HL Deb 03 May 1983 vol 442 cc3-6

2.40 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps are being taken to alleviate the growing problem of London's homeless; and what arrangements are being made to deal with the threatened closures of the Rowton hostels.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government are well aware of the problems of London's homeless and have under way a major programme for the provision of modern hostels: funds are being made available specifically for this purpose through the Housing Corporation. The future of the hostels in London owned by Rowton Hotels PLC is primarily a matter between the company and the local authorities concerned—the London Boroughs of Camden, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets, and the Greater London Council. An independent valuer has been appointed by those councils and the company jointly, to determine the value of the hostels. Negotiations are at a delicate stage, and I am sure the House would not wish me to prejudice them by saying more about the Rowton hostels at this juncture.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I appreciate what the noble Lord the Minister has said about the negotiations. But will he explain why the negotiations are only between the local authorities and Rowton Hotels? Surely we have to recognise that this is a national problem. Is it not most unfair to leave it to the local authorities? Can the noble Lord the Minister say what is the Government's estimate of the figures of homeless single men sleeping rough in London tonight? Did he see an estimate in the evening Standard some days ago of 50,000? Is not that a disgrace to a capital city?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords. Although I appreciate the concern on all sides of the House on the future of the Rowton hostels, I cannot agree that this is a national problem. After all, they are situated in local authorities' areas. Local authorities have responsibility for the housing of people in special need. The negotiations are being conducted between the local authorities' concerned and Rowton Hotels PLC. So far as the Government's estimate is concerned, I am afraid that I have no figures on the number of people who will be sleeping out rough tonight, but I have no doubt that the figure of 50,000 people mentioned in the recent Standard article has some basis of truth in it.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, has the noble Lord the Minister read an article this morning in one of the newspapers which supports Her Majesty's Government—namely, the Daily Express—complaining about the existence of a vast number of empty houses in the London area which could be used for the purpose of allowing homeless people to occupy them if the local authorities were advised accordingly and were allowed to spend the money required? Is it not a scandal that in this country, where we talk about civilisation and about progress, we should have thousands of homeless people sleeping rough on the Embankment, and in other places?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as regards empty houses, this is again a matter for local authorities. I have noticed that there are various places thoughout the country where local authorities are not using the money provided for them by Government, and through their own rating system, for the occupation of those houses. That is an absolute scandal when the money is available.

As regards people sleeping rough, it is not always the fact that they are sleeping rough because they are unable to find houses. Information is beginning to come to light that there are some people, commonly called tramps, who actually prefer that way of life, as much as that might seem disagreeable to either myself or others of your Lordships.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of the situation in Bruce House, a common lodging house in the City of Westminster, where the council, although it had for years spent more and more money on upgrading it, was faced with such unreasonable demands from the socialist opposition that all the former occupants of that place had to be put out? Moreover, is the noble Lord aware that the regional authority, which is socialist controlled, would not agree to any rebuilding or improvements which would bring the house back into use and help homeless people?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am not aware of the case that my noble friend brings to your Lordships' attention. However, if her facts are correct—and I have no means of either proving or disproving them—this is another scandal.

Lord Soper

My Lords, are the Government aware that during the past few days a document has been published by a group called UNLEASH, sponsored by the Church of England authorities, which indicates that on any ordinary night in London there are at least 5,000 single homeless people, very few of whom, I imagine, prefer that to some kind of domiciliary comfort? Will the Government take account of the propositions made in that document for a closer relationship between Government authority in general and local authorites, who would be only too glad to have the opportunity to do better if they had more money with which to do it?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I have already made the point that the money is available. As regards the report to which the noble Lord, Lord Soper, refers, this has been published only in the last few days. The Government are considering it very carefully, and will report in due course.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that one side of the problem concerning thousands of homeless people in this city and elsewhere is that, for a section of them, anyhow, the problem of alcohol is almost intractable?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords; and this puts them in a special category of homelessness for which local authorities are bound to find beds.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the London borough of Westminster, which is Tory controlled, there are over £50 million worth of vacant dwellings at the moment? On the question of Rowton houses, does he not agree that the Department of Health and Social Security, as has been said in answer to a previous question, has a residual responsibility for looking after the accommodation of many of the people who would be thrown on to the streets if these properties were closed? Does the Minister also agree that it is possible that the Government may be asked to approve a compulsory purchase order on the properties, and that if they were prepared to express their willingness to do this it might concentrate the minds of those on the other side who are negotiating?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I hope that I made it clear in my original Answer that, as regards the Rowton hostels, anything is possible, and I do not want to do anything which would prejudice the outcome of talks which are now going on. As regards whether or not Westminster Council have vast amounts of empty properties, I simply do not know the answer. If they have, there are normally very good and very valid reasons why some houses are vacant; in other words, when they are being repaired or rebuilt, when there is a change of occupancy, and other such reasons. It is not all black on the housing scene.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, may I refer back to the first part of my noble friend's Question, about the growing problem of London's homeless? In the Minister's reply, did he not say that the Government are undertaking something and that it would be through the voluntary housing movement? I may not have quoted his exact words. May we be informed at what speed this is being taken by the Government? Can the Minister give an estimate of the number of London's homeless, what sort of provision is to be made and how many units will come out of it?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I did not mention the voluntary bodies in this connection. I have already said that I have no estimates of homelessness in London in any of the various categories. However, to pad out my original Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, in 1983–84 the Housing Corporation has made a specific allocation for association hostel housing and shared housing schemes of over £57 million. Something like a third of this sum will be available for schemes in the London area. Under this Government, the Housing Corporation had up to the end of March 1983 approved schemes providing 7,000 bed spaces, over two-thirds of which are for single homeless people, including the elderly. The number of bed spaces approved in the last financial year was three times greater than in 1978/79.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this has developed into a most grave problem which goes beyond the Rowton Houses and the question of alcoholics, tramps or vagrants and involves a very large number of young people? In the light of the exchanges which have taken place, would he not press his right honourable friend to institute a full inquiry into the causes of this problem before it develops into a national difficulty of a size we cannot at present comprehend?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has put his finger squarely on the point, which is that this is a growing problem in our great cities. It does not apply only to London; it also applies to Birmingham, Manchester and, to a lesser extent, cities in the North-East of the country. One of the difficulties is that young people particularly are not made aware (which I feel that they should be through the school system) that the streets of our great cities are not paved with gold.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask the Minister what advice is given to school-leavers on the danger of the big cities, so that they do not come to London and other big cities without having prearranged accommodation, because many of them do come from the country and some even come from Ireland?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, with the greatest respect, I think that that question is rather wide of the original Question on the Order Paper, even though I did widen my last answer.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, the Minister has said that a number of local authorities are not using the grants. Could he publish in the Official Report a list of the local authorities which are using the grants and those which are not? It would be very interesting for the local elections in three days' time.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, is the noble Lord referring to empty houses generally or is he referring to the use of them by homeless people?

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether he can confirm that, due to the Government's order recently, those young people who are out of work and who also have no home to go to can in the future give a hostel as their home address, bearing in mind that a person cannot get a job unless they have a home address? Can the Minister tell me if that is now the case and, if it is, for how long each young person would have to be in a hostel before that address may be used as a home address?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, so far as employment and registering for unemployment goes, I am afraid that I cannot answer my noble friend. But I can tell her that since 1st April this year the rules for claiming benefits have been amended to make it clear that people resident for 14 days or longer in such places are entitled to housing benefits. It would be logical to assume that the same rules would apply to unemployment benefit.