HL Deb 21 March 1973 vol 340 cc816-55

7.11 p.m.

LORD HYLTON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the present arrangements for the rehousing of homeless families. The noble Lord said: My Lords, from the start I should like to make it clear that in speaking about homeless families I intend to confine myself entirely to those who are officially homeless—that is to say, to families who have applied to a local authority because they have lost, or are in the process of losing, their home. This question arises out of two Written Questions which I previously asked and which were answered by my noble friend Lord Aberdare on December 20 of last year and January 24 of this year. I may say that I am very glad to see that my noble friend Lady Young has been able to come into the Chamber, because the subject matter is one which goes right down tha boundary line between housing and social services.

To return to the Written Questions: the first concerned children taken into care because their parents were either officially homeless or living in appallingly bad physical housing conditions. The Answer on that point was that during the year ended March 1972, 6,510 children were taken into care for these reasons in England and Wales. In Scotland in the previous year the figure was 766. These are tragic figures when one bears in mind the very great stress that can be caused to a child simply by being separated from its parents; the impact of removal from its home and being taken into new, alien, totally different conditions. I say that, however good is the childcare and how- ever good the children's officers and the persons running the children's homes are.

It is perhaps interesting to look at the geographical distribution where these children were taken into care. In the period in question, rather over 1,000 of them came from Greater London. But there are very great contrasts between one London borough and another. In the case of two of the Inner London boroughs (two of the most hard-pressed boroughs) during that year each of them took only 10 children into care for these reasons, while in another two the figure exceeded 100. In the case of four of the home counties closely adjacent to Greater London there were over 100 children taken into care in a year. These differences seem to me to be too wide. I feel that they can be explained only by serious differences in policies between one local authority and another. It may be also that differing local authorities make varying and different uses of the statutory powers which they already have, and that surely is a most undesirable thing. The figures, to my mind, also indicate in some cases, though not in all, a lack of co-operation between housing departments and social services departments, even within the same county.

I went on to ask in the Written Question what is the weekly cost of keeping a child in care, and the Answer was that in 1970.71 the average cost was £10.11 per child. But there is reason to think that this cost figure has risen very greatly in the last few years and that in London, at any rate, it has now reached the level of £19 per week. I asked whether the Government could estimate the annual cost of keeping children in care because of homelessness. The answer there, unfortunately and regrettably, was that it was not possible to give the annual cost. The reason for that, it was stated, was that nobody knows how long the children remain in care. That seems to be rather an amazing state of affairs at a time when so many people are concerned with cost effectiveness. I wonder whether the Government would be prepared to state tonight that they want to see far more money spent on providing temporary and permanent accommodation and housing and far less on the taking of children into care.

My second Written Question was concerned with homeless families. I asked whether figures could be given for the number of lawful evictions and foreclosures which occurred in a year. That, I was told, was not available. It is known, however, that the number of families in temporary accommodation be-because they were homeless doubled between 1966 and 1971. It is known that applications for temporary accommodation are now running at an annual rate of 30,000 per year—that is, in 1972. If we take a rather low average number of persons per family—let us say three—that means that 90,000 persons or thereabouts applied to a local authority for temporary accommodation in 1972: a staggering figure, a figure equivalent to the total population of the city of Bath, for example. It is further known that the ratio of applications for temporary accommodation to actual admissions is of the order of four to one. It also indicates a very serious state of affairs and I should like to return later to the reasons for that curious ratio.

I asked in the same Written Question how many families were turned away by a local authority simply because no temporary accommodation was available at that time. That Answer was not available. I asked how many families had been placed in bed and breakfast rooms or in hotels by local authorities. Again, no one knows. I asked whether it was possible to make an estimate of the number of families who have been driven to living and sleeping in cars and vans or who are "sleeping rough". Again, no one can estimate that, but I assure your Lordships that it certainly occurs. I asked also in the same Question how many local authorities provide no temporary accommodation at all. Again, the Government do not know. My Lords, I feel that this written reply reveals a most astonishing state of ignorance. I should like to ask the Government what steps are being taken to remedy this lack of knowledge, which is all the more surprising when it comes after many laborious Reports and Inquiries—the Milner-Holland Report, the Greve Report, the Glastonbury Report and the reports of special Working Parties on homelessness in London, just to give a few examples.

What are the Government doing to create a greater sense of urgency among all those who have to deal with homeless families and the problems of homelessness? Are the Government intending to provide greater funds for rehousing homeless families? These. I hope, are questions which are capable of an answer. But the Question that I put down for today is not one which can be answered, or at least it cannot be answered in a satisfactory sense, and the reason for that is extremely simple. Most regrettably, the fact is that many homeless families are simply not rehoused. Within quite a short interval of time they are split up, divided and broken up. All too often local authorities have no alternative but to advise a homeless family to go to their friends or relations, to fit themselves in somehow or other. This simply delays the time of reckoning, because it leads to overcrowding, it leads to tension, family friction, husbands and wives separating of their own accord.

Another tactic which local authorities have been driven to is to say, "All we can do is to take your children into care", which, if accepted, immediately splits the family. If the offer is rejected, it probably means that the family in question simply goes over the border into some other local authority area. Let us take the most favourable instance, where an offer of temporary accommodation is made to a homeless family. This does not always apply to the whole family. In the case of some 13 local authorities the rule is that husbands cannot be accepted. This extraordinary rule still applies many years after the famous legal battle over the King Hill Hostel, where the judgment of the court apparently established once and for all that husbands have a positive right to accompany their wives and children. In other cases, I believe affecting some 11 local authorities, children over the age of 16 are excluded from temporary accommodation. Elsewhere artificial qualifications are required before temporary accommodation can be provided. Sometimes it is required that the family's name shall be on the housing list before temporary accommodation is given.

Other administrative practices for rationing this scarce amount of temporary accommodation include not having any rent arrears, or being subject to some kind of means test. In other cases hard-pressed local authorities try to send the homeless family who present themselves back to their point of origin or their previous address. This practice appears to be in complete contravention of the advice given by the Ministry of Health Circular No. 87 of 1948, which clearly stated that The provision of temporary accommodation is in all cases the responsibiliy of the authority in whose area the person happens to be when the need arises. These administrative practices which I have described appear to me to contravene at least three Acts of Parliament; namely, the National Assistance Act 1948, the Children and Young Persons Act 1963, the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. Will the Government give an assurance this evening that these three Acts will be uniformly applied throughout the country for the benefit of homeless families?

A recent Government decision made possible the admission into this country of some 300 members of Uganda Asian families whose wives and children, in most cases, were already in Britain, and by an act of clemency the husbands were allowed to join them. They had previously been separated by the accident of Statelessness. I should be delighted if the Government would give an assurance this evening that in a similar spirit they will no longer tolerate the splitting of British families resident in Britain. Perhaps they could go a little further and say they will no longer tolerate the shuttlecocking of families from one local authority area to another. That was something that frequently occurred under the old Poor Law, and it was something we had hoped had disappeared, but that seems not yet to have quite occurred.

Those of us who are concerned with homeless families are concerned on the merits of the question; none of us, I think, wish to make Party political points. It is in this spirit that I would quote very briefly from a joint circular which went out from the Ministry of Health, the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government on October 31. 1966. The circular reviewed very briefly and concisely the causes of homelessness, and went on to suggest how it might be prevented and how homeless families might be re-established. I will quote very briefly from it. It said: The primary aim is to enable husband, wife and children to remain together. I think we would all agree with that. On the next page it said: The discretion given in Section 21, National Assistance Act, 1948, as to the admission of families in foreseeable circumstances should be—as it generally is—widely used without artificial discrimination. Some of the practices which I mentioned earlier, to my mind, amount to artificial discrimination, which 5½ years ago was condemned and recommended not to be done.

I agree that there have been in recent months some improvements in administrative practices within Greater London. Nevertheless, a great deal remains to be done in the field of prevention, particularly in regard to eviction, and I feel that far more should be done throughout the rest of the country to put into practice the circular from which I have quoted. While on that point, I should like to ask the Government whether the reports mentioned in paragraph 11 of the circular, which were first asked for in March, 1967, are still being received. Surely these are such basic points of information that they should be required at least annually.

This question of homelessness seems to be tied up very closely with access to housing. I ventured to suggest in a letter to The Times on January 1 last that access is very difficult, when not impossible, for a family which either has never had a home or has just lost it; and difficult for this reason, that over 80 per cent. of the total stock of housing is either in owner occupation or else in council ownership.

Both those types of tenure have barriers erected round them: in the first case financial barriers, in the second case barriers of residential qualification and points schemes. To overcome these barriers—which used in the past to be possible through private rented accommodation, and which is becoming no longer possible because private rented accommodation, decreases and shrinks year by year and is largely now confined to luxury flats and tied houses—a vast increase in the amount of temporary housing is to my mind necessary, and I should like to ask the Government what steps they are taking to increase the supply of simple, basic but yet self-contained, temporary housing for families. Obviously it is not sufficient simply to provide temporary accommodation. This must be backed up by permanent solutions. On that the evidence of Scotland and Northern Ireland is that the local authorities are unable to do enough to provide permanent rented accommodation, particularly for those earning less than the national average income.

I should very much like to hear the Government's reaction to the idea of creating a central housing authority in England and Wales, such as has been created in Scotland and Northern Ireland. This would be done not to abolish or take away the powers of local authorities but to supplement and reinforce them, to provide permanent solutions to follow on from the vastly increased temporary accommodation. If something on these lines could be done, my Lords, I feel that we may be beginning to abolish homelessness among families.

7.33 p.m.


My Lords, the House has come to know and to respect the very great interest, and, indeed, more than interest, the activity, of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, in the subject of housing as a social problem and social service, and we have good reason to be grateful to him for tabling this Question this evening. I have the feeling that probably the subject deserves a full-scale debate, but, be that as it may, we are grateful to him for the opportunity he has provided. The debate is very timely, coming as it does so recently after the issuing of the "grief report" published by Shelter, with which I am quite sure the noble Lord is familiar. That report follows the 1971 Greve Report which stated that nobody knows, or has ever known, how many homeless people there are. The "grief report" illustrates again and again what homelessness means to those caught up in this acute, degrading social problem. The Question which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asks, is whether Her Majesty's Government are satisfied with the present arrangements for the rehousing of homeless families", and he said—I would like to go along with what he said—that we are not seeking to make a Party political point. However, I think his Question has to be seen against the mandate which was sought by the Government at the last Election when they said that they wanted power, as they put it, to house the homeless. They declared: The problem of the homeless is concealed by unrealistic official statistics. We will lay down a more sensible definition and then make sure that families without a home or living in intolerable conditions receive priority ". To this Question I am pretty certain we are bound to get an emphatic "No", if for no other reason, though I think there will be others, than that the "grief report" reveals the harshness of the situation existing at present and must prevent any showing of complacency.

I have been re-reading the Ninth Report of the Housing Management Sub-Committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee, published in 1969. Paragraphs 328 to 351 deal with the homeless. These paragraphs can still be studied with great advantage and much in them is relevant to this debate. Inevitably in reading that Report my mind recalled the 1968 Report of the Committee on Local Authorities and Allied Social Services over which the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm—Mr. Frederick Seebohm, as he then was—presided. As your Lordships will recall, my noble friend Lady Serota was a distinguished member of that Committee. Again there is so much in that Report that is relevant to this debate. We find in paragraphs 401 to 413 particular attention paid to the part which local authorities should undertake in dealing with the problem of homeless families. In paragraph 401, they say: We recommend that housing departments should, as a few already do, assume responsibility for providing accommodation for homeless families. Later they go on to say: The general responsibility should ensure that families do not break up and children do not become separated from their parents just because they cannot secure a home together. Then we have Chapter 14 of that Report dealing with prevention, and there is so much in that which one feels needs constant study. I think it would be helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, is able to give us the definition of "homelessness" which the Government now use, so that we can better understand the figures which I hope he will provide showing the size of the problem to-day.

There is a great deal that could be said about the work of Shelter, and I want to make only passing reference to it. We know that it is an organisation that has had dynamic growth and has been dynamic in the influence it has exercised. What does impress me is that Shelter to-day, I understand, is employing something like 90 full-time workers, and I would ask the noble Lord if he can tell us the extent to which this organisation is matched in the Department of Housing and Construction. I wonder whether he could tell us the size of the staff in the Department that is concerned with housing management, and how many of these are concerned with the particular problem of homelessness. As I recall, the Ninth Report of the Housing Management Sub-Committee told us that there was only one in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government at that time who was concerned with housing management. It would be interesting to have the comparative figure to-day. I think we shall be particularly interested in the size of the staff dealing with homelessness.

I want to turn to the duties of local authorities, which are pretty clearly established in the fields of both welfare and housing. As I see it, they have an obligation to ensure that displaced persons are satisfactorily rehoused. I do not want to detail all the arguments in Chapter 2 of the "grief" report, and I do not want to repeat all that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said; but I should like to ask the Government whether they accept the summary of findings set out on page 2 and, if they do not, which of those findings are not accepted. As has been said on so many occasions, people become homeless for a variety of reasons. None the less, those reasons can be classified and grouped, and effective policies must be devised and pursued vigorously to deal with the position. Central Government have an overriding responsibility here, and the answers to the questions which I put on staffing will give us some idea how that is being discharged.

The day-to-day task of coping with the problem is, of course, the responsibility of local authorities and, clearly, they have their own individual ways of tackling it. Some are a great deal better than others. To what extent do the Government give them directions or issue guidelines? And—if I may repeat the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton—are they satisfied with the response that they are getting from local authorities? Do local authorities employ enough social workers to handle the problem of homeless families, and beyond that—and perhaps, in the long run, more important—to undertake preventive work on the necessary scale? Are the Government satisfied that there is adequate liaison between the housing and the welfare authorities, particularly—again, a matter which has been touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton—that section responsible for child care? I have been involved in the work of children's departments for a good many years during my service in local government, and I have been—and still am—appalled at the bankruptcy of a policy which has separated children from parents because of homelessness. I am not convinced that the need for such action has been justified to anything like the extent to which it has been taken. Too often, local authorities have held vacant for months property which could have been used to provide accommodation for the homeless, only because, it seemed to me, someone has been more concerned with getting them out than with keeping a family or families together; in other words, it has been administratively more convenient to keep property empty. I have mentioned preventive work, and this is an area where reassurance that everything possible is being done will be very welcome to-night.

I take the view that if a local authority evicts a family and causes its break-up, unless on the most exceptional grounds such as cruelty, it has failed utterly. This can happen when the housing manager and staff behave as estate agents. It is many years ago now since I was chairman of a housing committee, when we decided to appoint a housing manager. I looked for, and I expected to find in the applicant that we selected, someone of the attitude and self-involvement of Octavia Hill. We have too few people animated as she was animated, and there is a very great deal to learn if we go back and study her approach to the social problem to which she devoted so much of her life. It is because too little rehabilitative work is undertaken that we get some of the trouble we find to-day—I rather think a very great deal of the trouble we find to-day. We want to know a very great deal more about the applicants for accommodation who disappear from the lists, those who are refused, put off. We shall never know the suffering, the intolerable strains that follow, and the tragedy that can ensue. I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell us if there is any serious follow-up of cases to evaluate the social consequences.

If I dared to take the time—and I do not—I should give figures for the authority on which I now serve, showing how many apply, how many are accepted and what happens to those who are not accepted. All too often, they go to accommodation similar to that from which they have been evicted and the strains begin all over again; but these can be written off as people who make their own arrangements. We get another group accommodated by relatives, and what strains can ensue as a result of that! Or accommodated by friends—and how long can friends put up with a family living with them? Too few are rehoused by the local authority. Some obtain residential employment, and they are evicted because they have already been in residential employment. That is one of the reasons for a great many people becoming homeless. One could go on.

London is unique and its problem is particular. One thinks of places like Centre Point standing empty for so very long. There it is, a symbol of homage to investment and profit-making, a hollow mockery in terms of human dignity. The "grief" Report makes clear that the problem is much more than a London one. I live in Surrey and, as I said, I serve on the county council there. That Report has made a very considerable impact, as a result of its revelations, in regard to housing in Surrey. I have no doubt at all that it was the publication of the "grief" Report which prompted what strikes me as a quite unprecedented action on the part of no fewer than 110 social workers. I shall be very grateful if the noble Lord will give me his attention on this point. Those social workers issued an open letter which began: We, the undersigned social workers employed by the Surrey County Council, wish to state our continued concern at the problems of homelessness and inadequate housing which exist in a county as affluent as Surrey. Even some of the temporary accommodation available is of an unacceptable standard. After drawing attention to the division of responsibilities, land prices, house prices, the falling number of houses being built and other difficulties, they went on to say: Accordingly, we propose that an appropriate joint body be set up to represent the county council and the County Districts Association, both to press for additional resources and to plan for their most effective use. They went on to suggest that in addition to the representatives of the county council and of the County Districts Associations, there should be representatives of social workers, including those who are concerned with the problem of homelessness, and—which struck me as quite a novel suggestion, but one well worthy of consideration—representatives from those who have themselves been homeless and have really experienced the problem.

I should like to know from the noble Lord—and this is why I asked him to give me his attention a moment ago—whether there is any movement in this direction throughout the country, for in Surrey, like other authorities, we face an increase in homelessness, although additional temporary accommodation is being provided. May I say, I hope without undue immodesty, that I think I can claim to have played some part in securing that additional accommodation. It was because it came to my notice that the council was holding—and had been holding for many months—houses that have been occupied by policemen and such people, so-called sub-standard housing, that I felt that an opportunity was being lost and homeless families were being unnecessarily deprived of accommodation. I hope the House will forgive me for that personal anecdote; but despite the fact that we have this increased temporary accommodation, still the applicants come, and despite using hotels as we have never used them before, a substantial proportion are not being accommodated by the authority.

It seems to me that we must repeatedly examine the effectiveness of the preventive work that is undertaken. The guidelines were laid down in 1968 and 1969 in the two official reports to which I have referred; and I think we must always question evictions of families by local authorities. I recognise the work of bodies like the Catholic Aid Society, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, gives of his time and support. More power to their elbow! But they touch only the fringe of the problem. Central Government must give the lead and local government must respond. It is not good enough to give way to the temptation to dismiss the problem as one created by people's own lack of foresight or initiative. The socially inadequate desperately need support, and at the time of reckoning what is to be said of us if we fail to remember that Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me"? My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. To-night we cannot escape from knowledge of the plight of these people, and if we close our eyes, then that, on our part, will be a deliberate act. But at the bottom of it all there is still a desperate housing shortage in areas of great urban activity, and always there is the continuing need to see housing as one of the most vital of our social services.

7.53 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join in the thanks which are due to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for raising this Question to-night. My thanks, however, are tempered by the fact that it is plain to any of us who have tried to deal with this problem of homelessness that it needs a full-scale, whole-day debate to do it anything approaching justice. In a short debate at this hour, it is difficult for us, even between us, somehow to range over the very complex issues which are involved. Some of them are structural. In the Local Government Act of last year we were not able satisfactorily to solve the question of divided responsibility between different authorities. It is only in the metropolitan districts that one has in the one local government unit responsibility both for housing and for social services. Outside London, in the non-metropolitan county areas, these responsibilities are divided—and in a moment or two I want to say something about some of the consequences of this division.

That this is an increasing problem seems to be clear, and I shall be glad to know whether the Minister is able to give us any up-to-date computation of the present situation regarding people classified as homeless; to which one must always add, as my noble friend Lord Garnsworthy indicated, the people who do not in fact reach the statistics because somehow or other they make possibly temporary arrangements of their own. But when the Greve Report was issued it was said that: In the decade between 1960 and 1970 the number of persons in temporary accommodation has risen in England and Wales by no less than 190 per cent.". We have every reason to think that this increase is continuing. That is why I should like to have authentic information if it is available. The increase is continuing partly, as we know, because of the very sharp decline in the amount of cheap, rented accommodation which is available especially in the major cities, where housing which people in difficulties could sometimes find for themselves—accommodation of some sort—is now being so rapidly replaced by the developers with, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, shops, offices and impossibly expensive flats. So the scope of the problem is really enormous, and appears to be increasing; and, as I say, it is exacerbated by the structural problems of local government.

Within the last three or four years we have had a series of extremely interesting and well-researched reports, which have been mentioned by the two previous speakers. One which interested me especially—and I was rather surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, I think I am right in saying, did not refer to it directly—was a report on South Wales and South-West England by Bryan Glastonbury, and the comments thereon by the local authorities and the Departments concerned. The noble Lord is concerned with the South-West of England, and I am much concerned with South Wales; and I found that report, in addition to the London ones, particularly enlightening. But what emerges from all these reports is, I think, first, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, emphasised, the really quite astonishing lack of authentic information about this problem and of proper analyses in usable form of the great variety of categories of persons who are homeless for one reason or another.

It also emerges from all these reports that homelessness is a far more complex matter than mere lack of houses, serious as that is; and the house-building records in this country for the last year or two are, of course, very far from encouraging. But it seems plain that homelessness is a human problem as well as one of physical accommodation. This was made clear as far back as 1969 in Professor Cullingworth's Report, in which he said: It is by no means plain how far homelessness is a housing problem. To a major extent the problem may frequently lie deeper". In the Glastonbury Report on South Wales, to which I have just referred, Bryan Glastonbury said: Homelessness is not mainly so far as South Wales is concerned— a matter of housing shortage, but of a number of complex difficulties. Marital breakdown appears to be central". This, I think, is less true of London, where the sheer physical lack of accommodation is undoubtedly a major factor, and this may well be true also of other large cities. But, I repeat, it is not universally so, and therefore there is this much broader responsibility than the responsibility which lies directly on housing authorities as such.

Another factor which emerges from these various reports is the wide variation in the practice of different local authorities, and one would wish to know from the Minister what guidance has recently been given on such matters. Because, for example, the Cullingworth Report said: The policies of the London borough housing departments in relation to homelessness varied greatly. Some insisted on actual eviction by court order; others that people must be homeless through no fault of their own; others that there must be children of school age; others that the previous accommodation must have been unfurnished. Some insisted on a residential qualification even for temporary accommodation; "— which I believe is strictly illegal— others did not". Although this was written several years ago, one would wish to know what improvement there has been, if any, in the situation which was then described. As this is a short debate, having raised all these general matters, I should like to focus attention on one particular aspect of homelessness. Recently there was a debate in another place on the plight of single persons. Our debate is focused more on the problems of families and both the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and my noble friend Lord Garnsworthy rightly emphasised the problems of families with children which may be divided because of homelesness.

I want to take a different group of families, families where a mother with children is homeless because she has felt obliged to leave her home because of the behaviour of her husband. This matter was raised, as some noble Lords may know, in the Observer of last Sunday in an article by Christine Doyle. Having seen this article, I was so much moved that in the last few days I have made it my business to follow up the maters referred to in it. I also tried quickly to see what references there were to this category of homeless families in some of the Reports to which we have referred to-night. I was interested to find that in the Greve Report there was a particular reference to this matter. Professor Greve, referring to a survey dealt with in his book, said that over one-third of the families which are admitted to temporary accommodation are families where the mother is alone with her children—in other words, without her husband, mainly through separation; although there are some unmarried mothers. This is a very high proportion. When one goes a little further, as he did, into the analysis one finds that it is not always true to say that this was due to marital friction. There were other reasons: the husband's illness or his working away from home or because he was in prison.

In the South Wales Report it was suggested that domestic friction was the basic cause of homelessness for no less than 34 per cent. of the families in temporary accommodation. In London, for the reasons I suggested earlier, the proportion is much smaller, some 13 per cent. Even that represents a very significant number. Professor Greve went on to say that marital breakdown was the most persistent cause of homelessness and the most difficult to assess. He made the rather interesting comment that in the London area, the area with which he was dealing, the highest proportion of fami- lies broken up for this reason are those London-born, the lowest those of Commonwealth origin, with the Irish somewhere in between. I mention this because there are some popular misconceptions on the subject.

He went on to say that the local authorities were reluctant to give accommodation in cases where marital disputes resulted in the woman's leaving the home with the children, or wishing to do so. In his survey, out of 59 applications from women who felt they were in danger at home of physical assault, only 24 were admitted to temporary accommodation. He said that admission was sometimes for night emergencies, and others occurred after a fairly long break-up of the family. Admission was much less likely where the woman had left home recently or where she had asked for accommodation to enable her to leave. The standard advice given to these women was to go back home or to see the probation officer to discuss a separation order. In only five cases out of the 59 did the social worker offer to visit the husband.

Professor Glastonbury's investigations led him to believe that homelessness tended to be a sequel and not a cause of domestic disturbance. He admitted that poverty, frequent moves and the strain of young families were among the causes of family breakdown. The official Report, a cross-check on the Glastonbury Reports, which was issued by the local authorities concerned and the Department, gave rent arrears as numerically the most important category of the homeless but said that family matrimonial disputes ran a very close second. For these reasons it seems to me that this particular group of persons requires some special attention. My attention was drawn to it by the article to which I referred, which was a description of a very small hostel for women with their children who had left home because of physical assault. I determined to find out a little more about this particular voluntary effort. It is a small house—condemned, incidentally—which may not be available much longer and which belongs to the borough council. It consists of four small rooms with no bath, no hot water and an outside lavatory. It has been opened some sixteen months. The small group of women running it began to do so because the problem existed in their vicinity and they felt they had to do something to meet it. In the sixteen months, they have had nearly 500 requests for help.

On Monday of this week when I telephoned to check (and I cross-checked the facts I obtained) they had in that small house six women and eight children. There was a woman aged 30, who was six months pregnant, with a daughter of 8, sent by the Paddington Social Service Department; another was aged 32, with a boy and a girl, sent by a probation officer from Hertfordshire; another of 50, with a boy and a girl, sent by the Hammersmith Social Service Department; another of 28, with a baby of four months, sent by the N.S.P.C.C. and a health visitor; another of 50, with a girl of eleven, sent by the Hammersmith Citizens' Advice Bureau; another of 32, with a baby of six months, sent by the borough social service department. Some slept on the floor but all were thankful to be there because they felt safe. These women, I am assured, have suffered physical harm. It is not just a question of a slap or a punch which can sometimes happen in the best regulated families; these people have had broken bones, broken arms, broken noses. The pregnant women because of the assaults on them are terrified for the wellbeing of their unborn child. The analysis made by the women who run this tiny hostel are that the husbands concerned can be grouped into three types: psychopaths, alcoholics and straightforward bullies. The latter category is the easiest to deal with. In the short time of sixteen months in which the house has been opened these women have given temporary shelter to some 400 women who have applied. When a woman leaves she is given a key so that she can come back in an emergency.

The local authorities concerned very often do not have adequate accommodation to offer. Voluntary organisations are apt to say that they will take the children but not the mother, Yet, as was pointed out, in such circumstances the children are often desperately close to the mother because of the way in which she has been assualted by the father, and often the children themselves have been assualted. Where you have a woman in this condition, and often highly disturbed children, it is not good social practice to separate the mother from the children. The other great advantage of this enterprise is that, with the help of friendly lawyers, they are able to give instant legal advice and obtain legal aid. In these circumstances that seems to me one of the most important things of all.

My Lords, I could go on further, but I hope that I have said enough to suggest that this really is a serious aspect of the much wider problem of homelessness. I gave notice to the Minister that I was going to raise this point and I hope that he may be able to say a little more about it. I did so partly because on August 15 last a letter was sent to the lady who is in charge of this hostel—if you can call a small condemned house such a thing. The letter was sent by Sir Keith Joseph. The women who have been working there wrote to him because they felt that the women who came to the hostel were not being adequately helped through the official provisions. They raised various questions with the Minister, including matters of supplementary benefit, and so on, which are not germane to this debate. But on the question of accommodation they received this reply in the letter from Sir Keith Joseph. He said it was the function of the appropriate local authority under Section 21(1) of the National Assistance Act 1948—and I want to ask a question about that in a moment—to provide temporary accommodation' to persons who are in urgent need. The letter went on to quote the provisions of the Act. The Minister continued: In reaching their decision as to whether or not to use their powers in any particular case local authorities are bound to have regard, firstly, to the total family situation and, secondly, to the availability of space in the accommodation available to them. It is by no means always the best way of helping husband, wife or children, to encourage the break-up of a family when there has been a serious incident or row, and it may sometimes be better to encourage the wife to return home before any irrevocable decisions are taken which may subsequently be regretted. My Lords, I do not think it takes a great deal of imagination to appreciate the feelings of a woman, who herself has been knocked about, and may have also seen her children battered, if she is told that she ought to return home while possible legal action against her husband is being considered. The net result of her being away from home, one hopes temporarily, and getting legal advice may well be that in fact the family may be re-united. This has been the experience of a number of those who have been to the hostel. When the woman ascertained her rights, and when the husband realised she had certain rights which could be enforced and that she was not utterly defenceless (if the husband was of the bully class, as opposed to the psychopath or alcoholic) matters were very often remedied. But the suggestion that temporary accommodation should not be provided because of some moral judgment as to the wife's duty to return to her husband is, to my mind, wholly unacceptable.

If a woman can show that she has been seriously physically assaulted it seems to me that she has a moral right to temporary accommodation, at least while the matter is being investigated and while remedies may be considered. The plight of some of these women has, I think, been desperate. The terms of the reply by Sir Keith Joseph leave me in considerable doubt as to the sort of guidance which may be issued from the Department. This is really what I wish to ask the Minister about. What guidance, if any, has been issued, or is likely to be issued in the near future, on this particular case of women who suffer "mugging" in the home? I am not speaking of just a casual slap or something of that sort, but a real, serious physical assault.

I ask this partly because there is some concern as to the position under the Local Government Act, 1972. In that Act the situation under the National Assistance Act 1948 is changed, and the schemes approved under Section 34 of the National Assistance Act relating inter alia to the provision of accommodation are now subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. Under the new legislation local authorities have now to take account of the approval of the Secretary of State, and it is he who may direct the extent to which they make arrangements for carrying out the functions, the proposals and the schemes which were formerly carried out under the 1948 Act. Therefore the Secretary of State is in a very influential position, because the local authorities have to take account of the directions which he gives to them. So I hope, my Lords, that having raised this particular problem of the battered wives who leave home for what some of us at least think are very sound reasons, we may be told what directions have been issued or are proposed to be issued to local authorities. I shall be extremely grateful to receive a reply from the Minister. I can assure him that the matter will not be allowed to rest unless we get satisfaction on this point. Women's organisations are being alerted to this situation, and it seems utterly intolerable that one has to rely on the sort of provisions in Chiswick which I have described to deal with this special problem.

8.17 p.m.


My Lords, the question raised by my noble friend Lord Hylton is of great importance, and that has been only too apparent from the various contributions to which we have listened. Homeless families or individuals seem to fall into two categories; those who would present no problem if they had a roof over their heads, and those whose homelessness follows from the fact that the family or individual is one with personal, emotional, or special social problems. Families in the first category include those who move from areas of high unemployment, where there is probably no great shortage of houses, and these people appear to be unconscious of the shortage of accommodation in the parts of Southern England into which they move. Work with comparatively high wages greets them there, but far too often there is no accommodation, or accommodation only at exorbitant rents; and nearly always there is an embargo on children of almost any age.

My Lords, I remember so well, when I was chairman of a metropolitan borough housing committee, often saying to our housing manager that if the people who wanted houses produced elephants or white mice they would be offered a key, but because they had children the doors were always shut against them; and that still seems to be apparent today. In London there are two boroughs which are continually faced with the problem posed by the arrival of such families. One is Brent, at the end of the M.1, and there I have had most interesting talks with three young men who are running a housing advice centre in which they pinpointed the problem with which they are having to content. The other is Camden, which contains no fewer than three main-line station terminals. In addition to these families there are those living in "tied" accommodation, who when their job ends, lose their home as well. Then there are the hidden homeless—the young married couples or the single individual longing for homes of their own, who are forced to live with parents or in-laws when the time has more than come for them to have an independent home of their own.

For all of these the housing departments of the local housing authorities should be responsible rather than the social service departments. They present straightforward cases for the acquisition of housing accommodation, with no problems except the overriding need for a roof over their heads. This, my Lords, is the view taken by the three Departmental Working Party Reports compiled by the Department of Health and Social Security to which reference has already been made. Can the Minister tell us, when he comes to reply, on whom the responsibility for the homeless is going to be in future—local housing authorities or social service departments? I sometimes wonder how much co-operation actively takes place between the Department of Employment, the Department for the Environment, the Department of Health and Social Security and the local authorities for the planning of the housing required for active workers and their families. I wonder whether the Minister could inform us about this.

A move out of London to a new or expanding town might be a solution to many of the families arriving in London from areas of unemployment. But who is to be the intermediary to arrange these moves? In the first category I have spoken about, the skilled and semi-skilled often can no longer purchase their own houses when they arrive in a new area, partly because the down payment for a mortgage has greatly increased, and even if the family can collect the capital to put down, the mortgage payments are now higher than many council rents; and partly because builders' and decorators' costs have gone up so much that anyone needing work done on a house—tiles off the roof, exterior painting, repairs et cetera—cannot afford it. As a result of this, fewer people in the skilled and semi-skilled groups are purchasing their houses, and the rents of both furnished and unfurnished property continue to soar.

My Lords, I believe that a considerable contribution to the solution of providing more accommodation without taking additional land could be found in a study of the amount of under-occupied properties in the areas where there is a shortage. For instance, it was discovered in Reading that 12,000 bedrooms were never slept in. In Berkshire there could be 19,000 under-occupied properties by 1980. The James Butcher Housing Association has built 270 houses for elderly people in Reading over the last seven years—some of the 270 houses having had a second occupant after the death of the first—and this has released 439 houses for family use. Thus, by building 270 homes for elderly people, the problems of 709 households have been solved. Taken nationally, if priority were to be given to the construction of one or two-person accommodation, built in groups of any number to suit any patch of land available—such as the ends of some of the long gardens at the back of roads of Victorian houses—many elderly people who are under-occupying large houses, and who would like to leave them provided that they were not moved out of the neighbourhood to which they had become attached, would be inclined to do so.

In addition to this idea, it should be possible to convert a great many under-occupied large houses into separate flats, which the owner of the house, living in one, can let to families needing accomdation of the kind that would then be available As well as planting trees and cherishing the countryside, could the Government set on foot a campaign to inspire local housing authorities to encourage and persuade those living in half-empty properties in both the public and the private sector to agree to the subdivision of their house, thereby providing house room for extra families? And would the Government consider giving better improvement grants for this sort of subdivision? While thinking of elderly people, is the Minister satisfied that there is a sufficient pool of purpose-built housing for them? And could the Minister tell us what Government policy is about acquiring empty properties for housing purposes by compulsory purchase orders?

The second category of the homeless presents a much more difficult problem. It consists of those who are evicted for the non-payment of rent, those who are feckless and apparently incapable of planning, and those who are immature and who, even if they had a council house. would not look after it without skilled, supportive help. There are the single homeless men and women who drift about the country—the meths drinkers, the mentally disturbed, the discharged prisoners and so on. There are the families where the wife has been abandoned and left with the children. These are the people for whom the Social Service Departments should be primarily responsible. Given the opportunity, they might be able to prevent a breakdown, or they could conceivably deal with a breakdown if it occurred. They could attempt rehabilitation. They could give voluntary organisations, such as the Cyrenian Society, the Salvation Army, the Church Army, the W.R.V.S. and so on, every possible help in the provision and maintenance of their hostel accommodation for the single homeless men and women. And in the case of these voluntary organisations, who are doing such splendid work against almost impossible odds, could the Department of Health and Social Security not give capital grants for the purchase of property, as well as revenue grants in aid of individuals?

My Lords, what are some of the ways in which the homeless can be rehoused? There are the homeless family units which, by and large, are not satisfactory, though some are better than others. I are reminded here of a caravan site in my own County or Wiltshire—a site in private ownership on which there are 44 residential caravans in various degrees of condition. It is called the Linga Longa Caravan Site. It is a mile's walk to the nearest bus stop, where one can go by bus to Amesbury, eight miles away, or to Salisbury, 15 miles away. Two days a week a bus service from and to the site has been arranged. The site has no shop, no public telephone and no post box. Tenants have to carry their own coal or smokeless fuel to the site. Some push this on old prams, some get a friend with a car to fetch it, and some get desperate and use a taxi. The nearest doctor's surgery is three miles away. The caravans stand on gravel hard standings, but these do not extend beyond the wheels of the vans. Most, but not all, of the caravans have running water. There is a lavatory block at each end of the site. These are cleaned daily, but as the cleaning involves swilling with water, the floors are always wet. The electricity supply, by special arrangement, comes from an old army generator. The supply is inadequate, and each caravan is allowed only the use of a 5-amp plug. This provides a small one-bar electric fire, a light and a television. The residents of the caravans fall into two groups, Army and civilian. Many public-spirited people who have visited the site would like to see it closed. The families who are there would not agree. Much as they complain about the rents, the electricity, the repairs, the isolation and all the other disadvantages, they have found a refuge there in time of need. If the site were closed, or if it were upgraded, where would the present badly-off tenants go? My Lords, homelessness is a problem of the rural areas as well as the heavily populated urban areas.

For the families that are homeless and have social and emotional problems as well, there are the family rehabilitation centres run by some authorities and some voluntary organisations. For these to be effective there should not be more than 10 families in any one building. Some local authorities have a list of places willing to take homeless families in for bed and breakfast. Often the price is more than the family can pay and more than the supplementary benefit people will agree to pay, so that the Social Services Department has to supplement this under Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963. This financial arrangement is unsatisfactory, and families with children suffer grievously if they have to trail around all day. They spend a great deal of money on food, and this reduces what little savings they have towards achieving a more permanent home.

A number of local authorities are now offering their empty properties, which are awaiting re-development, to their social services departments. They in turn are accommodating some of their homeless families in sub-standard accommodation, which can only be regarded as a temporary measure. The families have to move out when the houses are due for re-development, but this is a stepping-stone. Could the Department of the Environment encourage other local authorities to do the same and provide this kind of stepping-stone? Other sub-standard houses have been made available by the housing departments for the social services departments to run as "intermediate houses". They form an intermediate link between the homeless family units and possession of a council house.

All this caring for these particular problem families and individuals falls to the social services departments under the National Assistance Act and the Children and Young Person's Act, which lays a duty on the local authority, through the social services departments, to ensure that every effort should be made to prevent homelessness and juvenile delinquency, and thus to promote the welfare of children by keeping families together.

My Lords, the problem seems to be insoluble: yet is it? It seems to me that constant co-operation between the main Government Departments involved and co-operation at local authority level of the service departments such as housing and social services could vastly contribute to a smoothing out of some of the biggest obstacles and frustrations. There must be an end to the passing of the buck. "Where there is no vision the people perish". People are people: not just digits on pieces of paper. As people, they need all the support and help possible to strengthen the weak, to comfort the faint-hearted and to provide places in which they can live in reasonable conditions of comfort and security that to them spells home.

8.33 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that speaking last before the Minister in the last debate of the day, it is my duty to be brief, and that I shall endeavour to be; but I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for seeing that this Motion has come before your Lordships' House to-day, because the subject of homelessness is one that should constantly be brought before us, even if it is done rather sotto voce. There are reasons for this. We cannot blazon homelessness and do a great propaganda campaign against it, because if we do that, as we did in earlier years, then we find we increase the volume of homelessness, because the less scrupulous landlords will take advantage of the situation to use the various methods at their disposal to evict a few more tenants. There is no greater attraction to unscrupulous landlords than a house with vacant possession which probably can be offered for sale or for rent if just one more tenant can be evicted. So there is a danger in the very propaganda that accompanies the word "homelessness". Nevertheless, this problem must be kept before our eyes and before the eyes of the public, so that it is not lost sight of by a public which may not be intimately concerned with it.

I particularly appreciated what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said because he came straight to the centre of the problem in his first sentence: that is, the difficulty of defining the spheres of social services and of housing. To my mind, this is the nub of the problem; and to underline it I should like to tell your Lordships a little story which concerns my own public life and which is perfectly true. From 1955 to 1960 I was chairman of the Housing Department of the London County Council. At the same time another Member of your Lordships' House, the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, was chairman of the Children's Committee. We had an arrangement whereby allocations from the housing pool were made for special purposes—and one of the special purposes concerned urgent Children's Committee cases. We used to allocate these cases on the recommendation of the Children's Committee officers and—perhaps not invariably, but certainly within a very short time—most of them came on to my table as "chronic rent arrears". We did not know how to deal with these because we knew it would cost the County Council a great deal more money to have the families evicted and the children taken into care.

So we devised—and I never discovered whether the Children's Committee part was ever tied up quite legally and logically—a system by which the Children's Committee rented the flats from the Housing Department so that the Housing Department's accounts were perfectly straightforward and not in deficit, and the Children's Committee charged what they thought was a proper rent to the tenant of the flat. This worked very well. Of course it could only have worked in London, because London was the only county council in England (I am not sure about Wales) that was a housing authority. This made it possible for there to be two services in one building, under two colleagues who were in the habit of working very closely together.

Under the 1963 London Government Act that situation was split, because the housing remained with the Greater London Council but the children's services went to the boroughs and there was that break between the two services. All over the country at large now this situation will again be arising—a situation in which the children's services and the housing services will be in the charge of one set of local authorities. If that is so, then co-operation may be much easier, but from the experience I had then and from what I have seen of homelessness since, I would go further than that: I would make provision of housing for the homeless a social service entirely. I believe it creates difficulties in a housing department. It creates difficulties for housing officers, and I do not think that between the two we do the best for the homeless families or that we do as much for them as we might do if we regarded this as a family problem in which we were all engaged in looking after—I will not say poorer, but suffering brothers and sisters in our great family. Social service departments can do that far more easily than housing departments.

There is another reason for making a change of this sort. We are now going through the phase of seeing the housing service change. I do not want to put this too strongly or to start anything, but it is losing some of its social emphasis and acquiring more of a financial emphasis. In this case a situation could arise in which the Housing Revenue Account takes such losses on behalf of homeless families that the rent stucture of council tenants within that authority would be affected for the future. That, to my mind, would be quite wrong. This is a burden to be borne by the whole community and not by any section of it (the section in this case being the council tenants) if such a situation were to be allowed to arise.

That is another reason why I strongly urge the Government that they should look at making this a social service pure and simple, run by the social services department and the social services committee of local authorities. It would be a great improvement and it would run more smoothly. The people concerned, the homeless families, would get more assistance, more people would be rehabilitated—and that, after all, is what one is looking for. One wants to rehabilitate these people so that they can take their full place in society again, and I am sure that can be achieved much more quickly in the majority of cases. Of course there will be some cases where it may never happen, but we shall have to carry those, as in families we have to carry the odd person here and there who never quite makes the grade. Let us approach it in that family spirit through our social science departments.

8.41 p.m.


My Lords, I know that I speak for all Members of the House, both those who have taken part and those who have listened to the debate, in saying how grateful we are to my noble friend for having introduced this debate. I know that I also speak for the homeless families, for they, too, owe my noble friend a considerable debt of gratitude for all the work he has done and continues to do, particularly in connection with the Catholic Housing Aid Society. I know we all acknowledge that with gratitude.

We have been discussing what is indeed a most intractable problem, if not the most intractable problem, that the social services and housing services have to contend with. If there were easy and clear remedies they would have been applied long ago. But the fact is that we have to face the stark and unwelcome situation where even in our affluent society this problem in terms of numbers is not getting better, but worse. The 1968 figures show that 3,600 families, consisting of 19,000 people, were in social services temporary accommodation. Three years later, there were 5,600 families, consisting of 27,000 people, in a state of homelessness, so we cannot take any comfort that such remedies as we have applied and such effort and resources as are going into this work are succeeding. I thought it as well to face that squarely at the outset. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fiske, that it is desirable that we should be obliged to face this unwelcome situation from time to time.

It is necessary and valuable to have those stark statistical facts amplified in the way that they were by the noble Baroness, Lady White, who illustrated the plight of five or six particular families. The unfortunate fact is that those of us who have any dealings at all with these matters know that what the noble Baroness was saying may be repeated in many other instances. While I am dealing with the size of the problem, I should like to answer the question raised by my noble friend Lord Hylton and say we now receive quarterly returns on homelessness. I have not quoted the latest figures because the basis of the statistics has been changed, and I have used 1968 and 1971 because those are the latest set of figures over a reasonable period which show the trend. More recent statistics are available but they are not strictly comparable.

In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady White, I confirm that we are still not satisfied with the form of these statistics and, in consultation with the London boroughs (who are the people dealing with the worst and most intractable elements of this situation), we are seeking to make further improvements. So my answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, "Is enough being done?" is, "No, not enough is being done". We shall not be doing enough until the situation gets better instead of worse. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, that the first essential step is to establish the scale of this problem of homelessness. I confirm that we accept the definition of that to be whether people are suffering from a loss of a roof over their heads. We must then go on to analyse the origins of homelessness in alt its various forms. It is not a simple phenomenon—that has come out quite clearly in the debate. It is composed of an aggregation of a whole variety of different causes, each one of them calling for its own particular form of cure and its own particular form of prevention. I am glad that my noble friend Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte laid much stress on the latter important element in everything we do.

The statistics show that there are about six main causes of homelessness, many of them of a very different character. First of all, there are evictions for rent arrears by local authorities. There are evictions for rent arrears by private landlords. Another cause is family disputes. The noble Baroness, Lady White, is right when she says that family disputes are perhaps the predominant element making up homelessness in the South-West. But she recognised that the predominant element in London, which is caused by sheer lack of balance between housing supply and demand, is rent evictions and a number of other factors. I was glad that she brought that out because what I am saying now about homelessness generally when looking at national statistics changes again when applied to particular areas.

Those who are homeless because they are newly arrived in an area without accommodation are another cause. My noble friend Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte was quite right to mention that this is an element with which the boroughs of Brent and Camden—and I would also say that part of Westminster which is in Paddington, and several others, particularly those near railway terminals—have to deal with continually. I cannot see that we can ever reach a situation where that element in homelessness can be eradicated. It may be alleviated but it will always be there. Then there are unentitled occupants—squatters—unauthorised lodgers; and another element is landlords resuming the use of their property for themselves. Finally, there are a whole lot of other reasons which include, for example, newly-weds who have been living with their parents. One only needs this rehearsal to see that homelessness as a whole is not susceptible to any single solution, even supplying a sufficient number of houses, because that would not solve all those problems.

So much for the scale and for the multiple nature of the problem. Although it is of a multiple nature we can say that there are four strategies that have to be considered and developed in order to tackle it. I should like to consider the strategies that are open to us and the way in which they are being applied. The first I mention because it is the most basic and the most obvious; it is to bring the supply of houses into balance with demand and to create a surplus. Until that is done in each area homelessness in one form or another is bound to exist. The second strategy is to do more about improving the organisation for helping homeless families. That is the point on which the noble Lord, Lord Fiske, dwelt, and almost every other speaker said something about it as well. Third, to apply every possible short term measure to provide relief. I think this was the main burden of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Brooke, and I was grateful to her for it. Fourth, to step up all the other activities, mostly of a social work kind, designed to avoid and prevent homelessness occurring.

May I now deal with those four points in turn. The main answer, whatever the cause of homelessness, must be to provide enough houses so that every family can have a decent home of its own in the place where it wants it. Until that is done homelessness will persist. Nationally, we have now reached the happy stage where there is a surplus of houses over households, and in many areas—and I could instance the East Midlands, East Anglia, the West Riding of Yorkshire and North-East England—a mere shortage is no longer a factor in causing homelessness. The causes there, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, said, are more likely to lie in social problems such as family disputes, and they call for a social services rather than a housing remedy. We will come in a moment to the effect of those factors on the organisational problems.

Of course many large urban areas are still suffering from severe housing stress. These are the very areas, particularly London, where homelessness is at its worst. I think we have to remember that the number of homeless families—almost 6,000—is small compared with the total number of dwellings—18 million. I say this not to underestimate the intensity of the problem for the individuals concerned, because that would be no consolation to them at all, nor to minimise the seriousness in particular localities, because a surplus of houses in the South-West is of no help to the London boroughs, but rather to illustrate that I believe this problem is more capable of solution now than it has been in the recent past. Even in London, where the supply and demand situation and the homelessness position as a consequence are the worst in the country, the future, if one looks ahead, is very much better. Housing stock is increasing at the rate of some 24,000 dwellings a year and this, coupled with the fall in population trend, means that there is a real hope of producing an overall surplus of dwellings, even in London, by the end of this decade. That is not to say that other problems will not still exist. Of course they will: there will remain problems of distribution because one cannot live on one side of London and work on another. It will not mean that all the problems of unsatisfactory housing have been solved but there is a prospect of overall surplus in greater London this decade, and that is a new factor.

In other urban areas the forecast is more hopeful still. In many places supply is already pretty much in balance, and in Manchester, for example, the corporation estimate that there will be a surplus of dwellings over demand by 1977. Nevertheless, they are still pursuing a large building programme to meet redevelopment needs, and, not content with this, the corporation are putting out a further thousand dwellings to tender this year additional to their original programme so that they can accelerate their progress to a position of surplus.

Here I confirm to my noble friend Lord Hylton something that I said many times during the passage of the Housing Finance Bill and subsequently: there is no restriction on council housing programmes. Substantial subsidies are available to the housing authorities under the Housing Finance Act, specifically concentrated upon the places that need them and on the people who need them. But coupled with that there is the need to improve the existing housing stock as far as we possibly can. The 368,000 improvement grants approved last year is an all time record by a long way. I confirm to my noble friend Lady Brooke that this includes improvement grants for conversions, and I am also glad to say that having applied over recent months for different differential housing improvement grants to the assisted areas we are now considering the question of whether they ought not to be recast so as to apply to particular areas of housing stress. All this promise and hopeful signs of an adequate supply or surplus of houses in certain areas in the next few years is not of the slightest help to the family who are out on the streets to-day. So we must now turn to look at what we can do through the other three strategies—improved organisation, short-term first aid and help and preventive work.

I will turn first to organisation, and this was the particular matter that the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, asked me about. May I first answer his question about staffing in the Department of the Environment. There are seven people in the Department concerned exclusively with housing management and homelessness, but there are very many others on the housing side of the Department who are also involved but who do not deal with the subject exclusively.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord could give a breakdown of the position. It would be interesting to know whether there are any members of staff of the Department specifically and exclusively dealing with this problem.


My Lords, that is what I have just said.


My Lords, I thought the noble Lord was referring to housing management.


My Lords, it is housing management including homelessness. Perhaps the noble Lord will have a word with me afterwards. He can tell me more precisely what he wants to know and I shall be able to answer him.

There was one other quite specific point that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked me; namely, whether we were in favour of a central Government housing agency. My answer is that we are not in favour of duplicating in Whitehall the executive responsibility of local authorities.

Most of what can be said, or what I would want to say under the heading of "organisation" arises out of the Working Parties set up by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, to which almost everybody has referred. These were to study homelessness, first in London and also in the South-West, and the organisations to deal with it. The noble Baroness, Lady Brooke, and the noble Baroness, Lady White, both spoke as though they hoped that as a result of those reports we should be able to pick up their recommendations, commend them firmly and clearly in a general circular and send them out for adoption without further ado. I wish it was as simple as that! However, I fear it is not. The main recommendations of both Working Parties were that housing authorities should be under an overriding duty to accommodate homeless families with children, and as the noble Baroness, Lady White said, that is almost certainly the right thing to do in a situation such as that pertaining to London, where most of the problems, and certainly the worst of them, are generated by the housing stress.

But it is not quite so clear that it is to be adopted in exactly the same way all over the country, because, as she herself recognised, there are some areas where the bulk of the problems are caused by family disputes and housing authorities are not geared to deal with matters of that kind. So right at the beginning we see that there are important qualifications to be brought into these main recommendations. But that was the main recommendation, coupled with the fact that social services authorities should cease to provide accommodation for the homeless; that all housing, both temporary and permanent, should become the housing pool as a housing function and there should be the closest co-operation between the social services and the housing departments, as the noble Lord, Lord Fiske, was urging upon us, and between neighbouring authorities. Many London boroughs have accepted those recommendations and I am sure it was right for them to do so. They have for a year or so been applying those recommendations to the great benefit of the homeless in their areas and their experience in so far as it bears on other authorities dealing with problems in the same form as they have, is being monitored and is guiding us to a method of organisation that can be applied elsewhere. But, as I say, the same conditions as apply in London do not apply everywhere, and the view of local authority associations will have to be sought and considered carefully before any general system is recommended if indeed any general system is recommended. For one thing it will be particularly necessary to ensure mutual support between social services authorities and housing authorities where these are at different tiers of the local government structure. Here perhaps I could go over this again because, if I may say so, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Fiske, got it precisely right. He is quite right when he says that of course the problem does not apply in London because all the London boroughs have both functions, the duties of housing and social services, but it also applies—and I do not think that he mentioned this—to the existing county boroughs who have both functions within the same authority. It will apply in all the new metropolitan counties where the districts within those counties will carry both housing and social services functions within the same authority. Fortunately these are the areas where the problems of homelessness are greatest.


My Lords, if I may interrupt, what I was trying to say was that in the situation where the counties at present are not housing authorities it does not apply, but under the new arrangements of the new Local Government Act, it will apply.


My Lords, the noble Lord said what was in the last part of my remarks here. I agree that outside London and outside the new metropolitan counties, we are left with the problem. We have the problem now and we shall be left with the problem after April 1, 1974, because in the counties outside London, in the metropolitan counties the counties will be the social services authorities and the districts will be the housing authorities. But that is a problem which we believe can be overcome, and we have examples, one of which I shall be glad to quote. In Hertfordshire, an agreement has been reached between the county social services and the district housing authorities under which they work closely together, and a regular quota of houses is provided by the district housing authorities for the homeless who are coming under the care and attention of the county social services. I would, if I may, commend that as one example which we know, which may be of value in Surrey.

But organisational changes will not in themselves provide additional houses though we were glad to hear in the recent discussion with the London Boroughs' Association how much their adoption of these recommendations was helping. Boroughs such as Lambeth, Brent and Haringey are no longer evicting for rent arrears. There is no point in doing that if the problem is still with you. And they are making progress towards eliminating the old temporary, so-called "Part III" accommodation, and taking all homeless families into their normal housing stock. One borough is now within sight of taking into its normal housing stock all the families—at one time 80 of them—which they had previously been forced to accommodate in hotels. Lambeth, I am glad to say, has established a special co-ordinating committee with the various borough departments, the G.L.C., Police and voluntary organisations, specificially for dealing with homelessness. I do not see why others should not follow that example and the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Fiske, and do likewise. In the light of all that, the Government intend to work out with the local authorities the pattern which seems most suitable for all the various situations, in order that local authorities up and down the country should be better organised to provide help for homeless people wherever they may be.

The answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady White, is that we are not ready yet to give that guidance because these recommendations have such very different applications, depending on the scale and nature of the problem and the whereabouts of each particular kind of authority. But we aim to complete this process and to issue a circular later in this year.


My Lords, may I interrupt for a moment? Could my noble friend say whether in this interim situation the Government will draw attention once again to the Joint Circular of 1966? I quite see that he is not ready to give new guidance, but at least the existing guidance could be applied.


My Lords, I should be very happy to consider that. My own feeling is that we are doing better by the very close contact, discussion and consultation, which we are maintaining with the London boroughs. But I shall bear in mind what the noble Lord says and see whether between now and the summer something of an interim nature can be done. Before I leave that point I should be grateful if the noble Baroness, Lady White, would agree to my writing to her more fully about the particular centre which she mentioned, although it certainly illustrates what we have both been saying about this problem of organisation.

May I now turn to the short-term help and expedients which we should consider, and we are considering. One of the main immediate causes of homelessness is eviction for rent arrears. The introduction of rent rebates and allowances for all unfurnished tenants under the Housing Finance Act 1972 should help to prevent the need for eviction proceedings on acount of arrears where it is a straightforward financial problem. These schemes will be made more generous by the proposed £3.50 increase to the "Needs Allowances" at the end of April, and at the same time, as your Lordships know, we have just extended the rent allowance scheme to families in furnished accommodation. High on the list of causes of homelessness is eviction for rent arrears by local authorities—about 20 per cent. of all cases of homelessness. As I say, the general introduction of rent rebates will help in the straightforward cases. We shall in any event hope to work out with the local authorities alternatives to eviction in our discussions on organisation. A number of London borough authorities have already desisted in the practice of evicting for rent arrears altogether, and this is probably the area in which we are seeing the greatest improvement at the moment.

There was a proposal in the Working Party reports and in the Greve Report that there should be a system for receiving early warning of eviction through the courts and the rent tribunals. We have noted this, but it is something, as anybody can see who thinks about it for a moment, which needs to be used with the greatest discretion and caution. But it is certainly an idea we are considering.

One of the most immediate steps that can be taken, and almost every noble Lord has mentioned some aspect of this, is to ensure that every available unit in the existing housing stock is used to the utmost advantage. That goes for Lord Garnsworthy's empty police houses, and the review that Lady Brooke said was being undertaken by a number of London boroughs—and Islington is one we have noted particularly. It means using all the short-life property that can be acquired while waiting for redevelopment schemes. It means going for conversion of existing stock so as to increase its capacity. It means the release of stock by the rehousing of elderly people into smaller accommodation more suited to their needs and releasing larger accommodation for other peoples' needs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brooke, mentioned. Some boroughs, including Lambeth, already arrange to pass on to a housing association any short-life properties which they cannot themselves economically bring into use, and any which the housing associations cannot use they pass on to recognised squatters' associations. All these expedients need developing to the full, and I shall be glad to confirm to my noble friend, Lady Brooke, that compulsory purchase orders certainly can be used as a last resort where property would otherwise be lying unused.

I turn to the final strategy of prevention—I apologise to your Lordships for speaking for so long. This is, of course, the best strategy of all, beside that of producing a local housing surplus. Its virtue is that it avoids the trauma and the wrench of leaving the family home, which not only wrecks the whole family way of life but makes such work as the Social Services Department is already doing virtually impossible until the family has become stabilised and rehoused in a new situation. Rent guarantees can sometimes be used effectively to provide time for social workers to assess the whole family situation. It is also sometimes possible (and perhaps it should be adopted more often) to arrange with the employer or the Supplementary Benefits Commission to withhold the amount of rent, so that payment may be made direct to the landlord or the housing authority. Other ways in which the local Social Services Department can give support include effective liaison, for example, with the local gas and electricity boards, to stop arrears piling up there; that liaison is certainly very often far from satisfactory. Simple training on how to manage the family budget or ordinary domestic work is another method which should be used to stabilise the family and assist it to function effectively. Voluntary agencies, such as the Family Welfare Association, can also be helpful in this field. There is no doubt a great deal more needs to be done.

There is the other aspect of attempting to help homelessness, by making sure that adequate advice and aid is available. Housing aid centres help, run either by the local authorities or by voluntary agencies, or in partnership; probably a combination is the best. Several noble Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy first, mentioned the "grief report". It drew attention to what it regarded as the unsatisfactory provision of temporary accommodation by the social service authorities and failure by the housing authorities to meet the housing needs of their district. I think from what I have said your Lordships can see the Government's approach to that.

To sum up, my Lords, the Government are indeed deeply concerned over the problem of homeless families because it is an intractable problem which is getting worse and not better. I think it is true to say that our long term policies will provide enough houses for all families, including the comparative few who now become homeless; and this is something which we are now beginning to see actually happening here and there in the country, and on the horizon in other places. But it is with the homeless who are with us to-day in increasing numbers that we have to deal, and we shall be dealing with them for some considerable time, particularly in London, where the problem is worst. Here we are achieving a considerable improvement in the rapid rehousing of homeless families by the London boroughs who are adopting the main recommendations of these valuable Reports. There is no doubt that my noble friend is quite right when he says that much more needs to be done not only in London but elsewhere. This debate has helped us all to appreciate that point and to reach a clear idea of how to deal with it.