§ The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Spicer)
The most recent count of rough sleepers in London was carried out last year by the department of psychology at the university of Surrey for the Salvation Army. It reported 753 people sleeping rough on the streets of 17 boroughs.
§ Mr. Cox
Is the Minister aware that that is a deplorable reply? A known problem is worsening month by month, and he says that the most recent survey was last year. Does he read the reports of the Salvation Army and the London housing unit, which outline the enormity of the problem? It has been caused directly by the Government—by the lack of low-rent accommodation and the cutting of benefits to those most in need. Instead of the supposed voice of concern, when will we hear from Ministers about real action to end this scandal in London and many other parts of Britain?
§ Mr. Spicer
Of course, we accept the seriousness of the problem of the number of people sleeping rough. We have already earmarked £250 million to relieve the problem of the homeless, and that will release some hostel space for people sleeping rough. As a matter of urgency, we are considering further steps to solve this serious problem.
§ Sir George Young
Is my hon. Friend aware how much we welcome his appointment and wish him well in his new responsibilities? Does he agree that a vigorous extension of the tenants' incentive scheme, to enable council tenants living in cities to move out and to buy their own home, would enable many homeless people currently living in bed and breakfast accommodation to be rehoused within 12 months? Will he confirm that that scheme will have high priority in his approach to dealing with the problem?
§ Mr. Spicer
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. The thrust of our policies is to ensure that, first, new homes are built and, secondly, that they are owned by the people who live in them. We have a multitude of schemes for converting tenancy into ownership. That is a combination that will help to solve this serious problem.
§ Mr. Nellist
Is the Minister aware that, in addition to his own Department not carrying out surveys, it took the Home Office six months—from July to December last year—to write to me to explain that it does not collect statistics, except a year or a year and a half in arrears, on the number of young people who are being prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act 1824, for homelessness on the streets of London? Does it not behove his Department and the Home Office to organise the statistical collection of information that I get week after week from barristers at the Horseferry road magistrates court, which is only 300 yd from this building, and from elsewhere in London? The evidence shows that every week more teenagers are being prosecuted for lack of money and for sleeping rough on the streets of London. When will the Minister get the facts?
§ Mr. Spicer
I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman thought the matter through, he would appreciate that facts 876 are difficult to come by because of the nature of the problem. There is no disagreement between the two sides of the House about the seriousness of the matter. There is no question about that. The issue is how we are to solve the problem, and we are urgently applying our minds to that.
§ Mr. Jessel
What proportion of those people are young people under 18? Could not, and should not, some of that number return to live with their parents?
§ Mr. Spicer
It seems that a growing number of young people form part of the increasing population who are sleeping rough. It is certainly part of our policy to do as my hon. Friend suggests and encourage them to go home, and among the first things that the voluntary organisations do are to ask them why they left home and to try to persuade them to return.