HC Deb 30 January 1991 vol 184 cc926-8
4. Mr. Battle

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will estimate the number of people sleeping out over the 1990 Christmas period in major cities.

Sir George Young

My Department estimates that there are about 2,000 to 3,000 people sleeping out in central London and up to 2,000 in other cities. In London, Crisis accommodated between 500 and 600 rough, sleepers at Open Christmas each night during Christmas week. I can announce to the House today that my Department will be funding Centrepoint Soho to open up Soho Square hospital for the whole of the month of February. The purpose is to provide shelter for those sleeping rough, who would otherwise be on the streets until the hostels being provided under my rough sleeping initiative begin to come through in March. Centrepoint will open the Soho Square hospital on 1 February.

Mr. Battle

The Minister may know of the Nightstop project, a pioneering project among homeless youngsters in Leeds, which is supported by Barnardos and the churches. Is he aware that in the three months before Christmas, it reported a doubling in the number of inquiries and contacts by homeless youngsters? While I welcome the increased resources for London, will the Minister ensure that resources extend beyond London to the other cities in Britain that are experiencing this problem? Unless social security policy for young people is tackled, it will effectively undermine the Department's initiatives.

Sir George Young

Of course my Department must help organisations that operate outside London. We have increased the funding nationally for voluntary organisations working with the homeless from £2 million this year to £4.5 million in 1991–92.

At a helpful meeting that I had with voluntary organisations earlier this month, they told me that income support was relevant to the issues that we are discussing and I have undertaken to pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security any suggestions that they make about changes to the income support system.

Mrs. Gorman

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. I support the Government's attempts to increase hostel provision, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be sensible to try to persuade those with spare rooms in their homes to let them to lodgers? It used to be traditional for young people arriving in cities to find digs with a friendly landlady who would take them in and make them one of the family. At present, however, people are being put off by the fear that the council will increase the rates, judging the accommodation to be a boarding house; that the tax man will be after them for a return on the rent; and, worst of all, that the rent officer will come round and start imposing conditions.

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend made her suggestion about the friendly landlady at our last Question Time. I can think of no friendlier landlady than my hon. Friend herself and I am sure that she will wish to act on her own proposal. Her suggestion about tax changes is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I shall pass it on to him. She is, however, right in saying that, if we are to make progress in tackling the problems of homelessness, we must use all the resources available to us, including those of the landladies whom she has mentioned.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I look forward to seeing the "To Let" signs going up in Lord North street very soon.

I thank the Minister for his visit to Crisis, which was in Bermondsey this Christmas, and for the initiatives that he has taken before and since, including today's announcement. Can he give a realistic estimate of the date by which, according to Government policy, no one who wishes to have a home will be homeless? Does he realise that a precondition of that is people having the money to pay for housing, which is currently prohibited by the social security system?

Sir George Young

We must draw a distinction between those who are homeless, as currently defined by the legislation, and those who are sleeping rough. The object of the initiative that I announced before Christmas is to make it unnecessary for young people or, indeed, anyone else to continue to sleep rough in central London. I believe that enough accommodation is in the pipeline, and coming through it, to fulfil that aim. We have announced 1,000 places in the first round of the initiative, with more coming up.

We are doing an audit with the voluntary organisations to find out exactly how many people are sleeping rough and to obtain a clearer idea of the sort of accommodation needed by those people—some of whom are highly dependent, others less so. We shall then match the results of the audit with the programme that we have on stream. I hope that we shall make progress and ensure that we have the right type and number of places for those who are currently sleeping rough.

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend's announcement is very welcome. Does he agree, however, that every time that this issue comes up, year after year, it is pointed out that if Labour authorities in London released their empty houses and flats, the problem of homelessness in the capital would be solved? Has he any evidence that authorities are doing anything about the asset that they have in hand?

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend reminds us of the recommendations of the Audit Commission. The commission demonstrated that if the worst performed no better than the average, a substantial number of new units would become available, leaving only about 2,500 families still in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We must, of course, do all that we can to maintain the pressure on the less good performers to achieve the higher standards that we know are possible, and my Department monitors performances regularly.

Mr. George Howarth

I welcome that latest announcement, but is not it about time that the Minister realised that the real problem is the lack of affordable housing? Schemes and announcements by the Department will not resolve that. In December, the permanent under-secretary to the Department of the Environment told the Public Accounts Committee that it costs about £9,400 a year to keep a family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but £200 to service debt on a council house. The Government's policy is more expensive as well as being catastrophic for people on the street and families in bed and breakfast. Is not it time that something was done instead of talk and no action.

Sir George Young

I have tried to explain to the House that we have been doing quite a lot. I know that the hon. Gentleman's concern is genuine, but there are about 600,000 empty properties in the private rented sector. If one wants to help the homeless quickly, it is more productive to examine how such properties can be brought back into use, rather than to address the longer-term questions that the hon. Gentleman raised about supply. It would take some time to increase the supply, so I want to get more properties into use quickly and cheaply. There are ways of achieving that other than the more long-term solution that he outlined.