HL Deb 08 February 1984 vol 447 cc1147-51

3.20 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs rose to call attention to the steady increase of homeless people in the country; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in rising to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, I should like, first, to thank all those noble Lords who are to take part in the debate. I should like most especially to say how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Mulley. I know that I speak for all your Lordships when I say that we are all looking forward to what he will have to say.

In view of the time restriction, I believe it would be best if, for my part, I merely gave some background facts and figures regarding homelessness, leaving other noble Lords, from their own experience and knowledge, to fill in the gaps.

There is no doubt that the subject of housing is often debated in your Lordships' House in general terms, but it is less usual to do so in terms of a house being a home, reflecting, as it does, a basic human need, something which we all have a right to expect the state to make available. Therefore the purpose of the debate is to examine the circumstances which give rise to so many people in Britain today being deprived of this basic human need, people who have been put into a situation which is universally regarded as intolerable. First, therefore, let me try to assess the true size of the problem: how many homeless people there are, who are the homeless and why they are suffering this fundamental deprivation.

As noble Lords will know, the official homeless are those whom the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 places local authorities under an obligation to house. The categories are defined as follows: first, those families with dependent children; secondly, pregnant women; thirdly, those who are homeless arising from a housing emergency such as fire or flood; and, fourth, a group described as vulnerable—those with mental or physical disability, the old, et cetera. In addition, people in these priority groups must also have a local connection and must not have made themselves homeless intentionally.

Last year, as your Lordshisps will recall, the Government reviewed the Act but they did not, as many had hoped, strengthen its code of guidance, which in its present form is open to punitive use by some of the more recalcitrant authorities. Nor did the review deal with the loopholes in the Act itself; namely, the sections relating to the intentionally homeless and the limits of priority groups.

The latest figures available for the official homeless—namely, those within these categories whom local authorities cannot house—date from 1982 and are as follows: in the country as a whole, they stand at 73,600 households, with over one-quarter concentrated in London itself. These figures are steadily increasing, but I must make it clear that it is generally thought that these numbers represent only the tip of the iceberg, the reason being that those families who apply for accommodation to local authorities but who are turned down are not included; nor are those who, for some reason or other, do not approach their authority at all. In fact, organisations dealing with homeless people estimate that the figure has most probably reached three times the one I have given and that it is nearing one-quarter of a million.

What is the reason for this increase? In my view, there can be little doubt that it is largely brought on by the fact that on the one hand the rise in the proportion of elderly people and a higher divorce rate has brought on a requirement for more low rent, small accommodation, while on the other hand, and concurrently, the Government have already made cuts in their public spending programme, with a further cut of £300 million anticipated for 1984–85. The difficulties of acquiring low rent accommodation have, therefore, increased. According to the last housing condition survey, 4.3 million houses are also in need of large amounts of money to be spent upon them in order to make them fit to live in. To add further to the shortage, there are now in London alone, according to the housing emergency office, nearly 136,000 empty houses.

Who are the homeless and what made them so? In the London boroughs, the GLC estimate that as many as 70 per cent. of the homeless adults are women. There is a growing number of single parent families, many of them unmarried and very young, with small, dependent children. The circumstances which give rise to homelessness are various. Some people are without homes because relatives or friends are no longer able or willing to continue to accommodate them; others because of marital violence; others through losing their private rented dwellings; and others because of mortgage defaults and rent arrears.

But the statistic which I find the most poignant is the one showing that among the official homeless as many as one-third have never in their lives had a secure home of their own. This must surely prove the difficulties which so many people experience in even getting on to the bottom rung of the housing ladder and the subsequent impossibility of ever getting houses from a diminishing pool of council accommodation. It is indeed a fact that over recent years the major reasons for homelessness have remained consistent, with the only change being the rise in the numbers in each group. This is a trend which can only accelerate while recession and unemployment continue. So there is no secret, there is no mystery, about why certain people are without homes. It is because the only accommodation available is just too expensive for them. They cannot afford the prices, and there is an insufficiency of low rent accommodation and hostel accommodation at prices which they can afford.

Next, what happens to those households which are registered as homeless? In the metropolitan districts outside London where the situation is less critical, the majority are rehoused into permanent accommodation without very much delay, while the remainder are placed in hostels run by local authorities or voluntary organisations. But in London the latest figures show that as many as 73 per cent. of those accepted by the authorities were placed in temporary accommodation. Half of them were placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, the type of accommodation which a SHAC study found to be the least popular among the homeless themselves.

Before I come to the comments and suggestions which I should like to put to the Minister, perhaps I may very briefly describe one particular bed-and-breakfast establishment which I visited last week. A very attractive 22-year-old Jamaican girl called Yvonne was good enough to show me round the one in Earl's Court where she and her husband and their six-month-old baby have already spent eight months. The couple had been obliged to leave their private rented home in Camden when the baby was due, since their contract there disallowed young children.

The Camden authority, who were responsible for finding them a two-bedroomed flat but who were unable to do so, placed them as far away as Earl's Court in this accommodation for which they, the council, pay over £100 a week, with Yvonne and her husband, who is in work, contributing £16. The room was obviously designed for a very short-term occupancy. It was only just big enough to hold the baby's cot, one chair, a small table, a small cupboard and a single bed. The couple had removed the other single bed to provide a minuscule amount of space. There were washing facilities, but if Yvonne wished to do any cooking she had to share the single gas cooker in the basement with anywhere between 17 and 25 other families, all with children of under five years of age. She said that occasionally she cooked very early in the morning but that usually they lived off take-away food, which they ate sitting on the bed and the one chair. There were no communal laundry facilities or fridges in the cellar.

Yvonne said that there were places worse than this, and I believed her. She said also—admirably uncomplainingly—that it was worse for parents and, in many cases, for single parents with older children. Cooped up in the restricted areas having previously lost friends and homes, and with their education disrupted, children often showed signs of either serious withdrawal or disruptive behaviour. She described how many of these lone mothers spent months and months in temporary accommodation, as some were awaiting the result of divorce proceedings and others, having left their homes because of domestic violence, were in a state of limbo.

She told me of the women with children in care who found themselves trapped in a Catch-22 situation whereby they were unable to get permanent accommodation through having no dependent childen with them—and were equally unable to get the care order lifted because they had no decent place to live. She spoke of the nervous strain that many of the adults were under, how their health was often affected, and how so many family relationships suffered.

This was Yvonne's story, and there must be many other stories like hers—or worse. But what to me appeared to be the final irony was the cost to local authorities of keeping households in such miserable conditions. It is estimated that in 1981–82, London boroughs spent £4.3 million on bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which by 1982–83 had risen to £6 million. If that money had been spent instead on financing a housebuilding loan, it would have provided not only decent, secure accommodation for the majority of those previously in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but also a long term asset for the people of the boroughs concerned.

I will end by putting a few brief points to the noble Lord who is to reply. First and foremost, as the cost factor is a major reason for the increasing number of homeless—that is to say, there is not enough accommodation at prices the worse off can afford—then does the Minister not agree that a rational and equitable method of housing finance must be found, with a building and renovating plan that meets the true needs of all Britain's people?

There is little doubt that present Government policies are geared to helping the better off. In 1982–83, as much as £6,400 million was paid in subsidies for mortgage tax relief, exemption of owner-occupied housing from capital gains tax and discounts to council tenants buying their homes; whereas only £1,000 million was paid in subsidies to council tenants. Were the Government to restore a much-needed balance to their housing policy then homelessness might well disappear overnight.

Finally, there is an urgent need for a revision of the 1977 Act and its code of guidance. First, the clause on intentional homelessness should be repealed as it gives rise to so much injustice. It can be applied to those who have rent arrears, and to those who leave home to find work elsewhere but fail to do so and lose their homes, and who are then declared to have rendered themselves homeless.

Secondly, there should be a phased extension of priority groups to include the childless. At present, the young single find it difficult to move to another part of the country to seek work as they know that on arrival they will be excluded from any priority group for housing. Thirdly, there is a need for a carefully laid down appeal procedure for use by the homeless against local authorities' decisions. Finally, there is a need for tighter definitions and more sensitive assessments of the priority group defined as "the vulnerable".

I hope that the noble Lord will respond positively to these suggestions. I am sure he will agree that something must be done to remove this fundamental injustice of deprivation which is being suffered by a growing number of people in our modern state. Indeed, it might well be the case that a tribesman from one of the most primitive African tribes may find fewer obstacles in his way to achieving a home for himself and his family than do some of the citizens of Britain's capital city. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

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