§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Lord SOPER rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made with regard to the "wide ranging review" of homelessness, which they announced they were initiating on 10th June 1974. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question that stands in my name on the Order Paper and straightaway take the opportunity of accepting the courtesy of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, expressing as he did the voluntary service offered to this debate in the brevity of some of the speeches, and also to thank noble Lords and Baronesses who have been good enough to accept a temporary measure of homelessness themselves to take part in what I am sure the House will agree is a matter of peremptory importance.
§ My Lords, I will begin by saying something about the topic of this debate, which is homelessness, and declare my own conviction in this matter that, just as it would be impermissible in any civilised society to allow people to starve, it would be just as right to regard their claim on the necessary food to keep them alive as being complete and unanswerable. Alongside that of shelter, alongside that 1517 of clothing, there is the trinodal necessitas of any civilised community. I invite your Lordships to agree that it is apparent that the need for food should be recognised and accepted as a right, as should the need for clothing—not so much perhaps on a day like this, but generally—so it is the question of shelter which has turned out to be something of a poor relation compared with these other two requirements. It is, nevertheless, as completely necessary for life as food and clothing, and it is because of the neglect that has been attributed to legislative opportunities, and the neglect which seems to many of us to have been apparent in the so-called civilised community in which we live, that this matter of homelessness has assumed an importance and an urgency that is even greater than I imagine most people would dare to think.
§ I shall presume to offer some statistical evidence as to the prevalence of that homelessness, and, indeed, the increase of it. Here are some figures which I think are significant, though they are not finally conclusive. In 1969, applications for temporary accommodation made by homeless families to local councils in England and Wales numbered 22,000—an intolerable number. When the last available figures came to hand—that is, in 1973—the number had risen to 33,000. That is even more intolerable. What is more, during that period the homeless families in that most execrable substitute for decent housing called "bed and breakfast accommodation", increased from, 767 families in 1973 to 1,249 families in 1974.
§ This has to do with families who are bereft of homes. It is not possible to assess the number of single homeless, and no attempt has ever been made so to do. But those who are engaged in some measure in endeavouring to deal with, or to give some succour to, those who are homeless and single, have no doubt that the number vastly increases. For instance, in 1972 a voluntary survey found 1,415 people in Central London alone who were sleeping rough, sleeping out—and that does not include those who squat—and when one considers that accommodation in the private rented sector of all housing stock in 1947 was 61 per cent. available for those who were home- 1518 less, which was reduced in 1973 to 12 per cent. of all available housing stock, it is not impossible to make some calculation in terms of the vast increase that has occurred in this miserable and dreadful anomaly of homelessness in a so-called civilised society. The number of hostel beds available for the single homeless decreased by 17 per cent. between 1965 and 1972. I will not delay the House with further details. I will only establish the point that homelessness is not only a running sore; it is a rodent ulcer in the community in which we live. It is intolerable for any society that calls itself civilised not to do everything in its power to reduce this enemy of social, personal, physical and spiritual life, and to do it as quickly and effectively as possible.
§ Regarding the statistical legislative background of homelessness, it may surprise your Lordships to know that there is none. In fact, the absence of any legislation specifically dealing with homelessness is the most significant comment on the past attitude and, to some extent, the continuing attitude, to the problem. The road of legislation which involves some attempt to deal with homelessness is so tortuous that I will not permit myself to use my memory, because the facts are so complex, but I will invite your Lordships to listen to them. Homelessness has been seen within the context of the Poor Law, the Vagrancy Acts and, specifically, the 1948 National Assistance Act. That Act insisted that local authorities provided temporary accommodation for persons in urgent need thereof. A responsibility was laid upon local authorities towards homeless families but not towards single people.
Then came the Local Government Act 1972, which so amended the duty as to permit it to remain only as a power. The duty was removed, and the power took its place, however inferior in authority that power was. Indeed the duty was re-imposed by a directive issued by the Secretary of State for Social Services which accompanied a Circular which appeared in February 1974. But to add almost confusion to this story, four days before the directive was issued a Joint Circular was published by the DHSS, DOA and the Welsh Office setting out recommmendations to local authorities on provision for the homeless. Among the
main objectives of the Circular set out in paragraph 18, is the recommendation:
… that the responsibility for securing accommodation for the homeless should be undertaken
by the housing authority.
§ So it comes about that there is a paradoxical situation that while housing authorities are being encouraged to assume the basic responsibility for the homeless, they are under no duty in this respect. The duty to make appropriate provision is imposed on the social services authorities which are themselves encouraged to transfer practical responsibility to the housing authorities. To use the words of the immortal Sid Field, "What a performance!" It is indeed the kind of situation that causes no surprise, that when brought to the notice of the Secretary of State for the Environment on the 10th June—and this is what prompted this Question—Mr. Crosland in a Written Answer announced that the Government were intending to initiate a wide-ranging review in consultation with the local authority associations and representative voluntary organisations. It is not fair to say, though some people would advocate that it is inclusive in this statement, that he agreed that there was a need for new legislation. It is fair to say that he said that the question of the need for new legislation had to be considered; but in the same statement he went on to say that he was not satisfied that this Government should rest on the basis of existing legislation. That is the current situation.
§ We are now in a position to know what has been happening as a result of this confusion, for nobody I suggest would attribute to it any more important and significant name than that. It is confusion. It has resulted in a number of facts which I have given in detail to the Minister and therefore will deal with in only general terms. Of the 369 local authorities outside London, 120 have not implemented this Circular at all. Half-hearted and compromise reaction to it has been given by the vast majority. You will not accuse me of making a wild statement. I am sure the evidence is available and I will not delay the House to give it. The evidence comes from all over the place—the kind of thing that happened in one local authority when a 1520 family of homeless were shuttled from one authority to another, from the housing authority to the social authority and back to the housing authority for more than a week, and were without any kind of home during that period. This is an intolerable situation. It is in this kind of situation that the Minister very properly suggested that a wide-ranging review was required, and he undertook to do that. That was eleven months ago.
§ A few days ago a Consultation Paper appeared of which this wide-ranging review is assumed to consist, and I shall maintain the rest of what I have to say in terms of the kind of arguments proposed in that consultation review, in particular the omissions and failures which belong to it. I will begin by inviting the House to listen to the kind of response which comes from all kinds of authorities to this anomalous legislative situation. The Association of County Councils and District Councils, the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Institute of Housing Managers have issued a joint statement; and a joint statement has been issued also by Shelter and by that magnificent quartet of single letter charities, SHAC, CHAR, CHAS and CPAG, who have with one voice insisted that it is most important that legislative authority should be given to housing authorities if this anomalous situation is to be redeemed. Furthermore, they indicate that there are all kinds of changes that should take place. One of the most imperative is that alongside this clear duty to be put on housing authorities there should be the establishment which Shelter suggest—and I acknowledge an interest in Shelter—of a housing inspectorate which would provide default provisions when the local authorities who have failed to honour their obligations could indeed be brought to book.
§ There are a number of other suggestions which I shall make before I sit down, but I feel it is necessary to turn to the Consultation Paper itself. It is a wheezy, evasive document. It begins by saying that it is not felt necessary to invoke legislative authority, and yet it acknowledges the anomaly, of which I have already given examples. It is believed there are ways and means whereby this problem can be resolved without the use of legislation; yet the legislation is already in the wrong place. What we 1521 would require is that legislation should put a duty quite squarely on the housing authority, where in fact the Memorandum insists its place should be.
There are a number of other suggestions and I will not weary the House by retailing them. But what are the chief objections to this particular Consultation Paper, over and above its refusal to accept responsibility for legislative action with regard to housing authorities? It is a document which waters down obligations which the directive and the previous Circular insisted upon. I think it would be worth while to give your Lordships one or two illustrations of the truth of this statement. One of them is this: the Circular puts an obligation on the authority to provide a roof for all without a roof. In the Consultation Paper this is restricted to priority cases only. In the Circular, the question is put in paragraph 11:
What are the means whereby the local authority could carry out its obligation?
In the Consultation Paper, that is watered down to the proposal that advice should be given and help should be offered.
§ In fact—and this is where I come to a conclusion which I would commend to your Lordships—this Consultation Paper is simply not good enough. It is very necessary to ask the right questions. The document and, indeed, the previous directives and so forth, have asked many of the right questions, and it would be thoroughly churlish not to admit that there are many respects whereby the way in which homelessness is now treated is very much better than it was in past days. Nevertheless, there is a plain issue here and it has been dodged. This is the issue as to whether homeless families have a right to accommodation. I believe they have and that, until that right is asserted in a simple and positive fashion, we shall not emerge from the dark tunnel of evasion and partial success, the record of which I believe is only too plain.
§ Let me end, my Lords, by saying this. I believe that homelessness is a running sore in the community and that it is a matter of absolute priority at whatever cost. Were this a debate of another sort I should be quite happy to suggest ways in which local authorities and, indeed, Governments, could save money on other and less worthy objectives and regard the 1522 provision of some kind of home or shelter for all its members as of peremptory importance. Until we are prepared to recognise that this is a matter not of persuasion and help, but of absolute obligation, I do not believe we shall get very much further. This document is not good enough. The Government must think again and must come up with a very much better and more forthright proposal on dealing with homelessness on the basis that we cannot tolerate in a community which we call "civilised" more than 33,000 who have nowhere to live, to say nothing of the single homeless who at this moment are bereft of shelter and opportunity. Though they may have something in their stomachs, homelessness will progressively erode the principles that make up their mind and belong to any spiritual characteristics which we believe they ought to maintain and enjoy.
§ It is for this reason that I am very glad the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, insisted that this was an important debate. It is, indeed, of the greatest importance. It is for that reason that we raise it, even at this late hour, in the hope that the Government will take clue notice of the real needs which as yet have not been met, and will do at least something to meet them.
§ 9.24 p.m.
§ Lord SANDYS
My Lords, the House will indeed be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for drawing your Lordships' attention to this vitally urgent issue. May I presume to draw to the attention of the noble Lord, who suggested in the earlier part of his remarks that there had not previously been an official investigation into single homeless persons, the report of a survey which I have in front of me which was carried out by the National Assistance Board in co-operation with other Government Departments, and, indeed, voluntary bodies between October 1965 and March 1966. It is a most valuable document which deals with the single homeless person. I have read it and, having read it, feel that despite the fact that it is now more than 10 years old it casts a great deal of light on the problem of homelessness for the single person.
I should like to pass from 1966 when that survey was made to 1971 when two surveys were carried out—the Glastonbury and the Greve Reports. If I may be 1523 allowed to draw your Lordships' attention to the Greve Report, that related to London homelessness and attempted to draw a profile of homeless families in London. The Greve Report has a fundamental value, in that throughout it has supported the view that the responsibility for housing the homeless should lie with the housing department, not with the social services department.
The noble Lord, Lord Soper, devoted the closing part of his remarks to the deficiencies of this Consultative Document. We on this side of the House wholeheartedly agree with him that the problem of the present state of the law and where the duty should lie is absolutely fundamental. We feel that the Greve Report was right. I need not quote from it at great length. As the noble Lord, Lord Soper, compressed his remarks into only 18 minutes, I shall try to do the same—or perhaps to compress mine into less than that.
The causes of homelessness are only too well-known, but as homeless single persons have been referred to perhaps I ought to mention that table 126 on page 146 of the first document to which I referred gave the causes. Again, this is fundamental to the argument. A number of reasons were given. The first related to those who came from another part of the country to look for work, and the percentage associated with that group was 26; those evicted from a lodging house or a hostel came to 12 per cent.; those who had just left prison came to 11 per cent.; those who were itinerant amounted to 10 per cent.; those who had just left a reception centre amounted to 10 per cent.; those evicted from private lodgings came to 9 per cent.; those who had been turned out or had left relatives or friends came to 8 per cent.; those who had decided to leave accommodation and were unable to find other accommodation amounted to 7 per cent. That information may be out of date but the reasons are very cognate to the subject to which the noble Lord, Lord Soper, has referred. I do not pretend that the proportions are now the same, but, at least, they give us some of the background.
This very urgent problem has many aspects, and perhaps one should stress here the issue of home ownership in the last few years, During the last two 1524 years, the problem of a young family in finding a home has become greater, simply due to inflation. However, may I put it on record that during the first three years of the last Conservative Government over 1 million families became home owners for the first time, of whom about one-half were on average male industrial earnings or less. But with the soaring price of houses, which was not necessarily commensurate with the average—and I stress the word "average "—industrial earnings of 1973–74, the situation has changed.
My Lords, the position of council housing is fundamental to this issue and it presents very difficult problems for the young married couple. Points and residential qualification systems bar the door and dash many hopes. In fact in many cases becoming homeless entitles one to jump the queue in the way which has been described by the noble Lord, Lord Soper—an entitlement to circumstances which can surely be described as very little better than those described by Shelter in their excellent report called, Bed and Breakfast. We have very much taken on board the fact that local authorities are driven to this through the sheer pressure of circumstances. But I spent this morning doing a small field study, because I believe that in coming to address your Lordships' House we should acquaint ourselves with the practical issue.
I spent part of the morning in Maida Vale, looking at a large block of houses which currently is not available for letting purposes and it was quite evident to me that this was symptomatic of the whole area, which was so adequately and carefully described in a series of six articles by two young journalists, Christopher Booker and Benny Gray in their articles in May this year on the housing crisis.
§ Lord SANDYS
In the Observer, my Lords. The six articles were published in the Observer and I should like to draw the attention of Her Majesty's Government to many suggestions made by two very articulate—if I may be allowed to call them that—journalists in this field. Christopher Booker is of course well known for his book entitled Goodbye London. I feel it would be inappropriate 1525 to leave this subject without mentioning the Francis Committee—and its important Report—set up by the previous Labour Government; and I am more than ready to acknowledge that. That Report has yet to be implemented and the Labour Party as yet, as we understand the position, refuse to accept many of its recommendations. If that is not the case, perhaps Her Majesty's Government will be willing to put the record straight.
The situation is here very grave and young families on low incomes, especially in our cities, find it difficult to find a first home. Those who lose a home through eviction or other causes, or who come into the city looking for a home, are just as badly placed. This has resulted in the mushrooming of bed and breakfast accommodation for families, paid for, as I have already said, out of the general rate fund. Councils are charged as much as £70 per week by establishments, and we know from the Shelter report, which we assume to be as statistically accurate as one would wish to find, that approximately £4.5 million is spent nationally every year on this accommodation. In return for this, the homeless family is often provided with insufficient space, and instances of overcrowding are numerous. Fire precautions are frequently ignored, and mother and child are often forced to leave the so-called hotel after breakfast—and it is scarcely worth the name—and are allowed to come back only in the afternoon or late evening. These establishments are, however, sometimes preferred to the local authority halfway houses.
My Lords, I should like to turn aside for a moment to mention temporary accommodation, the use of the word "temporary ", and how long a temporary building may last. Perhaps I may be allowed to quote from personal experience. In 1955, I lived for a short time in Army accommodation at Crookham Camp, near Aldershot, in a timbered group of huts. These huts were built exactly a century before, in 1855, and had had almost continuous use during that period. I am not pretending that it is not very good value for money for the taxpayer to have sustained the life of a temporary building for a hundred years or more, but I believe it is very important that temporary accommodation should be 1526 regarded as temporary. We are all very well aware that the life of a prefab, built with great ingenuity immediately after the war, extended vastly longer than originally intended. Many prefabs in use today are in satisfactory condition for occupation after certain repairs. Nevertheless, all buildings, however temporary, have a value for those who have no roof above their heads.
Solutions are undoubtedly difficult to find, but I would follow very closely what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Soper. The document before us is totally inadequate, and I should like to offer Her Majesty's Government a number of suggestions. First, the number of empty council properties in England and Wales is given by the Government as 55,000. This seems very low considering that in the 1971 Census there were a total of 676,000 empty properties, private and public. Whatever the figures are, I am quite sure that Her Majesty's Government will be able to give us details within a relatively short time. Nevertheless, the use of these properties and the date of possible re-use or demolition will be in the hands of the local authorities. Emergency repairs can be done to them for a relatively cheap cost compared with bed and breakfast accommodation, to which I referred earlier.
As chairman of a housing association, and as chairman of a building preservation trust—perhaps I should have declared earlier an interest in that regard—I feel that there are the strongest reasons for encouraging local authorities to put into effect emergency repairs of buildings, or to reconsider older homes in the light of the fact that to demolish and build as new is very much more expensive at 1975 prices than to restore an existing property of four walls and a rather leaky roof. As chairman of a building preservation trust, my personal experience is that it is a slow and difficult problem accommodating the provisions of the law—that is, the building regulations—to a building which is often very unsatisfactory. However, it is a very worth while thing to do if, once again, voluntary organisations can be encouraged to assist local authorities. We have devoted much time to this matter this afternoon. I feel that here is an area where voluntary bodies can play a very important part.
1527 Another suggestion which my noble friend Lady Young commended to Her Majesty's Government in a debate earlier this year was in regard to short leases. My noble friend cited the North Wiltshire Council and their housing project. I do not think it necessary to embark on a second description of that but, as your Lordships will be aware, a Private Member's Bill designed to modify the Rent Acts and to allow short lets without the need of local authority supervision has been introduced in another place, and could once again be a valuable tool in this regard.
My Lords, in the private sector the Rents Acts to which I have just referred are very important, especially the Rent Act introduced only a short time ago by Her Majesty's Government. The Rent Acts deter people from letting rooms, and I think much of the present housing problem can be directly attributed to that last Rent Act. There are so many of them, dating from 1915, that it would be tedious to cite chapter and verse of particular Acts and problems at this late hour. Nevertheless, I do not regard this as a simple problem; nobody has ever suggested it was. The modification of the law to allow the letting of rooms would be of great benefit, especially in the metropolitan area of London.
It almost goes without saying that to encourage new building will greatly assist the homelessness situation. Never before have there been more bricks stacked in the brickyards and fewer housing starts. I feel the list can be expanded quite considerably, but I have made a number of suggestions. May I end on a personal note. I believe that, without cost to the Treasury, there is something which could be done in this present European Architectural Heritage Year, and that is a relaxation of the 1965 building regulations. Some local authorities are willing to do so, to the great benefit of older properties, some 200, 300 and 400 year-old houses which do not measure up in terms of light and space to current building regulations. If there were a slight relaxation of those regulations, it would vastly encourage many of those working in the field which I am very much conversant with, and it would be particularly 1528 helpful for this year and many years to come.
§ 9.42 p.m.
§ Baroness MACLEOD of BORVE
My Lords, like other noble Lords, we are very much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for keeping us, even at this late hour, to discuss this very important human problem. In beginning the few words I have to say, I should like to say how much I appreciate, from all I have tried to do in this field, the great work which the noble Lord does; I should like to pay tribute to all that he does.
As we all know, we have listened this afternoon for many hours to people who have a great deal of knowledge of voluntary service in this country and to those who help to run voluntary agencies. But when I came to try to enumerate the number of voluntary agencies and voluntary services which are connected with the homeless I found that even in London they were too numerous to count. Some of them, of course, the noble Lord has told us about, but perhaps for the record I may mention CHAR, Shelter, the Housing Aid Centre, Child Poverty Action Group, all the numerous Church associations, the Salvation Army, Centre Point and many others, which are trying to do what in my view the Government should do. It is because the Government for many years have not done anything about the homeless that these charities have felt that they had to step in where the Government had failed.
There seem to me to be three categories of the homeless: there are the homeless families to which the noble Lord has referred; there are the homeless single adults who are mostly male and some of whom are, as we all know, homeless by choice, and there are the homeless single young. All the homeless, everyone in this country who has not a roof above his head, are leading a precarious and a poignant existence. They have our sympathy. I hope they have also our understanding, not only in this House but in the Government as well.
We have been told that accommodation has been sought for 33,000 homeless families in England during this last year, but I submit that this is only the tip of the iceberg. These are just a few; 33,000 1529 is nowhere near what the problem really is. Having turned up the noble Lord's speech of 1973 in this House and found that his figures of the young homeless were 7,000 at the minimum two years ago, one would perhaps guess that it would have escalated to at least 10,000.
The young homeless are the ones who worry me. They worry me mostly, perhaps, because people who have not got a base, young people who have no roots in their environment, are those people who are likely to get into trouble. Those are the people who, in my magisterial capacity, I am apt to have in front of me. If young persons of whatever colour or nationality come to London and have no roof and therefore no base and are also unemployed, I am afraid that very often the next step is that they get into trouble, they become part of our delinquent society, and they come before either my Bench or somebody else's.
Up to about three years ago I was very troubled in my juvenile court because West Indian families came to this country leaving their children, or their eldest children, at home in the West Indies. The families made their homes here and then sent for the children. The children came, having been brought up in the West Indies and not having any knowledge of our ways or our laws, and in a year they would get into trouble or be thrown out by their families because the two generations could not communicate. I had many parents bringing young children of 13 or 14 before my court as being beyond their control. The only way that we could deal with these children was, unfortunately, to put them into care. I learn now from various documents that I have read that the children are not coming into court—they are certainly not coming into mine—they are just being thrown out by their parents if they do not conform to the parents' new life. Those children are homeless, they are rootless, they are without employment, and they are getting into trouble. This is a serious problem.
At the end of the last debate we heard from the Minister of State at the Home Office that every Government Department has money at its disposal; we have also heard that there is no money, but technically they are supposed to have money with which they can help people who come under each Department. I 1530 suggest tonight to the Minister that any money that she has should go to the repair of buildings, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Sandys, to make homes available for the homeless in our society. I have not—because, being disabled, it would be difficult for me to do so—been to see people sleeping rough in our Undergrounds, throughout London and on the embankments, but I know that they are there in every kind of weather and I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord when he said that in our civilised society this is just not good enough. We have been talking all the afternoon about people who receive money from voluntary contributions for various charities, but I maintain that charity begins by giving a home to the homeless and I hope that the Government will do something about it.
§ 9.51 p.m.
§ The Earl of LONGFORD
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, has spoken very effectively about the homeless, particularly the single homeless, and I wish to add only a few words to what she said. If I had my way, which I certainly do not have in this House, there would be a rule preventing any noble Lord from speaking twice in one day, and such a rule would debar me from any utterance in this debate. But as there is no such rule, I find it impossible not to say anything tonight on this issue, as I could not resist speaking in the earlier debate. As Chairman of the New Horizon Youth Centre, I am especially concerned with the single homeless, and in this connection the noble Lord, Lord Soper, and I are working very closely together. I must, therefore, make a brief intervention in this debate, but I think it would be indecent of me to add more than a few words.
We appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, whose concern for a matter of this kind we fully appreciate, is in a difficult position tonight. Here she is, the Minister who will reply to the debate, but it is inconceivable that she will be able to say anything new tonight which has not been approved before she came here, which means that whatever the strength of our arguments—I do not know what my noble friend can say—I cannot think that she feels very happy with the position. She must pronounce the policy of the Government, and it is 1531 our Government in the national sense. They are the Government of all Britain but as a Labour Peer I naturally look upon them in a special way, for I am speaking of our Labour Government. Nevertheless, I think my noble friend will find it terribly difficult to defend the policy of the Government on this issue, and I suggest that the best thing for her to do is not to try to defend it but simply to say that all the matters we are raising will be looked into, because to defend it would seem to be beyond the powers even of the noble Baroness.
We were told a year ago that there was a document. Let us assume that that document was neither brilliant nor lamentable. It was fairly good, but there seems to have been a retreat and on this point my noble friend must have been briefed to reply. How far has there been a retreat this year from the document of last year? On the face of it, there has been such a retreat and everybody agrees that this is the case, but perhaps my noble friend will explain that in some sense we have misunderstood the situation. It seems unlikely that we could have misunderstood it because people of different points of view are coming together and are condemning this new document out of hand. Yet there must be some explanation, and I hope that my noble friend will not expect us to be satisfied with something that has been prepared in advance but will at least promise that what we are saying will be considered.
My noble friend Lord Soper dealt mainly with families but touched on the question of the single homeless. I have been concerned in the last few years mainly with the single homeless, but for the reasons I explained earlier it would not be right for me to develop a great argument about that. But perhaps we could ask the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, whose sympathies I am sure are with us rather than with herself, so to speak—or with what she has been instructed to say—to explain how it can be that local authorities are today adopting such an extraordinary variety of attitudes (perhaps it is the fault of the Government, or maybe it is their fault) for the responsibility for the housing of single people.
CHAR, the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless, has collected these 1532 examples: Birmingham and District Council accept housing responsibility only for single people over 40 years of age, and of course that does not apply to most of the young people whom some of us have seen much of. Newcastle, while trying to help single homeless people, depends largely on referrals to voluntary agencies. In the South, Glamorgan County Council, the two district councils in the county do not accept the single homeless and the Director of Social Services has actually said, "No policy exists ". I suppose that no policy is better than a bad policy, but it is not very creditable.
The policy of Staffordshire County Council is that single homeless people are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Security. In Kensington and Chelsea—I am sorry to think that I have the honour of living there, although it is doubtful that I am part of the housing need—the homeless are not accepted for temporary accommodation. Hounslow accepts homeless families only; in other words, it does not accept the single homeless.
This is the position. I do not know whether the Government are proud of it, or whether they accept it with a kind of reluctance as being an unhappy situation. But the crucial question is: will they do anything about it? I know that we have all the good will that is available from the noble Baroness, but expressions of good will will not do a great deal at this stage for the homeless. I cut the matter short and bring it to the point by saying that what most of us seek from this debate is for the Government to produce legislative proposals to place a duty on housing authorities to secure accommodation for single homeless people as well as for homeless families. That is the crucial matter. We must press the Government to produce legislative proposals along these lines, and there should be adequate default powers for the Minister should reactionary councils refuse to carry out this duty.
I am not naïve enough or young enough to suppose that the noble Baroness will say that, having listened to these arguments, she has been converted. Nor do I expect that she will assure us that before night falls the legislation which we seek will be introduced, or at any rate is foreshadowed. That would be too much to expect. But this proposal is pressed 1533 not only by the small number of people here this evening, but also by large numbers of others who are deeply concerned with the matter, and I ask the noble Baroness to ensure that it is placed before the Minister. I am sure that we have her personal sympathy, but in the meantime short of legislation what is she, speaking for the Government, going to do? What are the Government going to do about this extraordinary and most discreditable variety of attitudes among the local authorities?
The Consultation Paper is obviously a wretched affair, but I do not suppose one can expect Governments to condemn their own documents, discreditable or otherwise. No, we cannot expect too much. But I ask the noble Baroness to give some indication that she will not leave the matter where it is, because if she does she will disappoint us all.
§ 9.58 p.m.
§ Lord HYLTON
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for raising this Question tonight. I apologise for delaying his start by at least 10 minutes because of the previous debate, but I sympathise with him for having drawn such a popular day. He has exposed very clearly the extraordinary kind of Alice in Wonderland legal situation governing homelessness. He has drawn our attention to the quite unacceptable expedient of publicly paid for bed and breakfast accommodation, especially for families, and he has pointed to the unacceptable practice of the shuttlecocking of families and individuals between one authority and another, and between one Department and another. The noble Lord slaughtered the Consultation Document fairly effectively. To my mind, it is a symptom of the lack of both urgency and priority towards homelessness that it should have taken 10 months to produce this rather watered down piece of stuff bound in green paper. It is so finely balanced with, on the one hand, this: and on the other hand, that. Why should it have taken 10 months for what are probably the right questions to be sent out to local authorities and voluntary bodies.
There is one paragraph of Consultation Document No. 6 to which I should like to draw attention. It reads:Measures should be avoided if they might develop net additional claims on resources.1534 That, I suppose, means that no more funds can be made available for homelessness. I believe that that is a shortsighted view, and if that is the attitude and the policy of the Government then far greater costs will be incurred even in the short run, and certainly in the long run. These costs will be found to be paid for under such headings as the extra cost of children in care because of homelessness; cost of families and single people in bed and breakfast accommodation; cost of social work and casework for victims of homelessness. There will be further indirect costs in health, mental and physical; in child guidance; in delinquency and crime, as my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve has already mentioned, and the completely unquantifiable costs that follow on from family break-up due to homelessness. I hope that at least paragraph 6 of the green Consultation Document can be revised.
My Lords, in an endeavour to be constructive, I should like to turn to yet another consultation paper, an orange one, which came out last December and which deals with new towns in England and Wales. This to my mind is a much better one than the green one. I welcome it very much, because the desire is expressed to make tenancy allocation in new towns help the inner city areas. This is something which is very much overdue. I am delighted that the development corporations are being asked to pay special attention to families and people living under conditions of housing stress. It is to be hoped that this will benefit the great number of hidden homeless, particularly those families who are excessively overcrowded and who probably risk losing their accommodation at any time.
The orange document said:New towns should not cream off the most skilled and competent people from the cities they were supposed to serve.I welcome very much the intention to accommodate in the new towns the parents of existing first generation families; that is, first generation settling in a new town. I trust that suitable sites for sheltered housing for these parents are being reserved in new towns. It is a great step forward that one parent families and the disabled who are not normally in employment are to be helped to move to new towns if they wish to do so.
1535 I welcome also the slight relaxation in the rules and regulations which specify where one must work in a new town if one is to qualify for a house in one. These are helpful points. I should like to ask the noble Baroness who is to reply to what extent these positive proposals in the orange document are already being put into practice in the new towns. Some of them, to my mind, are quite uncontroversial and can be put into practice immediately. I hope they will be. I would go further—because one can and should go further than the orange paper—and ask this. Will the new towns be urged to plan for a greater intake of semi-skilled and unskilled workers than they have been able to take up till now? Will retraining facilities for the unskilled be sited in the new towns? Will acceptance for a retraining course, almost ipso facto, qualify an applicant for housing in a new town if he has a retraining place in a new town?
Having had a certain amount of personal experience of the cumbersome procedure for notifying job vacancies in new towns to individual applicants, particularly in London, will this slow, lengthy, laborious rather bureaucratic procedure be reformed, and will consideration be given to a much more client-orientated service to meet the urgent needs of the person or family in housing stress in the city who so badly needs to move out?
I should like to ask whether the new town corporations will be helped and urged to build up a pool of temporary accommodation for heads of households who come to start a job in a new town before a house is ready for them and their family? Will more generous financial help be provided for those families who find themselves, probably against their will, having to live in two places at the same time? That is where the head of the household takes up a job and lives in digs in a new town, leaving his wife and children behind in the city from which he originated. One or two local authorities have made a start in that direction—a modest start as yet. Then we come in the Consultation Paper to proposals for co-operation between new town corporations and the local authority of that area. Will the noble Baroness say that something positive will be done 1536 which will involve also the "sending" authorities, making a three way situation? So far as concerns London, it is most desirable that much more than one London borough is associated with one new town. They will have to work with the Greater London Council, the London Boroughs Association, or through groups of London boroughs if this kind of partnership is to be made effective.
Finally, at the risk of asking too many questions on one evening, may I inquire when guidance will be issued to local authorities in new towns, since this is so urgent? Has the Department of Employment and Productivity been involved in the consultations? The job aspect of the matter can hardly be left out.
§ 10.8 p.m.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for initiating this debate. I only wish I possessed his eloquence of speech because he has put the whole point so well. I am glad that we are having this debate tonight, and I hope that it will give the noble Baroness who is to reply more influence with the powers-that-be, because she will see those Members of this House who are backing her and putting forward arguments. Ministers need people to back them, and I hope that the noble Baroness is going to take what I have to say in that spirit.
We are all very anxious to get an up-to-date solution to the problem of the homeless. The moment a child comes into the world the whole of its environment affects it. I have known of young children who have had to sleep in vans with their family, often for days. No one who has been a Member of Parliament for any length of time—and I know noble Lords who were in the other place will agree with me here—likes the interview sessions which involve people and homes, because 90 per cent. of them are homeless or need homes, or are people coming out of the Services and have no homes at all. That is why I am particularly interested in the problem.
In the Home Office Working Party on Vagrancy in 1974—noble Lords may see from the Order Paper that I hope to put down an Unstarred Question later on this subject—it was stated that 344 males had been prosecuted and 329 of them had been found guilty. There were also 29 females prosecuted, of whom 27 were 1537 found guilty of sleeping rough. It seems to me intolerable that people should be prosecuted because they have no homes. I heard that a recent report regarding Scotland estimated that there were 4,500 single homeless people, and that 73 people died in Glasgow alone during 1974 while sleeping rough.
I was particularly interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, said, because I am a member of a committee which is setting up hostels for young people, called the London Centre. They are small hostels—we have only 14 or 15 young people in them. We have only one open at the moment, and two more are now being furnished. The object is to take in young people who have come to London, and have been turned out of their homes with their parents. We have found these hostels to be very successful. We keep the young people there for as short a time as possible, but we must find them a job and some accommodation before they leave, so we hope to have a quick turnover. Unfortunately, with unemployment increasing at the present time, this is not quite so easy. I regret to say that quite a lot of the young people involved are West Indians who have been turned out, or people of mixed blood, or young people who have quarrelled with their families, have had love affairs and so on. But there is the other side of this problem. Occasionally, when we have advertised, we have been able to re-unite young people with their families.
One difficulty, which has been mentioned already, is caused by the Rent Act. It is quite amazing—I speak now of the City of Plymouth—how rented accommodation has gradually disappeared. I know that a lot of accommodation could be let, but people are too frightened to let it. The other great difficulty—and I am not being disloyal to the Conservative Government. because I fought the Local Government Bill through from beginning to end as I did not approve of it—is that large counties like Yorkshire or Devon are the planning authority and the local districts are the housing authorities. It is very difficult to get things moving.
Furthermore, there is the yardstick, which does not help in the least. You can have plans which seem excellent, but which are turned down by the Ministry because of this yardstick. I could give 1538 one example concerning the hotel at Hyde Park Corner. This was built in about a quarter of the time it took to build four blocks, each of two storeys in height. This is because of continual changes in the Ministry's ideas. This Consultative Paper says in paragraph 21:Secretaries of State believe that housing authorities and departments should accept the responsibility for securing that those who are homeless get, in either the public or private housing sector, some form of housing in which they can stay permanently or temporarily.In many areas this is completely impossible. It seems a great pity that we have the Government saying that the Secretaries of State believe this, because they must know it is only a pious hope.
Paragraph 20 says:If new legislation were to be introduced "—"if", and I think it is essential that it should be—it should, in the Government's view, reflect more effectively than does the present legislation, the combined approach to homelessness by housing and social service authorities which was recommended in the joint circular.If this was so recommended, it seems very unfortunate that it has not been carried out. It seems that the Ministry has very little power at the present time over the actions of local authorities. I should like to know when the roles of the housing and social service authorities are to be defined and whether there is need for legislation to make clear which agent is responsible.
I understand that at the present time there is no financial aid and no definite statutory duty or powers for dealing with the homeless. I believe that at present there are 21 centres in London with about 2,600 beds, half of which are in the London area itself. About 24 centres are provided by local voluntary organisations, including the YMCA which does magnificent work. However, it is unfortunate that so much of the older accommodation which could have been done up and used—like the Rowton Houses and some of the very excellent old institutions which at one time were called workhouses and which have been done up very well indeed in many areas—is gradually being pulled down. In certain areas there is literally nowhere where a homeless family can be put if they come into the housing office or go to see their Member of Parliament. In the old days, we were able 1539 to find temporary accommodation for them in which they had a private suite and excellent food. That is not possible now.
I think that the most difficult and the saddest cases of all are families, and every action should be taken to help them. Other speakers have already said that families should not be divided, but what are local authorities to do when families come to them? They have their powers, and often it seems easiest when families are homeless to take the children into care under the Children and Young Persons Act 1963. As has been mentioned before, bed and breakfast accommodation is not a solution. Families have to be turned out in all weathers. If it is necessary to have this accommodation in future, day centres must be provided—even if it is just a school that has a spare room in which they can allow these people to sit. Otherwise, mothers and children will wander about during the day with very little cash for their necessities and food.
Then there is the question of pensioners. Many more pensioners could live by themselves if they had adequate accommodation. Most of the old accommodation is not suitable for them. They have to go upstairs to the bathroom and they cannot manage this. If they were put into little flatlets this would make their accommodation available for families and it would be most beneficial to them. I do not believe that anybody, of any age, should go into any form of institution, however good, unless it is absolutely necessary.
If I may deal with single persons—not only those who have no homes and no work—many of them who are in employment find it extremely difficult to get any accommodation. The final category which I should like to mention is the handicapped. A great many handicapped people are made homeless because their accommodation is not convenient for them; therefore, they have to go into institutions. However, just a little thought—slightly wider doors so that their wheelchairs can go through them, no steps to the entrance of their bungalows, or accommodation where there is a lift—would provide many of these people with adequate homes.
1540 Shelter has been mentioned a number of times. I think they have made an excellent suggestion in regard to modern prefabs or mobile homes. On Friday of last week we discussed the question of mobile homes, and I was sorry to find that I had been under a misapprehension. I was told that mobile homes would not help the homeless. I had an Amendment down saying that these should be the only home, and I had hoped that they would not become second homes but would help to provide homes for the homeless. However, this is not happening. It is suggested that when a clearance takes place, or development scheme programmes are put in hand, there is often a long period between the clearance of the site and the new building, particularly at the present time. If you have a mobile home that can be put on a site, you do not have to decant people from the homes you are pulling down and put them into council or private accommodation. Therefore, you are not taking up unnecessarily accommodation that could be used for housing other people, and I do not think the decanting process draws on the local authority's stock of permanent council housing.
As mentioned by my noble friend, houses on temporary sites are not always desirable, but they are not meant to be permanently on a site; they are meant to be mobile and they can be removed and resited according to the authority's changing requirements. I have been told that some of these will be quite adequate for a period of 30 to 50 years, and I know quite a number of places where land has been vacant for up to 10 years, where prefabs were pulled down because they were considered to be out of date and needed too much repair, and where nothing—literally nothing—has been built since. There are also quite a number of places where it was considered, for example, that there would be road widening or a new road going through, and prefabs which had been built along roads have been pulled down, but nothing is likely to be done at the present time. In one instance an inquiry is going on which is likely to last a considerable number of years.
A circular, No. 24, was sent out by the Minister for the Environment, which I mentioned during the debate on the 1541 Mobile Homes Bill, but I hope your Lordships will forgive me for mentioning it again. It said:To meet immediate needs mobile homes or other forms of housing which can be made available quickly should sometimes be provided or allowed and such proposals will be sympathetically "—I would like to draw the attention of the noble Baroness to these words—considered for key sector loan consent.Local authorities are asked to speed the lengthy process of designing and building local authority dwellings, and in particular designs should avoid complexity intended ' to seek an interesting scheme '.I mentioned before that the yardstick is likely to stop there, but I should like to know what response there has been from local authorities in regard to these mobile homes. I gather from the Consultation Document issued on 22nd May 1975, that the Minister for Housing and Construction has stated that he is examining a number of measures of an administrative and managerial kind for securing the better use of existing stocks, including empty and short-life property. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us how this examination is going on.
I agree that homelessness affects many types, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Sandys. I have read also the Greve and the Glastonbury Reports, and I would like to quote from one of them. It said:While a lack of accommodation is, by definition, a common feature of all cases of homelessness, it is not necessarily the sole and underlying problem of homeless people.I think it was well brought out, by the noble Lord who spoke last, that this is a very important point. I was rather shocked in a way to hear my noble friend Lord Sandys say that people coming out of prison could not find accommodation. This difficulty does not help them overcome their past.
I have studied Document 17/15, which is the Eighth General Report on the development of the social situation in the Community, and I was interested to find that Germany is so much more advanced than other countries in the EEC. They built over 700,000 houses, of which nearly 200,000 were subsidised, while in 1973 we built 300,000, of which 114,000 were subsidised. They decided on a total budget of a considerable size in September 1974, with additional contributions 1542 from central Government and from the Länder, and this is earmarked for two programmes to encourage investment in local infrastructure, in new housing, and in modernising old houses with a view—and I think this is very important, as is stated in the Report—to sustaining employment in regions and localities with structural problems. I suggest that it is far better to consider something along these lines. It is better than paying unemployment money to people in the construction industry, which is going through a bad time. We should [...] them a job to do, something lasting and useful.
My Lords, I noticed in this Report of the EEC that in the Netherlands the housing shortage has been resolved in most areas during the last few years. I found this fact interesting. It was said in the Report that the construction industry was suffering from unemployment, because they did not need to build more houses. When one thinks of the bombing, the almost complete obliteration of Rotterdam, and the fact that the Netherlands is the most densely populated country of the EEC, I wonder whether any study has been made to see how this has been achieved.
I made a study for the Council of Europe, with regard to battered babies, battered wives and the number of early divorces. I considered that housing must be the number one priority, and I support the noble Lord, Lord Soper, on this point. There are other things that we must forgo at the moment, in view of the economic situation. I should like suggestions to be made by the Ministry as to what can be considered as having a lower priority than housing. In the old days it was said that the Englishman's home is his castle. In these days, it may mean that his home has no roof, and that he is sometimes separated entirely from his family, which is undesirable. Finally, my Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will let me know to whom the Consultative Document has been sent, and whether it has gone to any of the women's organisations.
§ 10.28 p.m.
§ Lord DAVIES of LEEK
My Lords, at this late hour I will take only two minutes. I was delighted when the noble Lord, Lord Soper, raised this matter for 1543 debate in this House. We have been here now for about eight hours. I intended to put my name down on the list of speakers, but did not do so when I saw the length of the list on the other subject which we debated earlier. I hope that the usual channels will find an opportunity to give a day for this debate. It is ridiculous for a person to make a constructive speech of about 10 or 15 minutes at this time of night, on a subject which is so worthy of debate. I should also like to ask why this Document was not available in the Printed Paper Office. I have had my secretary scouting around for days, but no one seemed to know about it. It is the duty of the Government to see that these documents are available on the day when a subject is raised.
Secondly—I am watching the time—one of the troubles is that people are not letting apartments. When I was a kid and I roamed—because in Wales we had hot feet from farming—to the colleries and to mining, there were lots of apartments to let. But people are afraid of letting today, because they never know whether they are going to get in thugs whom they cannot get out again. I am putting the position in straightforward, easily understood, good, English language. In other words, without being a smug reactionary, there must be protection for someone good enough to let part of his house to a stranger, giving comfort and succour in times of trouble. We must find an answer.
God knows what is the matter with us! If a nation pays out thousands of millions of pounds on armaments and wants to arm like Sparta, then it must live like Sparta. We had better get that economic fact sinking in straight away. If the motor car wants a new road, everybody bows down to this vicious machine and it is making mankind horrible. Your Lordships should see the faces that Londoners pull when travelling through London to work, or when trying to get home through the traffic. We sacrifice homes for new roads, for this juggernaut which is killing people and driving them half insane. Do not get me wrong, my Lords, we need transport, but we have lost the balance. Dickens was right.
My two minutes are up, unfortunately. However, because I promised the nice 1544 little secretary in front that I would finish early, all I can say is that I am so annoyed. I am so annoyed, because there is so much I could quote. I wanted to make a 10 or 15 minute speech. I want the Government to promise that we can have a full day for this debate and that we can have a proper opportunity to discuss it without keeping here all the attendants and the entire staff of the House of Lords, who are working so hard. My two minutes are up, and now the Minister can answer.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE, DEPARTMENT of the ENVIRONMENT (Baroness Birk)
My Lords, this has been a most important debate, and I can only say what everybody else has said, that it is a pity it is so late in the day and that consequently few people have been able to join in and even fewer have been here to listen. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Soper, although I feel I must be socially very masochistic because it certainly is not the easiest debate in the world. I do not like being—and I am not, actually—on a different side from my noble friend. The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, was quite right when she said how useful it is to have other voices putting forward one's own views within the Government and within the Ministry.
This is a Consultative Document, and the only issue I take with everyone who has spoken, with the exception of my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek, is that they have spoken as though this is a final document, Government policy about to be implemented without any chance of altering it. It is consultative and the speeches made tonight are part of that consultative process. I saw the Minister of Housing this morning. He was extremely pleased that this debate was to take place, but sorry that it would come on so late after the previous debate—and I am glad to see that we have two of the same cast speaking in this one. I am not going to apologise on behalf of the Government or myself for the consultation. The current review has been the first since the 1930s or 1940s. The document is the result of the review, and we are awaiting everyone's comments.
My noble friend Lord Longford was, as usual, extremely helpful, but I thought 1545 he was not only asking me questions but also giving me the answers. I would tell him that I have not been instructed to say anything at all; I am speaking in my own voice.
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, I was saying that the noble Lord said that I was probably instructed not to say anything, or instructed what to say, and I was pointing out that nobody can instruct me to say anything or do anything.
§ The Earl of LONGFORD
My Lords, this is a rather surprising doctrine. The noble Baroness is not speaking as an individual, like ex-Ministers such as myself. She has to speak on behalf of the Government. She cannot offer her own opinions just like that.
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, I am not instructed to speak; if I did not feel the way I do I would not be speaking at all. It is on the word "instructed" I am taking issue with the noble Lord.
To get back to the main point, practically everything that my noble friend Lord Soper said—apart from going into the figures and statistics, which there is not time to do—is true. It is disgraceful that we should have the housing situation we now have, and for a long time it has seemed to me, both before I was in Government and now, that social historians of the future will look back and wonder what this sophisticated complex society was all about when we could not arrange one of the basics, which is housing for the people.
At the same time, the noble Lord was fair enough to point out that the situation was worse many years ago. The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, also made that point. Then, unless you were on a housing list—and this was so when I was a member of a local authority—the question of temporary housing, apart from the small amount of half-way housing, was not considered part of the housing responsibilities at all. People did not feel then that they even had a right to have a shelter. Although we have come that far, nevertheless it is true that the problem has expanded. Without any doubt it is quite obviously one of the most 1546 distressing of the social problems with which we have to deal.
Homelessness is such a wide, rambling, unpleasant, seeping sore that it goes far wider than the stark fact of a physical roof over one's head. It is suffered by a whole variety of groups of people, many of whom have been pointed out in this debate. There are the families; people whose marriages have broken up; the single parent families, and the single people about whom the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, spoke most eloquently, and my noble friend Lord Longford concentrated on. There are the old people. As the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, pointed out, there are the handicapped, and other people who are in institutions, including the old, because they have not adequate housing. There are also people such as battered wives and young people. I am not putting them together because I think that they have much in common, but what they do have in common is that some years ago there was probably less movement in this way.
There was less mobility among young people who struck out on their own to try to find a house perhaps even before they were able readily to afford it, and I do not think that the battered wives were battered less then but they probably stayed at home and said little about it. This does not mean that the problem was not there, but it was more hidden.
As my noble friend Lord Soper pointed out, the problem is mainly in the inner city areas with half of the homeless in Greater London. This is a question not just of housing, and this is the difference between talking about a housing policy, which we have not had time to do and is not part of the Question tonight, and the whole social complex that goes into homelessness where being without a home may be only one of many problems that those concerned are faced with. I appreciated Lady Macleod's speech very much, as I am also a magistrate and have experienced the same consequences of homelessness as she described where it is tied up with delinquency; people being turned out from their home, as she said, and the poverty, the inability to afford a home, the coming from somewhere else where you have no home, and perhaps no job. One of the problems with playing what I call the numbers game at the moment 1547 is that at the present time we have not sufficiently good statistics to be able to say clearly, and analyse clearly, what are the reasons and exactly what are the correct figures. But the Department have introduced a new system of collecting statistics and we will be soon publishing the results.
A great deal was said about the responsibility for dealing with homelessness and we have had attacks, understandably, on the Government and on local authorities as well, as to who should be responsible for what functions. Central and local government obviously have to have a broad approach to social needs. I would point out to the noble Lords who have attacked—and in some cases, I imagine, understandably, from the information they have—actions of certain local authorities, that local authorities exercise a great deal of power, and in the housing field almost complete autonomy apart from the central financial situation.
It would, therefore, be very odd if there were not differences in approach, in intention and in performance, and this, I am afraid, is part of the price one has to pay. This is what Central Government are trying to balance as well as they can. What I must do tonight, therefore, is to say something about the part the Government have to play. We have to set the statutory framework for those with executive responsibilities; we have to provide guidance based on general knowledge from information gained from all parts of the nation; we have to watch what is happening—in other words, monitor—and we have to judge what needs doing when and where.
In addition to the Consultative Paper, the Government have issued a questionnaire giving effect to the circular which was sent out last year and it is—and this is the point where I think noble Lords have been less than fair—on the basis of the replies we get to that questionnaire that we shall be in a position not just to make guesses but to know exactly how local authorities have responded to the directive, what is being done, what needs to be done and what gaps there are, It is on this point that the debate is most timely because it is taking place while we are getting this information. I hope that it will encourage local authorities and the wide 1548 range of voluntary bodies to which the Consultative Paper has been sent to send in their views, their evidence and their ideas as strongly as they like, and we are hoping to receive it all by the middle of July.
In answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, I have myself been inquiring into the question of the Consultative Document being sent to the women's organisations. I have asked our officials to make sure that it goes to the National Women's Commission and other women's organisations and I shall be most grateful if the noble Baroness will let me have as soon as possible a list of other women's organisations which she thinks might be helpful in giving evidence in this area.
As we are consulting—and we have so far had only one or two replies—it is true that I cannot give answers to some of the questions that have been put to me, but certainly they have been extremely important. In addition, a great number of constructive points have been put forward. They have been noted, they will appear in the Official Report and I assure noble Lords that they will go straight to the Minister of Housing. All this will help us, the DHSS and the Welsh Office to create new policies and new legislation where needed. I will not, therefore, answer individual points tonight; there is not time and, as I explained, we are in the process of consulting. Nor will I comment on the Shelter report because it is only one of the organisations concerned, although I must commend them for the promptness with which they replied and for the length and depth of their reply. I think it only fair to wait until we receive the other replies so that we may have a much better picture of the whole situation.
What I will do is give some idea of the framework in which the Paper is being considered and if there are some points about which I might write to noble Lords at this stage in answer to specific questions I hope that they will bear with me and allow me to do that rather than lengthen the proceedings tonight. The economic situation means that there is a need for restraint, and that we must be very careful not to waste resources. For example, where people are unable to get to work because they have nowhere to live this is a loss in our economic life 1549 as well as in social life, and this also affects people's needs. Similarly, people in bed and breakfast accommodation would be much happier and more economically housed in renovated accommodation.
I must comment at this stage on the point made by the noble Lord. Lord Hylton, when he read out part of paragraph 6 of the Consultative Document, stating that,measures should be avoided if they might develop demands for net additional claims on resources.If that were taken in conjunction with the preceding sentence it would make more economic and social sense:Any proposed new statutory provisions must be general enough to cope with changes and should avoid imposing provisions which might turn out to be unrealistic.There then follows the passage:Measures should be avoided if they might develop demands for net additional claims on resources.This is in the context of the economic situation, because although the Chancellor shielded the new housing developments from cuts in his last Budget—and I feel that the Government ought to get some credit for that in this very difficult situation—the economic situation is something that we cannot ignore, and as we are all aware the situation has worsened. But we have not made this fact or the review of housing finance an excuse for shelving our review of homelessness which, quite frankly, in the present circumstances, we could have done on those grounds alone. But we have published our Consultation Paper and sent out the questionnaire. But the economic background is against what we must all—not just the Government—work for.
This makes it all the more important that central and local government and voluntary bodies should use their existing powers and resources to the best possible effect. One speaker felt—I am not sure whether it was the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve; if it was not, I apologise—that the voluntary organisations were carrying out functions that it was thought should be done by the Government. In the first place, it is quite impossible in the present situation for any Government to cover the whole field in the way it needs to be covered. Secondly, 1550 in line with the debate which preceded this one, I believe that the part of the voluntary organisations is absolutely essential, and I hope that this will always be the case in this country, no matter what part the State plays. This does not mean that the Government should not be doing more. They will have to do more, but I do not think we should say that the voluntary organisations should bow out.
Apart from anything else, it is essentially my view that voluntary organisations should be acting as pressure groups on Governments—no matter what Government are in power. The voluntary organisations must always be a little way in front, and this applies to almost any question in the social field besides housing. Local government and voluntary bodies should use their existing powers and resources to the best possible effect. The powers are extensive and the Government have increased resources in the housing field—I must point this out to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys—compared with the efforts of the Tory Government. But action does not have to wait on the outcome of consultations.
A priority category in our municipalisation programme is the acquisition of houses which have remained empty for six months which are bought in areas with a serious overall housing shortage to relieve homelessness. This was restated in Circular 64/75 on 9th June this year, and 13,500 such properties were bought in 1974–75. It is not true, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, indicated, that the majority of empty property is local authority property. It is not; it is private property which people are holding on to in order to sell it at the best price. They have the right to do that.
More use should be made, too, of properties awaiting redevelopment and of what are known as short life properties, and especially where—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sandys—grandiose schemes have to yield on social as well as on economic grounds to a more flexible rehabilitation and improvement programme, it is better to meet the needs of the people and the community they live in. These are some of the ways in which local authorities, and housing associations in co-operation with them, can already, and within existing resources, do more.
1551 There is a great difference between what is being done in different parts of the country and naturally there are a variety of reasons for this. They can, as some have done, cut down on the extent to which families are put in bed and breakfast accommodation, and a great deal can be done by housing administration and management. The Department has started discussions on housing management designed to bring general policies and practices up to the standard already being set by the most forward authorities. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, my honourable friend the Minister for Housing will very soon be consulting on a range of measures to improve the use of the housing stock. In fact, there is a draft paper on housing resources which should soon be published. There is room here within the present situation for a great deal of imagination, ingenuity, better management and administration.
The Government's policy is to build up general housing measures in order to prevent and relieve homelessness. The Rent Act 1974 extended security of tenure to many furnished tenants, and this was a major contribution to preventing homelessness because it cut down the number of evictions. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, referred to the Francis Committee. The Government did not accept the recommendation of that Committee, because it recommended that secured tenancy should not be given to furnished tenants. The Government do not accept that the Act has caused a dramatic decline in the supply of rented accommodation. We have seen this downward scale over decades now. Allegations that it has are pure conjectures. No factual evidence has been produced so far.
Some landlords, particularly resident landlords, have been disturbed by the alarmist reports about the Act and have possibly decided, temporarily we hope, not to rent out their rooms. We hope that in the coming months they will recognise and understand the Act, because, as noble Lords will remember, at the time it passed there was a printing dispute and it was impossible to get copies of the Act. We have raised the rate of housebuilding in all sectors from the disastrous levels of 1974, and our policies for concentrating on areas of housing and social stress, for giving a 1552 new role to housing associations, for encouraging more hostels for single people in need, and the whole range of our measures, legislative, financial and administrative, are on the record and they will all help. This does not mean to say that the problem has even begun to be solved, but these are all positive things which have been and are being done. We accept that we need better information about the numbers of those who are homeless and the causes of homelessness, and I have already mentioned the new statistics. We must beware of making the homeless a separate category, since "homelessness" is an omnibus term covering a number of housing and social problems.
It was significant that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to the role of new towns, reinforcing constructive comments we have received on the recent Consultation Paper on the future of the new towns, which recognised that past policies restricted new towns in making the maximum contribution to the housing problems of our cities today, and changes have been suggested designed to remedy this. Comments on the paper's proposals are now being considered, and we should be soon able to issue firm advice to development corporations, particularly on allocation policies. As regards the other points that the noble Lord made, I hope he will forgive me if I write to him rather than supply answers now.
I come finally to the Consultation Paper itself. This stems from the first effective review of the statutory provisions on homelessness, since the legislation of the late 1940s was added to the basic Housing Act of the 1930s. It examines their relevance to today's conditions and to the new structure of local government. A great deal has been said about the consequences of the split of responsibilities in non-metropolitan counties, with social services at county level and housing at district level. The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, referred to this. These stem from the reorganisation of local government which was taken through by a Conservative Administration; this is something which cannot be laid at the door of this Government.
Rather than be drawn further on the Consultation Paper and what it says or 1553 does not say—for that would mean going through every paragraph, and it is a Consultation Paper—there are just two final points I want to make. First, the paper recognises the ambiguity in housing authorities increasingly undertaking the prime responsibility for accommodating the homeless, while the social service authorities, usually the responsibility of the counties, have the duty to provide temporary accommodation. This has led to uncertainty. In the last resort, the test is what is best for the recipient whichever department it is. The paper examines a number of ways in which this can be resolved.
It is clear now that changes in this area will require legislation. What we particularly want are views on the form of the legislation that is needed. We must get this right, and with the help of all those consulted I believe we can. I beg your Lordships to put to the Department such things as the housing inspectorate defaulting, et cetera so that it can go into the general well of consultation. Secondly, the final decisions will be taken in the light of views received on the paper. It is true that the Consultative Paper did not recommend major changes which would mean a level of expenditure which could not at present be contemplated. But I can give your Lordships this absolutely firm assurance: nothing has been ruled out, and the 1554 options are open. The Government are not going back on their commitment to see that there is a clearly understood statutory basis underlying and reinforcing the way we deal with homelessness.
The purpose of our Consultation Paper is to obtain views and to consider them; the point of our questionnaire is to get a nationwide picture of what authorities have done about the joint circular. We need the views of those who work, campaign and understand the whole field and the whole syndrome and complex of the homeless. We want constructive views addressed to the issues and considerations of detail which the Consultation Paper set out. Rather than be defeatist, whatever noble Lords may feel about it—and everyone is entitled to his view—may I say that it is a starting point, not the end. Let it be used as a Consultation Paper and let us know firmly and loudly what you feel about it.