HL Deb 15 July 1977 vol 385 cc1126-79

12.6 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill was introduced into the Commons by my honourable friend Stephen Ross, the Member for the Isle of Wight, as a Private Member's Bill, but it has had all-Party support and the Government have given most valuable time and assistance. On the other hand, it is certainly not free from controversy. Judging by the correspondence which I have received, I am being shot at from both sides; but perhaps that is more encouraging than complete silence. I think that most of the controversial issues can best be dealt with in Committee, but it might be helpful to the House if I were to read the first paragraph of the Explanatory Memorandum: The main purpose of the Bill is to replace the limited duty of local social services authorities to provide temporary accommodation for those in urgent need, in certain circumstances, by duties to be placed on local housing authorities to provide, secure or help secure accommodation for homeless persons and those threatened with homelessness. My Lords, we are only too well aware of the actute and persistent problem that homelessness continues to present. It is scarcely possible for us to imagine that we can abolish it forthwith, but the very least that we can do is to try to ensure that there are proper arrangements for helping those who find themselves homeless. That is the objective of this Bill. At present, the only statutory duty on local authorities to help homeless people is that in the National Assistance Act 1948. It may be that at that time it was possible to assume that people became homeless mainly because of some emergency or disaster such as fire or flood and that, with temporary accommodation and a little help from the social services, they would be able to sort things out for themselves. Unhappily, that is not the position of the homeless today, if it ever was. People lose their homes for a variety of reasons and, despite all heroic efforts and housing programmes, we know that many face real difficulties in finding somewhere to live. They need help and not just something that is temporary.

The reasons for the present position are complex and I doubt whether it would be helpful to dwell on them this morning. I do not think that this is the occasion to debate the housing situation generally or the Government's valuable Consultative Document. The important point for us to concentrate on today is that a measure is needed to provide some swift and effective help to individuals who, at a particular point in their lives, suffer the misfortune of becoming homeless.

The policy underlying the Bill is clear and commands general support. It is set out in a circular issued in 1974 jointly by the Department of the Environment, the Department of Health and Social Security and the Welsh Office. But that circular has of itself no statutory force, and as the policy is that responsibility for helping homeless people with their housing needs should be a matter for housing authorities, it is clearly unsatisfactory to continue a situation in which the only specific statutory duty in relation to any kind of accommodation is that laid on social services authorities under the 1948 Act.

This question of responsibility is clarified under the Bill and the aim is to ensure that some form of help should be made available to all homeless people, but particularly to those in the priority groups identified in the circular. It is a measure of the general support for the approach that the responsibility for helping homeless people has been adopted, in whole or in part, by the majority of housing authorities already, at least in England and Wales. And in the light of the recommendations of the Morris Committee it seems only right to apply this policy also to Scotland. But the fact that there are still a number of housing authorities in England and Wales which have not yet assumed this responsibility demonstrates the need for effective legislation.

This, as I pointed out, is a Private Member's Bill with sponsors drawn from a wide range of Parliamentary opinion. The Government had entered into a commitment to introduce appropriate legislation as soon as possible, but found that they could not include a Bill on homelessness in their own programme this Session. We are therefore profoundly grateful to my honourable friend the Member for the Isle of Wight who won a high place in the Private Members' ballot and lost no time in bringing forward this particular Bill.

It is a happy coincidence to have a Bill introduced by a member of the Liberal Party, supported by the Labour Government and based on a policy circular issued by the last Conservative Administration. I feel it necessary to make one apology; namely, that this Bill should be introduced here so late in the Session. As a member of the Select Committee on Practice and Procedure, I was one of those who said that Bills should not be brought here late in the Session, and I apologise for the fact that this is unavoidable. It was necessary at first for Mr. Ross's Bill to wait its turn in the queue for the Private Members' Committee in another place. There was considerable discussion, as was only right; but it would be a sad disappointment to many if the Bill did not reach the Statute Book this Session.

Many of your Lordships will no doubt already be familiar with the main provisions of the Bill. The essential objectives are to give effect to the transfer of responsibility to housing authorities and to provide appropriate help for all homeless people within available resources; and, as your Lordships are probably aware, help is to be given to voluntary organisations concerned with homelessness, and that is dealt with in Clause 10 of the Bill.

Homelessness and priority need are defined in Clause I. The definitions here make it clear that a person is homeless if there is no accommodation, not only for himself but also for his family and anyone who might reasonably he expected to reside with him. It is not intended that families should be split up: for example, the outcome of homelessness should not oblige parents to be separated from their children. The definition also makes clear that the Bill is concerned with prevention wherever possible, and with the avoidance of what might be called crisis management. It covers those in the position of being threatened with homelessness, those who are likely within 28 days to be evicted, whatever kind of accommodation they may have.

May I illustrate the importance of this. Over a number of years I have from time to time had cases of tenants—and I have great sympathy for them—who, for reasons I need not go into, have not been protected. I have had to say: "I am very sorry. Nothing can be done until you are actually evicted. When you and your family have been turned out, when your furniture and belongings have been put into the street, then something will be done, but you will have to wait until that happens". That seems to be a mad state of affairs in a country which is considered to be enlightened—at least, we hope that it is, this point will be covered by the words "threatened with homelessness".

Now to priorities. The definition of priority need is of central importance. The joint circular of 1974 acknowedged the limitations on authorities' scope for action to assist all homeless people and sought to identify certain groups who are particularly vulnerable in housing terms. They are broadly families with dependent children, the elderly and disabled and pregnant women, and also those made homeless in an emergency or disaster. I recognise that a number of your Lordships would wish to extend these categories. But the Bill does not lay down priorities for all time. The clause enables the definition of priority need to be altered by order subject to a Resolution of both houses of Parliament as needs require and circumstances permit. On the other hand, it would be no service to anyone to impose too great an obligation at the outset.

There has been some confusion about the position of what are known as battered wives—I think it is more accurate to say "battered women". It is clear that the Bill covers battered women. That is to say, if a person who can be considered as a battered woman has to leave the home with the children, then such a person would come into the category of priority need. As I understand it, if it is just the individual woman, she would come into the category of those requiring and deserving need and assistance. But this matter can be gone into in further detail on Committee.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one question? I do not know whether he is going to say anything more about battered women. He probably is aware that the organisations which represent battered women are very much concerned and perturbed at the changes made elsewhere which they think put them in a position where they are getting no advantage at all from the Bill.


My Lords, may I make two points? First, I do not believe it is correct to say they get no benefit at all. Secondly, I thought it would be appropriate, in the light of the time factor, that we should discuss that aspect on Committee. Obviously noble Lords will speak about this aspect during the course of the debate. I am fully aware of the complaints that have been made.

May I now say a few words about the other clauses. Clauses 2 and 3 set out the preliminary duties of housing authorities to make inquiries when people approach them, and to notify their findings. Clause 2(3) contains the important provision which ensures that the authority will secure that some accommodation is available to these people who need it while inquiries are being made.

Turning now to Clause 4, here we come to the main, substantive clause which defines the authority's duty towards homeless people. It has been considerably amended since first introduced. Again, your Lordships will want to consider it further during later stages; therefore I am content just to outline its broad content. The clause, as it now stands, covers a wide range of different cases. First, there is the case where, after due inquiry, the authority are satisfied that the person is homeless but is not in a priority need category. In that case, the duty is to provide advice and such assistance as the authority consider appropriate.

The clause then goes on to provide that, save in certain exceptional cases, the duty, where the person is homeless and in priority need, is to secure that accommodation is available for him. Subsection (5) makes it clear that the authority may fulfil that duty in a wide range of ways: by providing a council house, arranging for a housing association tenancy, advancing a mortgage loan, and so on. There are a variety of ways open to them. There is no requirement that they should offer a new council house tenancy as of right. I think there has been some misunderstanding on that.

The clause provides for certain exceptional circumstances. For example, in two cases the duty is not to secure accommodation, although of course they may do so, but to furnish advice and appropriate assistance. These cases are, first, where the person has become homeless intentionally and, secondly, where the person could probably secure or retain accommodation for himself. I recognise that those provisions are the subject of considerable comment and were brought forward to meet the argument that the Bill could give rise to a considerable level of self-induced homelessness by people whose object is to abuse the system and jump the queue. There are, unfortunately, a few who may spoil things for others.

This clause also tackles the difficult question of those who move between one local authority area and another. I think the extent of that may be exaggerated, but it was concluded in another place that the Bill must contain provisions to define the respective responsibilities of the so-called "sending" and "receiving" authorities. Before leaving Clause 4, I should like to add that the Sponsor of the Bill and I are very alive to the anxieties expressed by the charities about some aspects of the clause. I can assure your Lordships that the Sponsor of the Bill and, of course, the Ministry, are holding urgent consultations about this, and I would hope there would be an opportunity at Committee stage to consider suitable Amendments if they are thought necessary.

Other clauses to which I should like particularly to draw your Lordships' attention are Clauses 6, 9 and 10. Clause 6 is important in that it underlines that our help to homeless people must be based on a corporate and co-operative approach. It makes clear that housing authorities and social services authorities are still to work together, joining their respective strengths and experiences. Clause 9 provides that authorities are to have regard to guidance to be given by the Secretary of State. A draft code of guidance in respect of England and Wales is now the subject of consultation with COSLA, and work on this subject is in hand so far as Scotland is concerned. Clause 10, as already mentioned, empowers the Secretary of State, housing authorities and the GLC to aid voluntary bodies working on homelessness. I hope that will become a very useful provision, though I recognise that at first, given existing constraints on resources, it may be difficult to make extensive use of it.

I have spent some time on the main provisions of the Bill, and I am trying to deal with this complicated Bill against the clock. The main provisions of the Bill represent a well-structured response to this acutely difficult and distressing problem. At the end of the day, the effectiveness of the legislation will depend on the good will and determination of housing authorities in their operation of these provisions. It would be unfair, in our eagerness to assist the unfortunate, to overlook the real pressures that face the authorities, but in my judgment, we must aim to get this Bill through as a first and important step forward.

There are, of course, as I have said, points to consider in Committee. I hope we shall be able then to reassure many of those who have expressed anxieties, but we must keep our sense of perspective. This is a long overdue measure. It represents an advance and we must see how far we can improve on it. We must ensure that, at the end of the day, we get the Bill on to the Statute Book. I should, incidentally, like to say a word about the timetable. I regret, as I have said, that we are starting this Bill late in July. It is unavoidable. I wish very much that we had been able to hold this debate some time ago; but we must face the fact that there is not much time left for the Bill, and that those of us who care for the homeless will not want to risk losing it. I hope that we can achieve some kind of consensus. We can reasonably hope that time will be available in another place for agreed Amendments, but I am certain that Amendments which do not command general support in both Houses, however well intentioned, are likely to destroy the chances of the whole Bill. My Lords, I hope this Bill will commend itself to your Lordships, and I beg to move its Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a;.—(Lord Wade.)

12.29 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Wade, for introducing this Bill to us this morning and, if I may say so, for the very moderate and balanced way in which he has put his case. I think we would all agree with his final remarks, and I shall return to that point later in what I have to say. Nothing could be more poignant or more tragic than the continuing number of homeless families in this country. It is a real scar on our whole society. One of the many booklets which has been sent to me by the different charities concerned with the homeless was one entitled, Jubilee Year for the Homeless, which sets out the figures for the growth of applications from homeless households to local councils for help.

The figures start off in 1970, when there were just over 26,000 such applications, dropping in 1971 to just over 25,000, and from then on showing an increase. In 1974, there were just over 39,000, and in 1975 the figures had risen to 50,000. It so happened that the statistics published by the Department of the Environment came out only yesterday, and I notice—if I am reading the figures correctly—that for 1976 the figures have risen to 52,570, and there is no reason whatever to suppose that the figures for 1977 will show a decrease. Rather, unless something extraordinary happens, I think we can expect a steady increase in this absolutely appalling problem.

I should like to say immediately that we all share the horror of it; we all feel that it is wrong and we should all like to do something about it. I am not absolutely clear whether the figures from the Department of the Environment include the single homeless, but if they do not then the situation is even worse than that which I have outlined. With such a terrible background, it is only right, therefore, that all of us in public life should do all that we can to try to put right this situation, and it is very much in this spirit that I approach this Bill, as do my noble friends.

I have always tried to approach housing matters in a constructive frame of mind, and I believe that one of the greatest tragedies in the whole of the housing situation—and I say this in all seriousness—is that we have never managed to achieve any measure of a bipartisan policy on housing, that the gap which has divided us on the ways of going forward has been so great, and I believe one of the consequences is the ever-growing number of homeless families. We can indeed, to a certain extent, measure the problem that the noble Lord, Lord Wade, has outlined by looking at the statistics as they have been given to us. If the total number of homeless households making applications to local authorities in 1976 was 52,570, and, if, as we see from the statistics, the total number who were found permanent accommodation was 31,070 and the total number found temporary accommodation was 6,450, it leaves a balance of just over 15,000 households unaccounted for. We do not know where they are, we do not know what they are doing and I presume that this Bill aims to do something about this group of people, who are not currently being helped by one of the agencies that are available.

Having said that, I am now bound to put in a caveat. This is, I am certain, a very well-intentioned Bill, but we must face the fact that when it goes on the Statute Book it will not build one more house, nor will it encourage one more person to let one more room; and, at the end of the day, the law of supply and demand, hard and tough as it is, operates in housing as it operates in other fields. If there are no more houses or places for people to go to, there will continue to be homeless. I think it important to emphasise these facts, for it would appear to me that many of the organisations which want to help the homeless have had their hopes raised very high indeed by this Bill. If, indeed, there are no more houses forthcoming, the homeless will be with us, and it is no use just making allegations about various people who ought to do more, because that will not create the houses, nor will it encourage people to let property.

Perhaps I may say, as a mark, at any rate, of my good faith in this matter, that I have tried on several occasions in your Lordships' House to be constructive about the operation of the Rent Acts. This is not the moment to review all the arguments, but the fact remains that one of the reasons why people decline to let property is not simply the operation of the rent levels, though it is a very real point; it is at any rate in the case of residential landlords, the fact that, despite what the Acts say, the 1974 Rent Act has in many cases made it almost impossible to regain possession of rooms in your own house in which you are resident. I have raised this point twice in Unstarred Questions in this House, and I may say that I received no encouragement whatever from the Government on this matter.

I was, however, agreeably surprised to read in paragraph 8.21 of the Government's own Green Paper on Housing Policy, published only a few weeks ago, that the provision covering the residential landlord is causing more trouble than it is worth, and that the Government are proposing to alter the length of time required to regain possession of a property. They recognise that, if they do that, someone with a second fixed-term letting will no longer have security of tenure in somebody else's house. This is a complicated point, but I believe that if there is one way to help the homeless single person it is by encouraging more residential landlords to let; they could take in the homeless single person. But unless you increase the supply fundamentally, you will do nothing about the problem. I quote all this, because I should like to believe, and I should like all those who care about this situation to believe, that if there can be a measure of bipartisan policy on this I shall be the first to support it, for I believe that it will help. I am not doing this to show that I have said something in the past which may now be shown to be right. That is no way forward. What matters is that those without homes should be helped.

To return to the Bill, a great many changes were made in the original version as a result of the work of my honourable friend Mr. Rossi in another place, and I believe that the amendments made represent a compromise, and a valuable one. There is no doubt at all that the district councils, as housing authorities, were concerned that in the Bill as it originally stood there would have been an absolute duty upon them to rehouse the homeless, no matter what the cause. Since, as I believe I have aready indicated, the Bill will not provide more houses, this policy could mean only that those who had waited patiently on the housing list—and who is to say whether, in some cases, their need was not at least as great as some who had become homeless—would find themselves further down the queue, with a homeless family getting a house in front of them.

I need not go over all the arguments which have been so well stated in another place. But the Bill as originally drafted would have undermined the basic principle of local authorities, that they should be free to determine their own points scheme and their housing priorities for the people in their own areas. This Bill, coming fast upon the Rent (Agriculture) Act, under which local authorities are required, …to use their best endeavours to rehouse agricultural workers", shows that, far from wanting local authority freedom, both the Government and, in its original intentions, the Liberal Party feel that they know best how local authorities should determine their housing lists. This is not a principle which I feel to be right, and if one believes in local democracy, as I do—and, after all, I spent 15 years in a housing authority—then one must believe that they ought to consider as their duty the best interests of the people they represent.

My honourable friend Mr. Rossi moved four basic Amendments into this Bill. The first was that local authorities should have some discretion to determine who is a homeless person. This would avoid charges of queue-jumping and would, of course, safeguard families on the housing list and prevent distortions in the points system. The second was that local authorities would be responsible for housing only those homeless families normally resident in their area, and that the responsibility for housing other persons would fall on the local authority in whose area they previously resided. In the meantime, local authorities would still be able to provide temporary accommodation. The third was that the definition of priority cases for housing and rehousing included in the Bill is on the lines, as the noble Lord, Lord Wade, indicated, of the Conservative Government's circular 18/74. That circular indicated that priority should be given to families with dependent children and to persons who are particularly vulnerable and unable to fend for themselves because of old age, disability, pregnancy or other special reasons.

The fourth major Amendment was that local authorities would not have the power to requisition or compulsorily purchase a home where the landlord had obtained a possession order against a tenant for non-payment of rent or for bad behaviour. I hope that we shall not hear any suggestion during the Committee stage of this Bill that there ought to be compulsory acquisition of properties, whether they are empty or whether they might have fallen into the category where the landlord wished to regain possession.

I believe that the proper way around the whole question, or at least one constructive suggestion for dealing with the matter of empty properties, is to encourage more authorities—and I believe that the number is growing—to take up what has come to be called the North Wiltshire District Council Housing Scheme, whereby private owners of empty property let to the local authority, who guarantee to the owner the return of his property after two or three years. Ironically enough, it is only local authority tenants who do not have security of tenure. Also, it is only the local authority which can guarantee to regain possession of the property and rehouse the tenant. I hope very much that these important Amendments which have been moved by my honourable friend Mr. Rossi will remain in this form in the Bill and that there will be no attempt to put it back into its original form, otherwise we on this side of the House will feel obliged to reconsider our position.

There is one outstanding aspect upon which I have not touched, and that is finance. We are all well aware of the very serious financial situation in which local authorities find themselves today. Indeed, I noticed that the economic Statement which was read out to us stated that there is to be no increase in public expenditure. Presumably this means that there will be no increase in the totality of the rate support grant for local authorities and that they will be very fortunate indeed if the money available keeps up with the rate of inflation, let alone makes allowance for any kind of improvements. Those of us who are interested in local government matters know that when the Government say that they intend to give £100 million to the inner cities this almost certainly means that the counties will receive less, because the total sums of money will not increase. If the Bill is to work at all, I find it extraordinary that we should read in the Financial Memorandum at the beginning of the Bill that there will be no net addition to public expenditure.

When we were debating another very important Bill, the Children Bill, in your Lordships' House, I expressed great concern that the amount of increased expenditure allowed was much too small. That has proved to be the case. Large parts of that Act are not enforced because no money is available. To start off on this Bill and say that there will be no increase in public expenditure is surely an illusion. It is deluding people to state that we can do something about a situation if we do not have extra money with which to put it right. This is a point to which we may well return in Committee, but let me indicate the areas in which, if this Bill is to be carried out, there is bound to be increased cost.

More staff will be needed for the preliminary duties which are outlined in Clause 2, quite apart from the new duty regarding those who are threatened with homelessness. Persons threatened with homelessness will have to be considered by staff; they have not been considered before. If there is to be no extra housing accommodation, as I have already indicated, all the other housing applicants—those in tied agricultural accommodation, key workers and those in slums and on the waiting list—will have to go back into the queue, or nothing will happen. Obviously, there will have to be additional resources in order to provide advice and assistance. If every authority employs only one more person, there are 333 non-Metropolitan district councils, all of which will be affected by the Bill, quite apart from the Metropolitan district councils and the London boroughs. That total number of people adds up to a considerable sum of money.

The Association of County Councils has drawn my attention to one of the effects of the Bill. If district councils are unable to solve the housing problem, the applicants may return to the social service departments of the county councils. Although the intention of the Bill is that the staff and money provided by county councils for dealing with the homeless will be handed over to district councils, there could be a gap in the provision and the cost could be more.

I do not make these points in a debating spirit. This is a very serious matter. I am quite sure that many people have very high hopes of Bills of this kind. I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that one of the reasons why politicians and Parliament fall into disrespect is that we pass legislation with the very best of intentions but without the resources to meet them. People then become disillusioned because their hopes cannot be fulfilled. I believe that this is a serious matter for the whole country which ought to be taken into account.

One Amendment which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wade, will consider is the starting date of the Bill. Clause 15 shows that it is intended that the Act should come into force on 1st December 1977. This is before the financial year for local authorities runs out, which is on 31st March 1978. I cannot see why Scotland should be differentiated in this way; the Scottish provisions come into force on 1st April 1978. I should have thought that it would be helpful to put back the starting date in order to meet local government points on this matter of finance.

I close my remarks where I began. This is a matter of great public concern to us all. We on this side of the House wish to be constructive, but we are realists. One can do only what is possible within the available resources. I should never want to be party to the pretence that much can happen when it cannot. At the end of the day, the homeless will be really helped when we have the resources and the houses to help them. If we can devise bipartisan measures to achieve this aim, I believe that this will be the greatest step forward in the housing world and I, from my side of the House, will do what I can to help. Having listened to the economic Statement, we must all hope that the economy will pick up, because when we are a richer country that will help the poorest members of it more than anything else.

12.47 p.m.

Baroness KIRK

My Lords, I hope that it will help the House if, on behalf of the Government, I indicate at this stage my welcome for the Bill which has been so ably and modestly presented by the noble Lord, Lord Wade. Like everybody else in this House, I believe that homelessness is probably the most pernicious of all the social problems, since so many others stem from it. The statistics which we collect from local authorities show clearly that, despite all the efforts of central and local government and of the many voluntary organisations who work so splendidly in this field, it is a continuing and ugly feature in our society, affecting far too many people.

Perhaps I may turn to the latest figures which are available today. I ought, in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to say that these application figures are not always reliable. Our statistics are based on returns made by local authorities. They vary considerably, whether they are put in the form of all applications, or some applications or, very often, acceptances. However, the latest figures show that during the second half of 1976, over 16,000 households were accepted as homeless by local authorities in England. That is the firmer figure to stand by. These figures practically equal those for each half of 1975 and also for the first half of 1976. They emphasise that although only a relative minority may be affected at any one time, it is a continuing social sore and a horribly distressing one.

The figures also show that during the last six months of 1976 over 15,000 homeless households were found permanent accommodation; at the end of the year about 6,500 households were in temporary accommodation. The efforts made by housing and social services authorities obviously deserve recognition, but as the noble Lord, Lord Wade, indicated, this is a job for housing authorities and, as we all know, too many of them have still not accepted this responsibility. It is contemporarily inconsistent to leave the statutory duty with social services authorities.

There are always those who would urge delay and say, "Now is not the time". This has been said about various aspects and measures of social reform throughout the centuries, and while I accept to a great extent the anxiety expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about resources, lack of resources can always be used as a very good action stopper and I do not believe it should always prevail. Of course resources are important in the context of this Bill, and the noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not enter into the debate on the Rent Acts, because we could be here all the afternoon doing that and the Rent Act review is under way at the present time. Of course resources are important, and lack of them means that we cannot do all that we would wish. I agree with the noble Baroness that this is where one has to be absolutely realistic. I hope that this House and another place will accept that and will realise that we cannot get all that we want to do in this Bill at this time.

What it does mean is that we must defer any progress and solve problems only if we have totally adequate resources. But equally, alas! we cannot ignore resources by placing on authorities burdens they cannot meet and, with all the good will and good intentions, one of the things which I hope will be borne in mind by all the knowledgeable speakers who are to come after me is that the question of resources will not enable them to get all they want and all that I personally should like to see in this Bill.

The Financial Memorandum, which has been referred to, mentions the overall public expenditure. There are bound to be local variations but there will be a public expenditure transfer from the DHSS to the housing side because of the change in the statutory duties, and the ADCs themselves estimate—and this is based on inflated expectations of numbers—that total cost to be about £5 million. This will largely be offset by the transfer but, on average, we reckon that it would be less than £16,000 per authority, which would then have the opportunity, under the plans proposed in the new Green Paper, to have more control over their own housing programme.

The Bill appreciates these problems in its recognition of the need for priorities, and the more strain there is on the resources, unfortunately, the tighter one has to be on one's order of priorities. Where there is a duty to secure accommodation I believe authorities can meet it in a range of ways. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that where it is possible to apply the North Wiltshire scheme it most certainly should be done; but I think she recognises as well as I do that it is only in particular circumstances, and often in more rural areas, that it is possible to operate this scheme. I firmly believe that many housing authorities can secure much fuller use of the housing stock in their areas by better management and by using until the very last minute, property which is destined for rehabilitation or demolition, and in fact concentrating far more on rehabilitation and refurbishment than on demolition.

Within the next few weeks—and I hope it will be before the House rises—we shall be sending authorities a circular which draws together measures available to further this idea. I do not think I am being unrealistic when I say that one of the effects of a measure of this sort is to concentrate the minds of local authorities once again on the necessity to make the fullest use of the housing stock that is available, because taking the country as a whole it is not buildings that we are short of, it is the distribution of those which are in use at any one time. Anything that does this—and this is part of my personal support for the Bill—will obviously improve the situation.

I am aware that this very worthwhile Bill contains a number of difficult issues in the form in which it has come to us from another place. We have to face these and do what we can to improve the Bill with the broad consensus which is backing it. I cannot say that I can go all the way with the noble Baroness, who I felt gave the Bill an extremely mixed welcome. At one point I thought she was rather damning it with faint praise, but I hope she will be persuaded that it is a worth while measure and that, on the issues that are controversial at this particular time, it will be possible to get a consensus.

The Government are acutely aware of the anxieties expressed on particular points by those representing a number of charitable bodies, and, as we know, these refer to several Amendments introduced into the Bill at a late stage in another place. I also know that these are troubling a number of noble Lords—indeed, they trouble me: they include the way the Bill now treats those who move between local authority areas; those the authority considers to have made themselves homeless intentionally, and those they consider could secure or retain accommodation for themselves. These are also issues of deep concern to the authorities whose job it is to meet the needs of the homeless and also those in general housing need in their areas. It is that very difficult balance that one is trying to get in this Bill to make it workable, realistic and humane in its application.

There is no doubt in my mind that the text of the Bill as it is before us today clearly needs further thought on all these issues. I can assure your Lordships that these and other points that the charities have put before us (including the anxieties which have been stated to me personally and which have been raised today by my noble friend Lord Longford about the position of battered women) are already being studied with great sympathy and urgency. I do not want to get involved in that particular point at this moment, but it concerns me very much that there should not be a weakening of this situation in the Bill. I think it is still very strong and for the first time battered women are explicitly named and are considered as a priority group.

These and the other points are already being studied with great urgency; consultations are taking place with the sponsors of the Bill and the Government are keeping closely in touch with them. I believe that when we come to the Committee stage in this House we shall be able to find ways, which will meet with widespread acceptance, of dealing with the difficulties. For example, I have a particular objection to the provisions which could involve means testing. It is essential that this Bill should not now be rejected in the Micawber-ish hope that something better may turn up. It will not, and it cannot at the present time; and I hope that all noble Lords contributing to this debate will keep this fundamental point in mind.

Another difficult question and one of great concern to many in your Lordships' House is the acknowledgment of priority. This was an important aspect of the 1974 Circular and reflects the pressures on housing authorities in many areas, and it is incorporated in the Bill. The great difficulty is deciding where to draw the line. One would like to see the line drawn very much wider than in fact it is even now, but it is impossible at the present moment. The Bill follows the pattern of the joint circular where it gives priority to those with dependent children. The battered women with their children are now particularly mentioned, which they were not in the circular. Explicit priority must be given to pregnant women. Following the joint circular, priority must go to those who are vulnerable for other reasons—they may be old or afflicted mentally or physically—and, of course, those whose homelessness results from some sudden disaster. But, unfortunately, priority cannot be all-pervading.

I not only understand but deeply appreciate and share the concern over homeless single people, and I accept, of course, that there is no explicit reference to single people in the Bill. It would be quite wrong to conclude that the Bill ignores them. Some will be entitled to be treated under the Bill as priority cases—for example, pregnant women, the old and the disabled; the Bill provides, too, for authorities to treat as having priority need others who are vulnerable for special reasons, and this must include some of the young.

For other single people, again including young people, the Bill, in my view, represents a major step forward. Their housing problems are now recognised as part of the housing authorities' responsibility and the Bill specifically entitles them to advice and assistance. Before this is cried down or laughed away, I think we should remember that very often somebody who needs help to find accommodation needs a guideline as to how to set about it, even if it is a list of addresses. Ignorance of possibilities and lack of information are often the essence of the problem, and this applies to housing as much as it does in other fields. Therefore, in the code of guidance, we shall strongly encourage authorities to be as constructively helpful as they can.

In this House, we have been constantly concerned—as have I personally, in answering Starred and Unstarred Questions and debates—with the single young, especially teenage boys and, increasingly, girls, who leave home and are magnetically drawn to London and other major cities in search of work, adventure or both. Too frequently, they fail to find work or anywhere decent to live and the adventure turns into exploitation and homeless misery. This problem of those who up sticks and leave home poses acute problems for the authorities both of cities and of other areas like, for instance, seaside resorts. I personally believe that it would be a great help if those with influence on these youngsters—and there are some in this House who are speaking today—could find ways of impressing on them the accommodation problems that they are likely to face if they leave homes they already have. Nevertheless, they prefer to be more independent, which we do understand.

I understand that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security hopes to make a Statement in another place very shortly about consultations that we have had with the local authority associations following the work of a working group set up to consider the needs of homeless young people. I confess that I find this a most daunting problem and I doubt whether the provision of housing is the only, or even the main, answer in many cases to a wider and deeper problem. But, here again, authorities can help by securing better use of housing stock already available. If only we could use some of those—I was going to say "awful"—tower blocks, awful in terms of family living, for single people, including young single people, that would seem to me a valuable way of using some of the housing stock that we have.

This whole aspect must be set in the wider perspective of housing policy for single people to which we are increasingly devoting attention. Our Green Paper on housing contains a number of proposals which will be of help to young single people seeking accommodation, and we shall be looking at the possibility of making available some of the funds which will be distributed under Clause 10 of this Bill. Although presently not large, we hope that in future years these funds will make a significant contribution to a variety of specific needs of the homeless, including those of the young. Projects in Liverpool and other places have demonstrated what can be done with co-operation and imagination, underpinned by help from local authorities. This is an area where housing associations and voluntary bodies can, with thought and imagination, help a great deal.

Within the Department, we have also been looking at all that is known about the problems of single homelessness and have put in hand further research in order to identify more clearly the scale and nature of the problems of the different groups concerned. These problems are not homogenous. With our colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Security and other Departments we shall be looking very closely at this in the year ahead, and shall carry the work forward with as much urgency as is possible. All this will be taken into account when looking again at the code of guidance, which will need to be amplified on these points. But we also have to recognise that this is not the time to place too heavy statutory obligations on authorities.

My main concern in this intervention is to urge the House to recognise the value of this Bill. It is not a Government measure, but we support it and will concentrate on trying to improve it in a way that will command general support. It will not be possible to get the Bill into a form which will completely satisfy noble Lords or, indeed, anybody connected with housing, either within Parliament or outside. But let us be quite clear that if we reject it because it is not quite as we should like it—and here I express support for what the noble Lord, Lord Wade, said on this point—we should not only deny the 1974 circular the statutory backing it needs, but we should also undermine the authority of that circular, and, I believe, leave the homeless in an even worse position. No housing authority which has not yet assumed responsibility for homeless people would be likely to do so, and other authorities would be greatly tempted to save money at the expense of the homeless. We know that this is already happening in some areas. If we allow the Bill to fail, it must then be on our consciences that we leave the homeless still worse off than they are now. Let us see this not as a perfect, nor as a comprehensive, measure, but as a beginning in the right direction. To do anything that would kill the Bill would be a fatal blow to the cause of the homeless and the hopes of individuals.

1.7 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with very considerable interest to the speeches which have already been made. I am bound to say that a very difficult situation confronts me personally, because I have some comments to make which are critical of the Bill. In view of what we have heard from my noble friend Lady Birk and also from the other noble Lords who have spoken, what I am about to talk about will be in a limited sphere. I know there are many others who want to speak, and the points in which they are interested are well known to me already, so I shall avoid as far as possible treading on their particular ground. I want to deal with one problem which gives us very considerable anxiety.

Perhaps I ought, in passing, to say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Young. We have often crossed swords on a point she has mentioned. I am very sorely tempted to enter into some kind of discussion, but I do not think today is quite the occasion for this. Perhaps on some future occasion I shall have the privilege of being able to answer some of the points she hinted at today in regard to the Rent Acts. They are not so bad as she has always imagined. They have saved millions of people from becoming homeless. They have been extremely important measures. Of course, like all Acts of Parliament, there are flaws—nobody would be so foolish as to suggest that there are not. On some future occasion I hope to have the privilege of debating with her.

On the other hand, I should like to say to my noble friend Lady Birk that she has taken a lot of the wind out of my sails on the point that I wanted to make and am about to make. Nevertheless, I very much admire the manner in which she has dealt with this Bill. I am bound to say that, in what she says, she always gives us a very good account of the Government view. Very often, it is interspersed with her own particular view, which on occasions, is not entirely in accord with the Government's view but which nevertheless carries weight. I hope that my noble friend Baroness Birk will ultimately be persuaded to appreciate the tremendous importance of what I am about to say.

I think that everyone welcomes the principle upon which the Bill was introduced to Parliament. It is 30 years since Parliament defined the obligations of local authorities towards homeless people and the need for a clear Government initiative to help the homeless is long overdue. However, I am bound to say that as it was introduced in another place, the Bill largely ignores the needs of single homeless people. That is in spite of the comments made by the noble Baroness who has put forward as good a case as she possibly could.

In particular the Bill fails to give priority need to young homeless people, along with its help for the elderly, the disabled and pregnant women. Furthermore—and here I disagree with the comments that have been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young—the Bill was so amended last week in another place as to severely weaken its value to the very homeless people whom it sets out to help. That is my view and I shall expand on it in the remaining stages of our proceedings.

Homelessness among young single people is not a new problem. Thus, in 1973, serious concern was voiced on the subject in this House in a debate introduced in April of that year by my noble friend Lord Soper. Since then, the unemployment rate among school leavers and young people generally—and we had a very important debate on that only a few days ago—has, sadly, risen dramatically and the risks to which homeless young people are exposed have been brought home to the nation in the television film, "Johnny Go Home". Some four months ago, this House debated the housing needs of young homeless people on a Question tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. Yet the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill does not mention the specific problems of the homeless young people.

I am sorry to say that the Government are failing to address their policies to the needs of a group of homeless young people whose problems are well-known and whose difficulties arouse considerable public sympathy and understanding. Meanwhile, some Members on the Opposition Benches in another place have argued that the Bill, limited as it is in its help to homeless people and ignoring as it does the needs of homeless young people for somewhere to live, goes too far. I believe that they have succeeded in amending the Bill so severely that the voluntary organisations which have so far supported the Bill now consider that unless it is amended in this House the Bill could be so toothless as to be no improvement in the present situation of the homeless. I refer, of course, to the powers given to the housing authorities to refuse to accommodate those whom they consider to have made themselves homeless intentionally or whom they consider able to help themselves.

The voluntary organisations, which have long experience of the failure of many local authorities to carry out the advice given to them in the joint circular on homelessness published in February 1974 and which have done tremendously important work, are of the view that these powers will be used by those councils which do not wish to adopt humane policies to leave homeless people in priority need on the streets. I must say that, to a considerable extent, I share that disquiet.

I should like to turn to the omission of young homeless people from the priority groups listed in Clause 1 of the Bill. I have already mentioned that the House had an important debate on this subject last March. In that debate, the noble Earl, Lord Longford—who is extremely sorry that he cannot be with us due to a prior appointment—pressed the Government to remedy this omission. Not least of the reasons for that request for this change was that a Government Working Party had itself recommended in August last year that, in framing legislation on homelessness, regard should be had to the accommodation needs of young homeless people. The noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, who replied to the debate was rather hard to draw on this issue. Now that we see the Bill, we can understand the reason.

I believe that the reluctance to give young homeless people due priority in the Bill is extremely short-sighted. Surely it makes sound economic sense, let alone social sense, to prevent young people from remaining in such a position. I appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said, "All right, keep them at home". We know very well what young people are like and, of course, it is our duty to look after them. We cannot make most of these young people remain at home.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, of course I accept that. I have children of my own and know that. I know of instances where the youngsters concerned simply have no idea of what they are up against. They just do not know. If they did, some of them might stick it out with their parents a little longer or wait until they had been able to arrange something. They are carried away by the glamour of a situation which, in fact, does not emerge. That was all I was saying.


My Lords, I am not complaining. I know what the noble Baroness was saying and that all of us believe in the family unit being kept together. I know that for many reasons. My own religious group holds that view and it is very dear to it. But we must face the real position which is that these young people do break away. We must do all we can to prevent them from becoming vagabonds or people who are useless to society and to themselves. It is an enormously important problem and I do not think that we have yet quite grasped it. After all, those who administer justice—that is, the courts—are concerned about it. We must realise that magistrates believe that something must be done about this problem because it is a menacing one. In the end, quite apart from any moral reasons or ethical obligations, there is the fact that it is an enormous strain and will become an even greater strain on the economy. That must be borne in mind particularly in these times when the economy is in rather a difficult state.

I was about to say that we have to prevent those who become homeless from remaining in that position and so being in grave risk of becoming a longterm drain on our statutory and voluntary social services, our penal system and our welfare benefits system. Surely we do not want to miss the opportunity that this Bill affords to stop the young homeless of today becoming the dependent vagrants of tomorrow.

The principal way in which we can prevent that happening is by specifically naming homeless people who are vulnerable because of youth in the priority categories of this Bill. For there is increasing evidence that the prevention of homelessness among the young must begin at the local level and must therefore be the clear responsibility of the local housing authorities. However they decide to carry out that responsibility, whatever arrangements they make to co-operate with voluntary societies in sharing the burden they must have the clear primary responsibility.

One of the voluntary organisations with which I am pleased to have a connection, Intake, provides hostel accommodation for young homeless people in North London. The average age of the youngsters they accommodate is 20½ years old and they receive their referrals from the West End of London through the West End Co-ordinated Voluntary Services. Their latest annual report shows that, while they have no difficulty in contacting young homeless people who needed their shelter, they have immense problems in helping their residents find permanent accommodation. Out of a sample of 48 young people, nine drifted back into the West End through lack of accommodation in the area, only five found permanent accommodation immediately on leaving the private sector, while none were able to get accommodation in the public sector. Intake further said—and they are very experienced people—that from their experience at least 50 per cent. of the young people they see would be able to re-establish themselves if they had access to somewhere secure to live.

Intake is fortunate in having a good relationship with two local authorities, the London Borough of Camden and the City of Westminster, both of whom give I some grant aid to the project. Nevertheless, Intake and the other agencies in the West End Co-ordinated Voluntary Services would be far more able to help young homeless people to re-establish themselves if the local authorities had a clear duty in law towards homeless young people. That, I would argue, is our opportunity with this Bill.

When the Standing Committee considered in another place the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill, the sponsor of the Bill and the Minister put forward two reasons as to why they were opposed to specifying young people in the priority groups. First, they argued that at a time—and I am afraid that this argument has been used again—of scarce resources it would be asking too much of housing authorities to expect them to take on this responsibility. Secondly, they suggested that the Government are in any case unclear about what kind of accommodation young single people require, and cannot therefore advise local authorities to carry out this function. I should like to deal with both these arguments as briefly as possible.

One of the effects of the current scarcity of resources in the housing field is that local authorities are beginning to pay serious attention to ways in which the housing stock in their areas can be used more fully and effectively to meet housing needs. I do not want to exaggerate the degree to which this is happening, and I would say that local authorities' minds would be concentrated more usefully if they were to have the assistance of the Government circular on the better use of the housing stock which for many months Parliament has been promised will he issued.

However, local authorities are beginning to consider how they can let accommodation to single people in hard-to-let housing such as tower blocks, pre-war estates and walk-up blocks. Indeed some councils have gone further than that and are now allocating some of this housing to single people whom, until recently, they would not have housed. I am sure that we would all welcome these developments to which my noble friend has referred and which, of course, are extremely important; we want to see them extended. As we have already heard, the Government wish to encourage this.

The biggest single problem facing young single homeless people is not that their housing needs are not known; it is that they are denied access to most public housing. As a result of the developments I have just described, that access is beginning to open up. I agree with my noble friend that the door is being opened. By including vulnerable young people in this Bill, we would be pushing the door ajar.

Finally, it was said in the Standing Committee on the Bill in another place that there is no need to specify young people in the priority categories, because they will be covered by the phrase in Clause 1(4)(c), "or other special reason". It seems to me that those words provide local authorities with a very important power to help homeless applicants who face very special circumstances, and I am pleased that they are in the Bill. But the position of young homeless people is, in my view, more general and pressing across the board than those words allow.

The Government have argued in another place that a flexible definition of elderly people within the priority groups, and a flexible definition of disabled people, will afford maximum help to those groups. Why not, then, include within the priority groups those who are "vulnerable because of youth"? I ask the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and also the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to consider the case most seriously so that this Bill may not just set right the problems of the homeless we have neglected in the past but may also bring help to those young people who now stand in danger of being the homeless of the future.

1.27 p.m.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, I should like in my turn to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wade, for the extremely lucid way in which he introduced this Bill to us. I do not propose to speak about the very worrying problems of homelessness, I simply want to raise one question to which my noble friend Lady Young has ready referred. Before I do so, may I make one comment. I should like to support strongly what the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said when she urged that somehow young people should be warned before they leave home, if possible, about the really difficult problems they are going to meet with in finding accommodation in the big cities. The difficulty is how to find out which young people are thinking of leaving home so that they can be warned in time.

I feel that, if they knew about these appalling problems, many of them would have second thoughts about leaving home. But, once having left home, perhaps for reasons of pride, they sometimes hesitate to return. Many of them are in desperate search for work, but many, as the noble Baroness said, may be leaving home either because of some temporary disenchantment at home, or perhaps simply because of the glamour of the bright lights.

The question I should like to raise is this: one of the aims of this Bill, as I understand it, is to transfer responsibility in certain cases for homeless persons from the social services to the housing authorities, and that seems a sensible aim. On Third Reading in another place amendments were made which, useful as they are, might have the effect in some cases of throwing back some of the responsibilities on the social service authorities. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Wade, whether, in consultation with Ministers, he would have considered that point. One of the objects of the Amendments, I gather, was to prevent certain not strong priority cases from getting in ahead of some very high priority cases on waiting lists, and that would seem a good object. The Bill, quite rightly, provides for the transfer of both accommodation and finance from the social services authorities to the housing authorities, so that this can happen. But if, in consequence of the Bill as now drafted, in some cases the obligations would come back to the social services authorities and leave them with a residual responsibility for the homeless, they will then have no resources to cope with it.

I should like to agree, in passing, with what my noble friend Lady Young said about the necessity to take with a very large pinch of salt those words which appear far too frequently in the financial memoranda of Bills: There will be no net addition to public expenditure". We have heard so often before that we know it is hardly ever true. I believe that, if this is worth doing, it is bound to involve some increase in Government expenditure.

It may be felt that the point that I am raising is a matter for the Committee stage. That may be so, but I am raising it now because it seems to some extent that it might frustrate some of the objects of the Bill, as well as throw an unreasonable financial obligation on the social services authorities, whose resources will have been transferred. All I am asking is whether, in his consultations with Ministers, the noble Lord will look into the matter I have raised and see whether there is any ground for the fear that I am advancing. If he thinks there is, I hope that he can find a way of obviating that danger without holding up the progress of the Bill.

1.31 p.m.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Wade, for the introduction of the Bill, I am more grateful to him for the compassionate introduction to what he had to say in reference to the intolerable misery that is occasioned by homelessness. For that reason I welcomed wholeheartedly the practical impact of the Bill to give legislative effect to the circular of 1974, and to secure thereby a more uniform procedure over the country in response to what it had to say. But lying behind that clarification and, I believe, improvement by the very legislative process, there is for me, and I think for many of your Lordships, a much deeper principle of which the Bill expresses at least something of an absolute requirement.

I have felt for long enough that of the trimoda necessitas of food, clothing and shelter, shelter has very often been the poor relation, regarded as of less importance than the other two. I believe that that is completely false. There is an overall principle in the Bill, though not expressed in every clause of it, that the responsibility we have for those who are homeless is that, independent of conditions of their moral value and of their probity, they have an inalienable right to somewhere to lay their heads. It is that which attracted me, and I am sure many of your Lordships, to the Bill as a measure whereby this kind of right should be the more clearly expressed and the more generously accepted.

But within the original Bill—what I might call the authorised version, of which there has now been a revised version, rather than an amended one—there were, I thought, a number of omissions, and I believe that it would be helpful to your Lordships to specify one of them, which raises the question which was so ably dealt with a few minutes ago by my noble friend Lord Janner. Obviously, to put a responsibility on a local housing authority to do something depends on whether, within the bounds of possibility, it can do it. I do not entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in her assertion that what is primarily needed is more houses. It is the adaptation and refurbishing of existing property which I believe can give considerable support to the argument that local authorities could do much more, if they were more wise in their use of available property. But the fact remains that one of the reasons for putting priorities into the Bill in its original form was that it was felt that the wholesale obligation to treat everybody who is homeless was an impractical ideal, or rather was an impossible objective to carry out.

The trouble is that I believe that in the selection of priorities the original Bill left out in large measure, as I would agree with my noble friend, the most imperative of all those occasions of domestic and homeless misery which come from the young people, when they are so bereft of a place to lay their heads. Within the Bill as it now stands I find it interesting that there is a provision for a priority group which includes those who are vulnerable for special reasons. I should like that spelt out because it would meet my case; it would meet my case entirely, because I have no doubt that, of all those who are in peril by homelessness, in many respects those who are liable to suffer the more long-lasting disasters are those who are encouraged, or committed, to homelessness in their most formative years.

As a social worker I know of evidence, that I could support by detailed example, of the way in which those who become accustomed to homelessness—a dreadful word to use in this case—in their adolescent years are very often afterwards unable to accommodate themselves to the kind of world in which it is possible for them to make their mark and to do their job. I say that not sentimentally; but if there is a special case, I believe that it is that of the young, single homeless. That was in the original Bill.

My trouble is with the Amendments, which I believe have now contaminated the Bill almost to an intolerable extent. The first of the two areas where the Amendments in another place have done the most damage and have struck at the very root of the Bill is in the concept of intention. I have read it fairly carefully, and I think that the word used in this context is gobbledygook. If some people's intention is to be homeless then one does not house them; they resist that housing. If the argument is that families in Birmingham will become voluntarily homeless so that they can share the prospect of winter lets in Blackpool, I think it is absolute rubbish. I have very little sympathy with those who think that there are in large numbers families who will go through the traumatic experience of making themselves completely homeless where they live for the suspected opportunities of "bed-sits", or winter lets, in desirable resorts, if one thinks of Blackpool as a desirable resort.

I have every reason to believe that there is now the opportunity, within the code of procedure and practice, for discrimination and selectivity to be employed. But there is absolutely no need to put into the Bill a vague and insubstantial principle of intention when, in fact, that intention will be interpreted as having a moral content. Local authorities would thus find themselves bound up with the question as to whether some of these people deserve to be put into houses or other accommodation. I resent bitterly the idea that there can be introduced into the concept of the homeless as an obligation on the community the principle that there will be a selective panel which will decide whether people are really intentionally capable of responding to the benefits offered to them. This strikes at the root of the comprehensiveness of the Bill, and I hope that in Committee it will be amended or taken out.

The other aspect of the Amendments which I also find intolerable is that which introduces the principle of a means test. These Amendments say, in effect, that if it is likely, or thought possible, that those who apply have resources, or have opportunities, then they can cease to be in the priority group and can be regarded as being entitled to some help, but are not the subject of any obligation. That, too, strikes at the very principle of the Bill. I should like to remind your Lordships that in Circular 18–74 the then Government said: The reason for homelessness, whether eviction or housing, stress, or any other reason—even lack of foresight—should not"— and any other reason would include a certain amount of available resources— be a factor in deciding whether to accept responsibility". The acceptance of responsibility does not depend on the amount of cash which can be made available, and there is ample provision within the original Bill for the attitude, which I believe is perfectly reasonable and right, that those who themselves have some kind of resources should not necessarily be prevented from contributing what they can, and that the measure of the Bill itself makes provision for other forms of help whereby they can secure accommodation and then, indeed, be able to provide for themselves, so long as that assistance is given. These are things which, in my judgment, strike at the root principle of this Bill.

One of the things which perhaps would persuade your Lordships even if your Lordships are not persuaded as to the correctness of what I have just said, is that where you have nearly half the local authorities in the country ignoring the circular of 1974—and it is 40 per cent.—is it not likely that they will find extreme encouragement to continue so to ignore this Bill, if indeed there are weakenings in the very processes to which they have so easily been able to attach their programmes, if indeed it is not possible so to tighten the principle as to make it, as I think, unavoidable that local authorities, under statutory commandment, will be now compelled to do something more practical? And if indeed they cannot do it entirely without the support of voluntary bodies, then that brings me to the last point that I should like to make.

I am sure that without the marriage of local and community and voluntary bodies this Bill will be very largely ineffective. I am more than satisfied that here is a marriage which is demanded between enlightened social activities on the part of charities—and I speak for one. I declare an interest, though not a financial one, in Shelter. I speak for all the charities, because they have unanimously recognised the evils in this amended Bill and are in great protest against them. I would not have your Lordships in any doubt as to the intensity of their feeling that these Amendments, to which I have given reference, strike at the heart of the principle of the Bill, and therefore must be amended again if the Bill is to be included within the kind of structure to which my noble friend the Minister so eloquently, and I think properly, referred when she said that we have here an opportunity to move forward, not to the full acceptance of that which is behind this Bill and is in principle governing it, but at any rate to the procedure whereby we transfer our sense of responsibility away from care and help and into the obligation which a civilised community has for those who are homeless.

I shall of course vote for the Second Reading of this Bill. I believe it needs to be very severely amended if it is to meet the needs which were uppermost in the minds of those who first were anxious to see it at least in statutory form, and those who hope that, even amended, and imperfect as necessarily it will be, it makes a move in a direction which hitherto has not been fully understood, has not been fully implemented—the direction leading towards the elimination of this evil. I believe it can be eliminated, and I hope that this Bill will help to that end.

1.44 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, first of all I should like to say how grateful we are to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, for introducing this Bill and for putting the matter before us so clearly and succinctly. I also feel very honoured to follow the noble Lord, Lord Soper, who has such a great knowledge of these problems and always, I think, stirs our hearts when he puts his point of view before the House. Of course, one of the disappointments, I feel, is that we had hoped that there would be some mention in the Queen's Speech with regard to homeless persons. As to my view about this Bill I am rather schizophrenic because I am anxious to provide for the homeless but, on the other side, I am very worried that the Bill will give hope to many people who will not be helped.

I think it very unfortunate that the Bill, which was introduced in the other House in February, should, at this late date only just have come to this House. I note particularly some of the remarks made in the other place in the debate on 8th July. One of them, in regard to the technical wording of the Bill, was to the effect that, their Lordships will consider it and try to put it right in due course, the principles now having been firmly agreed". I should like to know, perhaps from the Minister, how much time we have to do this, because one notes that they sat late hours in the other place, and that one session lasted 27 hours. What time are we going to have to implement any of the changes which have already been adumbrated by many Members of this House?

The other matter is the question of the cost. The local authorities have definitely said that they will need between £2 million and £3 million a year to employ extra staff and undertake the necessary inquiries. I personally am very glad that the responsibility will in future be placed on the housing departments, because the social services are already very overworked. But it is absolutely essential that the housing departments should train people to do this work in future. They will have to train them to carry out investigations and to judge the various claims. To date, in many authorities, this has not been the job of individual people in the housing departments. It has been done by rent collectors, who have had to see whether the house is kept in order, and so on, but they have not had the detailed duty of going into the requirements of the homeless. They are people who are already on the housing lists of the local authorities—and I have attended quite a number of the sessions when these lists have been discussed. In fact, I am inclined to agree with the honourable Member for Islington South and Finsbury, who said on 8th July that he would never again have anything to do with so sloppy a Bill as this one. He also remarked that it should be left to the House of Lords to patch it up. Has the noble Baroness been in contact with the Members of the other House to find out what Amendments they consider we should introduce in this House which will, as they claim, patch up the Bill?

For instance, Clause 8(5) deals with the fine. It seems to me amazing that there is to be a fine not exceeding £500. How many homeless people who try to put their case over, and perhaps do so quite wrongly, will be able to pay a fine at all? Then there is vagueness in many of the clauses which I think will create difficulties. In Clause 1(1)(a), for example, it is stated, he, together with any other person who normally resides with him… Who is going to decide who "normally resides" with a person? They may be residing there at the time when the application is put in, but not be there later.

Then there are the words "reasonable", "reasonably" and "might reasonably" which occur time and time again; I think they appear 11 times in all. Reference is also made to people being threatened with homelessness. I dislike having the word "reasonable" in an Act of Parliament because, each time, one has to judge what is reasonable and what is not, and people have very varying ideas. Suppose you are threatened with, for example, homelessness, which does happen quite often. A young couple may be living with their parents, they have a quarrel and are threatened with homelessness. It is going to be very difficult to decide whether the parents are ever going to take them back, or whether they are going to be temporarily homeless.

Then, Clause 5 says: …it shall be the duty of the authority to take reasonable steps to prevent the loss of the property or prevent or mitigate damage to it". How can it do so? It is very seldom known. The authority cannot inspect the property all the time. How is it to decide, until, perhaps, it gets extra staff to inspect or until persons leave the property, whether or not it is damaged?

I should like to suggest that there are really three ways to help homeless people. For example, far too many local authorities pull down areas which are planned for redevelopment. Take Islington, for example. I think that that is a very bad example of large areas of land which are now empty. I can state, having been there, that at one time the gypsies wanted to go on the land and stay there as they were homeless and had nowhere to park their vehicles. The ground was actually bulldozed in order that they should not be able to remain there, and this site is still empty. There are also sites in Westminster and, going through many boroughs, not only in London but in other areas, one finds houses with bricked up windows and barricaded doors which could be made habitable for a number of years. It is worrying when you go to areas in London, Liverpool. Manchester and Plymouth, to mention a few places, where houses have been pulled down and it is impossible in present circumstances, through lack of finance, to redevelop in he future and only weeds grow there.

I was glad to see in Clause 6 that registered housing associations are recognised, particularly as I am interested in this and—the right reverend Prelate will be pleased to know this—the Hummingbird Project in Southwark is now going on well. I think that one or two volunteer organisations have a great deal to contribute and the Government, by helping them with subsidies from the housing corporation, can do it more cheaply. In this way, I think the young single homeless can be helped. I am not with the noble Lord, Lord Janner, in what he said just now in particular, because I think this is a line of country which voluntary organisations can undertake.

I am a member of an organisation called the London Centre. We have two centres, are about to open a third, and in the autumn will open a fourth. We are very small; there are only about 14 people in each and we find that over a period of three months it is almost possible to rehabilitate them. There is a difficulty with Asian girls and with girls from Jamaica and the West Indies because they are living a different life from that which their parents live. We get a great deal of misunderstanding in these cases and they take longer. We have meetings periodically and we have found the turnover is very good. Some go back to their parents, some get married; and we have been successful in getting some set up in small flats together.

There is a great deal of advantage in having small hostels. One can take an individual interest in the boys or girls. We arrange opportunities for them to go to museums, to have a day out at Brighton or to take part in Christmas festivities. We make it into a home. It is amazing how a majority get a settled outlook on life. Also, we think that the voluntary organisations should be encouraged to buy more small properties where they can set up these boys and girls, and the Endell Street project is one that I am particularly interested in.

I like to be practical. When I was in Plymouth as the Member of Parliament for that constituency I bought a house for £500. It was a large house and we made it into two flats. I got it because it was supposed to be a redevelopment area. I have no faith in redevelopment areas. I decided to risk it and to buy the house. I gave it to the Council of Social Service; it was made into two flats and we were able to help a good many homeless people. Unfortunately, only one flat is a single flat; the upstairs flat has now three separate bed-sitting rooms, housing three women with one young child each and they share a kitchen.

My Lords, homelessness is increasing. Why is it increasing? I think it is because of the broken-down extended family system. Although perhaps I should not say this, I think it is also because of the better education of women who want more opportunity to be independent. More young people come to towns because they cannot get jobs elsewhere. Also, overseas people have a different way of life from their parents.

One category which I should like to see get consideration is members of Her Majesty's Services because they have to go and live in accommodation provided by the Service concerned. They are not, therefore, in their own home town. Occasionally there is, regrettably, a deserted wife and, naturally, the Services have to ask her to leave. She does not come under the local council's list and she cannot go back to her own home town. These people are people whom one should consider as homeless, because they have this difficulty. Another difficulty in the Services is that when members go overseas and let their houses on an agreement, they can come back and find the tenant will not leave. These people also need temporary accommodation.

When I was the Member of Parliament for Devonport I used to hold "surgeries" every Saturday morning, and I telephoned the local estate agents who gave me a list of accommodation which was available. I regret that in the last three or four years when I was there they invariably had nothing to let. This proves that the Rent Act has had undesirable effects in regard to letting. I understand that the Minister recently said that about 100,000 private properties are no longer on the market. This shows one of the real difficulties in getting the homeless rehoused. My Lords, I shall not vote against this Bill because it may help some people, but I think it is going to be difficult to work and, in fact, impossible if the Government do not provide some financial aid. Without this, I do not think this Bill will work at all.

1.56 p.m.


My Lords, having raised this question of homelessness more than once in your Lordships' House, I welcome this Bill. I welcome the duty it places on the housing authorities and the attempt to put some legislative force behind Circular 18/74 issued jointly. It is a pleasure to speak after my noble friend Lady Vickers, but I shall not attempt to follow her either on the Rent Acts or on single persons. I should like to approach this question from the point of view of the family and family life. May I quote briefly from something called the Cottesloe Declaration made in 1960. It was then stated: No stable society is possible unless the cardinal importance of family life is recognised and from the Christian point of view it is imperative that the integrity of the family be safeguarded". That statement was made by a group of Churches who came together in South Africa faced with the brutal reality of apartheid. I submit it is just as relevant for us as it was for them in their situation.

Not long ago the most reverend Primate initiated a debate in this House about family life. Everyone got up and said what a splendid thing family life is. Some even suggested that a Minister of the Family should be appointed. This is also Jubilee Year and many tributes have rightly been paid to the united family life of our Royal Family and the example given by our Sovereign. This Bill is the acid test of whether we are determined to make possible normal family life for those who are prevented from leading it, or whether we are simply to he content with good intentions.

Let us look at where the shoe pinches or where the trouble arises for the family. First, children are in care because they are homeless. The taking into care of such children has been going on for many years and still continues. In 1973 I think it cost £20 a week to keep one child in care. I am informed that the cost now has risen to something of the order of £40 if not higher. We must avoid the taking into care of children because the parents are homeless.

Again, there is the question of split families. They can be split for many different reasons. It was the practice, which I hope has now ceased, of some local authorities to admit into temporary accommodation only the mother and children and to exclude the father. One finds many other cases where the family has had to break into two with the father going one way and the mother another simply because of lack of suitable accommodation.

Another breaking point for many families is the provision by local authorities of bed and breakfast accommodation for the homeless. Here I should like to quote from what the British Association of Social Workers had to say: It is a tragedy that we have not learned from the dismal experience of the United States in creating welfare hotels which become breeding grounds for social problems. Far from the "holiday on the rates" which is sometimes imagined, a prolonged stay in a hotel which is overcrowded, lacks cooking facilities and which requires families to be out during the day, places an intolerable stress on any family". Not only an intolerable stress, my Lords, but an extremely heavy expenditure on the public purse.

Again, many times we have come across instances of families being, to use the jargon expression, "shuttlecocked" from one authority to another. It has been known to happen between one country and another, and that is something perhaps inescapable in the present state of international relations, but surely it should he avoidable as between one local authority and another in our own country. The Bill, I know, contains a clause encouraging and stimulating co-operation between local authorities, and that is what I hope will follow from it. So those are the kind of instances where family life is at risk during the present situation and where I think the Bill, when passed, will bring about some improvement.

However, it is not only a question of local government duties and actions; there is a definite role to be played by central Government. First of all, there is the question of temporary accommodation. Some local authorities are very hard pressed and are bound to go on being very hard pressed for a considerable time. Surely central Government can help by making available additional resources of temporary accommodation. I am thinking particularly of disused military camps. These proved absolutely invaluable at the time of the influx of refugees from Uganda. I hope that usable accommodation will not be demolished or diverted to other purposes when it could be available and used for homeless families.

The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, mentioned training. Obviously this will be extremely important as more housing departments take on new duties. However, there is a great fund of experience to be tapped and it is to be found in both the voluntary sector and the public sector among those who, over the past 10 years, have been providing what is called Housing Aid. Also, I hope very much that central Government will look most seriously at the experience of those local authorities which have already put into practice the recommendations of Circular 18–74. Here I should like to quote what the chief housing officer of Wellingborough wrote in the Municipal Journal of 25th March of this year: The homeless are not a separate entity to be dealt with in isolation; they are simply the most acute form of housing need". He went on to say that his district housing authority took full responsibility for homelessness from 1974, and pointed out that: the homeless are better catered for now than they were before 1974 and at less public expense". The other extreme occurs, for example, in Avon County, where most housing authorities have not yet taken on the responsibility, and there it is alleged that the county council is having to spend no less than £200,000 a year on bed and breakfast accommodation for the homeless.

Reference has already been made to Amendments made to this Bill in another place. I thought that my noble friend Lady Young put a little too much emphasis on defending some of those Amendments. I say so because I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soper, that we want to avoid value-judgments con- cerning individuals and families by local government officers and invidious distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor. Many Amendments will be needed and they largely concern matters of definition. For example, this question already mentioned of intentional homelessness; also the definition of a homeless household; and the definition of what are families with children. The question of battered women has been mentioned before. We may well have to look in greater detail at the priority to be given to single persons who are aged or disabled. There is also the never easy question of where a family is normally resident.

I hope that this Bill can be very much improved and that the Government will be moving a number of Amendments, and that the noble Lord, Lord Wade, will be able to accept quite a number of Amendments. At all events, we must certainly avoid a situation where the Bill might be lost owing to disagreement between the two Houses. I hope that we shall soon have this Bill on the Statute Book in a suitably amended form.

2.17 p.m.


My Lords, everybody who has been involved in the tragedy of homelessness will applaud the objectives of the Promoters of this Bill: the principal objective is to lay upon the organisations representing the community the duty to provide a home for the homeless. As other noble Lords and the Minister have said, it is one of the most devastating experiences that can happen to both individuals and families. As the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said, it leads to other problems: children have to be separated from their parents; husband and wife are pushed apart from each other by the tensions that are engendered and the insecurity of having no home leads, particularly in children and young people, to psychological trauma, the effects of which are incalculable. I hope that a more enlightened generation will in future times think it a scandal that until the last quarter of the 20th century there was no I duty upon the organisations of the community to provide something so simple and basic as a roof even for a family that had none.

Like other noble Lords, I do not want to enter into the debate, which is really a separate debate, as to why these homelessness figures are getting larger and larger every year. As the matter was touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, this much needs to be said: it is because housing has not been regarded as a scarce public resource but is rather still regarded as a private profit-making commodity that we are in the present situation of acute homelessness. Housing is a scarce public resource, to be managed by the community for the community and utilised for those who most need it. One by-product of this Bill will be an encouragement to local authorities to see themselves as having a clear duty to manage their housing stocks so that those without homes who come to their doors as homeless families will be accommodated somehow and somewhere.

Because everybody who has spoken in this debate has agreed with the remarks I have just made about the tragedy of homelessness, it becomes a duty upon the House to ensure that the Bill we pass makes effective the duty that we seek to lay on local authorities. It is our duty to make sure that it is effective not so far as the good local authorities are concerned—because they are providing for the homeless in many areas of the country without the need for this Bill and they see it as their local duty to their inhabitants—but with regard to the recalcitrant authorities, who do not see it as their duty to provide for the homeless at the moment.

We must see that those "priority need" people, who would otherwise be turned away from the council offices as being of no interest or concern, will in future be housed. Let us remember that local authorities, their officials and elected members are not ministering angels. One has only to read the reports of Shelter and other charities who have reported on the plight of the homeless to get a picture of inhumanity in response to applications—with bureaucracy run riot and people being treated as units in council offices. That can be the cause of people being compelled to suffer in the way which it is now sought to prevent by means of this Bill.

My criticism of the Bill is that the duty which is imposed contains so many loopholes. There are so many vaguely defined criteria to be fulfilled before one qualifies. The Bill is so lacking in teeth that it will do no more than dash the hopes that are being put in it and it will not achieve the objective I have outlined. One of the main faults has been commented on by many; namely, the injection of the criterion of "intentional homelessness". What does that mean, my Lords? In another place, Mr. Rossi spoke of people who defaulted on their rent. Thousands of families are evicted from homes because, for a variety of reasons, they default on their rent. He talked also of persons who take short holiday lets and would be called "intentional homeless" because they took on a letting which they knew they would be kicked out of in three months' time. But hundreds of people are driven to take this kind of short-term accommodation.

Nor is it not just a question of what it means. No doubt the Promoters of the Bill, having taken advice, will say it means that only people with some deliberate motive to jump the queue are covered by the phrase. But who is going to determine what it means? Not a court, not this House, but officials in a council office—often officials (because we are talking about the recalcitrant authorities) who know that their authority has determined to adopt a cheeseparing attitude to the homeless and who want to pick holes in every application that comes to them. It becomes worse when you read in the Bill that it is not just a question of turning away the intentional homeless: the applicants have to satisfy the authority that they have not become intentionally homeless. They have to prove a negative. How differently that will be interpreted from area to area around the country!

Similar criticisms can be made of the "can probably help themselves" provision. As the noble Lord, Lord Soper pointed out, that is an encouragement to such local authorities as wish to be cheeseparing to force any applicant for a home to pauperise himself before qualifying. One can probably obtain accommodation because one has £200 of savings in the Post Office and one can be accommodated in a hotel down the road for two or three months before qualifying for help. That could be ruled by the local authority to come within this particular clause.

In other parts of the Bill there are equally vague criteria: I will mention only two of them. There is the "vulnerability" criterion. Why not just say "people who are old" and not "people who are vulnerable because they are old"? Why not say "people who are mentally ill" and not "people who are vulnerable because they are mentally ill"? Because that enables a local authority that wants to cheesepare to say, "We think you can fend for yourself: you are not sufficiently vulnerable".

The other matter that struck me as extraordinary was that in order to qualify as a homeless person, if you are threatened with violence in the home in which you lived, you have to show not only that someone is going to threaten you with violence but that he is likely to carry out the threat. You will have this picture of local authority officials, with their own prejudices and subjective views on matrimonial or domestic life, trying to analyse whether the man in the house is likely to carry out a threat of violence.

Some of these vaguenesses can be cured by Amendment, but some will be bound to remain in the Bill. Any measure like this is bound to contain within it some area of doubt where things can go wrong. I should like to put forward for the consideration of the House a way round the difficulties, and indeed the conflict, generated in the course of this debate between those who want many restrictive provisions in the Bill and those who do not. This Bill provides a duty which in some cases is a clear duty and in other cases is not so clear. It provides, very creditably, for the local authority to house people temporarily while they are making up their minds as to whether or not the duty is owed. It provides also, very creditably, for reasons to be given to the applicant if he or she is rejected. But what happens then? If the local authority gets it wrong, where does the applicant go? If a local authority says, "We don't believe you are genuine; you are intentionally homeless", or "We don't believe you are vulnerable", or if they make some other error, whether through prejudice or out of sheer incompetence, there is no remedy at all in this Bill. There is no tribunal to which a rejected applicant can turn. There is no place where justice can be obtained. No doubt, a person will have to sit in the street, carrying a placard saying to the councillors who pass by "Please help me", and that is unlikely to be good enough.

Would it not he very much better, and alleviate some of the injustices which will occur because of these vague criteria, for some kind of appeal mechanism to be injected into this Bill, so that someone who was rejected could go, within a certain time, to the local county court and ask for a declaration that he or she is a homeless person, or a priority need person; with a procedure by which, within a few weeks, there could be some kind of hearing before a county court judge, so that conflicts between homeless persons and an authority could he ironed out?

There are precedents for this. For example, in recent years, thank goodness! we have determined that anybody who is destitute shall have the right to an income, and we call it supplementary benefit. If someone is aggrieved with the determination which is made when he applies for that income, there is a tribunal to which he can go. But under this Bill there is nothing. I hope that the sponsors of the Bill can advise me whether any legal machinery is available for someone who is hard done by, or wrongly refused housing, when he is homeless. My view is that there is nothing which would be at all effective, just some vague possibility of an application to the High Court for an order of mandamus, which would be far too late to do any good.

Some of us who are worried about the vaguenesses in the Bill, and the opportunities which they give for councils to evade their responsibilities, would be much more reassured if there was some kind of appeal machinery. I certainly propose to put forward an Amendment to that effect, and I hope that both the Promoters and the Minister will look seriously at the possibility. The county courts can be mobilised at short notice to hear such a case, it would not be a very difficult hearing and there should he provision for the person to be kept in stop-gap accommodation until such a hearing had taken place. With such a tooth in it, this Bill would he considerably better.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask him one small question about his statement that there are thousands of people who are compelled to take short lets? My noble friend is a lawyer, and when such statements are made we should like to have a few figures.


My Lords, the noble Baroness has only to look in the advertisement columns of the evening papers to know that hundreds of property owners are advertising holiday lets. Some are genuine, some are not. The ones that are genuine are short lets, which give no security in the end. It is of those that I was thinking.

2.23 p.m.


My Lords, I have enjoyed listening to the debate. I have sat through 90 per cent. of it, and I went out only when I had to because of another duty which it was necessary for me to perform. I see no point in reiterating what has been said over and over again. This is a Second Reading, not a Committee stage of the Bill, and much of the discussion that we have had has dealt with Committee stage points. That is not at all wrong. Those points have been put forward in a humanitarian way by people who know what they are talking about. Furthermore, may I point out to the other place, which sometimes thinks that we do not work here, that nearly everyone here today has come at considerable expense from all over Britain to speak on behalf of the homeless. Consequently, there are no ulterior motives whatsoever in the contributions that are being made.

Having heard the speeches, I want to ask questions in a general rhetorical way, which can be dealt within Committee. First, if organisations such as Campaign for the Homeless and Roofless, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Public Health Advisory Service, Shack, Shelter, Housing, the Housing Aid Centre, the National Campaign for the Homeless, the Catholic Housing Aid Society, the National Women's Aid Federation and others are concerned about this Bill, which they all applaud, because it has been a little butchered in the other place, then there must he something in it which needs our attention.

There was a debate in the other place—and I spent 27 or 28 years in the other place—and a lawyer, who said that, if we are not careful, people who are shacking up on the beach and having a cheap holiday at Blackpool will be able, under this Bill, to go to a local authority and demand shelter, must have been talking through his hat. Anybody who has had experience of local government knows quite well that there are safeguards against that kind of sharp practice. If people think that "holiday cowboys" will be expecting local authorities to shack them up for a short period of time, then they have not read the Bill properly and do not understand what responsible civil servants and local government officials know about the problems of local government.

In order to cut down my speech to about seven minutes, I should like to summarise the key issues. There has been talk about the exclusion from the priority groups, who must he housed by councils if they are homeless, of people judged to have become homeless intentionally. That should be corrected. We halve had an excellent speech from one with a trained legal mind, pointing out some of the ridiculous features of this provision. Apart from the difficulty of defining the word "intentional", we know from experience that this will lead to hundreds, if not thousands, of genuinely homeless people being refused accommodation by councils which are reluctant to discharge their responsibilities.

Then there is the exclusion from the priority groups of people considered able, with advice and assistance, to fend for themselves. This provision will result in the widespread, crude means testing of homeless people, which makes me shudder. I lived through that means testing and saw it as a youngster, and never again want to see bureaucrats given this power. I have seen a man who had been means tested take to a pokey little Welsh cinema a tin of fruit that had been given to him by the guardians of the parish for his wife. He offered the attendant the tin of fruit, so that his wife could see the picture—this was before the days of talkies—and not only did the attendant not take it, but he reported to the guardians what had happened. There is no joy in the means test. That really happened in those dreary old days. I do not want to see anything that smacks of the possibility of a means test. There is no need to elaborate that point.

I should now like—and I am still within my racing distance—to look at the report of the Association of County Councils. Some of your Lordships will have had the report and a letter from the Association, with which I am pleased to be associated. They wish to draw the attention of this noble House to some of the untoward consequences arising from the Amendments made in the other place, and the Amendments are what we have just been talking about. If the Association of County Councils are concerned about these, then it is the duty of Parliament to test their criticisms and see whether they are worthy of adjustment and alteration. When we have organisations which are smack up, against people in distress, we should listen to them. The consequences could have disastrous results.

I will throw away 90 per cent. of the notes I have made and turn to the Schedule. By the Schedule we are abolishing parts of the National Assistance Act. I do not have with me the National Assistance Act, but I shall have it to hand when we reach the Committee stage. It is wrong to abolish parts of the National Assistance Act by this Schedule.

May I now turn to my noble friend's contribution to the debate regarding appeals. I was a Minister, and my noble friend will know that it is possible to appeal regarding supplementary benefit and national assistance. However, I take his point that we ought to try to adopt a simpler legal approach so that it is possible for the layman to get an adjustment without the paraphernalia of tribunals. If I may coin a word, the "tribunalisation" of English law in the last 40 years has meant that when the layman has broken his arm, or cut his leg with a scythe in a field, or when a lump of coal has fallen upon him he is very often confronted with a chairman and a skilled lawyer. The man is lost because the gods have not gifted him with the art of standing up to legal cross-examination. Our "tribunalisation" of English law sometimes defies justice. There is a famous lawyer sitting opposite who is listening to me. He may not agree with me, because he is in the higher realms of the legal world. However, I believe that the uninitiated layman loses time after time because he is overwhelmed by the awe and majesty of the law in a private room—sometimes even in the back of a pub—where the so-called tribunal cross-examines him. That system should come to an end.

Why should I speak any longer? I have already spoken for nine minutes and I should only reiterate points which have already been made. However, the point must be taken that we must ensure that the Bill is not destroyed by certain people who would like to destroy it. I see that my noble friend Lord Janner is sitting over there. He covered all the legal points, and there was practically no need for anybody else to say anything about them. I am grateful that my noble friend covered those points in the way that he did. When we reach the Committee stage, I hope that we shall find constructive answers to the Amendments.

2.34 p.m.


My Lords, time is getting on and most of the points have already been covered. I shall, therefore, make a very short speech. Like many of my colleagues on the Bishops' Bench, I am dissastisfied with the Bill as it stands. I shall vote for it but I hope that it will be amended. My first criticism relates to the priority groups, especially to young people. It was not so many months ago that we had a debate in which frequent reference was made to "Johnny Go Home". Some of us went to see a repeat of that programme in our own cinema, together with Members of the other House. Horror was expressed on that occasion. It was inconceivable to think that young people could be treated in that way, and many of us said that we must accept responsibility for them. Little, however, seems to have happened. We tried to get British Rail to give advice to young people about coming to London so that they would not be thrown on to the streets, but we received little enough encouragement from them. Little seems to have been done to come to grips with this problem, although its size is tremendous.

I do not know how many of those who have been responsible for the Amendments have gone out on to the streets at night and met some of the young people who roam around the city in their hundreds during the early hours of the morning. I encourage my own young clergy to do what I call "take the plunge". They are shoved out on to the streets of London for two days with only £1 in their pocket. It is a shattering experience for them all. Certainly they are very careful afterwards about the criticisms which they make regarding people who are supposed to be intentionally homeless and enjoying what is supposed to be the fun of wandering around. My first point, therefore, is that when we come to the Amendments I hope that we shall have another look at our responsibilities towards the younger generation.

Secondly, may I deal with those people who are supposed to be intentionally homeless. Near to where I live in Balham there is a unit for homeless families, and I know something about the problem. I cannot think of anybody whom I have seen there who has not been utterly demoralised by the experience. How anybody could believe that someone would intentionally wish to go to that settlement is, to me, utter nonsense. Probably this was written by a person who has never been homeless for a single day in his life. As for young people, go and speak to them at Centre Point and the New Horizon to find out how they react. It may have been fun on the first day when they left home and a bit of an adventure but, my goodness! that passes very quickly. After one night on the soup run the excitement goes. Then go to St. Mungo's night shelter and find out what happens after a few days or weeks of homelessness.

My third point deals with resources. I find that this is a very difficult point to understand and I hope that the Government will try to explain it to me—if not now, certainly when we reach the Committee stage. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, gave the impression that this is an almost insoluble problem on account of the lack of resources, yet we are given contrary information by people who are supposed to supply reliable facts. In the Green Paper on Housing Policy we are told that there is a surplus of housing in Britain, even in the densely populated metropolitan areas. Similarly, the Greater London Council studies have revealed that there is a minimum of 100,000 empty properties in London alone. If a situation of scarcity existed, then the caution shown by the Bill's opponents would be justifiable, but the facts simply do not sustain such a charge. In its original form, and possibly in a more radical form still, without such narrow priority groups, the Bill could provide a stimulus to more responsible usage of the resources which we already have.


My Lords, I wonder whether the right reverend Prelate would allow me to interrupt him for a moment on behalf of my noble friend Lady Young. The point which she was making, and which she would make if she were here, is not that there is no surplus in many places. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate is right about that. However, one of the effects of the Rent Act 1974 has been to reduce the access of people to this surplus stock. This is why I agree with my noble friend when she says that we must find ways of making better use of our stock and getting greater access to it, in both the public and the private sector.

The Lord Bishop of SOUTHWARK

My Lords, if I have done the noble Baroness an injustice I most certainly apologise, and if she be right that the Rent Act has brought this about, then it can apply only to a certain number of those properties. I cannot believe that the Rent Act accounts for 100,000 empty properties.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I wonder whether, as he did ask for information, the right reverend Prelate will give way. I really must reiterate the point that the other side of the coin of the Rent Act, to which reference is continually being made, is that more people would be evicted and that would add to the numbers of homeless. The reason for the Rent Acts is to give security.

Also, as the right reverend Prelate has raised the question, he may like to know that it is in fact those housing authorities with the most severe problems generally which so far have done most to help the homeless. They have managed with distinction and I am sure they w ill continue to do so. So the right reverend Prelate is right when he speaks about the numbers of houses. Also, if I may just add something else in order to get it on the record, it is estimated that, because of the mobility of certain people, about 4 to 5 per cent. of properties must be empty in order to cater for people who are moving about. Over and above that, it is perfectly true that better management, better forward planning and better use of existing stock could help enormously. That is really what we hope this Bill will urge on authorities.

The Lord Bishop of SOUTHWARK

My Lords I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that information. My final point is that the Bill strikes me as a "bitty" Bill; a Bill which passes the buck, and which enables people to evade their responsibilities. I want the Bill as amended to be a Bill which is marked not by grudging consent but by real compassion. As it now stands the Bill desperately needs the breath of life that comes from that genuine compassion which feels for and cares for those who are in this pitiful state.

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will be indulgent towards me if I seek briefly to reply on behalf of my noble friend Lord Wade. My first duty is to present his profoundest apologies to your Lordships' House for his unavoidable absence. He has an annual lecture to deliver later this afternoon at a University in the North of England; of course, he wanted to stay for the whole of this debate and he would have been able to do so had it not been for the somewhat unanticipated length of proceedings on the economic situation that prevented our starting as punctually as we might have done this morning.

My second task is to say on his behalf how very much he appreciates the contributions that have been made by all noble Lords who have taken part in the discussions this afternoon. A number of forceful and constructive criticisms of this Bill have been made from both sides of the House. I hope that your Lordships will think it better that I should not seek now to deal with them but should undertake that they will be given the most careful consideration by the sponsors of the Bill, by my noble friend, and, I know, by the Government, before the Committee stage is reached. We look forward in due course to a constructive Committee stage which will deal with many of the points that have been raised today.

It is clear that this Bill cannot solve all the distressing problems of those who become homeless. We have to keep in mind the financial constraints which are imposed at the moment by the availability or otherwise of resources; we have to recognise that some of the most difficult cases of homelessness are those in which merely providing accommodation will not be sufficient but where in addition, it is necessary to provide some kind of support or care. We believe that this Bill is a step in the right direction. We hope it will be possible to improve it. Naturally, it will not be the last measure on the subject of homelessness, but we believe that it is important that it should be placed on the Statute Book. It is a worthwhile measure and one which, in these difficult times, will be of crucial importance to a significant number of people. My Lords, I ask that the Bill be read a second time.

On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.