§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lightbown]12.43 am
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
It is my pleasure to have an Adjournment debate on homelessness in the Strathclyde region and it is ironic that, as we approach the end of the final decade of the 20th century, the problem of homelessness in many of our towns and cities is reaching Dickensian proportions. The Government's onslaught on public housing over the past 10 years has resulted in a staggering 41 per cent. increase in homelessness in Scotland, and the pace is accelerating.
Homelessness has increased by 76 per cent. over the past six years. Bald statistics alone cannot convey the despair and anguish caused to many thousands of people through the lack of one of life's basic necessities—a home. Today, 192,000 people in Scotland do not have a home, and the policies being pursued by the Government show no prospect of improvement. Indeed, it is hard to detect any real concern by the Government for the plight of the homeless.
The statistics reveal only the extent of official homelessness as documented by those who apply to local authorities for help. The voluntary housing and caring agencies emphasise time and again that the true level of homelessness in Scotland is much higher when the "hidden homeless" are taken into account.
As a consequence of the Government's deliberate policy of under-investment in public sector housing, there has been a steady reduction in the number of decent homes available for rent from local authorities. An analysis of Government expenditure over the past 10 years clearly shows that housing has been wilfully neglected, while expenditure on law and order and on protective services increased during the same period by 59 per cent. Spending on industry, energy, trade and employment rose by 51 per cent., but that on housing decreased by 41 per cent.
If public authorities had been able to invest through the 1980s at the same levels evident in 1978, district councils would have spent an additional £821 million. The Scottish Special Housing Association—now Scottish Homes—would have an extra £289 million, and the new towns £384 million. A total of £1,494 million could have been spent on modernising and rebuilding Scottish housing.
One could easily gain an impression from an analysis of Government policies that, far from working to eradicate homelessness, they are conspiring to increase it. Fewer public sector houses are being built now than in any peacetime year since the 1920s.
It cannot be argued that the private sector has stepped in and soaked up the demand for housing. In 1976, a total of 16,304 private house starts were made in Scotland, but by 1985 that figure had fallen to 14,500. If the Government's present policies are maintained, that situation is unlikely to improve in the 1990s.
Only this month, the Under-Secretary announced a £90 million reduction in Scottish local authorities' capital housing allocation for the coming year. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities anticipated council housing investment increasing from £474 million to at least £512 million, to allow for the present high rate of inflation. In COSLA's words, 332the Minister has set an allocation of £421 million and attempts to defend such a reduction, which is £90 million in real terms, as a good deal for local government … the announcement is a terrible blow to housing authorities and their tenants.COSLA is surely correct in its analysis.
The Government's high interest rates have put house purchase beyond the means of many thousands of our fellow citizens, and repossessions in Scotland rose by 1,000 per cent. over the past 10 years, placing ever-increasing pressure on dwindling resources of local authorities' dwindling resources.
What is there in the Government's housing policy that will provide a solution to the distressing and ever-growing problem of homelessness? Certainly that cannot be done by Scottish Homes. It was not established to deal with waiting lists and homelessness. The housing associations that Scottish Homes services can at best hope to add another 4,000 units per year to their housing stock, although current funding allows for considerably less. Even if we take an optimistic view, by the end of the century housing associations will still control only 4 per cent. of Scotland's housing, and they will make only a marginal impact on homelessness. No doubt the aggressive sales policy of the SSHA will be continued by Scottish Homes, which will further aggravate the position.
The Government's encouragement of the private rented sector is largely a matter of tenure changes, and the simple fact is that changing landlords does not increase the supply of houses. Homelessness is accelerating at a frightening rate, and on its own the cost of temporary accommodation has increased by 500 per cent. in the past four years. Nothing that the Government are doing or intend to do is likely to reverse that process.
A number of statistics show the negative impact that the Government's housing policies have had in Strathclyde region and Scotland. Between 1982 and 1986, the number of people on local authority waiting lists increased by 34 per cent., and each year 30,000 people become homeless. In my constituency, homelessness has increased by 279 per cent. in the past six years. One of the saddest aspects is that that has meant increased competition for housing between unfortunate groups of people. Local authority officers have been faced with Solomon-like judgments, and it is clear that in Strathclyde, as elsewhere in Scotland, the single homeless have lost out. In my constituency, the number of single homeless has increased over the past 10 years by 900 per cent. Within that group, the percentage of young single homeless has grown even more rapidly—by 1,000 per cent. in Dumbarton district in the past 10 years.
The Government have tried to evade their responsibility for the young single homeless by pretending that there is no problem and that leaving home is a matter of young people exercising choice. That is a flawed analysis. A national survey by the centre for educational sociology in Edinburgh showed that it is fallacious to regard youth as a universal category of people who have identical needs, who undergo similar experiences and who all have families who are willing and able to support them. It is a highly differentiated group, and it is people from higher social classes, with good qualifications, who are most likely to leave home at an early age. For them, it is usually a straightforward transition to adult life. But for others it will not be a matter of choice. They may have been thrown out or asked to leave following a breakdown in their 333 relationship with their parents, or they may be victims of physical or sexual abuse and have no alternative but to leave.
Research has shown that one third of the single homeless come from a care background and do not have stable family relationships to fall back on. The situation for many of those young people is perilous. If they cannot find the security in their own community which a home would provide, they will be forced to drift through society seeking shelter and comfort where they can and will be prey to every kind of exploitation.
The Government have recognised the special dangers facing young people and have built the concept of vulnerability into the codes of guidance accompanying the homelessness legislation. Although vulnerability is not defined in the legislation, there is recognition that the category should include the physical and mentally handicapped and young people who are exposed to sexual or financial exploitation. Any civilised society should provide that safety net for its vulnerable young people. I must tell the Minister that it has been rent asunder by the pressures put on local authority housing over the past 10 years. The need to update and make suitable positive changes to the code of practice is urgent.
A few months ago, the National Children's Home published the results of a major survey of housing authorities throughout Britain and 85 per cent. of local authorities in the United Kingdom participated in it. Its results make depressing reading indeed. Although the attention of housing authorities is drawn to young people in danger of sexual and financial exploitation, only two fifths of the responding housing authorities said that they would recognise a girl under 18 who comes into this category as vulnerable. Only one fifth of respondents said that they would regard a young homeless care leaver as qualifying under the conditions set out in the codes of guidance. Although it is hard to imagine, only one in eight authorities said that they would deem as vulnerable a young homeless person with no parents and no support. A similar percentage said that they would regard as vulnerable a young homeless person under a probation or after-care order and only one fifth would regard as vulnerable a young person with serious family or relationship problems. If young people in such appalling circumstances cannot qualify for housing under the vulnerability provisions, in what circumstances can they apply?
Does the Minister recognise that specific requirements to extend the code of conduct so that all young people recognised as being in priority need due to vulnerability when homeless should be considered? It is essential that any extension of the powers of codes of guidance is matched by an increased financial commitment to Scottish local authorities.
It is not the vulnerability of these young people that is in question. It is simply the fact that there are no longer resources available to meet this manifest need. Housing officers are being forced to act pragmatically, even if it means disregarding the law. After all, the law cannot provide the houses. That is the Government's job. Housing officers have been asked to make impossible 334 decisions between competing claims from equally desperate groups, and the young single homeless are the ones to lose out most heavily.
There are also clear differences in policy between authorities operating in various parts of the country. A young care leaver's chances of being accorded priority need status on the basis of vulnerability in Scotland is comparatively favourable, with an applicant having a one in three chance. In some parts of the United Kingdom the chance of such applicants is one in eight. The variation in what should be a national consensus should worry the Government, and it calls for action by them. The determining factors seem likely to include the relative size of the authority's housing stock, but are also likely to reflect political and social attitudes of members.
Ten years ago most young single people with housing needs had a reasonable range of accommodation options. Today the picture is very different and the need for a dependable safety net for the most vulnerable of our young people has never been greater. The present legislation simply does not work and the Government must tighten the relevant provisions to ensure that vulnerable young single homeless people who apply to the local housing authority under the homelessness legislation receive an objective assessment of their needs rather than a pragmatic assessment based on an analysis of competing pressures for housing, which is what is happening at present.
The present effective discretion of housing authorities must be translated into a legal duty to assess young single homeless people's cases objectively. In addition, it must be recognised that the only effective way to deal with the social scourge that homelessness represents is to invest more money in public housing. In the short term, the acute nature of the problem of homelessness in Strathclyde and, indeed, in Scotland demands that extra funds be made available.
The Government have already conceded that point in relation to homelessness in London, the south-east and Wales. Scotland needs a parallel financial package of at least £30 million to deal with homelessness before it is further exported. It is already estimated by the caring agencies that 15 to 18 per cent. of the homeless in London and other major English cities are young Scots. Why have the Government been so complacent in failing to respond to this demand from local authorities and voluntary agencies, which are so well placed to assess housing needs? It is incomprehensible that no such decision has yet been made in respect of Scotland and I urge the Minister to make an announcement that additional funds will be made available forthwith.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) on securing this Adjournment debate and on setting out his position lucidly and expressing genuine concerns. In the time available, I shall respond to all the points which he raised.
Several exaggerated claims have been made about the level of homelessness in Scotland. First, on statistics, a number of exaggerated claims have been made. The facts of the matter are that the number of households that have applied to local authorities in Scotland, under the homelessness provisions of the Housing (Scotland) Act 335 1987, have, for the past three years, remained relatively stable at about 25,000 per year. Of that total, the local authorities have assessed about 9,500 as homeless and about 7,500 as potentially homeless. Again, the figures have shown little variation in recent years.
In Strathclyde, the number of applications over the past three years has remained at 13,000, of which the number assessed as homeless is about 4,500 and as potentially homeless, 2,500. In Dunbarton, the numbers of applications have risen from 927 in 1986–87 to 1,383 in 1988–89, but in 1988–89 some 461 were assessed as homeless and 244 as potentially homeless. In both cases, the figures are lower than in 1987–88, when 483 were assessed as homeless and 334 as potentially homeless, on the combined basis. That represents a 12.5 per cent. reduction in the numbers assessed as homeless, or potentially homeless.
I am aware that Shelter claims that the level of homelessness in Scotland is higher than that shown by the Scottish Office figures. Shelter has failed to make clear the basis on which its estimates are made. The Scottish Office figures are not based on a survey; they are compiled from returns made by local authorities I am satisfied that they are an accurate reflection of the position notified by authorities. I recognise, of course, that the statistics should be treated with caution, as they measure local authority activity in relation to homelessness, rather than homelessness itself. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the available figures do not indicate that homelessness is increasing.
I do not wish to dwell on the statistics, however. As the hon. Member will appreciate, we cannot consider the problem of homelessness solely in terms of numbers. To be without a home is a personal tragedy and at this time of year it is a tragedy thrown into sharp focus.
The Government are committed to maintaining an effective legislative framework for dealing with the homeless, and the hon. Member is right to concentrate on the code of guidance. As I made clear in my earlier remarks, it falls to local authorities to carry out the tasks of providing advice and assistance to the homeless and, in certain circumstances, of securing accommodation. Authorities are required to exercise these functions in accordance with the code of guidance which was issued in 1980 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) when he was Secretary of State.
The code of guidance sets out the way in which local authorities should exercise the homelessness functions placed upon them by statute. Among other things, the code explains the action which a local authority should take when a household applies to be considered as homeless. The code discusses the circumstances in which the local authority should secure accommodation for homeless persons. In addition, the code provides advice about how local authorities can prevent homelessness arising in the first place, and about co-operation between authorities and other agencies. The code of guidance, as the hon. Member said, requires updating to take account of new legislation since 1980, such as the matrimonial homes legislation, to reflect changes in such areas as social security and, most importantly, to respond to the greater concern which society now has for protection of children in danger and to the greater awareness of certain other social problems.
§ Mr. McFall
I thank the Minister for replying constructively. Will he consider the possibility of the code of practice being made statutory? I know that that is under consideration at the moment. I told the survey of the National Children's Home that local authorities are not obeying or being guided by the code of practice. Therefore, I think that a statutory element is important.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
I shall obviously consider what the hon. Gentleman has said, but we do not have a housing Bill before the House this year.
With regard to the revision of the code of guidance, the Scottish Development Department has been consulting the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, as well as interested bodies in the voluntary sector, including Shelter, the Scottish Council for the Single Homeless and Scottish Women's Aid, with a view to the preparation of a revised code of guidance. A draft of the new code will be issued shortly. The revised code will not only take account of the consultations which have been held, it will also reflect the results of the research which the Department has been carrying out into local authority procedures in dealing with homelessness. One of the main aims of the revised code will be to ensure that local authorities operate more consistently and fairly when dealing with homelessness applications. When the code is revised, one area that will require attention is that concerning how young people are dealt with. The present code makes it clear that homeless young people who are at risk of sexual or financial exploitation should be treated as having a priority need for accommodation. The revised code should consider the possibility of strengthening and expanding our advice on that.
Research is also being carried out into local authority waiting lists, which the hon. Member will appreciate are an important indicator of housing needs. A more accurate assessment of housing need should benefit the homeless by ensuring that authorities' housing provision more closely meets housing need.
With regard to resources, I should mention that, from 1974–75 to 1979–80, there was a reduction in real terms of 8 per cent. in housing capital investment, whereas from 1979 to 1989–90, there has been an average real increase of 2 per cent. a year in capital investment. The hon. Member referred to the additional resources that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced for homelessness in England, and complained about the apparent absence of a similar package for Scotland.
The English proposals are mainly directed towards bringing empty houses into use, particularly in London and the south-east. There are proportionally fewer empty public sector houses in Scotland. In Scottish circumstances, rather than earmark a specific allocation for homelessness, it makes more sense for the problems of homelessness to be considered in the context of housing needs generally.
I can assure the hon. Member that we have been no less generous in terms of the provision of resources than was my right hon. Friend south of the border. On the first of this month, I announced that there would be a substantial increase of £64 million over last year in the 1990–91 provisional net allocations for housing revenue account capital expenditure. This is to help local authorities to meet housing needs in their areas, including those of the homeless. It is for local authorities to take account of homelessness and other problems when drawing up their capital programmes. When making the provisional capital 337 allocations to individual authorities, which I expect to announce shortly, I will of course take account of capital programmes and the needs, including homelessness, which they are designed to meet.
The hon. Gentleman asked about new houses. Some 195,203 homes have been built in Scotland since 1979. Of those, 138,894 were built by the private sector, 27,616 by local authorities, 13,638 by housing associations, 7,048 by new towns, 7,503 by the Scottish Special Housing Association or Scottish Homes and 504 by Government Departments. That is approaching 200,000 new homes, which should assist considerably to meet housing need.
The answer to homelessness, however, is not simply the provision of more houses. We must also make better use of the houses we already have. It has been estimated that there are about 130,000 empty houses in Scotland, many of which are in the private sector. I believe that the reform of the private rented sector brought about by the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988 will increase landlords' willingness to make more property available for rent. The resulting increase in the supply of accommodation will help to alleviate homelessness, particularly for those sections of the population, such as single people, who have traditionally relied on the private rented sector.
I recognise, of course, that not all Scotland's empty houses are in good condition, but the availability of improvement grants will help to ensure that investment in the private rented sector will remain viable. Some £119 million is being made available for local authority assistance to the private sector in 1990–91.
On a small scale, the recent Shelter initiative on rural housing, to which the Government contributed £30,000 over three years, shows what can be done. With the help of housing improvement grants, the initiative brought into use some 150 private sector houses in rural areas for families on council waiting lists.
Nor should we neglect the contribution which can be made by the public sector. There are about 25,000 vacant council houses. This represents only about 3 per cent. of the total council house stock, and I accept that many of them are empty because they are awaiting repair or are being held to decant households during modernisation and improvement programmes, but at least 4,000 have been vacant for more than three months. In my meetings with local authorities—I have been to 33—I have taken every opportunity to encourage them to reduce levels of vacant stock. Bringing such houses back into use could directly assist the homeless. I urge local authorities to keep that in mind.
Empty houses in both the private and public sectors represent an unused resource. For various good reasons, it will never be possible for there to be no empty houses, but the Government have demonstrated their commitment to ensuring that this resource is brought back into use wherever possible.
However, the distribution of empty houses does not necessarily correspond to the distribution of homelessness. It was for this reason that a more imaginative approach to dealing with homelessness was signposted in the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988. Under that Act, local authorities are enabled, with the Secretary of State's consent, to adopt schemes whereby cash incentives may be paid to council 338 tenants to persuade them to move into the private sector, thus releasing housing for homeless families or others on council waiting lists. Experience elsewhere in Britain has shown that this can make a worthwhile and cost-effective contribution to dealing with homelessness.
It is important to remember that, for the cost of building one new house, such schemes will release four or five existing houses for the homeless; and, what is more, will do it more quickly. In recent months, I have taken every opportunity to encourage local authorities to adopt such schemes. I know that Scottish Homes is considering introducing a similar scheme soon for housing association tenants; I welcome such a positive development and I hope that local authorities will follow suit.
I have already mentioned our financial commitment to local authorities next year. I should also point out that we have increased the resources available to Scottish Homes. Discounting loan repayments, Scottish Homes will be able to plan for expenditure of £348 million in 1990–91, £36 million above the comparable figure for the current year. That will enable Scottish Homes to make real progress in expanding the housing association movement and investing in its own stock, both of which will be of particular benefit to the homeless.
I should perhaps remind the House that the housing association movement has been one of the greatest housing success stories of the 1980s. The Government have spent nearly £930 million in encouraging the housing associations, and this has resulted in 32,000 new or rehabilitated houses. I am particularly pleased that many of these houses are designed to meet the needs of the elderly or of the disabled; while these may not have been of direct benefit to the homeless, they have eased pressures in the housing market and have released other accommodation which can be used for the homeless. In response to the hon. Gentleman's point about the single homeless, I should say that more than 3,000 of these houses have been specifically designed for single people and have been instrumental in relieving homelessness in this sector of the population.
We must remember that homelessness is not merely a result of the lack of houses. As I have already made clear, Scotland has a surplus of houses. We now understand that homelessness is caused by a mix of social, economic and demographic factors. The Scottish Development Department's statistics reveal that 66 per cent. of homelessness cases last year arose either because of marital breakdown or because relatives or friends were no longer willing or able to accommodate those involved. Less than 10 per cent. of homeless cases arose from court orders, evictions or other actions by landlords.
Finally, I reiterate my assurance to the hon. Gentleman that the Government not only care about homelessness, but are taking active steps to deal with it. This is not a task which we can accomplish alone. All the housing agencies in Scotland have a part to play. I hope that I have explained tonight how the Government—working in partnership with local authorities, Scottish Homes, housing associations and the voluntary sector—approach the problem of homelessness.
The motion having been made after half-past Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order.
Adjourned at fourteen minutes past One o'clock.