HL Deb 11 November 1982 vol 436 cc376-97

4.32 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, after that very serious Statement, we now return to what, in many cases, is just as serious a subject. I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing this subject. Like him, I have had some personal experience, because the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, persuaded me to join one of her voluntary organisations which is called Crisis at Christmas, and which looks after, feeds, houses and clothes 1,000 homeless people in London every Christmas. It was by joining that organisation that there came home to me the enormity of the problem that we have to cope with in the big conurbations in our country.

Many of us who were aware of the problem earlier on were delighted when my honourable friend Stephen Ross in another place introduced as a Private Bill, which was accepted by the Government, the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. We all thought that it held within itself enormous possibilities for helping us to solve some of the problems that face us. Although we had to accept that the code of practice would be limited to certain categories to begin with, I think we all understood that they would be extended as and when it was possible to do so.

It is true that, at the moment, the code of practice under that Act can include young persons of 16 and 17 years, but only if they are at risk of sexual or financial exploitation. In other words, if you are a girl and become pregnant they might find you a home, but they will not find you one until you can prove that you have fallen on bad times. I would claim, with, I think, many noble Lords, that 16- and 17-year-olds who are homeless are all at risk of sexual and financial exploitation, so that it is really up to the Secretary of State to enforce the Act.

Like the noble Earl, I have read the evidence of NACRO; but I have also studied another document which makes fascinating reading. It is published on behalf of the Department of the Environment and is called Single and Homeless. It is a document to which they do not put their name, but they funded the research money which went into producing it. The research started in 1977, was completed in 1980, and the document was published in March this year, but I have not heard a lot about it. When a research document is begun in 1977, completed in 1980 and published this year, it seems that there is not enough feeling of urgency in the Department of the Environment to do something about the problem.

Some of the statistics in this document are quite frightening. If you compare in the tables how many years various people have been homeless, it becomes obvious that the number of homeless young women has increased enormously, apart from the fact that the complete number has increased. In 1958, the figures were 20 per cent. male and 8 per cent. female, whereas in 1978 the figures were 8 per cent. male and 15 per cent. female. So that the number of homeless females is going up all the time. Another interesting table in this document is an attempt to analyse what percentage of the homeless young under 30 are suffering from social and medical problems.

The horrifying fact about those tables is that, while only a very small percentage are suffering from any problems at all when they first become homeless, after two years 30 per cent. of them suffer from social or medical problems, and after 20 years 64 per cent. of them suffer from such problems, all of which adds to the cost to the nation, because, in the end, the cost of these problems, many of which could be avoided, falls on the nation.

When you talk about the homeless young generally—not in your Lordships' House, but in conversation with other people—you are often met with the answer, "Well, they are just people who are drop-outs and they have voluntarily got themselves into this position." I believe that that is a terrible thing to say. Again, this Single and Homeless document analyses some of the people who are young and homeless and why they are in that position.

Two-fifths of the young people are homeless because they have rebelled against their family background, because there has been a break-up in the family or because there is a social problem within their own home. But 32 per cent. of them are people who have been disadvantaged all their lives. They are people who have been in children's homes or some other institutions and who have never had a proper background. There must be a large percentage—something like 18 per cent., if my figures are right—who have followed society's advice to them: "If you cannot get a job where you live, move to somewhere where you can get one. Don't sit down and wait for the job to come to you." Masses of young people must have followed that advice without having been given adequate advice about how to cope when they arrive at the place where they will be looking for a job. Unfortunately, the draw of the South-East for the younger members of our population is enormous. We have not quite grown out of the idea that the streets of London are paved with gold. So there are various reasons why people become homeless and society must accept the responsibility of looking after them.

I should now like to turn to the tragic fraud inquiry conducted in Oxford some time ago, and about which most noble Lords will have read in the press. I do not wish to discuss the methods used by the Department of Health and Social Security and the police, or whether they were fair and the right way to go about it. I just want to look at the results of those court hearings. So far as I was concerned, they were most illuminating. Not having been in receipt of social security, I was unaware of the anomalies that exist in the social security system for helping the homeless. Part of the problem in Oxford, without a doubt, was that the young homeless were not being given adequate advice. I am not blaming the social security officers; they were short staffed and overworked. This has been a problem in Oxford for some time.

I am sure noble Lords are more aware than I was that if you are a homeless person you can claim social security amounting to £18.60 a week, whereas if you are a lodger or live at home you can claim £25.20, plus your actual rent. The reason why you receive only £18.60 if you have no home, but £25.20 if you do have a home, is that it is claimed that if you are living at home you have the responsibility of paying for your keep. I should have thought that a person who did not have a home would incur higher expenses in trying to feed himself than somebody who was living at home. It is amazing that if you can produce an address, the whole of the rent is paid.

At that time, the maximum rent allowance in Oxford was £42. It came out at the trial that a landlord in Oxford was housing 73 people at £42 each per week, sleeping four to a room. In this case the social security system was making a fortune for somebody who was—well, I do not have words for people who behave in this way and create for homeless people conditions similar to those that these homeless people were living under. However, he is doing it because society has not made proper provision for these people.

This lack of proper provision becomes tremendously expensive. My honourable friend Mr. David Alton, who prior to becoming a Member of the other place was chairman of the housing committee in Liverpool, had the same kind of problems in his town. He used the Public Health Act to get these hostels taken over, cleaned up and made fit for living in by the homeless. There is a tremendous difference between one authority and another when one considers how they deal with these problems. It is up to the Secretary of State to ensure that they all do it in the best, not the worst way.

It is additionally horrifying that if proper accommodation—that is, bedsitters or single room flatlets—were created for these people it would cost society £11 in rent and about £4 in housing subsidy; in other words, it would cost £15 a week as against £42 a week for the kind of conditions in which they have to live at the moment. It seems to me to be bad economics, apart from being inhumane treatment of people who happen to be unfortunate. Therefore, we must amend the code of guidance and the Secretary of State must ensure that it is enforced in all local authorities. Then we must establish much closer co-ordination between the social services, the health authorities, the voluntary organisations and the local authorities. They must be given a mandate to provide hostels and shared housing, with or without wardens, and accommodation for the single person to cater for all the different types of people who need to be housed. It is not going to be done for nothing.

Apart from making such provision we must also provide the right kind of information for young people, so that when they arrive in a big city they will know where to go to find out about housing. It is not sufficient for that information to be provided in the place where they arrive. I am absolutely certain that much more could be done to provide that information for young people before they leave home. Much more could be done in schools, youth clubs and social security offices so that when young people arrive in a strange, big town which they have never been to before, they are provided with information about what is required in order to survive in that city.

I have already said that we need all these different types of housing. I should like to pay tribute to the Government for the enlightened initiative they have taken over providing hostels. Last year they set aside £12 million for small, supported schemes. That figure has been raised this year to £18 million. The latest information I have is that this has achieved 2,000 hostel beds. I know that the Salvation Army have very much welcomed this Government initiative. I also know that they feel that it is nowhere near enough to solve the problem of the bad hostels which still exist. But we want the hostels only to be a step towards finding a proper place for these people to live. This is what makes matters so difficult.

I have already said that it is going to be an expensive exercise. The noble Earl also made this point. It will be said (and it could be accepted) that this will be very hard on the ratepayers of a local authority which happens to be an attractive place for young people to go to, and that it might have to carry too great a burden. If we are to finance this exercise on a fair scale, I believe that the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security should fund such schemes up to 75 per cent., on the same basis as they give urban aid to local authorities. If one remembers the savings which I have already pointed out—the difference between £15 and £42 per week for a homeless person—that represents a saving to the Department of Health and Social Security.

The Secretary of State for the Environment has suddenly announced a big bonanza for local authority capital development. The money has to be spent before 1st April 1983. I am wondering whether it would not be possible for him to channel some of that money to local authorities which have a particularly high incidence of young homeless, for the purpose of buying up houses and converting them to bedsitters. Even if it does mean shared bathrooms and shared kitchens, at least they would have a room of their own. I believe that would be a good way of spending some of the extra capital money which the Government have suddenly found, and it would help to alleviate this problem.

I look forward with great pleasure to listening to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who is to make his maiden speech. I know how deeply the Church feels about this problem and we very much look forward to hearing from the right reverend Prelate.

4.50 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells

My Lords, after the great maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, yesterday I am sorry to be inflicting upon your Lordships a speech of rather inferior quality, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, very much for her kind good wishes. I did ask at rather short notice if I might speak this afternoon to the Question put down by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, because it is a very important question for the Churches. Indeed, only yesterday, as we have been reminded, the General Synod of the Church of England spent most of the morning debating the report, Housing and Homelessness—an excellently documented 50 pages from our Board of Social Responsibility. It is a pity that this morning's edition of The Times, no doubt due to lack of space, gives all its available column inches to another issue to which we gave time at the General Synod yesterday without making any mention of what proved to be a good and concerned debate on the homeless.

Incidentally, because I have to be back for a particular Motion at the General Synod this afternoon. I apologise in advance for any seeming discourtesy to your Lordships in leaving rather too soon after I have finished speaking to you.

I want to make three points—all of them. I hope, expanding a little on what has been said already by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington. First, perhaps your Lordships did not all know (certainly I did not) the figure given to us by the noble Earl. Lord Longford, showing that just under one quarter of all households in England are single-person households. Twenty years ago, the figure was only one-eighth of all households. As the number of single-person households had doubled in a comparatively short time, it is hardly surprising that, in a catchment area as big as that, the number of single homeless persons has similarly soared. Nor would it surprise your Lordships that a dramatically increasing number of the single homeless are young people. At the Providence Row night refuge here in London there was a 16 per cent. increase in the number of under 25s in the 12 months 1979–80. In one Manchester project there was a 100 per cent. increase in the number of young people in the three years from 1976 to 1979.

Anglican clergy, along with the splendid Church Army and the Salvation Army officers, have so often been the only welfare-orientated people left living in our inner cities at night when social workers have gone home to the suburbs. These people are all agonising about the growing need for help for footloose young people. That is my first point; the rapidly increasing problem, of which we are probably not sufficiently aware.

Secondly, your Lordships may ask whether successive Governments have not realised that there is this growing need and have not managed to meet it, particular with the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. For young people, as we have already been reminded this afternoon, I am afraid the answer is that the Act hardly helps them if they are fit and well and not pregnant. If they are pregnant or if they are psychiatrically disturbed, then there is a statutory obligation, but not otherwise. I suppose that the question of how far a welfare state should be obliged to make any kind of permanent provision for able-bodied young people must remain a matter of disagreement. But surely we would all agree that at least a safety net ought to be available. I would guess that I am not alone in this House in having one of my offspring living in London; in her case, happily, with friends in a flat. She loves it and she is lucky, but one cannot help thinking of the unlucky ones—and there is no statutory provision unless one is unwell or there is a baby on the way. Indeed many councils positively exclude single young people from even registering with them; they do not want to know. This problem is to be found in almost every one of our major towns and cities. It is a very serious gap in the law that there is no emergency provision. Because of this the young, often in desperation, and often against their real wishes, turn to drink and more and more to crime. I am chairman of our county's council on alcoholism and we have much too much evidence, even in the pleasant sounding town of Taunton or across the Avon boundary in Bath, of homelessness leading to dependence on alcohol and a career as a young offender.

As your Lordships will have grasped, one half of the nation's 3 million unemployed are under 25 years of age, so the potential in damaged young lives is reaching quite staggering proportions. Nor are the homeless young people—and I am so glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, mentioned this—all to be thought of as personal failures, but too often they become failures because they are unable to acquire suitable housing through lack of help from the law. So my second point is that the law needs attention and needs updating in view of what is happening all around us. Surely this is what this Palace of Westminster is for—to update the law when that is required.

This leads me to my third crucial point. When will Her Majesty's Government come to realise the urgency of the accommodation issue? With the growing number of young homeless, it is not that there is more housing available for them as one might hope but that there is steadily less. London alone will be losing 6,000 beds in 1983. Low rent property and lodging houses, reception centres and night shelters are being swept away in many inner city areas—and thank God that is so in many cases. I worked in Liverpool for six years in the 1970s, and these often insanitary buildings were going down like ninepins. Indeed, your Lordships will forgive a brief diversion if I tell you that I remember turning up to preach at a church in Toxteth once only to discover that no one had told me that it had been demolished a week before. Insalubrious and of ill-repute as many of these places and surroundings were, and unlamented in their passing though they be, the fact remains that they did cater for the homeless in a rough and ready way. Again, nothing has taken their place. In the latter part of the 20th century big hostels as a concept may be unpopular, perhaps rightly, but if they all go too, without adequate replacement by smaller units of varying kinds, then the scandal of homelessness in our land, so bad already, will be appalling indeed.

I believe that there would be new hope if action were urgently taken now on a sufficiently long-term basis.

Frequently, both voluntary agencies and councils say to us, "We do not know what funding we shall have available in a few months' time or in a year's time. There are sure to be more cuts than money coming our way. So we really cannot put anything substantial into this". If the voluntary agencies, the local authorities and central Government could combine—and I heard the suggestions of the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, about this matter towards the end of her speech—and if they could all have it firmly on their plate that (a) they have a responsibility to meet the requirements of all young people and (b) they will be given earmarked money for this purpose, then I believe that a great many men and women of goodwill would find new heart in the vital task of investing in Britain's future by bothering about the fast growing number of our young and homeless fellow citizens.

Therefore, my third and final point is that, however daunting the prospect may be to Her Majesty's Government of having to find yet more money in a time of stringency, I appeal most earnestly to them on behalf of the Churches and all caring agencies—and I include in that so many good people in statutory services—that we may soon see actual evidence of action on the part of the Government to improve the position of the homeless young. I beg, therefore, to support the noble Earl, Lord Longford, as strongly as I can in bringing such a vital matter to your Lordships' attention.

5.1 p.m.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, I am privileged to thank the right reverend Prelate for his excellent speech and we shall pray for his continuing help in this great problem. May the conference to which he is going now be a great success. I should like also to thank the noble Earl. Lord Longford, for having raised this matter and to express my appreciation for what he has had to say.

I personally have been interested in this problem for many years. I should like to explain the difficulties that people who I am concerned with went through, the action that we took, and why we failed. In January 1968 we formed a committee under Alderman Lidal of the LCC, as it was in those days. He was the chairman and we had expert advice particularly from Mrs. Ellison, whom many may remember and who really understood the problem. At that time we were thinking particularly of the 17 to 21 age group. We found that it was approximately that age group who were missing at the time—1968. Therefore, we decided to form a committee to buy some houses and to try to establish hostels ourselves. We went to the stations—particularly Euston and Victoria—to meet girls and to find out whether they had accommodation or not. In that way we could establish the type of boy or girl who needed help. We then formed a management committee and our hostels went under the heading of the London Centre.

We set out that the object was to establish hostels for young men and women in urgent need of accommodation owing to poverty, and to provide facilities for recreation or other leisure-time occupations in the interests of social welfare, with the object of improving the conditions of life for, in particular, young people and others in need of those facilities by reason of social or economic circumstances.

In 1970 we were able to open our first hostel. We were lucky because we got it for a peppercorn rent through the Nuffield Foundation. We began with 13 girls and three staff. There were girls of six different nationalities in the hostel. The hostel was opened by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne and we thought that we had perhaps a very good beginning to the project. Unfortunately, it did not work out that way. We were able to form two other hostels, one in Hammersmith and one in Ealing, and we were in the throes of getting a fourth one when we discovered that we could not get sufficient finance to continue. We tried all the various means available.

I am particularly interested in this type of hostel because the idea was that it took the boy or girl in for a short stay of about four months. If they needed to stay for over four months, then we tried to find them perhaps better accommodation. The whole object was to find them a job and some other accommodation in which they could settle. We did not want to turn them out of the hostels so that they had to go on the streets again.

We raised our money through various Ministries which I shall mention in a moment, and also of course by a great deal of voluntary work, such as concerts. Indeed, Joyce Grenfell was very kind to us and helped us a great deal in raising money. We thought that we were going to have some good homes for these girls and boys.

As I have mentioned, we started well. In fact, some of the young people came back at Christmas. Some, fortunately, got married and even brought their children back to see us. We really thought that we were building up the programme. However, all that has gone. Why has it gone? First, the local authorities were given more authority and therefore they took some of the boys and girls that we would have taken. Secondly, we failed because of the bureaucratic divisions which exist between the housing and social services. Indeed, I think that the noble Baroness brought this point forward in her speech. It was very sad to go to the Department of the Environment and to be told that we could do this, that and the other for the building, but that we could not have any money for the staff, and to go to the other Ministry and be given perhaps different advice or be told that anyway there was not enough money.

Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we take further action at present. We were lucky that St. Christopher's, which was established in 1870 for boys, agreed to take over some of the hostels. They also have a fellowship—established in 1928—which means that they have quite a background of money for investing. Therefore, we were very grateful for the fact that we were, in that way, able to continue some of our work. However, it caused pain and grief to the staff who had taken up this work out of love. To them it was not just a job. Indeed, those are the type of people that we want for this work. It hurt them a great deal.

The hostels that have been taken over are now bedsits. Bed-sits are very nice, but they are not really adequate for the type of person in whom I am interested or the type of person who really wants help. Most of the young people in bed-sits have a job—it may not be a very well-paid job—and most of them are fairly capable of looking after themselves.

I should like to give an example of the people in whom we are interested. Ben was a young man who had 10 CSEs. He had been in a state boarding school for six years. He then came to London because he could not get a job. He was put into a bed and breakfast hotel where he had to sleep with grown-up men who spoke a language that he did not understand, and so he ran away. Eventually he came back to us for a short time. Then he was taken away again and was missing for some considerable time. He is now, I regret to say, in a remand home. That is just the type of situation that we wanted to prevent.

Therefore, it is essential that we have better education in schools, because I find that young people are not given sufficient training in, for example, careers or the type of life that they may have to lead when they leave school. Often it cannot begin with the parents because they are divorced, or the children are not living with their parents. Therefore, it should begin in the schools. I hope that we may be able to expect schools to take far more interest in the future careers and the welfare of these young people and in what they will have to face when they leave school.

However, I should like to back what the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, has said about the report on the single homeless. I shall not go through the details of May 1982 because she did it so well. I think that there should be an extension of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, which the noble Baroness also mentioned. We need the smaller homes and in towns and country areas where there is a military presence I believe that there are quite a few empty houses, i know that on Salisbury Plain there are masses of them which could be very useful in rural areas. I should also like to back the question, which was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, of rented property. I am afraid that landlords rather exploit people; there are too many loopholes in the Rent Act 1977.

I turn now to the matter of the youth training scheme and the Job Centres. I am very interested in this. Not much mention has been made of the rural areas and there are problems in rural areas too. Many houses are overcrowded and the young people want to get away to live on their own. In a small way I have been trying to find out how one can create jobs. I do not have a very' large garden, but it is large enough to be used for training young people in gardening. We started off with 10 young men who were quite enthusiastic. I had a talk to them the other day and it seems that not one of them wants to go into gardening. One wants to be a forester, but the others are not at all interested in gardening and do not want to to do it. I think that there should be much more research into the type of work that young people want to do. At first they are enthusiastic about it because it is something to do, but they will not profit by it because they do not want to continue with it because they just do not like it. This happens in a great many jobs that I have investigated, such as thatching, window cleaning, and so on, for which there is great demand in the rural areas.

We understand that, according to the recent count, in London alone there were 18,000 inquiries from single homeless people, 3,000 of whom were between the ages of 16 and 18. Something must be done because they are in a very vulnerable position and are exposed to exploitation in the lower regions of London life. In my view, a bedsitter can never take the place of a caring hostel.

Education is essential to help these young people not only to get jobs but to find the type of life they want to lead, whether it be in rural areas or in cities. It is interesting that in Devonport the Dockyard used to be regarded as the least sought-after place for providing work for apprentices. Now, with better education, they are applying. In fact, the trainers there are rather frightened of them because they say that the young people know so much when they arrive and they are frightened they will lose them directly they are trained. But that is what training centres are for. I hope we shall consider that.

Finally, I think that we should get together with the various Ministries—and I say "various Ministries" advisedly—with the voluntary organisations and particularly with the local authorities to sort out this problem. Many of us have worked, and others are working, in this field and we do not feel very satisfied with the present position. If we could only combine together, not only would there be a saving in work for the individuals and a saving in staff, because we would amalgamate, but there would be a saving in money and this would help more people to have a happy way of life. We could then show that we are all together trying to do this and not singly vying with each other over the way in which it can be done.

5.14 p.m.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, I should like to endorse the tribute paid to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells on his most distinguished and moving maiden speech. Last summer my wife and I had the great honour of attending Evensong at his beautiful cathedral, an area where, as the right reverend Prelate said, this problem may not be quite so acute as it is, say, 10 miles from your Lordships' House.

I apologise to your Lordships for not having put my name down to speak on this Unstarred Question, which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has asked in his usual caring manner. But I was not sure whether I would be able to be in my place when he began his speech. My main interest in this matter is from the point of view of mental health, in which I have had experience, having served on the committee of a mental hospital. It is in this sphere that there is a danger of mentally handicapped people who are not so severely disabled as to have to be compulsorily detained under Section 65 of the Mental Health Act finding themselves in the streets of a big city with no home. They may, for obvious reasons, be exploited. They may find a temporary job but they may not, for various reasons, be able to hold down that job. This is one very serious aspect of this case.

Anyone who walks, as I sometimes do, from an office in the City to your Lordships' House and who passes Charing Cross arches will have seen that it is not only the elderly who sleep and rest under those arches; it is—and I think that this has been increasingly the case recently—the young. This is a very disturbing situation, particularly for those of us who have sons and daughters or even, as in our case, a very young grandchild, because we may sometimes think that it could be a child of our own under those arches.

I should like to ask my noble friend whether he can say how many young people are registered homeless or whether it is possible to ascertain registration in this sphere. I refer to those who are not necessarily unemployed but who may be working in places such as cafés, restaurants and public houses, some of which, according to reports one reads in the trade magazines, provide living-in facilities for their young workers, and some of which do not. I believe it is fair to say that many of these people live away from their normal homes. Some, alas! may have broken with their families. What is being done about these categories of young people who have employment of some kind, although it is by no means guaranteed employment? These are the people who can quite easily drift into crime if they are not properly looked after. This is a problem.

Obviously there are financial constraints imposed from central Government, but, unless something positive is done under the legislation, the crime rate among young people, which is already unacceptably high in some areas, will increase and thus the cost to the taxpayer will increase. These are just one or two points which I wanted to raise on the very important Question which the noble Earl has asked. It is bound to arise again, but in the meantime I think this is a matter which cannot be put on the shelf, even in these very difficult days when there are tremendous problems facing this and other Governments.

5.20 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, we are greatly indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for giving us the opportunity to debate the subject before us this evening. He gives us all an example of combined idealism with practical help which is most instructive. His interest in homeless young people is only one of the many subjects on which he spends a great deal of his time and energy. It is a privilege to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells on his maiden speech. I remember that when I had to make a maiden speech the only comfort I found was the thought that one can only make a maiden speech once in your Lordships' House. It is one of the few experiences of life that can happen to one only once. We shall look forward to hearing many more speeches from him, and we greatly appreciated all that he said.

We have a difficult and complicated problem here, because we are never going to be able to stop young people coming to the bright lights. We should not want to. I should be sad if we tried to destroy what I call the Dick Whittington syndrome that gets young people on the way to the cities, not only of this country but many, I know, to the cities of countries beyond our own. Some of them come like moths to a candle, and like moths round a candle they often get sadly singed and broken. But what we must try to do as a Government, in partnership with the local authorities—and I am glad that all the speakers emphasised this—is to try to remove some of the pressures which compel young people to leave home when otherwise they would not wish to do so. It may be because they are living in miserable slum conditions in cities which have got sadly run down. It may be that they have had the sort of education that has not developed their ambitions or confidence in themselves, or given them enough skills to reach out to worthwhile work. It may be in some of their home towns and villages—and some of them have told me this—there is nothing to do. They do not mean just from the point of view of jobs. I have been told, "Well, when we get home from work, there is nothing to do where we live". That compares with the sort of dazzle of London, and the sort of false picture of London and other big cities with which many of them are stuck.

Then there are those—and I am not sure that we have paid enough attention to this point—who come for the serious purpose of study, not only as students but as apprentices, and for training in all sorts of spheres. I was particularly involved with this aspect because I had many colleges of London University in my previous constituency. London University, like several other universities, went in for a policy of kingdom building of their teaching facilities without keeping these at all in balance with the residential accommodation that could be made available to students who came flocking in from all over the world. Many students, especially in Central London, are having terrible difficulty in finding somewhere to live. In fact, there are increasing numbers of homeless students. I know that the National Union of Students has tried to bring this to official attention and to help in any way it can.

I want to ask the Minister one specific point in this connection. I will not go into it again because we are to talk about unemployment next week, but we know that that is one of the reasons for so many young people leaving home and looking for work. When the youth training scheme comes in, will responsibility for housing lie with the careers officers and the training officers? Many of these young people, if they take this course to which they are entitled, will have to leave home. If they live in remote country areas, or if they live in a district where the particular subject in which they want to train is not available, they will have to go away. I can foresee this problem becoming exacerbated unless housing and accommodation for all these young people we hope to train is taken on board as well. I want the Minister to tell me whether such young people will be entitled to the new housing welfare benefit. We understand that they are to be paid £25 a week. If a young person has to move away from home to most places to take up the advantage of training he is not going to get far on £25 a week, which many people think is little enough already.

Some of these problems have to be seen in the context of the total position of the economy, of unemployment, and also of bad housing. I have met many young people in London, as has my noble friend, who have escaped because of the pressure of family discord in overcrowded homes, especially in big families where a teenager finds that not only has he got three or four brothers and sisters but another baby is coming. I have met several girls who have said, "I just could not stand another baby. We have only two rooms and they cry all night", and off they go. There are all sorts of personal difficulties which we have to try to link into the general pattern of housing and social welfare provisions, otherwise many of these young people will not only feel rejected by the family and leave home for that reason, but, as they drift around too often, will fall into a life of crime and waste and feel that the whole world has rejected them.

I want to deal with the specific point that the noble Earl and other speakers made about extending the homeless families Act to include the compulsory provision of resources. I have every sympathy with this, but it is no use altering the law without altering the money. Many local authorities are stretched beyond bearing with the present cuts in housing provision, with housing starts, and to tell them simply that now they must have a statutory duty for an extended range of people would be unfair to many of them. I am glad that the noble Baroness. Lady Robson, spoke of the difficulties for special areas. It is important that we should not just push this problem on to local authorities. That is why—I hope my noble friend will forgive me—I will not go 100 per cent. with him in putting so much reliance on amending the Act.

There are areas of special problems. There has been a great deal in the press about Westminster and its proposal to close Bruce House. We have had difficulties in Camden where we have a high proportion of that sort of provision. It is a financial strain on the ratepayers who happen to be living in that area. I like the idea that there should be some earmarking of direct Government help for this purpose. Already the local authorities are being stretched by an ageing population, with more and more demands to help disabled people and the aged. We are being pressed as a result of the new attitudes to health, and mental health—and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Auckland, mentioned this—to get more and more people out into the community. What is the community going to do? This whole landscape, as it were, has to be looked at as one.

My noble friend also said—and I hope he will not think that I am being especially disagreeable, because I love him dearly—that he thought councils could alter their points system and be more receptive to applications from young people. If one alters the points system without getting any more houses, one only-increases someone else's misery.

When I was chairman of a housing committee I found that one of the most difficult aspects to handle was the points system. We amended it in a variety of ways; for example, we might take the view that a baby with pneumonia living in a damp basement should have more points than an old man with one leg living in a top back room of a building without a lift. These are the mathematics of the problem, the mathematics of misery for many people on our housing lists and for those who try to help them. A large number of hostels in one area is not a very popular idea. It may be a selfish thought on the part of some residents but, be that as it may, councillors have realities to face. They are usually a volatile population living in those areas; they do not get on the electoral register, they do not seem to become involved and nobody can be sure whether or not they are paying rates.

I am, therefore, pleading for more direct Government help. We should not just shift the burden on to the areas which are most popular. And there are obvious reasons for their popularity; what happened in Camden occurred simply because there were three railway stations there. The noble Baroness will have had experience of seeing young people arriving at King's Cross, Euston and St. Paneras. They come out of the station and go straight across the road, perhaps into Camden Town Hall. Westminster has Victoria and Waterloo. There is, therefore, a national responsibility. I stress that, and, if that thought remains with the Government after this debate, we shall have done something useful.

We have been generalising about homeless young single people, but I am often bothered by the problem of homeless young married people, and I am sure no-one in your Lordships' House would want to tell them not to get married. It is, therefore, a bigger question than one affecting just the teenager drifting around Soho. Some of them need a type of hostel accommodation, and they will nearly all need furnished accommodation, especially the students to whom I referred, and some, especially if they have been in care or have been in other difficulties, will probably just need a motherly landlady. Much of the problem has a lot to do with that disappearing type of landlady, who used to provide accommodation for so many people, including students. Many youngsters end up, certainly in my area, in squats without any decent amenities, and of course they spend most of their time drifting around because it is so uncomfortable to go home.

I was rather puzzled by one of my noble friend's proposals. If a homeless family measure had to include taking in young people from the age of 16, while that might be practicable for hostels, could they be tenants of council property, bearing in mind the necessity to sign tenancy agreements, to be ratepayers and to be responsible financially? I understand that most of the contractual rights that used to apply at the age of 21 have been reduced to 18, and I am not sure that lowering the age to 16 would be possible. What I am saying is not a reason against implementing the proposal, just something we should have to look at first, and perhaps there might be an alternative way of achieving what we all want to see happen.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, there has been increasing public interest in the subject. In fact, as soon as I heard about this debate, I was inundated with reports and other documentation. There is so much goodwill and concern being expressed that it would be totally wrong to admit defeat. For example, Shelter has set up a special young homelessness group, and there are many other good ideas. I should like an answer to my earlier query about the 1975–76 DHS working party report. Have there been any developments? Unless we can tackle the issue on the basis of central Government co-operating with local authorities and the statutory and charitable organisations, we shall be giving the charities and voluntary bodies an impossible task, particularly in the present situation of serious unemployment, the decline in house building and all the pressures that are on people.

It is unfair for charities and voluntary bodies to be asked to tackle more than their share, and there must be some underpinning of the overall effort. Let them do the first-aid, so to speak, but there must be a serious, consistent and coherent Government policy. And to assure the noble Earl, Lord Avon, that I am not making a party point, I concede—I say this so that he need not remind me—that we did not find the answers to that problem, either. However, it is one that has been exacerbated by the present unemployment and cuts in public expenditure in many directions, and I hope the Minister will be able to give us some good news tonight.

5.36 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the Government, too, are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for raising this important topic for debate. Homelessness among young people is a complex problem, with many facets, as has been demonstrated by the diversity of the valuable contributions to this debate from your Lordships. I shall do my best to address my remarks to the many matters of concern to which reference has been made, and I apologise in advance if I shall be found to have missed particular points in my reply. If such is the case, I shall of course write to the noble Lords concerned.

I begin by adding my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells for what I thought was an excellent contribution and for underlining the fact that this is an increasing problem. I look forward to reading the report of the debate to which he referred and the report which has been published. I thought it was rather brave of the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, to talk so much about Dick Whittington and about how everybody is coming to London when the right reverend Prelate and myself, so warmly connected with Avon, should be caught in London.

It may be helpful to consider homelessness among the young under two main divisions. First, there is the matter of homelessness among teenagers, now increasingly reported to be affecting some young people at very early stages in their adolescent life, at a time when, as several noble Lords have said, they are at an impressionable age. Secondly, there is the wider aspect of homelessness among single people more generally, many of whom are comparatively young. These are often young people in their early to middle twenties and upwards, who are at a stage in their development when it is more common for them to have embarked upon an independent life-style, a part of which involves a need for independent accommodation.

To take first the case of the very young, here again we may distinguish several facets; and it is important to look at underlying causes of homelessness in their case, and I agreed entirely with what the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, said about that. Often the causes are serious frictions, or complete breakdown, in family relationships from which youngsters are too readily prone to seek escape to what they imagine to be freedom from intolerable pressures and restrictions. A particular problem is the condition of those young people who seek their escape away from their home areas and move into the central areas of London and other major cities. Sometimes they are in search of employment; there are, too, the elements of adventure and independence which contrast with problems at home and may all too often lead to a sudden and ill-planned move to a large city.

There is no easy panacea for overcoming this problem of adolescent homelessness. Perhaps the one thing that is needed more than any other is that there should be an increased effort on everyone's part to maintain the basic stability of the family. Parents and guardians need to be encouraged and supported in their efforts to exercise more effective supervision of their charges, with greater understanding of their youthful problems and aspirations. It requires a greater consciousness in the community of the important and fundamental role of the family and of the value of the network of statutory and voluntary support services in helping the family to sustain that role.

Social services authorities have powers in child care legislation to intervene and offer families support. A recent research report—to which the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, referred—published by the Department of the Environment, on the problems of single homeless people, drew attention to the importance of intervention with help and advice from those sources at a stage early enough to be effective in maintaining some existing family links, since at the early stages of homelessness there was not generally a complete breakdown in family contacts. It is important, too, that danger signals are recognised and that young people are discouraged from putting themselves at serious risk by leaving home prematurely and perhaps losing contact with their families. This can be a hard road which, for some, can lead to a state of long-term homelessness.

I do not believe that it would be realistic to expect complete success in prevention at source. There will always be youngsters who will not be discouraged from early home-leaving and who will not always have made prudent arrangements for their accommodation before doing so. For those under 18, social services are able, in a few cases where appropriate, to help a young person settle by underwriting a tenancy agreement. Young people who find that they have housing problems can usefully go to local housing aid and advice centres. The Government support a number of such centres in London and other major conurbations through their Urban Programme. There are also a number of centres run by voluntary organisations, and Citizens' Advice Bureaux can be a good source of information.

The Government provide financial assistance under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act to a number of voluntary housing aid and advice centres which operate nationally, or, in the case of London, on a region-wide basis. One of these, in London, the Housing Advice Switchboard, specialises in providing a 24-hour telephone emergency service to single people with accommodation problems. Assistance is also given to CHAR (the campaign for the single homeless) which, among other activities, performs an educational, training, and co-ordinating role in respect of a great number of affiliated local voluntary groups concerned with single homelessness.

I should like to remind the House that local authorities also have powers under the same provisions of the homeless persons Act, and may use them, as many already do, to assist local advice centres as well as the national bodies.

Another aspect of homelessness among the younger element is the position of those who do not have much choice in the matter of leaving home. I refer to those who may have been in the care of a local authority, or in some institution, and who have come to a stage when they are about to be discharged. Noble Lords will be aware of the widespread concern for the prospects of young people coming out of care finding a home and making a successful transition to independent living, and indeed of concern for the prospects of any people returning to the community from institu- tional care. The Government share this concern and are active in it. The Department of Health and Social Security is funding two voluntary projects intended to stimulate statutory and voluntary help for youngsters' problems, including the problem of finding accommodation. One project is undertaken by the National Children's Bureau, and the other by the organisation known as Home Base.

For homeless young offenders there is a variety of hostel accommodation provided either directly or indirectly by the Probation and After-Care Service of the Home Office. That department also provides grant aid to voluntary sector after-care hostels and to schemes providing a variety of other forms of accommodation, including bed-sits.

I now turn to the other main strand of the problem. This concerns those more mature young single people who are at the stage of seeking an independent lifestyle and who, though not hampered by difficulties of immaturity or background, nevertheless find that access to independent accommodation is not easy, for a variety of reasons. The problems and difficulties of the single homeless in the matter of accommodation were highlighted in the study that we have been talking about—Single and Homeless. Its findings and conclusions were debated in the other place. One of the purposes of the study was to discover for what proportion of single people the primary need was for accommodation rather than for personal care. An important finding of the report was that for a significant proportion the only need is convenient accommodation, and that some measure of independent living would be the choice of the majority.

One of the most fundamentally important conclusions of the report is concerned with the need—to which I have already referred—for intervention at an early stage; for example, by local authorities, voluntary bodies, or perhaps even more important by families and friends, to prevent homelessness which appears imminent from becoming a reality. The report found that the most usual immediate reasons for homelessness were concerned with personal, family or social crisis. It went on to say that provision of advice and support for people in these circumstances would do much to prevent the homeless process, since at that stage a majority of those of whom inquiries had been made in the survey had been employed, and were largely free from the problems that develop during protracted homelessness.

I should now like to turn to areas in which the Government have been active in promoting better housing provision for single people, including young people starting out independently. I have already referred to some particular ways in which the Government have helped financially with the problems that we have been debating. I now turn to the ways in which suitable accommodation can be made available. First, there is the question of provision for those young people who perhaps find themselves alone in a strange area, and who would benefit from accommodation which has a communal atmosphere. For these there is a need for modern hostel, or shared housing, accommodation.

To meet the need for modern hostels, the Government launched in 1980 the hostels initiative, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, has already paid tribute. This has brought about the first major expansion in hostel provision for many years. Under the initiative we are tackling the problems of obsolete hostels, and providing for a variety of people, including the young single homeless, many of whom would not have used traditional hostels.

In recent years housing associations have become especially active in providing hostel accommodation either by themselves or, increasingly, in collaboration with voluntary organisations and self-help groups which manage them. We have encouraged collaboration of this kind, which can be particularly fruitful. The success of a hostel depends on the right physical provision and therefore on the development skills of a housing association. But it also depends crucially on those aspects on which voluntary bodies and self-help groups can bring their skills to bear: a clear insight into the needs of the young people who will be using the hostel, and the whole style of management once it is in operation.

There can be no set pattern for a hostel. In some cases virtually all that is required is shared accommodation, plus a warden. In other cases additional care and support will be required. Many of the new smaller hostels, cluster flats, and group homes that are now springing up are catering for peviously unmet needs. These are often imaginatively planned, and have a management style that is sensitive to the needs of residents. They are also increasingly linked with projects which meet the wider needs of residents, such as workshops, training facilities, or advice centres.

The Department of the Environment is discharging its responsibilities towards the many different groups which use hostels by creating the conditions in which local initiatives can flourish. As has already been noted, in 1981–82, for the first time, we gave a specific allocation to the Housing Corporation for hostel provision, totalling £12 million. The voluntary movement responded with such enthusiasm that in 1982–83 we boosted the total provision to £18 million. The total value of shared housing projects approved by the Housing Corporation this year is expected to be around £42 million, and it expects to approve hostels which will provide accommodation for over 3,000 more people. The comparable figure for 1981–82 was 1,595.

Under the hostels initiative we have simplified and improved the administrative framework under which the grant scheme for supporting shared housing projects is administered. In 1981 the ground rules governing eligibility for housing association grant for such projects were published so that associations could be clear as to what types of scheme would be eligible for grant. We have recently extended the scope of the arrangements to cover projects to accommodate youngsters of 16 or over in voluntary homes, or those of this age group who are coming out of care but are still the subject of a care order. This will help youngsters who local authorities need to be assured are ready to cope with more independent living before revoking their care orders.

There are many projects coming forward under the initiative designed in particular for young homeless people. A good example of these projects is a self-catering hostel with seven places for youngsters leaving Dr. Barnardo's, provided by East London Housing Association. The young people will have the opportunity to acquire the basic skills necessary for independent living, and a resident warden will provide advice and support. Dr. Barnardo's is providing topping-up funds to meet the difference between what the young people can afford to pay and the cost of providing the extra support necessary.

Another project recently approved is a hostel with 26 places in the Kings Cross area which Circle 33 Housing Trust are providing with the "Alone in London" service for the young single homeless between the ages of 16 and 25. "Alone in London" have booths at Euston and Kings Cross stations, where they give help to young people looking for accommodation. Much work with homeless young people in London has been carried on by the various members of West End Co-ordinated Voluntary Services for Homeless Single People. One group, Intake, are successfully running a hostel near Kings Cross with Community Housing Association for 19 people in the 16- to 25-year age group, and another of the groups. New Horizon, are in the process of setting up, with New Islington and Hackney Housing Association, a hostel scheme for young people.

There are also numerous similar schemes in other parts of the country where specialist voluntary groups are working with registered housing associations to provide accommodation for young people. Some excellent projects for coloured youngsters have also been given the go-ahead. We appreciate that many homeless youngsters will wish to move from hostels and the close-sharing arrangements associated with small accommodation, and provision has therefore been made this year in the Housing Corporation's programme for priority to be given in the funding of new schemes providing for people who are moving on from hostels. We envisage creating over the next few years a reasonable availability of accommodation designed to help people move into a halfway home between hostel accommodation and completely independent accommodation. In the case of the majority of young people, however, the prime need is for convenient independent accommodation. Thanks to the Government's determination to widen people's choices, there is now a variety of options in the housing field, many of which are of particular appeal to young people.

In the private rented sector the Government have taken a number of measures that should help young people who are looking for somewhere to live. In the 1980 Act we introduced shorthold, which gives landlords the right to let for between one and five years with a guaranteed right of repossession at the end of the term if they so wish. During the term tenants have full Rent Act protection. Shorthold is an important initiative in our attempts to halt the decline of the private rented sector, which still provides a major source of accommodation for the young.

It had become clear that the Labour Rent Acts, by conferring security of tenure on tenants for up to three generations, had deterred landlords from letting. It is in no one's interest that accommodation which could be made available is held back, least of all from those who are looking for it. Shorthold was designed to encourage landlords to let. It is a form of tenure that can be particularly suitable for the young, who may only need short-term accommodation but do need the ability to apply for a fair rent. Shorthold has already begun to make a useful contribution to the supply of privately rented accommodation. I very much hope that the Labour Party will withdraw their threat to repeal these provisions.

There are other measures in the 1980 Act which can directly benefit young people who require temporary accommodation because they encourage owner-occupiers to sublet all or part of their homes. The Act makes it easier and quicker for resident landlords to regain possession. Similarly, we have simplified and accelerated the procedures by which temporarily absent owner-occupiers and the owners of retirement homes who let their homes can regain possession when they need them. These measures are of course designed, in the first instance, to encourage potential landlords to let. If they do so, homeless young people will benefit. No one will benefit if the property stands empty. We have encouraged what is known as the North Wiltshire Scheme, under which local authorities can lease empty private accommodation for an agreed period with a guaranteed right of repossession for the private owner.

I fully appreciate that home ownership will not be a realistic option, at least in the short term, for many of the young homeless people. However, we cannot ignore the fact that there will also be many who do have home ownership aspirations, even those on comparatively low incomes. The latest figures (for the second quarter of 1982) show that of those first-time buyers using ordinary building society mortgages, half had incomes below the national average and 21 per cent. had incomes of less than £6,000. Twenty-one per cent. of all building society borrowers were under 25. One of the leading building societies has started a low-start mortgage scheme to help first-time buyers.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I do not want to interrupt the noble Earl, but I do not know whether he is going to say anything about the position of the unemployed. I mean, home ownership or, indeed, renting accommodation is just fantastic in their case.

The Earl of Avon

Indeed, my Lords, I was coming on to answer some of the noble Earl's points, but, of course, the very subject of homelessness covers a great number of different people.

Perhaps I may say just a word on shared ownership, which is also an excellent and increasingly available option for those who cannot afford the jump that I have just been talking about. I have referred to some private sector options for helping the homeless young. However, I would accept, as the noble Earl has just said, that a major contribution has to come from the public sector.

Local housing authorities are of course entirely responsible for allocating and managing their rented housing stock in accordance with their own perceptions of local needs, and this includes setting the conditions for entry to their waiting lists. Much of that stock consists of family-size units which it is sensible to let for family use. However, many authorities have empty or difficult-to-let family units which could be brought into profitable use by being let to single young people, either by sub-division or to a group under shared arrangements. I should like to remind your Lordships that the present system of rent rebates and allowances has been extended so that those who are in shared accommodation can now benefit. This arrangement will continue under the housing benefit provisions, which will themselves provide necessary financial assistance with rents for those on low incomes.

The Housing Act 1980 gave most public sector tenants a number of important new rights. Among these was the right to take in lodgers and, with their landlord's consent, to sub-let part of their home. This obviously opened up a lot of new housing opportunities for young people and encouraged fuller use of the public housing stock.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked particularly about the priority need categories. The Government have given careful consideration to the representations we have received both for and against extending the categories of priority need under the Act. We have concluded that no change should be made. While we are fully aware of the problems of single people who are homeless, we are also aware of the serious housing difficulties of those who are at the top of local authority waiting lists but who are not actually homeless, which I think was a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger. Any further widening of the priority of categories under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act would in effect be at the expense of those at the top of an authority's normal waiting list, and we concluded that this would not be equitable.

I think it was the noble Baroness who mentioned the subject of vulnerability. Of course, the Act also defines as being in priority need a homeless person who is vulnerable for any one of several reasons, and the code of guidance which is associated with the Act, and to which a local authority is required to have regard, refers, among other issues, to the problems of homeless young people. It specifically asks authorities to treat as vulnerable any such young people who are at risk of sexual or financial exploitation. I should perhaps remind the House that Section 6(2) of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, together with Section 113(2) of the Housing Act 1957, which it amended, requires authorities to give a reasonable preference in selecting their tenants to those they decide are homeless.

Some reference was made to funding, and perhaps I should say that my right honourable friend has been discussing with the chairman of the Housing Corporation whether the corporation can make use of additional resources this year to enable it, inter alia, to lift the current restrictions on tenders and to bring forward the construction of some schemes which would not otherwise have started until next year. My right honourable friend, I understand, will be making a Statement about this in another place shortly.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned in particular the NACRO report, which has indeed been received with interest. Its recommendations, as has been noted, are wide-ranging and cover the interests of a large number of Government departments and other agencies. Officials of the main Government departments concerned—the DoE, the DHSS and the Home Office—are currently considering its recommendations with the intention of meeting NACRO officials for discussions in due course.

The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, asked a number of questions on supplementary benefit, and I shall certainly pursue these, though she will understand that I have not got the answers at my fingertips. My noble friend Lord Auckland asked about official statistics. I understand that the official statistics on homelessness are provided by local authorities, which the department then publishes. These cover families, the elderly as well as single people and the figures can only be supplied by local authorities in relation to those they assist under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. Special surveys to obtain information on the number of single homeless people would be difficult and it is also questionable whether they would provide accurate information. For example, they might cover categories of people from those sleeping rough to all those using hostels, lodging houses, houses in multiple occupation and Government resettlement units. The department, because of these difficulties, have concentrated on more qualitative and in-depth studies of the needs of single homeless people.

If I may, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, in her excellent contribution which I thought was very constructive and helpful. I was particularly interested in what she was saying about the youth opportunities schemes and how their accommodation would work out. As she can appreciate, that is a different department, but I will pursue that with them and find out what the answer is. So far as the housing benefit scheme is concerned, the Secretary of State for Social Services has made regulations affecting people, including hostel-dwellers, who would not be regarded as occupying a dwelling as a home simply because of the short duration of their occupancy. Such people, nevertheless, will be eligible for housing benefit after two weeks' continuous residence and eligibility will be back-dated to the date of the claim.

I hope that what I have said will assure the House of the Government's deep concern that the homelessness among the young needs to be tackled vigorously and that the Government are doing this in a variety of ways. We are indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for having given us this opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to this task.