HC Deb 27 February 1991 vol 186 cc961-3
3. Mr. Squire

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the number of hostel beds available (a) in London each night and (b) in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Sir George Young)

The latest estimates available show that the total number of hostel bed spaces in housing association hostels, resettlement units, probation and after-care hostels and those run by local authorities in London is 22,383, and 60,142 in England as a whole. My Department does not hold figures for the rest of the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to thank the voluntary agencies for their hard work in developing the additional places now coming forward under the rough sleepers initiative and for their help in ensuring that the cold weather emergency provision continues to remain open for an extended period.

Mr. Squire

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he tell us whether at those levels demand continues to be outstripped by supply—whether spare beds are available? Will he also tell us whether the two emergency hostels opened in London during the recent severe cold spell remain open?

Sir George Young

I assure my hon. Friend that, even on the coldest night, space was still available for those sleeping rough in London. The Paddington Green hospital, which is the largest of the emergency cold weather shelters, will stay open for six months and it is planned that the Soho shelter should remain open until the middle of April.

Mr. Fearn

Is the Minister aware of the considerable problem of homelessness in Merseyside, stretching from the Wirral to my constituency, Southport? Has he any idea what he may give the region to deal with that problem? He has recently given certain figures, but most relate to London. How much will go to Merseyside?

Sir George Young

I believe that there is a substantial number of empty properties in Merseyside. That certainly applies to Liverpool, which has experienced a good deal of emigration. One of the difficulties facing Liverpool city council is the excess of homes and I see no reason why anyone should have any reason to sleep rough in Liverpool of all places.

Miss Emma Nicholson

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing and implementing a package of measures that have gone so far to solve this difficult problem. Will my hon. Friend's Department be prepared to carry out research into whether homeless youngsters have been habitual truants from school, and thereby slipped the leash of parental and teacher control at an early age, and discover whether useful and constructive measures could be derived from such research?

Sir George Young

My Department has commissioned some research from York university to discover more about the motivations and histories of the homeless. A substantial number of people who have been sleeping rough were in care before they came to London. Local authorities have a responsibility to ensure that once children reach the age at which they are no longer their statutory responsibility, those children still have somewhere secure to go so that they do not end up on the streets.

Mr. Soley

Is not this a problem of the Government's own making? We did not have homeless people sleeping rough in the streets like this until we had a Tory Government. Only alcoholics and some mentally ill people slept rough before this Government came to office. I can say that as I have experience as a probation officer in the King's Cross area of London. Is the Minister aware that housing organisations and the Labour party have warned the Government that temporary hostel beds are not the answer? The real answer is real homes for real people who are sleeping in the snow. We want to know now whether the money that the Government are talking about providing will continue to be provided to the many voluntary organisations that have written to the Minister's office, but which have not received answers telling them whether they can continue the work that they started during the cold weather.

Sir George Young

If I may say so, that is a rather simplistic analysis. The problem of rough sleeping predates 1979. Responsibility does not rest with the Conservative party. The Manchester Evening News has reported that: Homeless people are sleeping rough and begging on Manchester streets while 5,000 council houses and flats stand empty. For every hostel space in London, there are two move-on spaces. We are offering people the opportunity of permanent accommodation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are determined to build on the momentum that has been developed and bring about a situation in which no one has to sleep rough in London.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn


Mr. Speaker

Order. The question does relate to the United Kingdom.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Did my hon. Friend see the recent programme by—surprisingly—the BBC, in which an Aberdonian youth who was sleeping in a box in London was flown back to his mother in Aberdeen and interviewed? He said that the last thing that he wanted to do was to stay in Aberdeen and take a job because he could beg £60 a day in London, and he did not stay in a hostel because he could keep the money if he did not spend it. He was returned by the BBC to London on a British Airways flight. Does not that say something about homeless people?

Sir George Young

I did not see that programme, but there is a small number of people who abuse the hospitality of people in London by begging instead of seeking work. For every case like that, there are some genuine cases of people who do not want to sleep rough. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that we must deal with the abuses, but we must also make provision for those who do not want to sleep rough and would dearly like to move on to permanent accommodation.