HL Deb 02 March 1983 vol 439 cc1137-40

3 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy on the provision of accommodation for single homeless men.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, responsibility for assisting homeless people rests with local authorities under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. This Act gives priority to certain defined categories of people, including single people if they are considered to be vulnerable. The impact of homelessness is one of the factors taken into account in determining local authorities' capital expenditure allocations. It is for individual authorities themselves to decide how much they should spend on meeting the needs of single homeless people. The single homeless will also benefit from the substantial provision for hostels and other forms of shared housing in the Housing Corporation's approved development programme.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would not the Minister agree that the Government have a responsibility under the Social Security Act 1980, which provides that the Department of Health has a duty to maintain and provide resettlement units at which persons without a settled way of life are afforded shelter? Is the noble Lord aware—I am sure he is—that three hostels in London, Arlington House, Tower House and Rowton House, may close as a result of their sale to private developers, rendering the 2,000 inmates homeless? Will the noble Lord say what were the results of the conversations last week between Sir George Young of the Department of the Environment and the three boroughs concerned with this matter? What is the Government's long-term policy regarding the accommodation of persons who use these premises, such as those who are mentally ill, alcoholics and persons with behavioural disorders?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with regard to the general duty of the Department of Health and Social Security, as reflected by the Act the noble Lord mentioned, he is of course quite right, for those people who come within the meaning of that Act, which does not completely overlap with the Homeless Persons Act to which I referred in my original Answer. None the less, the housing stock as such is the responsibility of the local authorities; so to that extent I hope he will agree with the substance of my original Answer.

As far as the Rowton hostels are concerned, I am afraid I have no up-to-date information. We obviously share the noble Lord's concern at the possible closure of these hostels and have indicated that we see no objection to local authority acquisition if the parties concerned can reach agreement. As negotiations are still in progress, I feel that commenting further could possibly prejudice the outcome, which is in nobody's interest, including that of the people living in the hostels concerned.

So far as concerns long-term policy, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is looking at the various units that currently exist, namely, 23 in Great Britain, and grant-aiding 35 voluntary hostels providing a similar resettlement service. The future of these resettlement units has been under review for some time and indeed is the next stage of this project which the noble Lord asked about. I understand that my right honourable friend hopes to publish his proposals shortly.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there is a very uneven burden on local authorities in this connection, in that there are more single homeless people in some areas than in others? This does create local difficulties. Further, does the noble Lord not recognise that the mean level of supplementary benefit to homeless people because they have not got an address only perpetuates their homelessness? Without an address and without adequate benefit it becomes progressively more and more impossible for them to find anywhere to live. Finally, is there anything the noble Lord the Minister can do—I know he is sympathetic—to hurry this up? It is a disgrace to this country and to Parliament that there will be people sleeping in cardboard boxes outside Charing Cross station and other places tonight.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government regard this problem with the greatest seriousness, as I know the noble Baroness knows. I hope I have done nothing in answering this Question to detract from that seriousness. Of course we are fully aware of the problems of single people who are homeless, and we are taking action in the ways that I have already suggested in answering the supplementary questions of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I said that decisions are going to be made shortly and I cannot at this moment go further than this. With regard to the allowances to which the noble Baroness refers, this is a new one to me, but I will certainly draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, do I understand the noble Lord the Minister to say that the shocking situation of vast numbers of homeless people in this country, including a large number of single persons, must be left to the local authorities to deal with? Does he maintain that they have the necessary funds for this purpose? Has he had the opportunity of reading the disclosure in, I think, the Sunday Telegraph of last week, about the shocking situation in the town of Oxford, the last place in the country where this sort of thing should happen, where multiple housing exists of a fashion which is not only shocking but atrocious? How can we describe our country as "great" in a situation of that kind?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, again I take the serious purport of the noble Lord's question. The Government make grants to local authorities; this is related specifically to the housing grants and also to the grants related expenditure, what one might call the supplementary rates, for ease of argument. So the Government are financially helping local authorities to do what should be done. The fact is that this particular housing problem is on a scale which I and the noble Lord most certainly deplore. If the local authorities take money from one part of the housing budget to put into another part, the first part of the housing budget necessarily suffers.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that when the Homeless Persons Act went on the statute book it was in the context of very much more housebuilding in this country than we have at the present moment? Would the noble Lord not agree that with the diminution of the voluntary housing areas, with the sale of the Rowton Houses-and I believe there is also one in Birmingham-the whole situation is getting worse and worse? Are the Government aware of the number of single homeless people; is it being monitored? Are the Government going to do something to enable the local authorities to provide accommodation? Without Government help and without voluntary organisations being able to keep up their level of assistance, the problem is going to increase and become worse.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I thought I had made it clear that the Government are already providing grant money to the local authorities and to the housing associations to fulfil this particular need. So far as housebuilding generally is concerned, it is my understanding that the figures of new building have risen consistently over the last three periods for which figures have been reported.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is a sympathetic person, but may I ask him whether he himself will go to Victoria Station, to Euston Station, or to the surroundings of one of these major stations where he will find these homeless people every day? The chances are that they will never have even a railway station glass roof over them; they are in abandoned rolling stock in marshalling yards. This is a most unfair problem for many of the local authorities because it is not evenly spread over the country or even the city of London alone. The problem is just pushed from one part of London to another, and is getting no better.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, so far as evenness goes, I must point out to my noble friend that the grant is not evenly spread either. The grant goes in a large proportion to those areas and to those local authorities which are seen to need it. As regards going to a particular station or area of the country, yes, I most certainly would readily do that. I remember some 10 years ago, not having been prompted but off my own bat, going very late, at about 2 o'clock in the morning, to Waterloo Station. As long ago as that I was very conscious of the problem.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, while totally supporting everything that my noble friends have said in this matter and stressing the need for additional local authority assistance, would not the noble Lord think it right that we should pay special thanks to the Salvation Army for the remarkable work they do in this respect?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, most certainly, and I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition for that suggestion.

Lord Avebury

Does the noble Lord agree that in the event of a catastrophe occurring and hostels closing, with 2,000 people being added to the number who already have to sleep on Westminster Embankment or under the Charing Cross arch, the Government would have responsibility for providing accommodation for them under the Social Security Act 1980?

In the meantime, will he also verify that local authorities concerned have the power to put a control order on these premises enabling them to assume the responsibility for the management of the premises pending the submission of a request to the Secretary of State for the Environment for approval of a compulsory purchase order? In the long term, would the Minister not agree that this episode and the criticisms which have been made of the Salvation Army and the accommodation that they provide show that it is increasingly difficult for private agencies to assume the enormous task of accommodating the kind of people that we have in mind here and, therefore, that the Government must assume that responsibility? Will the statement he has promised shortly—

Several noble Lords

Speech, speech!

Lord Avebury

—cover all these enormously important problems?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I know that my right honourable friend, to whom I have already referred in answering this Question, and also my right honourable friend the Minister for Housing, will most certainly consider all the points that have arisen in the supplementaries to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. As far as the Social Security Act goes, it is my understanding that should the absolute disaster threaten hostels that the noble Lord—I am not sure whether he anticipates or fears, but I rather hope the latter—there would be no question but that the residents would be rehoused.