. Members irrespective of party politics. The North Devon Inter Agency Group is a wonderful organisation set up recently by Councillor Mrs. Fay Webber, the chairman of the North Devon district council housing committee. She was disturbed by her experience as a Barnstaple district councillor of the sheer extravagance in spending forced by national Government on local government. Local government has no say—-it must pay.

The group comprises district and county councillors, rent officers, social service officers, members of the community health council, the police, probation officers and others with community and youth interests. They voluntarily give their time to the incredible problems that they encounter. The North Devon health authority also assists these good people. One of the problems is caused by young people leaving their parental home and claiming social security benefit to supplement their independent self-chosen life style. In Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, ghetto-like accommodation is emerging as a result.

One might say that that is all right if that is what a young person wants to do. The state says that someone must pay, but I cannot accept that. It infuriates working people to see gross abuses of taxpayers' and ratepayers' money. Local aggravation is considerable. It is no surprise that in my area the police encounter frequent problems between landlords or tenants and local working people who are struggling to make ends meet. They are annoyed at the fairly extravagant life sty le of those who claim to be unemployed and unable to obtain employment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North talked about the availability of jobs. There are job problems in most parts of the country, but jobs are available, here in London for example, in the catering industry. I have an interest in that industry, and I know that the major firms have a problem in finding staff at the lower levels. Why cannot they find people? It is the same old story. People find that it is not worth taking such a job because their totted-up benefit makes it unwise and worthless to work a 36-hour or 40-hour week for an extra pound or two.

Probation officers say that some young people with jobs cannot find accommodation either because the folk without jobs have taken it or because they cannot afford it. Rents are forced up and social problems arise.

I do not seek to exonerate the bad landlords, but, for goodness sake, let us look across the board and consider what we politicians have done to force upon authorities the obligation to do certain things which they would not otherwise do, although they are good and caring. The people at the grass roots know more about what happens locally than we do.

I do not want to burden the House when so many other hon. Members wish to speak. The problem is straightforward. The housing stock in my area is being run down. The older stock is over-occupied, the fire hazards are vast, as are the improvement grants. We must check to ensure that people do not exploit the system so that they receive vast sums to spend on their property. We must ensure that people do not extract large sums from tenants who could not care less how high the rents are, since someone else pays them.

Local authorities have to pay the rates for such accommodation and the water authority receives its rates from the local authority. Who pays the local authority? It seems that central Government pay less and less, while local government pays more and more.

Rateable values are low in many parts of the country, and rate income is therefore low. Areas such as north Devon do not seek to be mean or parsimonious to those who are less fortunate than those who have jobs. We must look to the future. People outside the House and outside politics, as they watch us go about our work, do not understand why we put yet more burdens on people who are willing to bear them, and then we do not provide the finance.

I am sorry if I have been slow in my delivery. This morning I ran over my National Health Service spectacles. Fortunately, I was not wearing them at the time. It means, since I come from a family originally named Kelly, that I am today one-eyed Riley. I apologise for taking the time of the House in a winking and blinking fashion.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend the Minster for Housing and Construction seeks to do. The Government are trying to make the system more sensible and logical. We are always pasting up another three or four pages of amendments to attach to legislation. Would it not be nice to have a bonfire of all the books and start again with a small charter based upon the belief that nobody should ever be without a roof, without warmth and without food? We should try to find ways of providing that more simply and at less cost.

11.59 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

This is not the occasion on which to make simplistic political points. I had the good fortune to go to Barnstaple in the constituency of the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) on 21 November to speak to the Barnstaple constituency Labour party. I know of the problems experienced in the west country. The hon. Gentleman used the phrase, "pensioners of the state in their youth". I hope that he will bring pressure to bear on his Government to do something about it and also about local authorities' worries about central Government.

Barnstaple is a beautiful place, and north Devon is a beautiful place, but I must turn my attention to the north. I am concerned about the boys and girls—for such they often are—about the young men and young women who come to London, not only from Scotland, but from the north of England, too, as my hon. Friend the member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), to whom I am grateful for initiating this debate, knows.

The United Kingdom is becoming two separate countries. The Minister for Housing and Construction represents Eastbourne. One must travel a long way from Eastbourne before one reaches the nearest Labour constituency. Equally, there is no Conservative Member of Parliament in the Greater Glasgow conurbation. That is a sign of the fact that north and south are becoming two different worlds.

The Scots have traditionally always come to London, but they are now doing so often in circumstances of despair. The problem has been chronicled by the Sunday Mail and the Sunday Post, but I eschew relying on press stories. I would rather talk from my personal knowledge and experience and from what I hear from my constituents and the parents of my constituents, and at my surgeries.

The young people from Scotland, the north of England and Tyneside are subject to financial exploitation. They are sometimes subject to sexual exploitation. They are sometimes subject to enforced sharing. Sometimes, not in the first place through their own will, they become enmeshed in criminal activities—sucked into them.

The parents of those children are often horrified and shattered. It is difficult to convey the heartbreak of some parents—good-living people—who had thought that it would never happen to them and that a child of theirs would ever leave the family home in resentment and go down to London. The departure is often the fag end of a tiff in the family home. Given the economic pressures and the strains of unemployment, such quarrels break out more and more frequently. Young people arriving in London find it far harder to get work than they had imagined. Some go to the DHSS for advice. I wonder whether the Under-Secretary is satisfied with the advice given by his Department to young people from Scotland and the north. I believe that some offices, and some individual officers, are extremely good and caring and take a great deal of trouble, but, as so often, everything depends on the people involved. There is no universal standard.

What general guidance is sent out to DHSS officers to help them to deal with youngsters who are often inadequate and who are almost always very vulnerable? If they do not become involved in drugs they may become involved in prostitution, and if they do not become involved in prostitution they may be caught up in crime. They are very often naive, if not innocent. They need help.

The young people's intention may have been only to visit London. The difficulty is that they find it embarrassing, once difficulties have set in, to go home. In reality there may be no need for them to be embarrassed, but that does not help much.

We need to be more strongly influenced by the medieval idea of sanctuary and of rendering help. A stitch in time never saved nine so truly as in such situations. I do not want to point to a particular church, but in my own experience Roman Catholic priests are often extremely good at coping with such situations. I also have the highest regard for the work of the Salvation Army. Many Salvation Army officers are latter-day saints in the best sense. They go to endless trouble to try to contact the young people's homes.

The Minister referred to hostel initiatives. I wonder whether enough is done to persuade young people who arrive at hostels that they would be welcome if they returned home. Very often young people arriving at a hostel say, "Whatever you do, don't contact my mum and dad," and the hostel does not do so. This is a delicate matter—the young people involved may be 18 or 19 years old—but I believe that, in the case of those who can be considered to be children, the adults involved in the case should contact the home. The parable of the "prodigal son" was never more relevant.

Between 1965 and 1967 I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the late Dick Crossman in Housing and between 1968 and 1970 in the DHSS. In those days a great deal of attention was paid to this problem, even though it was not nearly as serious as it is now. Great civil servants such as Sir George Godber, Dame Evelyn Sharpe, Dame Muriel Riddelsdell and others devoted their time to this problem. I do not believe that their successors care any less about it, but I should like some explanation of the Government's policy on what additional help could be given to these unfortunate youngsters.

Even at the very simplest level, that of cost, failing to take action will prove very costly to society. In this matter, we are our brother's keeper. However, even if one does not accept the moral necessity, one must accept that we would save a great deal through the avoidance of potential crime—I do not speak of the potential unhappiness that could be averted—by doing something at an early stage.

I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) that I would be brief. However, I must say that a great deal more could be done for the construction industry in the north. I know that the Minister has no responsibility for Scottish housing, but this is once again a question of public expenditure. The extra cost of a proper and much-needed house building programme, over and above what is spent out of the oil revenues on unemployment benefit, would not be very great. Construction workers would come from recipients of unemployment benefit.

Ministers from the south of England live in a very different world from people in the north. It is not my intention to sneer at them. This morning, however, until the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) arrived, the Front Bench had been peopled entirely by hon. Members representing the south of England. Southerners have responsibilities towards people in the north. They would not get very far without the tankers which every eight hours or so—I can see them from my study window in my constituency — set off from Mound Point at Queensferry to take North sea oil to Korea, Japan and other countries. The south has an obligation to the north, which produces the oil revenues.

The United Kingdom is one country. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and I may disagree about many other matters, but we share a certain history on the question of devolution, and we both believe that this is one country. I am not simply beating a Scottish or northern drum. I am very much alarmed about the way in which the country is being polarised.

No speech from me would be complete without reference not just to the north but to the south Atlantic. I shall do no more than draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Brewster houses have so far cost £6.3 million, or £120,000 per house. Twenty-one of them are unoccupied.

I do not wish to abuse the debate, so I simply point out that defence expenditure is running amok. Perhaps just a little of the money that is spent on defence could be given to solve these urgent problems and to help the construction industry, which is the root of much of the problem. If there were homes and jobs in the building industry, not so many people from the north of England and Scotland would come south.

Like many others, I walk home from the House at night. I have to report that, going up Horseferry road, which is within eight minutes of the Chamber, I occasionally see a man who sleeps out. I once poked him because I thought that he was very ill —in fact he was just asleep. Like many others, he sleeps under the arches. Some of us might pass by and feel like the Biblical Levite, but it is the personal observation of those of us who walk home from the House that there are far more people out on the streets and without homes than there have been in the previous 20 years during which we have had the privilege to be hon. Members. My observation is that the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington has raised are growing.

12.10 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) for enabling us to express our anxieties about issues which certainly worry my constituents. East Kent has witnessed the exploitation of a system which is designed to help people in need. Many of my constituents are sure that that system is being manipultated and abused by the greedy.

In regard to east Kent, we are not discussing houses in multiple occupation in back streets, although there are some, but the use of prime site seaside hotels which have been converted to DHSS hostels. Those hotels have been advertised in the press in east London, the midlands and Liverpool. The advertisements entice young people to the area, saying that their rail fares will be paid and, in one case, that there is a taxi service from the hotel to the DHSS office. That means that the young people can collect their benefit and, more importantly, that the landlord can ensure that he collects their benefit. That is not what the system was designed for.

The going rate for full board in these hotels is about £65 a week. The Margate hotel and guest house association tells me that it can provide clean, decent and comfortable accommodation and good food in many of its smaller hotels, as it does for visitors throughout the south, for £45 a week. I must therefore tell my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security that the going rate for Dover, which is likely to be listed at £60 a week, is far too high. There is a considerable profit margin. I know that an offer of £200,000 was made for a 14-bedroomed sea front hotel in my constituency, with a view to converting it into a DHSS hostel. The offer consisted of £170,000 on mortgage — there was no money up front—and £30,000 in cash in two years' time. It is not difficult to work out who would pay the £30,000 cash—the taxpayer.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) about planning law requiring serious and urgent consideration. Officers in Thanet district council have examined it to see whether they can exercise any control over the abuse. They have found it extremely difficult because it is difficult to establish whether a seaside hotel has been turned into a house in multiple occupation. That problem is exacerbated when it is possible to rotate the tenants around different hotels so that they appear not to be in long-stay accommodation. As they are technically in short-stay accommodation, the hostel is still a hotel. I must observe, with all due respect to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, that housing legislation is being ignored in regard to the enforcement of any form of quality control.

Abuse of the system is especially serious in seaside constituencies such as mine where we are trying to revitalise our tourist trade. The east Kent economic development group is working hard to create new jobs in tourism and to attract new industry. To do that, we need the seed corn of our tourist business—our prime site hotels. We have too many small guest houses and hotels which provide too low a standard of accommodation. It would be good if we could encourage the conversion of some of those properties into holiday or long-stay flats to be made available in the private rented sector. One of the causes of the problem is the shortage of private rented accommodation. It is not that the accommodation does not exist but that successive rent legislation, despite the Government's attempt to encourage letting through the introduction of the shorthold lease, has resulted in much privately rented accommodation simply not being made available.

Is there scrounging and is the system being abused? Housing benefit provisions allow benefit to be paid when people move from one part of the country to another for a good reason, such as looking for a job. We are trying to create employment in east Kent. I hope and believe that we shall. I also hope that east Kent, which is a prime corner of England and which is closer to the continent than any other part, will have employment to offer to young people such as those who are represented by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and others. At the moment, however, we are faced with 24 per cent. male unemployment. Our overall unemployment rate is 19 per cent.

It cannot be right for most of the people who are being enticed to the south-east, I believe cruelly, to believe that they are looking for jobs. Some hotels offer them a choice. Either they can take full board or they can pay rent, take cash, and find their own food. Some of the costs of rent provided to the DHSS include beer money, which is on credit at bars which are kept open late into the night. In other cases, which are currently being investigated by the police in regard to fraud, some people are living on social benefits while employed as painters and decorators in the black economy. I hope that every hon. Member will agree that that is not what the benefits system was designed for and, therefore that it is right for us to address ourselves to the level and manner in which benefit is paid.

To demonstrate the point about the desire for employment, may I point out that I wrote on 26 November to two proprietors of the sort of hotels about which I have spoken. I said: I would also like at this stage to ask you to be kind enough to indicate to any of your present tenants, who are now technically my constituents, to make contact with me with a view to the provision of employment. While I, like the Jobcentre, do not have a magic wand, I am more than willing to assist anyone who is reasonably willing to assist themselves. I would be grateful if they could be advised to telephone our office … for a suitable appointment: In view of the numbers involved I propose to make special arrangements to see any tenant so inclined rather than to overwhelm a normal surgery morning. In other words, I offered an opportunity for people to attend a special surgery for the sole purpose of endeavouring to establish the type of employment that they were seeking, and to assist them to find it. I am sure that all hon. Members would have sought to do that. The offer was also carried in the local press. I received replies from children of my constituents asking for help, but I did not receive a single reply from anyone receiving DHSS benefit and staying in one of those hotels. Therefore, I question whether there is a serious search for work.

I welcome the measures that my right hon. and hon. Friends have taken, which seek to help those in genuine need. I agree with the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington that we must have controls enshrined in legislation for the inspection and registration of establishments which accommodate people receiving DHSS benefit. The level of payment should be established in exactly the same way as that from the public purse for private rented accommodation — that is, by the rent officer. We should know the standard of accommodation and food that is being provided and, therefore, what a reasonable rent and rate for the service is. At the moment people are paying through the nose for substandard accommodation. It is a racket and it must be stopped.

A matter not yet touched on but of considerable anxiety to my constituents and to my hon. Friends who represent seaside constituencies is the subject of board and lodging payments for old people in what are euphemistically called rest homes, nursing homes and mental after-care homes. There are both good and bad homes. I have many honourable examples of first-rate homes in my constituency. However, I am ashamed to say that there are also far too many bad ones.

In a town in my constituency a hotel describes itself as a holiday hotel for gentlefolk. A DHSS resident from inland was referred to it for a holiday and found it to be a mental after-care home. So serious was that that a constituent's child was chased up the road by a resident, and a bicycle was thrown through a front window, the glass from which nearly blinded his sister. The resident was taken to a local institution where he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and subsequently released back to the same sort of home. That is disgraceful.

The rate in east Kent for a rest home is £129 a week. That is the maximum and has immediately become the minimum. I am told by friends who run rest homes that it is possible and proper to provide a good service, accommodation, facilities and food for £80 a week and still make a profit. A great deal of money is swilling around in the pockets of people who are patently not earning it. We must address ourselves to the provision of attendance allowance and determine that, if it is to be paid, it should be paid for genuine attendance. Anyone who runs a rest home can quickly claim the best part of £29 a week per resident in return for virtually nothing.

There is a genuine need to determine that those providing care in rest homes and nursing homes have a minimum standard of care training, and that everyone employed in such homes is registered and trained before attendance allowance is paid. At the moment the system is being milked.

We should spend less. The public purse has a right to value for money. At the moment it is not getting it. We can save considerable sums in this area. That money would be infinitely better spent on providing back-up services through our excellent district nursing services to allow people to be cared for, not as cabbages in institutions, but in the community where they belong. We are throwing that opportunity away because we are wasting scarce resources.

I welcome the fact that the new regulations that govern the operation of such homes will come into force on 1 January. I hope that they will be stringently enforced. If that means closing those homes, they should be closed. The state and the beneficiaries of such care should get genuine value for money, care, rest and comfort. A high standard can be provided, but to do so we must eliminate the greedy, encourage the dedicated, and use the savings to improve the support services.

12.28 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I should like warmly to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on his choice of subject for debate and on the moving and feeling manner in which he introduced it. As hon. Members will be aware, my hon. Friend had considerable professional experience of this subject before his election to the House. His passion, eloquence and carefully researched argument all bore witness to that.

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that this subject is of critical importance to the distressingly fast escalating numbers of homeless, unemployed, and vulnerable — young people in particular — trapped in despair because of the deprivation of home and job. Over the years, my hon. Friend has conscientiously fought for the interests of such groups. His speech brought to the forefront of public attention those who are all too easily forgotten but whose needs are desperate and not of their own making. I pay him the warmest tribute for that.

The cruellest aspect of the debate is that, 11 days before Christmas, which is normally identified with families, security, warmth and reconciliation, we are debating changes in board and lodging allowances which will increase homelessness, divide families and worsen the living conditions of some of the poorest, most deprived and most vulnerable members of our society.

The Government's case is that overall expenditure on board and lodging allowances has escalated uncontrollably over the past five years and must, therefore, be sharply reined back. There are two reasons why that is an unjustified and callous response. One is that the Government have largely caused the problem. The second is that the substantial rise in expenditure is the result not, as has been suggested, of extravagance or malingering but of the remorseless rise in the number of people caught in the trap of homelessness which is not of their own making.

On the first count, we indict the Government as the cause of the problem because the numbers living in board-and-lodging accommodation have risen for two fundamental reasons: first, unemployment has soared, especially long-term unemployment among young people; secondly, the general shortage of rented accommodation has forced single people and families into lodgings. There is a shortage of rented accommodation because the Government have made enormous cuts in housing investment since 1979. Those huge, swingeing cuts amounting to a staggering reduction of 40 per cent. in real terms have run into hundreds if not thousands of millions of pounds in the past five years.

The other reason why we indict the Government is that, so far from the increase in costs being the result of abuse, the overwhelming cause is the relentless and terrifying rise over the past five years in the number of people driven into board-and-lodging accommodation. The figures have been quoted but I shall give them again. They have risen, according to Government handouts, from 41,000 in 1979 to 139,000 in 1984—an annual increase of 28 per cent.

There have been some suggestions in the debate that the rise in expenditure was due primarily to the sharp increase in charges. The Government's own press releases, however, show that average payments over the past five years have risen by 17 per cent. a year which is much lower than the increase of 28 per cent. in the number of claimants. It is significant that the increase since the new limits were introduced a year ago is estimated to be about 9 per cent. only. That is a relatively smaller increase than the increase in charges.

The problem is not caused by an excessive or unreasonable rise in payments; it is caused by the remorseless and frightening rise in the number of people deprived of a home by the dramatic collapse of house building by local authorities due to the Government's huge cuts in housing investment.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Is it not a fact that between 1979 and 1984 the average payment per claimant increased from £20.40 to £52.35 per week? That is two and a half times more and is staggeringly more than inflation.

Mr. Meacher

Of course it is an increase. We have all seen those figures. Although there has been a significant increase—greater than the rate of inflation—that is not the cause of what the Government call an uncontrollable rise in overall expenditure on board-and-lodging payments. The real cause in the increase in the numbers who have been driven by homelessness into board-and-lodging accommodation and bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

I shall press the charge against the Government even further. While the number of people in hostels and common lodging houses has remained fairly static over the past five years, there has been a huge rise in the number of people in board-and-lodging accommodation which is almost entirely due to the increased use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Such accommodation is used as a last resort by the increasing number of homeless single people. They live in this form of temporary accommodation not because they wish to but simply because they cannot obtain access to any form of ordinary permanent housing. That lies at the root of this problem. I repeat that it is the Government's wilful and destructive chopping of housing investment by nearly a half that is wreaking such a crucial penalty of homelessness, hardship and danger this Christmas.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman has failed to take account in the wrong statistics that he is quoting of the extent to which it has been possible to finance the Government's housing policy as a result of the sale of council houses. If one takes that into account, public sector investment in housing fell by 17 per cent. in cost terms between 1979–80 and 1983–84. On the same basis, when the Labour party was in power between 1974–75 and 1978–79, expenditure fell by 45 per cent.

Mr. Dalyell

That is not new investment.

Mr. Meacher

As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has said so correctly, the transfer of ownership is not new investment. That is the crucial point. There has been a cut in the housing budget—and the Minister will confirm this—from £5 billion in 1979 to approximately £3 billion this year. That is a colossal cut, and the human misery that all hon. Members see every week in their surgeries is testimony to the consequences of that.

That will be the fate of up to approximately 50,000 of our fellow citizens this Christmas. Far too often, conditions in bed-and-breakfast accommodation provide no security, practically no privacy and thoroughly inadequate amenities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington said so powerfully. In the worst cases, people are forced to endure squalor that every hon. Member would agree is intolerable. There is overcrowding and risk of death or injury from defective fire precautions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington beat me to the quotation of what happened in Camden. There have been many lethal fires and one such, which was little noticed, was the one in Camden a little over a month ago. It was nothing spectacular, and very little notice was taken of it at the time. It was just one cheap bed-and-breakfast establishment going up in flames. The fire was at 46 Gloucester place, a property owned by London Lets. Three persons suffocated in a top room. They had been housed there by Camden council, which estimated that the cost of housing people in such places was £280 a week. I repeat the comment made by one Camden councillor, that even death traps, it would appear, are not necessarily cheap.

Scandals such as this cry out for far more regulation of lodging houses and far greater protection of those who are forced to use them. However, the Government's new board-and-lodging allowances will bring about exactly the opposite. Single people aged 16 or 17 could have their benefit cut immediately. Other unemployed claimants could have their benefit cut after two to four weeks unless the DHSS officers accept that they are claiming at their normal local office, however that is defined. I hope that the Minister will help us on that point. Families with children could face cuts after an unspecified time, and all these measures will come on top of the effects of the imposition of national limits on board-and-lodging payments.

What these effects mean can be shown by the survey done by Shelter—I am sure that other hon. Members have been supplied with a copy of the report — into hotels in seven areas of the south-east of England. In a letter to me, Shelter said: less than half the hotels contacted would take homeless people with children and the average cost of bed and breakfast for a couple with two children under 11 was £156.29 per week. If the Government's proposed regulation changes come into effect, the maximum amount payable to the family would be £133.80 a week. After the family had used their personal allowance to pay the difference, they would only have £2.21 per week to pay for meals and all other expenses. That is the meaning of what we are discussing.

Homeless people without children will have to try to find accommodation in the area in which they became homeless. With the Government insisting on the requirement to return to "the normal office area", they are reviving the practice of parish relief of the Elizabethan Poor Law era whereby the poor were hounded from parish to parish until they were eventually forced to return to their place of origin. We are seeing exactly the same process today. The terminology is modern. No longer do we talk about parishes. We now talk about the normal benefit office area.

Perhaps worst of all under the new regulations is that the lower cost ceilings mean that accommodation at a price that homeless people can afford will be scarcer. It will be of a low standard. Abundant evidence has been produced in the debate to show that to be true. Sharing rooms with strangers will be inevitable.

The DHSS suggests that claimants without children should look for cheaper accommodation in other areas. At the same time, it is restricting payments to boarders outside their normal office areas after two to four weeks. This seemingly unnoticed contradiction is just one illustration of the confused and inadequate thinking underlying these proposals.

Before the end of the consultation period on 28 December—which in any event is much too short a time —I hope that the Government, in the light of today's debate, will seriously think again of the appalling misery that these new measures will bring about for some of the most helpless and innocent victims in society.

These proposals will save the Government money, but at what a cost! For those at present in lodgings, hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments the Government's saving will mean increased overcrowding, slum conditions, squatting and in some cases even sleeping rough in the streets. People will have to choose, after these regulations, between a bed and a meal. There will not be money for both, as the example supplied by Shelter demonstrates. These proposals will deny to those in lodgings the basic right even to a minimum decent existence.

In my view, what makes all this so much more tragic and very much more deplorable is that these cuts in allowances for the homeless are being imposed by the Government at the same time as the Prime Minister delivers herself of an unequivocal commitment to maintian mortgage interest tax relief, even when it benefits the rich disproportionately and inequitably. It is all the more deplorable when cuts are being imposed on poor and homeless claimants with scarcely a murmur from the parliamentary Conservative party — indeed, we have heard acclamation from some Government supporters. Only two weeks ago they were in uproar about the proposals for the relatively smaller cuts in education grants for the children of rich parents.

Mr. Gow

Since the hon. Gentleman has now ventured into fiscal policy and is critical of the Government about tax relief on mortgage interest, perhaps he will say what is his party's policy towards tax relief on mortgage interest.

Mr. Meacher

I believe that we should reduce mortgage interest relief at the higher rates. That money is exclusively concentrated on the rich and, by any standards, it is totally unjustified when at the same time the Government seek to make savings by hitting exclusively at some of the poorest.

The Government's role this Christmas will be remembered not for any spirit of compassion or reconciliation, which generally all Governments have managed in the past at Christmas time, but for a rancorous and hard-nosed spitefulness towards some of the most vulnerable and needy groups. This Christmas the Government are knocking £1 off the supplementary benefit of some of the poorest pensioners with heating allowances. They are knocking an extra £1 a week off the already severely depleted supplementary benefit for the families and children of striking miners. They are now cutting the allowances for the homeless which will undoubtedly lead to some of the unemployed and the homeless being thrown on the streets. I hope that the Government, in the smug and pauchily self-satisfied form of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, are well satisfied with the savings that will be made by these cutbacks in board-and-lodging allowances at an execrable cost in human suffering.

Mr. Gow

The hon. Gentleman has destroyed his case by massive overstatement. Perhaps he would confirm, since he is talking about generosity at Christmas time, that he was a member of a Government who in two years failed to pay the Christmas bonus.

Mr. Meacher

What matters to pensioners is—

Mr. Gow

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that?

Mr. Meacher

Since the Minister has raised the matter, the fact is that during the five years that we were in government the value of the pension rose by 20 per cent. in real terms. For a married couple it would be £5 per week higher today than it is if this Government when they first took office had not broken the link with earnings in the uprating of the pension. The huge increases for pensioners which were given by the Labour Government have been denied by this Government. The hon. Gentleman should look at his facts.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Ray Whitney)

Since the hon. Gentleman has referred to the impact of his Government's policies on pensioners, does he also take into account, and will he allow pensioners to take into account, the impact of the huge inflation which his Government launched upon pensioners' incomes and pensioners' economies?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman has clearly not got his feet under the table, following his shift from the Foreign Office. When we refer to "real terms" we mean that even after the increase in inflation there was an increase of 20 per cent. for pensioners under the Labour Government. Under this Government the increase is about 1 or 2 per cent. Under the Labour Government pensioners secured a massively higher benefit than they have secured under this Government.

This is not the way to deal with the intensely bitter and harsh problems of homelessness. The only satisfactory answer to the worsening scandal of often poor and sometimes appallingly squalid bed-and-breakfast accommodation is to guarantee the right to a decent, secure home. What is fundamentally at fault is the huge cut in housing investment, and the enormous rundown in local authority house building.

In his speech the Minister said that it was a matter of resources. We agree that it is a matter of resources. The Minister made great play of the fact that there has been a cut in the housing investment programme of "only"—that was the Minister's word—£65 million. No doubt the Minister wishes to take credit for the fact that had it not been for him the cut might have been larger. I give him credit for that. But that is not the point. The point is that there would have been a significant increase this year if the Government had not voluntarily chosen in the Budget to halve the stamp duty on stock exchange transactions and to abolish the investment income surcharge; £520 million was handed out exclusively to those with stocks and shares in excess of £100,000 per person. The Government now have the audacity to come to say that there are insufficient resources for the homeless and the unemployed.

Mr. Gale


Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman has made his speech. Other hon. Members wish to speak and I do not wish to speak for very much longer.

What is clearly needed is a revival of local authority house building within which a duty can then be placed on local authorities to provide permanent accommodation of a satisfactory standard for anyone who becomes homeless. That must be the right answer to the problem.

Secondly, if the DHSS can introduce a registration scheme for residential homes—which I support—why not do the same for houses in multiple occupation? That is much needed. At present, owners of multiple-occupied houses have no duty in law to observe decent standards and to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their tenants and residents. Surely at the very least mandatory minimum standards are required to protect residents against fire and overcrowding and to maintain basic amenities, repairs and management in all multi-occupied hostels, lodging houses and bedsit flats.

Thirdly, it is imperative that adequate furniture grants should be readily available to enable people on benefit to move from temporary accommodation into permanent housing. It is outrageous that supplementary benefit restrictions on furniture grants, especially the notorious suitable alternative furnished accommodation rule, should block claimants in bed-and-breakfast accommodation from obtaining cheaper permanent accommodation when it is readily available to them. If the debate achieves nothing else, the Minister should at least announce the lifting of that iniquitous rule which traps people in board and lodging.

Above all, the Government must accept that simply reducing claimants' benefits—the line adopted by the Government throughout the debate — and holding ceilings down on overall expenditure is not the answer to the problem. The Government must acknowledge that control of bed and breakfast by keeping ceilings down has been tried before. They tried it before November 1983 and they had to abandon it last year because claimants were unable to secure accommodation at all or they had to pay charges out of their own money. That is already happening in London where DHSS ceilings are already well below market prices in many cases.

The debate concerns an intensely human issue where the cause of human misery is clearly identifiable and preventable. Yet the Government have chosen to target the victims and not the cause. In effect, homeless claimants are being made to pay the price for the Government's failure to tackle the root of the problem in the rundown of local authority house building which forces thousands upon thousands of homeless persons against their will into squalid and often dangerous bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

The effect of that disregard of the real cause of this terrible human tragedy and the consequential financial punishment which is now being levied on the victims is not only economically misplaced and unwise but surely, by any standards, callous and cruel.

We have learned from bitter experience of the Government that appeals to a spirit of Christmas compassion will undoubtedly fall on stony ground, but we deeply hope that this time public indignation at the gratuitous intensification of the misery of those now made homeless through no fault of their own will cause the Government at least seriously to reconsider the harsh morality of the measures.

12.53 pm
Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

All hon. Members present today are grateful to the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. It has been characterised by some thoughtful and well-researched contributions, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), and the particularly thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). Therefore, it is rather sad that the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) should have descended into the extravagant rhetoric of party trench warfare.

We face a serious problem which worries hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is particularly serious because so many young people are being enticed from the north of England, Scotland and other places to our major cities and, increasingly, to seaside resorts. There is ample evidence of that enticement. Unscrupulous hoteliers and boarding house operators in my constituency have put advertisements in Liverpool newspapers inviting people to come to Bournemouth and occupy accommodation that will be paid for by the DHSS. That enticement of young people from their homes and families is taking place on a massive scale.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West was wrong to say that recent developments are associated with increased unemployment. Last year's figures show that while unemployment among those under 25 increased by 9 per cent., the number of claimants for board and lodging in that group increased by 60 per cent. That shows the scale of the problem.

In my constituency, the number of claimants for board-and-lodging payments has increased by 40 per cent. — from 5,000 to 7,000 — in the past two years. The estimated number from the Merseyside area has increased from just over 1,000 to 2,500.

There has been an explosion of bed-and-breakfast accommodation in seaside resorts, partly because of the large increase in permitted payments. The Government recognised the problem in the autumn of last year, when they attempted to put limits on the amount that could be paid in any one area and suggested the implementation of local maximum payments. The problem is that the local maximum has become the basic rate in many areas and unscrupulous operators promptly increased their charges when the maximum was set.

My local hotel and guest house associations confirmed to me that that happened and that the rate paid for DHSS accommodation is higher than the rate charged for bed-and-breakfast accommodation that is readily available elsewhere in the town. The net national average payment increased from £47.50 a week in 1982 to £66 a week in 1983. Payments range from £40 to £110 per week.

One hotel in a prime location on the west cliff at Bournemouth now houses only DHSS claimants. We are talking, not of back-street accommodation, but of prime hotel accommodation in prime locations.

The attraction of young people to London and to seaside resorts in the south, which my local newspaper now calls the Costa del Dole, has produced enormous strains on the resources of local authorities, which have to inspect the accommodation, and of fire officers, who have to ensure that the accommodation complies with fire regulations. The explosion in the number of young people coming into areas in the south of England is causing the difficulties that have arisen with regard to fire regulations and local authority inspections.

More importantly, we are in danger of treating a whole new subculture, because young people who remain unemployed for a long time and who live in such accommodation may turn to wholly undesirable activities. In my constituency there is growing evidence of an increase in drug abuse and drug trafficking, particularly involving hard drugs such as heroin and cocain and, of course, that has implications for muggings, burglaries and prostitution. That is why I am particularly grateful that the Government have taken some action to reduce the number of 16 and 17-year-olds able to qualify for such accommodation, as I believe that those people are particularly vulnerable, especially given the moral decay that seems to accompany such large numbers of young people occupying bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

We have a national scandal on our hands, which the Government's proposals go some way towards correcting. Nevertheless, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North that the proposed levels of payment are often still far too high. In my constituency the present level is £60 a week, but there is ample evidence that that amount is over-generous and well above the amount necessary to provide a reasonable profit and return for genuine guest house proprietors.

I welcome the fact that the Government are proceeding further with a period of consultation, and I hope, that it will result in the worst abuses being checked. The Government will then earn the gratitude of the people of Bournemouth, and of taxpayers and parents throughout the United Kingdom, who are deeply concerned about what is happening to so many of our young people.

1.2 pm

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on his success in the ballot and on his choice of motion. It is all too seldom that we have an opportunity to discuss the terrible plight of homeless people in this country, yet they are the most vulnerable and deprived people of all. As we approach Christmas, it is particularly appropriate to consider the desperate circumstances in which many people are forced to live.

The debate has so far been marked by a number of powerful and moving speeches, but for the record I should point out that, unfortunately, no representative of the Liberal party has been present for it. Nevertheless, the debate has been characterised by completely different approaches on the part of Conservative and Labour Members. For example, the basic argument of Conservative Members is that an abuse has been identified which the Government are apparently tackling. The honesty and sincerity of Conservative Members in identifying abuses would be more readily commendable to us if the Government and their supporters were less selective in the way in which they identified them.

If the Government were more concerned about the £4,000 million a year that is lost to the Exchequer through tax evasion, and slightly less concerned about other abuses, we might take what they say more seriously. When they identify abuses which affect small numbers of people at the raw end of our supposedly prosperous society, and then go over the top in condemning those abuses while ignoring others, that gives us the right to challenge the Government's thinking. We also have the right to challenge the Government's proposed solutions to those abuses. Their proposals on the board-and-lodging allowance tackle the symptom rather than the root causes.

I wish to tackle the issue raised by a number of my hon. Friends, which has not yet been answered by the Government, about single payments for furniture. It is surely nonsense for the Government to insist, through the DHSS, that claimants for single payments for furniture wishing to move into independent unfurnished rented accommodation must go through an obstacle course which appears deliberately to be designed to prevent them from succeeding. That is surely nonsense when the Government are condemning young people and others for their adoption of the board-and-lodging alternative, into which they have been forced by the Government's policy on single payments.

I took up the matter with a local DHSS office at Archway tower in Junction road. I asked about its policy towards applicants for single payments for furniture. I was rightly referred to the decision of the tribunal of commissioners, which stated clearly: the onus of proof on the question whether there is suitable alternative accommodation in the area available to him, lies on the claimant. That is bad, because imposing the search for alternative accommodation on a claimant might lead to his not moving into proper, decent, unfurnished rented accommodation. I hope that the Government will say today that they will soon change the rules.

The interpretation of the rules is even worse. When the claimant goes to Archway tower to apply for single payments, he is told that he must show:

  1. "1. No suitable furnished accommodation is available in the area or,
  2. 2. furnished accommodation is available but it is not available to you or,
  3. 3. furnished accommodation is available but it is not suitable to you and the members of your household."
To prove one, two or all three of those criteria, the claimant is presented with a list of five items of information which he must provide before even being considered for single payments. The list includes:
  1. "1. the sources of information used by you to find addresses of suitable furnished accommodation …
  2. 2. A list of up to 15 addresses for rent which you have visited or contacted.
  3. 3. Addresses of accommodation to rent available to you.
  4. 4. Addresses of accommodation to rent, available to you but not suitable, and the reasons why they are not suitable.
  5. 5. Addresses of accommodation to rent but not available to you, and the reasons why they are not available to you."
That requisition for information is presented to the applicant who goes to the DHSS saying that he wishes to move into rented accommodation, but does not have a bed or a cooker, and asks for a single payment to enable him to buy those items of essential equipment and furniture. If that is not a deterrent for those wanting to go into rented, unfurnished accommodation, I do not know what is.

The net effect of such a process — that obstacle course—imposed on claimants is inevitably that people are forced back into the board and lodging and hotel situation which they are often desperate to get out of. Such a requirement imposes on them the need to go into that inadequate and often squalid accommodation which the Government rightly say is inadequate. I hope that the Government will not hide behind the answers that they have given so far to myself and my hon. Friends when we have pressed the point and argued about it.

The Government have said that the matter is under review and that they will report in due course once they have considered all the information. Surely they have had long enough to see what is happening on the single payments for furniture issue, and surely it is now time for them to come to the House —I hope that the Under-Secretary will say something about this later—and tell us that they have decided to get rid of this wretched tribunal decision and wretched rule, which imposes such an obstacle course on claimants. That is the first and, in many ways, most important commitment that the Government might be able to give us.

Another issue was referred to ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington — the conditions of bed-and-breakfast and hotel accommodation into which not just single people but families with children are forced by local authorities around the country. In passing, I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of my own local authority, the London borough of Islington. It is much maligned by many people, but it has an exceptionally good record in its treatment of homeless families. At the moment it has no families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and, what is more, hotels that lie within its boundaries are the subject of rigorous investigation by both the planning department and the environmental health department to ensure that at least some minimal standards are met. That is not true in many other local authorities around the country.

The conditions in which many families are forced to live are, quite frankly, intolerable. The details have been given by others of my hon. Friends, so I shall not rehearse the well-known details of the squalor that many children, parents and single people suffer when they are put into those horrible and distressing places to live, often for a long time. It is no accident that the families in Camden have revolted so strongly in the past month over the conditions in which they are being forced to live. It is not good enough for the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) to say, "Of course there are these problems, and I am sure that the people responsible will be punished." The problem is that the people responsible will not be punished under current legislation.

I recently asked a written question about bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I asked the Secretary of State whether he intends to propose legislation which will ensure that conditions in these hotels are satisfactory and safe. The answer concluded: Authorities have ample powers to ensure satisfactory conditions, amenities and safety in houses in multiple occupation. The need for further measures will be considered in the light of the outcome of the Department's current research into the use and condition of such accommodation. — [Official Report,11 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 441.] When will that research be concluded, and when will the Government make proposals? We have waited too long already.

The Minister did not answer my question. The reply was about existing legislation, which enables some local authorities, at their discretion, to take action to try to make the hotels a bit safer. The record of local authorities of all political persuasions is not good. For example, it took Tower Hamlets five long years to get round to tackling the conditions in Princes lodge. The notoriety of the treatment of the inhabitants there was exposed in the Daily Mirrorsix or seven months ago.

After the fire at Clanricarde gardens, the ombudsman found the Kensington and Chelsea authority guilty of maladministration because it had failed to follow up complaints over a number of years. The list of instances is long.

There is no duty on local authorities to enforce proper minimum standards of safety and condition for houses in multiple occupation. Local authorities should be under a duty; they should not be left with a mere discretion. The owners of such houses should also be under a duty in law to observe decent standards and to ensure the welfare, safety and health of tenants. Neither duty exists in law. It is about time that the Government stopped delaying and came forward with proposals for legislation to impose those simple duties.

The relegation to board and lodging or inadequate hotel accommodation of young people, the elderly and families with children is overshadowed by the need for a proper and decent programme launched by the Government to provide houses to rent through local authorities and housing associations. The Minister told us that enormous sums were going into house building. That sounds wonderful, but the reality is different. Housing investment programmes and allocations to local authorities have been more than halved in the last four years. Each year, about 1,500 or 1,600 homeless families in my constituency apply for assistance. About 8,000 people are on the waiting list and about 7,500 on the transfer list. In those circumstances, the cut in the provision of funds for housing to rent is scandalous.

I welcome the provisions which the Minister for Housing and Construction announced earlier today, but they are marginal. I welcome the reinstatement of the freedom to use Housing Corporation short-life money for dwellings owned by the local authority. However, I must point out that that power was removed by the Government two years ago. Now they are trumpeting the fact that they have brought it back. That is wonderful—I welcome it —but it is not enough and it is too late.

The change in the homelessness indicators in the general needs index for the HIP allocations is also welcome, but it is on the margin and will not in any way meet the enormous need that exists and the desperate need to increase the amount of investment devoted to the provision of decent quality accommodation to rent from local authorities.

The Government have reneged on their obligations to homeless people. In bringing forward their latest measures they have identified the wrong problem and adopted the wrong solution. I hope that when the Government consider the desperate needs and plight of so many people around the country who have no job and no home and simply want to create a decent minimal standard of life for themselves, they will listen with more attention to their conscience. The Government are not helping those people. I hope that as a result of today's debate they will think more seriously about the needs of those people and give them more attention than hitherto.

1.22 pm
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)

I, too, welcome this important debate, which has made it plain that there is concern and caring on both sides of the House about a problem which is not just financial — perhaps not primarily financial—but arises from a combination of financial and deeply human factors.

My interest in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and hotels began with a letter from a constituent in July 1983. My constituent wrote to me from a hotel in Croydon. He told me that he had been a Croydon resident but had gone north with his wife to obtain employment. In the north he had been made redundant twice. His health had suffered and a doctor advised him and his family to return to Croydon and they had done so. My constituent wrote: My wife and I and our two daughters aged 9 and 5 now live in a room 12 ft by 10 ft. We eat in here, we live in here and sleep in here. The rent is £102 a week, which the DHSS pay. I receive £152 a week in total. I have been offered jobs at £80 and £90 a week but I cannot afford to take them because my benefit will go and I will not be able to stay here any longer. I am currently ill with worry and my wife and I fear a breakdown.

That is a typical example of the letters that many hon. Members have received in the past few years. I went to see the family and found that the conditions were just as my constituent had described them. I saw the two children. They were already looking almost numb with the shock of the life that they were leading. Two children aged 9 and 5 were existing in that small room. I thought that it would be small wonder if, when they reached the age of 14 or 15, they became delinquent or problem children. If those children turned to crime, who could say in all conscience that the answer lay in detention centres, corporal punishment and more discipline?

I thought that I saw 10 rooms there. They were let at an average of £100 a week. That meant an income for the landlord of about £40,000 or £50,000 a year. That seemed a little greedy — a somewhat high return on his investment. I also saw that the taxpayer was not being given value for money, but the taxpayer is not the only customer. The real customers are the husband and wife and their children. There are two customers in any service. I also saw the overcrowding. I wondered what on earth there was to stop the landlord telling the husband and wife, "Have a room for yourselves and put your children in another one." Where was the compassion in that hotel, or was the only motive money?

I followed the matter up by asking the Minister who was then responsible for these matters whether it was the DHSS's responsibility to check the quality of accommodation before making payments, with special reference to overcrowding. His response was that responsibility lay with the local housing authority, not with the DHSS. I immediately thought that something was wrong, because much money is being paid by the taxpayer, but the taxpayer, through the DHSS, is not checking the value of the accommodation.

I then got in touch with the local housing authority and discovered, as the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) so eloquently argued, that there is no legal obligation on the local authority to check accommodation. It has only powers to do so. I read a letter which set out those powers and found it complicated. It seemed full of red tape. I also discovered that local authorities are often too busy, for whatever reason, to follow the issue through and to oblige owners of such accommodation to comply with decent standards. They do not follow through their powers as they might. Ought there not to be duties rather than powers?

I fear that the problem is so enormous that we cannot get a straightforward answer. We have too much to do to achieve better results for taxpayers and customers. However, it is ridiculous that the man in the hotel could not afford to take jobs paying £80 or £90 a week because his supplementary benefit of £152 a week would disappear. That is sad, because there is dignity in a job. We should get to grips with our benefits system and enable people who are offered work to take it. They should not be penalised by loss of benefit to the extent that working becomes not worth while. I would much rather that the man were in work for £80 or £90 a week and had his income topped up by supplementary benefit. He would then have the dignity of work.

There should be an obligation on some body, whether the DHSS or the local authority, to inspect accommodation and tell a landlord, "This will not do. You must do better. You must provide two rooms for a husband and wife with two or three children. You cannot crowd them in like this. We will not have such housing in our area."

In general, however, I welcome the Government's proposals to prevent abuse of supplementary benefits paid to people in board-and-lodging accommodation. Perhaps the Government are approaching the problem from only one end. Although we must examine the financial abuses, we should approach the matter from the other end and ensure that the customers — those who live in such accommodation—get value for money.

I welcome the Government's proposed survey of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. If they examine the matter from the point of view of the interest of the recipients—those in housing difficulties—that will be good.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for the fact that I may not be present to hear his reply, but I shall read it with great interest. I know from my short time in the House that many hon. Members from all parties are caring and compassionate, and have knowledge of the problems at the sharp end. It is vital that we recognise our responsibility both for the public purse and for each other's welfare. We should help solve each other's day-to-day problems. We must remove the blot on the landscape. No hon. Member can be proud of the appalling conditions that exist in this area. We would do well, if we are to pass on to our children and grandchildren a civilised country, to concentrate on some of the saddest aspects of homelessness.

1.30 pm
Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

I apologise for my absence at the beginning of the debate. Together with virtually every London Member of Parliament. I had a meeting with the Commissioner of Police about the reorganisation proposals that are to be introduced in the London area. There would have been more London Members present had we not discovered that the chief of police had decided to consult Marks and Spencer and MacDonald's Hamburgers on reorganisation rather than hon. Members. I am sure that hon. Members will deplore that.

It is clear that tax cuts on the cost of reducing support for the homeless are a leg-up for the better off, a spit in the eye to concerned public opinion and a kick in the groin for those who are already down and out. The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) gave the impression—it reflects the false popular image—that accommodation for the homeless is a case of young scroungers taking holidays in seaside resorts. But people are in bed-and-breakfast hostels because they have nowhere else to go, and many of them are not young people.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) argued, the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has increased because homelessness has increased. The Government claim that many more people under the age of 25 now claim board-and-lodging allowances. That reflects three main factors. First, benefit rates for people who stay with their parents have been cut, which has led to more pressure to leave home. Secondly, the long-term effects of youth unemployment are beginning to show, with more people getting on their bikes to look for work. Thirdly, no other housing options remain open.

The tragic position of the homeless reflects the abolition of the strategic housing role of the GLC. I witness that in my own constituency. When I became the Member of Parliament for 'Vauxhall in 1979, we used to move 3,500 families or individuals from the borough to alternative accommodation in London. That has now trickled almost to a standstill. My constituents recognise the inter-borough nomination scheme to be a farce. The abolition of the GLC's housing role has slammed the door on the inner city and doubled the waiting list. There are 20,000 people in Lambeth waiting for housing transfers. People come every week to my advice surgeries to protest about the conditions in which they live and about the fact that they are in hostel accommodation. They need, as the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) rightly said, better value for public money. But the best value for public money would be council house accommodation or other housing.

The Government's proposed limits are hopelessly unrealistic. The rate for London will be £60 or £70 a week for full board and lodging. The current DHSS level in four central London offices is £89 a week, and for Tresco house £110 a week. How is that gap to be met? The effects will be little short of catastrophic for the least privileged and most socially handicapped in our society. Many voluntary hostels will be forced to close as they will have no source of funding to replace lost rent. Many people will be thrown out because they cannot pay. Landlords will have a financial incentive to pack in more people per room and to spend less on maintenance. More tragedies such as that which occurred in Camden will happen.

Hostels which are aid or refuge projects, such as the Clapham women's aid project in my constituency, will have problems. The Government have changed the basis of payment to the refuge. It will no longer be made direct to the refuge from the DHSS, but will go to the women who use it, many of whom are in desperate financial circumstances. The result is that the refuge cannot rely upon a steady rental income. It is therefore faced with a possibility of closure. I am sure that the Minister will wish to address himself to that aspect of the problem and return the payment system to the status quo. Without it, several of the women who are gaining considerable support from the project will be rendered technically homeless and some of them will be put out on the street.

I was impressed by the speech of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West. He was right to challenge the amount of money spent in bed-and-breakfast hostels and to stress that we must consider not just the cost to the taxpayer but the value for money obtained by the user. But he did not follow through the implication of his analysis, which is that when high rents are being charged by unscrupulous landlords there should be at least a rent ceiling if not rent control.

The Government, who so often stress that they want value for money in the private sector, as the spending agency have every right to determine standards of accommodation to avoid overcrowding and a system of rent ceilings and control. There is a double standard at present. There has been a consensus on housing since the Parker Morris standards were introduced after the war. Rooms built in the public sector had to be of a minimum size. But we do not demand the same in the case of accommodation for the homeless. The Government are therefore inconsistent.

The cuts in social expenditure directly reflect the general cuts which are endemic to the Government's economic strategy. That strategy is designed to maintain the shibboleth of monetary targets, but it completely fails to recognise that public spending, such as the social security spending on the homeless, directly sustains rather than drains the private sector.

I should like to take up the points made by the hon. Member for Thanet, North with which I strongly disagree. He gave an example of a hostel which had a £30,000 cash turnover from single homeless people, which was paid by the DHSS. Let us analyse what that revenue is spent on. It is public money going to the private sector. Who does the repairs? It is almost always the local builder. One of the major companies—ICI or Berger—will provide the materials for the decorations; Allied Carpets will probably supply the carpets; and the furniture may well be supplied by GEC's Schreiber division. There are no public enterprises supplying such goods and services or things like blankets and sheets.

DHSS payments for accommodation for homeless people are a direct transfer of money from the public to the private sector. There is only one exception. It is the public-to-public transfer of money for gas or electricity. That includes heating. Do the Government wish to condemn those people who might otherwise be on the street to hypothermia?

The Prime Minister has cited St. Francis of Assisi, but this is not the morality of that saint. Rather, it is the morality, denounced by St. Matthew, of to those that hath shall be given … but from him that hath not shall be taken away". It is a poisoned Christmas present which neither the homeless nor the caring public will forget.

1.40 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I have listened with great interest to the debate and I compliment the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on introducing this subject, which needs airing frequently. Today, from both sides of the House, we have heard some unsavoury stories of what is going on in such accommodation. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of profiteering and racketeering at the expense of the taxpayer. The Government have decided, partly because of the publicity given to recent cases, to take some action in this regard, and it is right that they should do so. We have also heard about fire hazards, assaults on tenants, the problems of getting proper service, of general harassment and even about the bully-boy tactics of some grasping owners who go down to the post office to assist in a strong-arm way the people who are claiming their benefit to collect their money. We all deplore this.

For too long, we have relied on the present system to solve the problem. We have to look much deeper below the surface than we have looked this morning. No hon. Member could do other than deplore the conditions under which so many of these people are living, but we need look a little deeper and ask ourselves how this has come about. We have heard something this morning about lack of Government investment in this sector. We have been told that if only the Government would spend more money in this way things would be better. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) pointed out the advantages to British industry of supplying equipment for proper fire-proofing and for kitchens in making accommodation much more suitable. I accept what he says and I support him and other hon. Members in their demand that there should be an effective inspectorate to ensure that where the taxpayers' money is being spent it is being spent properly. Those who provide accommodation for those who are not able to look after their own interests adequately, for the reasons explained by a number of hon. Members, should at least be required to reach a certain standard before such accommodation is considered suitable for taxpayers' money.

However, I wish to draw the attention of the House to one fundamental aspect of this matter—the role of the private sector. We have had controls over the housing sector since the first world war, when rent controls were first brought in. Since that time it has been a requirement that certain unfurnished dwellings — and now even furnished dwellings that are let and are not part of a hotel or hostel complex which include the provision of service —are subject to control. The control is such that it deters the majority of people who would be able and willing to make an investment in that sector.

To whom do I look to do it? I have no wish to look at the kind of racketeers who are operating in the market at present. But there are substantial sums available. We have heard recently about the millions of pounds removed overseas by the National Union of Mineworkers. There are substantial sums available in the trade union movement generally. Millions of pounds are invested by the life assurance offices every week. The pension funds have similar sums which they have to place to make an investment return for those who benefit from the income.

Where is all this money going? It is going to the stock market and to the money market, but not to the housing market where I believe it should be going. If we had tackled the problem sooner—certainly by the beginning of the 1950s — housing today would not be in the appalling state it is. There would be a lot more choice for people looking for accommodation. There would be a lot more competition. Who, after all, would go to a shop to buy a second-rate pullover? Instead, we go to Marks and Spencer and other similar stores where we find extremely good value for money. That good value for money has been created by the sensible investment of capital in machinery, enterprises and shops.

There is no earthly reason why the same should not have been done in housing, why there should not have been a choice, and why ill-equipped and poor housing should not have been phased out many years ago. Sadly, that has not happened because successive Governments have tried to interfere in the market, and we all know what happens when Governments interfere in any area—and certainly it applies to housing.

We are discussing the appalling conditions being experienced at the margin. It is people who are not able to look after themselves who are so badly affected. If we had made a proper market, these people at the margin would have been provided for in adequate accommodation and it would not have been necessary to look for other remedies.

In the general housing sector we have the fair rent officers, who were a creation of a previous Labour Government to reintroduce a system to ensure control. That control is fine for those who have adequate places in which to live, and there is no difficulty for them. They can quite easily go on living in the accommodation that they occupy. They have certain rights given to them by Parliament to remain in that accommodation, and Parliament also gives them protection. But it does not provide for those who come along subsequently looking for accommodation and are not provided for, and there is no way in which property owners will provide accommodation if the return that they can get on it is limited and they are prevented from maintaining it as they should.

If we accept that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that everyone is adequately housed, it should also be their responsibility to ensure that a proper return is obtained for those who provide sensible and adequate accommodation. That we have not done. As a first step there should be a requirement that fair rent officers must take into account the cost of the construction of the buildings that they are considering so that the owner, whoever it may be—whether a trade union or a private individual — receives an adequate return upon his investment. He should be able to invest a sum of money that has a certain purchasing power. He ought to be able to realise that sum of money in the future and find that it has a similar purchasing power. That is not possible in the housing market now.

We acknowledge that in the majority of cases it is the taxpayer who makes up the difference. Therefore, it would not be the tenants, who cannot afford to pay, who would be meeting the extra cost; the extra cost would be met by the taxpayer. In freeing the market we should enable a person who is receiving benefit to have a much wider choice. He would not be inhibited, as he is now, by being restricted to that section of the market that ensures that he lives in sub-standard accommodation.

The only answer that has been offered this morning is that we should introduce yet further controls, rules and regulations. That will cost the taxpayer a great deal more money in supervision. Therefore, would it not be more sensible to look at this problem sensibly, in a proper and open way, and try to move as soon as possible towards a decontrolled market, thereby increasing the quality of life for everybody, including those harassed and inadequately accommodated people whom we have been discussing this morning?

1.52 pm
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

The motion on the Order Paper today is a bit of a catch all. It covers a very wide range of topics. However, we recognise that the motion has been put down for the worthiest of motives. I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on the dignity and responsibility with which he introduced this most important topic. The House may not be so full on a Friday as it might be, but, as is often the case on a Friday, the debate has been informed and interesting for those who have taken part in it. No doubt that has been noticed by the considerable number of members of the public who have been listening to the debate.

The debate concerns the housing of people in need. My concern is the housing of people who are in housing need. Therefore, I reject the case that has been made for many young, homeless people. They are not in housing need. A very large number of them are not homeless. They have homes to which to go. Indeed, they have homes which they have recently left. My experience in Birmingham and London and the experience of hon. Members on both sides of the House who have constituencies in seaside resorts is that many of those young people would be much better served by a caring and responsible housing department or social services department giving them a train ticket, walking them to the nearest station and putting them on the train back home. If they are unemployed and miserable in Glasgow, we can be absolutely certain that if they are unemployed they will be a great deal more miserable in London. It is not right and proper that, where they are unemployed, they should be perhaps enjoying themselves prancing around on the beaches, as we have seen recently on television programmes, in the constituencies of a number of hon. Members.

There are young homeless people. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, who was an assistant director of social services, will be aware that one of the most acute problems is that which faces young people who have grown up in the care of local authorities. I was responsible for 4,000 young people who were in that position. We carried out a survey and found that it was misnamed a children's department. Three quarters of those we were looking after were over the age of 11, and half of them were over the age of 14. Consequently we were preparing those young people to live in institutions of one kind or another—frequently, sadly, penal institutions—for the rest of their lives. Therefore we have been cruel by being kind to many of those young people. It would be better if we said to them, "Go home, and start to learn how to get on with your parents, your brothers and sisters and everybody else."

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) referred to elderly and handicapped people who are living in private and voluntary homes. That is not just a problem in the major resorts of the south coast; it is becoming a major problem in many parts of the country. Many of those homes—in my view, most of them—are first-class and provide an excellent standard of care, not just for the elderly but for the mentally ill, mentally handicapped, disabled, disabled children, and so on.

Some of the growth in accommodation provided no doubt shows the considerable growth in need during recent years, particularly as hospitals for the long-term care of disabled people have tended to reduce their numbers. But some of the growth also shows the greed of those who are prepared to provide the accommodation. In 1978, 7,000 such people claimed supplementary benefit as residents in private and voluntary homes—about 20 per cent. of the total number of beds provided in such accommodation. By 1982, that had risen to 15,700—30 per cent. of all beds. It is estimated that by 1984, 42,500 people will be living in such specialist—or purporting to be specialist —accommodation and claiming supplementary benefit. That must be nearly half of all the beds so provided. The cost has risen from £6 million in 1978 to an estimated £190 million this year. That is a staggering growth.

There used to be no controls whatever on DHSS payments to people in such accommodation, controls were then introduced and they were entirely locally determined. That posed considerable problems for DHSS officers in the regions. If there were only one such home in the region, or of that type in that neighbourhood, that proprietor could jolly well claim what he or she liked and that became the norm for the neighbourhood. The result has been a rapid increase in expenditure. That contrasts with restrictions on local authority expenditure, and, in some parts of the country — not the area I represent — considerable restrictions and, indeed, cuts on NHS expenditure which have prevented the easy movement of people out of hospitals and long-term care. The Government now plan some changes and they are very much to be welcomed.

I want to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North said in drawing attention to the problems that some of those changes will present. We are talking not just about the amount of money that goes to pay for all those people, but about standards of care. The Health and Social Services and Social Security Adjudications Act 1983—a hesitant attempt to enforce standards of care, particularly in nursing homes — does not touch the majority of the 40,000-odd people that I have just mentioned.

There was a persistent problem in Birmingham in enforcing any standards whatever in terms of care. The environmental health departments had ample powers to enforce standards in terms of the number of kitchen tiles that should be used, the number of toilets and the quality of the lino, but nobody has any powers over any institution that calls itself a hotel to enforce some standards of care.

I strongly believe that a percentage of the money that the DHSS will pay for that accommodation should be handed over, perhaps in some registration form, to the local authority in order to pay for an inspectorate. When the Select Committee on Social Services visited Norfolk recently—that county has had an enormous growth in private care, much of it excellent—we were told that the local authority had one officer to go round the various establishments to advise them on the kind of people that they were sometimes unwittingly taking on—sometimes mentally disabled people with serious problems. That local authority was doing its best to help the individual and the proprietors of the various establishments.

Some standards of care should be set. That would not be too difficult, because in many cases, as has already been pointed out, the establishments are claiming an attendance allowance, so somebody is looking at the residents and making a judgment about what standards of care they require. I feel strongly that, as we have little control at the moment on how much we spend on that, and no control on what the money goes on, the divorce between cash and care has become complete. That is wrong and a terrible way to treat those poor people.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction is right to say that we have loads of legislation on multiple occupation. Do we need more? There is legislation going back to the Sanitary Act 1866, when the term "houses in multiple occupation" was introduced. We have 120 years of legislation on conditions in houses in multiple occupation.

Management orders can be served when it appears to a local authority that there are unsatisfactory conditions in an HMO. Such orders can cover the water supply, drainage, kitchens, bathrooms, water closets in common use, sinks, wash basins, staircases, corridors, outbuildings, and so on. If the owner does not do what he is told, he can be served with a detailed order telling him what has to be put right, and that can cover natural and artificial light, ventilation, water supply and so on.

Under the Housing Act 1980, and previous legislation, local authorities may require the provision of satisfactory means of escape from fire. Under more recent legislation, it is mandatory on local authorities to require such provision in HMOs of three storeys and more.

There is more than enough legislation. The problem is that most local authorities do not use it.

Mr. Boyes

Does the hon. Lady agree that only 2 or 3 per cent. of HMOs have three storeys or more? We are worried about the vast majority, which have fewer than three storeys.

Mrs. Currie

The hon. Gentleman may know more about the matter than I do, but I understand that local authorities have powers in respect of all such properties. The mandatory requirement is imposed only in respect of fire escapes in larger properties.

The fact that local authorities have the powers has been amply demonstrated in Sheffield. In the late 1970s, the city council decided to have a crack at its houses in multiple occupation. It did a full survey and read the law to find out what it was entitled to do. It was found that the vast majority of houses in multiple occupation in Sheffield were occupied by young single people, as one would expect in a university city.

Many of those HMOs were substandard: 64 per cent. had an insufficient number of wash hand basins, 47 per cent. did not have enough WCs, 7 per cent. had too few bathrooms—they must be a clean lot up in Sheffield—53 per cent. did not have fire-resistant doors and screens and 42 per cent. did not have fire escapes. A total of 84 per cent. needed essential repairs.

Sheffield was starting from a reasonable base, which is more typical of places outside London than it is of London itself. The council decided to use its powers. It spoke to all the owners and asked the owners of 60 per cent. of the HMOs to comply with occupancy, amenity and safety standards.

As a result, the owners of 22 per cent. of the properties incurred extra costs, the owners of 8 per cent. lost income, mainly through a reduction in occupancy, and the owners of 26 per cent. both lost rent and incurred costs. One might expect landlords to pull out promptly in those circumstances, but that did not happen. About 70 per cent. said that they would relet any vacant property, and when a check was done a year later — what a competent authority to find out what had happened—it was found that 76 per cent. of HMOs were relet, mainly to the same sort of people.

The magazine Housing Review, of November-December 1983, said: The Sheffield experience suggests that where a council uses its discretionary powers there are good chances of HMOs being up to standard, that in using its powers it runs no apparent risk of creating a greater withdrawal of lettings than would otherwise occur … A significant minority are, however, still substandard. partly because, in the context of other priorities, the Council has not been conscientiously searching them out, getting them registered and improved.

Cases of bad practice are rife when the council does not bother. There was a tragic case in Manchester when four men died in a lodging house called the Hyde House hotel in the Ardwick green area on 16 December last year. There was a fire and a substantial investigation, which resulted in reports at the inquest as to why the fire occurred and why those involved could not get out. The hotel did not have a fire certificate. The door leading to the fire escape on the top floor was nailed up at the time of the fire, the fire alarm system did not work and there were no extinguishers. At the inquest a fire prevention officer said that he was not sure whether there were any extinguishers, and was criticised by the coroner for his vagueness. In other words, someone had been to the house and had had a look round, but had done nothing about it.

There were continuous reports from voluntary organisations about that property, even in the couple of weeks leading up to the fire. One problem noted at the time was that residents could not complain, because the owner made them sign over their Giros and then gave them their change after the rent had been deducted. Ten years ago we came across that problem in Birmingham. It is not that difficult for a social services department to appoint a social worker as trustee—which is what we did—and then to ensure that any money, particularly from mentally handicapped people, is handed over through the social services department, and put into their post office books. A responsible local authority would have done that. But Manchester has set up a working party.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, who sadly is not present, will find that any efforts to set up an inquiry are in danger of the same thing. There is a habit of saying, "Let's take another look at the problem." But we know what the problem is, as it is only too apparent. Consequently, we should ensure that local authorities use their ample powers. Indeed, my right hon. and hon. Friends would be well advised to kick them along a bit.

Bed-and-breakfast hotels are an absolute scandal. Placing tenants in them is really done only in London, where there are one or two honourable exceptions, of which Islington is the most noticeable. The amounts expended on putting poor souls" into diabolical accommodation are staggering. There are now more than 500 homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Brent alone, at a cost to the taxpayer in 1982–83 of almost £3 million. By 1986, it is estimated that Brent will be forking out £6 million per year to London hoteliers, which is enough to repair more than 21,000 council properties annually and to finance a house building loan of £100 million, which would provide permanent housing for every Brent family now in bed-and-breakfast accommodation from now onwards.

The amounts of money are staggering. Last year, London's 32 councils managed to spend more than £7 million on keeping the homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In particular authorities the problem is acute. For example, in Hackney the number jumped from 92 homeless families in 1981 to 209 only two years later. Yet Hackney has more than 400 empty properties, over 200 of which have been empty for more than a year. So it would serve Hackney and its tenants very well if the money were spent on repairing properties and sorting out some form of permanent accommodation.

I recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that housing investment programme returns should require details of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation; otherwise it is difficult to find out the facts. It is worth pointing out that in the sort of properties under discussion, GLC fire certificates are mandatory, although many of the properties have not been inspected for years. If we are thinking of how to find some money, I suggest that the GLC could first use the £10 million with which it has been promoting its own future, and then use the £10 million with which it funds its silly women's committee. That is simply a way of paying a load of lady councillors to talk to each other round a table.

Attention has been drawn to the death of Mrs. Karim and her two children in a fire at 46 Gloucester place. That is the only point at which some hon. Members have got their facts slightly wrong. Their mistake is significant. Mrs. Karim and those who besieged Camden town hall were Camden tenants, but they were being housed riot in Camden, but in Westminster. I see that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) confirms that. That is interesting, because it means that not one, but three councils were involved; the council that placed the tenants, the council in whose area the tenants were placed, and the GLC. Thus, it is very easy for there to be a lot of buck passing. For example, the owner of the properties has not been prosecuted, but he should have been. In June this year he owned several adjoining properties. The GLC issued a consent to join Nos. 42, 44 and 46 by breaching the party walls, yet no fire certificate was issued.

The families, having made a fuss, have now been allocated accommodation elsewhere in Camden. If they can be allocated that accommodation after someone has died, they could have been allocated it previously. There is absolutely no reason for any family to be put into bed-and-breakfast accommodation when there is empty property in this city, as there is in other cities, and when there is money available. Such people could obtain housing benefit on a permanent tenancy. If Islington can do it—and it has—and if Birmingham can do it—and it has because there is not a single Birmingham council tenant in bed-and-breakfast accommodation — so can Brent, Hackney and other areas.

Mr. Chris Smith

Does the hon. Lady accept that Camden, in giving a recent commitment to house all the homeless families currently housed by London Lets—which, because of the squeeze on its overall housing programme, must renege on its obligations to many families on the waiting and transfer lists—will solve the problem that she rightly identifies?

Mrs. Currie

All councils must decide which families come first. I suggest that Camden should pay a great deal more attention to those families than to the young homeless for whom it appears to have a great deal of affection.

It is not housing management; it is a case of out of sight, out of mind. It is an absolute scandal. I recognise the genuine desire of the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington to help people, especially families, in desperate need. It is sad that so little attention is paid by all the authorities to the genuine problems until they begin to cost a great deal of money, in the case of the Government, or until somebody dies, in the case of councils.

We have obligations towards many of those people and we should use the existing law and existing cash to discharge those responsibilities to help people towards a happier and more settled life.

2.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Ray Whitney)

I join the chorus of congratulation from both sides of the House for the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on his good fortune in winning first place in the ballot for private Member's motions and on using it to introduce such an important subject. I also congratulate him on making such a responsible start to what has proved to be a valuable debate.

The debate shows the importance of Fridays when, to some considerable extent, we forget our party political rhetoric and show that we recognise the problems that inevitably exist in our society. I must mention especially the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) and for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). They demonstrated that Conservative Members very much share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington and his hon. Friends about housing problems.

I hope that I shall not spoil this beneficent beginning by saying that it is a pity that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) saw fit to enter into the realms of party hyperbole, which was not surprising as it was characteristic of him. I am sorry that he is not here now. He, together with other hon. Members, was kind enough to apologise for his absence because, like all of us should do, he is rushing to his constituency. I hope that he will understand that his absence cannot exempt me from responding to what he had to say.

The issues that we are dealing with, particularly the DHSS measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State some weeks ago, must be set against a financial background. I should be the first to recognise that we are not only talking about money, but money must be a part of our consideration because we are concerned about the massive resources that are being used, and we must use them properly and effectively. The serious questions that have arisen are based on the proposition that the sums that we are talking about can be used much more effectively in other areas of the social security programme or of the Government's general public spending programme.

I remind the House that, for example, spending on ordinary board-and-lodging accommodation rose from £166 million a year in December 1982 to £277 million in December 1983. Our best estimates show that the total is now running at about £570 million a year and, unless action is taken, that figure is likely to grow by a further 50 per cent. by December 1985.

Mr. Stuart Holland

That is one seven hundredth part of total national expenditure. Will the Minister answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), myself and others that that public spending goes almost entirely to the private sector and probably less than 10 per cent. goes in electricity or other heating charges?

Mr. Whitney

The essential question is how we use the £40 billion in the social security programme. This is a serious problem. Ironically, it was considered by the hon. Member for Oldham, West as a serious problem on 29 November, when he said that there was an enormous and reckless abuse of taxpayers' money." — [Official Report, 29 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 1099.]

The hon. Gentleman seems to have changed his mind in the few days that have elapsed since then. I do not know what the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) thought on 29 November.

I am glad to know, however, that this financial problem has been recognised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Therefore, it would have been irresponsible not to take action to prevent that trend from continuing because otherwise it would have jeopardised other parts of our social security programme.

As a first step, we laid regulations on 22 November which will enable Ministers to take direct control of existing limits governing board-and-lodging payments. Those regulations were debated and approved in Committee on 12 December and will be debated in another place on 17 December. In other words, we are instituting a temporary freeze while the consultative document is considered. We recognise that the consultative process is fast, but it must be fast because of the nature of the problem and the rate of growth in the financial spending with which it seeks to deal.

I hope to deal with some of the points that were made on both sides of the House in the debate. It is right that the debate continued a little longer than usual, but it means that there is little time left for my reply, so if I cannot deal with all the points, many of which were considerably detailed, I shall write to the hon. Members who raised them.

Many hon. Members concentrated on the levels that we have proposed as maxima for board and lodging in various parts of the country. For example, the hon. Member for Vauxhall thought that the maximum of £70 in London was woefully inadequate, whereas many other people take a different view. It seems to me that that is entirely likely to be right. My hon. Friends the Members for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale), for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) suggested that the maximum of £60 that we have proposed in those areas may be on the high side. We welcome those contributions. That is the sort of issue that we shall consider in the consultative process.

One point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North seemed to be based on a certain misunderstanding. My hon. Friend was worried about the new proposed limit. As the consultative document makes clear, where the existing limit for an area, uprated by 5 per cent., still falls below the proposed new limit, that figure will be adopted until November 1986. That will apply in areas such as Newquay where the local present limit is less than £50. I hope that my hon. Friend is assured about that. An important consultative process is involved.

The evidence that young people are being given board and lodging, especially in seaside resorts, is worrying, and a more important factor than some Labour Members admit. The number of boarders under the age of 25 rose by about 60 per cent. between 1982 and 1983. The number rose from 23,000 to 37,000 in that year. That figure should be set against the 9 per cent. increase in the number of claimants in general in that age group. The increase in the number of people moving to seaside areas is marked.

Several of my hon. Friends have cited figures. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West said that the number of people from Merseyside moving to his area had increased from 1,000 to 2,500 in 12 months. That is of concern to us all. The number of 16 and 17-year-olds claiming as boarders at any one time is estimated to have risen from about 4,300 at the end of 1982 to about 10,000 today.

We have heard much from Opposition Members about the family and the pressures upon it. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South said about that. I agree with her about ending "privileges" for the 16 and 17-year-olds. We should invite them to move back to their families, where they should be. Young people should not be subjected to the pressures of the present system.

The system is often abused. I think of the wealth of advertisements for Thanet hotels and guest houses specifying "High class DHSS accommodation", "DHSS fees arranged" and On DHSS? Living in poor conditions? Why not live by the sea at Margate…? We must end such pressures. It cannot be for the benefit of the family to allow young people to be beguiled in that way. The regulations allow accommodation for those who are looking for work and we recognise that there are exceptions.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), in an effective contribution, referred to the pressures on young people north and south of the border. Government Members representing southern constituencies know of the pressures. The difference between north and south is not as absolute as the hon. Gentleman suggests. We recognise the pressures on young people. I agree that we should ensure that proper reception arrangements are available for the young people who come to London, but should we not make changes to discourage young people from moving.

Both the hon. Member for Linlithgow and the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) asked what opportunities were on offer to the young people. A number of alternatives are on offer. In particular, there is the youth training scheme, which is under-subscribed throughout the country. I understand that even in the area represented by the hon. Member for Linlithgow more places are available than are taken up. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, except in special individual circumstances, with which our regulations can certainly deal, it would be much more sensible for a young person from Scotland or anywhere else to stay put and join the youth training scheme than to go to the Costa del Dole, as it has been called, or to face the uncertainties of central London.

We understand the concerns that have been expressed, but we believe that our proposals are flexible enough. There would be exceptional categories. Those categories would include young people with a dependent child or children, or who are pregnant; young people who have been in local authority care and cannot return to a family home, and handicapped young people who need to be in board-and-lodging accommodation. They would also include young people who have been in board-and-lodging accommodation while in employment—but payment as a boarder in such cases will be for a limited period only—and young people for whom accommodation in board and lodging is the only means of preventing serious damage or serious risk to health or safety.

That list shows that we recognise that there are exceptions. I believe, however, that in the generality of cases the best answer is for the young person to stay within a reasonable distance of his home. I am thinking in particular of 16 and 17-year-olds.

References were made to the problems of furnished accommodation by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington and a number of other hon. Members. They referred to .the problems connected with the special needs payments. The basis of our policy is a recognition that some people moving into unfurnished accommodation genuinely need such help. Secondly, however, we also recognise that we have a duty to safeguard the taxpayers' money. The purchase of furniture can often involve spending several hundred pounds.

Mr. Stuart Holland

For furniture?

Mr. Whitney


Thirdly, we recognise the need for equity between those on benefit, who can gain durable assets from such payments, and those in work on low incomes who are not helped in that way. We therefore give such help to claimants with a pensioner, child, pregnant woman or chronically sick or disabled person in the family. We also help claimants whose move is necessary in the sense that they have satisfied the conditions for help with removal expenses — for example, because of divorce, bereavement or overcrowding.

Other claimants who have been on benefit for six months or more and have no immediate prospect of a job, and those who have just come out of prison, long-stay hospital or some other institution, can also get help. But in those cases we think it fair, before providing large sums of money to set up home in unfurnished accommodation, to ask whether there is some suitable already furnished accommodation where the claimant could live instead.

I have noted the points which have been made about the "suitable alternative furnished accommodation" rule, but I think it right, for the reasons already outlined, that there should be some restriction of that kind.

Hon. Members have suggested that it would be better value for taxpayers' money to make furniture payments more freely available and so avoid people going into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I am grateful for their acknowledgement that we are right to try to get better value for money out of board-and-lodging payments. However, I suggest that we are going about it the right way. The answer is not to sweep aside all the restrictions on furniture payments and to pay large sums of money to any claimant who wants to equip a new home, irrespective of his circumstances, job prospects and length of time on benefit. Our rules on furniture payments concentrate help where it is most needed. That is the basis of the policy that we have debated today. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction emphasised what we are doing—

It being half past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

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