HL Deb 08 February 1984 vol 447 cc1155-87

3.50 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we now return to our debate. We on these Benches are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for having introduced this important subject. At the outset, I should like to say that we, the Alliance Parties, can claim a proud record in this field. It was a Liberal Member of Parliament, the honourable Member for the Isle of Wight, who promoted the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 which made it obligatory for local authorities to assist homeless families. It was a Liberal-controlled council in Liverpool which was singled out for praise by the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless for its actions in that field. Only yesterday, the honourable Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, Mr. Hughes, introduced a Bill in another place to reduce the scandalous number of homes standing empty in Britain.

The noble Baroness has already given us some of the facts and figures, and our ration of nine minutes' speaking time will not allow me to go any further into them. But there can be no doubt that there is one particular group in our society among whom there has been a startling and alarming increase in homelessness. I refer to young people. I think we are all aware of this visually in central London but the phenomenon is a national one. For example, last year in Bedford police reports suggested that about 100 young people slept rough every night. If Bedford is typical—and we have no reason to believe otherwise—up to 50,000 young people may be itinerant or semi-itinerant in the United Kingdom. Regardless of that figure, there is no doubt that the increase in homelessness among young people is extremely alarming.

Another factor here of course is that there is no chance for many young people to get accommodation unless they get married and/or have children—and this is what many of them do. I was recently told by a social worker in Berkshire that nine out of 10 of the girls leaving council care aged 18 in the county get pregnant within a year, largely because that is the only means of getting somewhere to live. Pregnancy becomes a passport to accommodation.

What is the present position under the Act? The noble Baroness has already sketched in the position. The Act gives local authorities a tripartite responsibility. They have to investigate if applicants are homeless and, if so, whether intentionally or not; to provide permanent accommodation in priority cases; to provide temporary accommodation for families responsible for their own homelessness; and give temporary accommodation or other help where possible to the non-priority homeless. The DoE issues a code of guidance and has recently brought out a second edition following consultation with local authorities. It undertook a review of the Act in 1982. The then Secretary of State decided there was no case for amending the legislation as this was adequate if implemented in the spirit of the code of guidance. That is the present position.

But is the present position adequate? I suggest that there are two groups which are specially worthy of our attention. The first group is described officially as the single homeless without disability, and the second group is the homeless with mental disorder. The single homeless without disability is not a priority category under the 1977 Act and therefore not likely to be offered accommodation, although such people should receive advice. When they are consulted or asked about their preferences, they evidence a preference for singles housing which of course is very low on current local authority development lists. My first question therefore is: what is the Government's attitude to the DoE publication, Housing Initiatives for Single People of Working Age?

I will not go in any great detail into the next group—the homeless with mental disorders—because it was mentioned in a very impressive debate on the report of the Richmond Fellowship in your Lordships' House not long ago. But it is worth noting in passing that in a very interesting report on homelessness among women, published by the Women's National Commission—an advisory committee to Her Majesty's Government—under the imprimatur of the Cabinet Office, it is stated that: Professor Wing stressed the need for intensive efforts by trained personnel to help put the ex-patient 'through the paces of life'. He believed 'we need to think of an enormous amount of care'.". Have the Government taken on board the real implications of care in the community and the enormous cost that this care will involve? Incidentally, the report recommends: There will be a very large shortfall in the resources necessary to achieve effective care in the community. We therefore consider interim Government finance is needed to create the necessary community facilities". That particularly refers to the mentally infirm and I should like to know the Government's attitude to that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, has already mentioned the scandalous situation of bed-and-breakfast hotels so I shall not go into that. I now pass on to a positive suggestion in the housing field. The Housing Act 1980 created the concept of assured tenancies which enabled bodies approved by the Secretary of State for the Environment to build new homes for letting at a rent agreed between landlord and tenant. The housing benefits legislation allows rents of up to about £55 a week to be afforded by virtually anyone. The Finance Act 1982 provided also a tax advantage. The relevance of assured tenancies for people on low incomes depends on the operation of the housing benefit system and in particular on the high rent schemes. Clearly, without the operation of a high rent scheme a household on a low income could not afford an assured tenancy without great and possibly crippling sacrifices; although with a high rent scheme the sacrifice is seldom more than the cost of two or three pints of beer or a couple of packets of cigarettes.

However, there is a snag. The high rent provisions of the housing benefit scheme operate only in areas of generally high rents, which we understand the Government are about to review. They only refer to particular classes of dwelling. Although these are not defined in the regulations, it is current DHSS policy to grant consent for class applications, as they are called, only for dwellings catering for special needs, such as sheltered housing for the elderly. If the assured tenancy legislation can be changed to allow projects for acquisition and rehabilitation of existing housing in poor condition, assured tenancies could help in tackling the very serious problems of disrepair that afflict our national housing stock.

Homelessness, as we have seen, is once again on the increase. Councils are returning to the use of extremely expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I suggest that the most economic way to meet the demand from people on low incomes who require rented accommodation would be to build for renting at economic rents and subsidise people through the housing benefit system, rather than through building, so that the subsidy is concentrated where it is needed. It would certainly be a great deal cheaper than the bed-and-breakfast accommodation to which the noble Baroness referred. Would the Government please give us their comments on that?

Finally, the policy of my party is an extension of the priority groups under the 1977 Act. We believe that they should be extended to cover single people aged over 40 in the first instance and then the age should be further reduced. We believe in an immediate change for young people between the ages of 16 and 18, who should be given priority when leaving care or when particular reasons exist as to why they cannot continue living at home. That is undoubtedly a particularly vulnerable age group. It is important to stress that planning for these people in housing strategy would provide the proper alternatives to prison and institutional care which are much more expensive than long-term, independent and permanent housing.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I should perhaps inform the House that, the Statement having taken 15 minutes, I expect my noble friend the Minister to rise to reply at 5.45 p.m. and the debate to end at five minutes past six o'clock.

4 p.m.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, in rising to address the House for the first time, I crave the generous and courteous indulgence which your Lordships invariably give to maiden speakers. I think that I should also apologise for venturing to address the House so soon after my Introduction, which was only a week ago. However, it was on the subject now before the House—and which was presented so well by my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs—that I made my maiden speech in another place 34 years ago. Indeed, it was in this very Chamber, when through the generosity of your Lordships an acute problem of homelessness was resolved.

It may nevertheless be of some relief to your Lordships to know that, for reasons with which I do not need to trouble the House, in the last Session in which I served in another place, I did not trouble the Hansard writers at all. The surprising fact was that by not making a speech I received more publicity in the columns of The Times than I ever did for any speech that I made in my 33 years in the other place, from the Back or Front Benches or from the Government or Opposition side of the House.

In 1950, I described housing as the greatest single problem of domestic policy. I believe that it is still extremely serious, although in that position it has been overtaken by unemployment, and the two interact to make each more serious. Of course, in 1950, no one imagined that we should ever again see unemployment at the level it has now reached. Certainly while in another place I had more constituency problems concerning housing than any other subject—despite the efforts of successive Governments and the outstanding record as a housing authority of Sheffield, the city that I was proud to represent.

I quote from a statement of the city council issued on a recent visit of the Minister for Housing: Sheffield considers that its present range of housing requirements is the most daunting it has faced since the period of massive slum clearance in the 1950s and 1960s. Problems are emerging now of such scale that new initiative and effort is called for, and for which a policy of continuing previous practices will not solve. Sheffield feels greatly disadvantaged with the resources it has available to tackle the need". Indeed, the allocation of resources to Sheffield over the past years had been very disturbing and sad. In fact, it has been less than half that which it was allocated in 1977–78. I understand that the allocation for 1984–85 is only some 25 per cent. of what the city council—I think, unanimously—agrees would be proper provision to face the many problems with which it has to contend.

Sheffield has a waiting list of 15,000. Indeed, in many ways the council is a victim of its success as a housing authority. It built over 30,000 council houses before 1939, and over 80 per cent. now require modernisation. Over 8,500 council houses suffer from wall-tie failure, over 7,000 are affected by spalling concrete and 3,000 post-war dwellings made by nontraditional construction methods are in need of remedial works. In addition to the council's own problems, of the 46,800 private dwellings which were built before 1919 practically all need major repairs.

Indeed, I think that we have more than the short-term problem of homelessness to contend with. We really have to face the problem of the decline of our social infrastructure, in other fields as well as housing, but particularly in housing. I greatly regret that we are not using the unemployed resources of the construction industry to remedy these defects. I should welcome the greater use of the results of our North Sea oil resources for these purposes, and of course for industrial investment, so as to reduce the burden that our generation is placing on generations to come.

Since I have just a moment or so left, I will bring your Lordships to consider the problem in the city in which we are now located—the City of Westminster. In the 1981 Census it was disclosed that even here, in the centre of our capital city, there were over 6,000 households which were sharing a bath or an inside lavatory; about 1,900 households lacked even a bath or a shower. Even in the 1980s, there were 600-odd households lacking an inside lavatory. When the city additionally has a waiting list of 9,600, of which 7,000 are hardship cases by the city council's pretty stringent definition, it seems to me that we have a problem of a most serious magnitude. My noble friend Lady Ewan-Biggs referred to the problem of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and serious homeless cases. I understand that over 2,000 were referred to the council's homeless committee during 1983. I have no doubt that these instances could be multiplied many times throughout the nation.

I conclude quite simply by asking Her Majesty's Government to consider the excellent case presented by my noble friend, which I am sure will be added to in the course of our debate. We really should begin now to try to develop a policy not only to cure or to mitigate homelessness but, in addition, to remedy the deplorable decline in our social infrastructure, particularly in the provision, repair and building of housing.

4.7 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, I am very happy to use a little of my nine minutes to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, on his very interesting and informative maiden speech. I always enjoy listening to someone who speaks from considerable parliamentary experience and who also can bring knowledge and information to us from the regions, because that is something that we do not get so often.

Your Lordships may be amused to know that in recent years there has been something of a reaction against the 10-minute sermon, so I am a little out of practice; but I have firmly thrown away the first half of what I wanted to say. I want to speak particularly from my experience now as a bishop in south London and to draw further attention to the position of the single homeless, which is becoming steadily worse in London, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, made clear in her opening speech.

When I knew that I was to speak in this debate, I asked a number of people what the phrase "single homeless" immediately suggested to them. Almost all of them replied, in effect, "Dossers"—that is, those who sleep rough, some of whom gathered in their hundreds for a few days' warmth and food last Christmas at Vauxhall, thanks to the dedication of the group called Crisis at Christmas and the generosity of those who support it.

Along with that instant classification there often goes a feeling that all homeless people are feckless or worse and so it is really rather pointless spending time or money on their needs—which is a convenient way of side-stepping the whole issue. But, as we have already heard, the truth, as might be expected, is rather different. While among the single homeless there are some who never pay their rent and some who behave in violent and anti-social ways, there are very many more who will respond to the right kind of support and care and who, above all, need to get one foot on the ladder of social stability before they attempt to go further.

All the evidence of organisations such as CHAR, Catholic Housing Aid, the Board for Social Responsibility of my own Church, and my own diocesan single homeless research worker, and many Church housing associations, too, is that behind the "dosser" stands an army of single homeless whose existence is still only partly visible. As we have heard, there are a large number, and a growing number, of young people—30 per cent. of the sample 7,000 in the Department of Environment single and homeless study—who have been in care or who have left home, and sometimes they have no home to which to return. There are people in need of rehabilitation in society, and there are people whose marriages have broken up and one of the partners leaves home.

In a book by Tony Parker entitled, People and Providence, which some of your Lordships will know, based on a south London housing estate, there is a fascinating description of an elderly man who has a wide circle of friends all over the estate, who always seems busy, yet who turns out to be sleeping in various boiler-rooms and cleaning cupboards around the blocks. Here was an intelligent, versatile man, whose marriage had broken up, who was then for a spell in a mental hospital, and who when he came out had nowhere to go. The story is all too familiar.

Some of the large group of single homeless are in hostel accommodation. In London there is a lot of this kind of accommodation and in a sense it is the last stop before the streets. Much of it is substandard, and there is general agreement that hostels will be needed in the future, but they will certainly have to be smaller and must provide more trained care. Yet much of the limited and paltry accommodation that we now have in London is under threat, as, for instance, in the case of three boroughs which are taking over former Rowton hotels but which lack the large sums that are needed to modernise or replace them.

Anxiety about this problem is now compounded by the threat to the GLC. It may not be widely known that the GLC has played a major role in developing provision for single homeless people—provision which is not available through other legislation—in London in the past few years. The GLC has been able to do this by providing research and co-ordination of public policy and by grants to voluntary bodies.

Housing associations, for instance, can play—and already play—a significant part in providing new accommodation for the single and homeless, but they cannot be expected to provide a wide range of support services and special care as well without some additional financial aid. Voluntary giving may be enough to provide a little, but clearly only local and central government can provide the quite substantial help which is now needed to get some more schemes off the drawing boards and into operation to meet the growing need. That in some measure the GLC has been able to provide, and therefore I should like to ask the Minister what will take its place, and whether there will be any statutory requirements to ensure that adequate provision of hostel accommodation for the single homeless is made for London as a whole. In asking that question I do not mean to preclude the other kinds of resource that are needed. I simply want to draw attention to this one particular aspect of the problem in London, which is now so acute, and this may be one of the best ways of meeting it for quite a significant proportion of those most in need.

4.15 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am sure that all who are concerned with the homeless as well as the homeless themselves will very much appreciate what has been said by the right reverend Prelate. He has defended the homeless briefly, but eloquently, against the charge of fecklessness which, in my opinion, is used as a rather wicked alibi for our own failure to do anything constructive for them, and I am sure that what he said should be underlined very often. Like the right reverend Prelate, I must use up a moment of my time—no doubt it should be more—to pay tribute to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mulley. Now that he has become so eminent, he may have forgotten that for a while I was his tutor. He came back from the war, he had been a prisoner, and he obtained a first-class degree. There was no kind of connection between that and my tuition because I was followed in the role by, I imagine, the noble Lord, Lord Blake, who taught the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, a different kind of politics. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, owes much more to the noble Lord, Lord Blake, but in fact he followed the same line of politics that he always intended to follow, that of socialist idealism.

While I am talking about old pupils—there are one or two knocking about the House—I must refer to another old pupil, Lord Byers, who has already been commemorated here. He was a man of the utmost integrity and distinction, and if I say that the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, and Lord Byers stand out in my own mind as equally dedicated men, I am sure that the House will understand what I have in mind.

The noble Baroness has opened, indeed covered, the subject so effectively—and in such a short time—that I shall not attempt to go over the general ground. She has saved me that task. Rather more than a year ago I opened a debate in your Lordships' House on the homeless young in which, in a modest kind of way, I hope, I dwelt on the achievements of the New Horizon youth centre, which I helped to found, and which now caters for more than 3,000 young people a year. So I shall not speak on all those matters at any length.

In the few minutes available to me I should like to turn to the second point that struck me about the speech of the right reverend Prelate; namely, the grave threat to the homeless constituted by the likely abolition of the GLC. This is not party politics. The noble Lord the Minister may feel that he has heard this before, that this is the Labour party versus the Conservative party; and certainly there have been bitter discussions in this House on this kind of topic. Well do I remember the days before most of the present activists here were performing when we did what we could to defeat the introduction of the GLC. At that time it was regarded as a Tory ramp, and we sat up all night to try to make our point. However, it turned out to be not such a Tory ramp after all; at any rate not sufficiently a Tory ramp to suit the Tories. So now they have to think of something else. They have left a kind of vacuum, so far as we can understand it. They cannot think of any new organisation in which they would obtain the requisite majority.

I am not speaking in party terms, not at all; I do not want to be misunderstood. But I am speaking from the point of view of the homeless in the same non-party way as the right reverend Prelate addressed the House. I do not expect that the noble Lord should particularly know the circumstances of the organisation of which I am chairman. It is a large organisation, and in a sense it is representative of other agencies which are trying to help the homeless in London. Here I should like to mention a few facts. The abolition of the GLC would mean the loss of a third of our organisation's statutory funding, and about 75 per cent. of our total funding is statutory. Abolition of the GLC would mean a loss of about 25 per cent. of our income, and the planned cuts in ILEA spending would probably mean the loss of another 25 per cent. Rate capping would lose us a good deal more one way or another.

So, on the face of it, the young people concerned could be ruined—pitched into the street by the policy pursued by the Government. This has nothing to do with the old argument about the GLC, the LCC and other bodies. We are talking now of the homeless. I hope that the noble Lord will appreciate that.

The noble Lord, who certainly means very well and who often speaks very well when he is properly advised, may not be in a position today to say what alternative provision will be made. The right reverend Prelate also drew attention to this matter. What is to happen? Either the Government know or they do not know. If they know, they will no doubt tell us. One has the impression that they do not know. I speak on behalf of those who started the centre—it looks after several thousand people a year—and who have been running it for 14 years. We have no idea what is going to happen and no confidence whatever in anything so far suggested. I have been speaking for only six minutes but I shall leave matters there because I wish to lay the utmost emphasis on the alarm and despondency that Government policy is creating.

4.21 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, may I join with other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, on his maiden speech, and also the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for introducing the debate. Homelessness, it seems to me, falls into two categories: the first, bricks and mortar; and the second, people. It is people that one has to consider, as many noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the right reverend Prelate have already done. As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, will know, it was shown in Professor Wing's report that one-third of the homeless in hostels are mental patients.

I should like to refer to a few groups where the problem of bricks and mortar arises. First, as the noble Baroness said, there is the bed-and-breakfast accommodation. This is uneconomic in terms of happiness and money. A great deal of money is spent on "bed and breakfasts" that are degrading and bad for children and families. There should be some alternative. We need more low rent accommodation for single people as well as families. It is the low paid and those out of work who are in great trouble.

As the time available for speeches is brief, I shall not deal with a number of points that I would have liked to make. I wish, however, to make a constructive suggestion. I believe that in every local authority there should be a housing council. Among those serving on it should be representatives of the housing department, the social services department, the voluntary organisations, the district health authority and the mental hospitals. The council should be chaired by a person independent of local government.

The council should be structured. It should be well run and well serviced. I have had this idea for a long time. It is based upon what is being done in the city of Oxford where I live, a city with a population of 110,000. However, it has a very great homeless problem. Many people who are homeless come to Oxford, Cambridge or London. For single homeless men, a committee has been set up by the warden of the Oxford Cyrenian Community involving all those who give service to homeless single men. The committee is established on two bases, one to provide accommodation—the bricks and mortar—and the other to meet the needs of people who are homeless and who require care, rehabilitation and resettlement.

A proportion of the homeless who are given accommodation—the bricks and mortar—still need care, support and help. They are mainly those who have been in mental hospitals, who have had mental illness or who are mentally handicapped. If such a council were set up in each area—I was going to say by law—it would be possible first to assess the needs of each area. This has been done in my own city by the group that set itself up to deal with the needs of homeless single men. It has calculated that 12 different types of accommodation are required. Of those constituting the 12 types of homeless person, several need the support of voluntary or statutory social services, the support of mental hospitals on an out-patient basis or the help of voluntary workers in some form or another.

Once it had assessed the needs of the area, the council would apply to various organisations that could help—the Oxford Cyrenian Society, the Church Army, the Salvation Army, and so on. By the same token, it would act as a clearing house for those voluntary organisations that are prepared to help in this area.

I speak with deep feeling because I know of one area where the social services department established a centre for homeless families which, by some quirk and, I imagine, bad administration, came under the housing department. Under legislation approved in 1970, the centre was passed over to the housing department which immediately disbanded it. Now the local authority realises that it made a mistake. It is having to set up exactly what was disbanded. If there was a housing council in each area to which reference could be made, it would not have been possible for that place to be closed. It was badly needed and proved a severe loss.

We talk a great deal about the problems of homelessness. We talk a great deal about those in need of particular support and help, such as the mentally ill and the mentally handicapped. Surely, the time has come for us to have a structure to deal with this. I believe that the structure must be locally based. It could be achieved through the formation of a housing council that included all the departments, and particularly representatives of mental hospitals and the health services as well as the social services and the housing department. There is much else that I could say. I have already spoken for seven minutes. I shall therefore simply reiterate my plea for a proper structure to assess the need for scarce resources and to help those who are homeless.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Rhodes

My Lords, may I, at the outset, congratulate my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs who opened the debate, and my noble friend Lord Mulley on his maiden speech. I hope that he will be heard often in the House. I speak as the active head of an organisation in Manchester that has been trying to deal with this question for many years. In Manchester city, the population has shrunk by nearly 20 per cent. in the last 10 years. People have moved to overspill areas leaving behind those who are less well able to cope with the pressures of inner city living. We have probably more hostel accommodation in the inner city of Manchester than most other cities of the same size.

About three years ago a local group called the "Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless" did a survey of the hostels in the Greater Manchester area and they were appalled by what they saw. They even campaigned for the closure of nine hostels, seven of which were within the city limits—that is the area where there are many empty cotton mills, and it is an area which is not populated, except by hostels. The larger hostels in the city centre can accommodate, on average, 1,000 people per night, and on average 90 per cent. of the beds are taken up. It is also estimated that a further 750 beds, again within the City of Manchester, are occupied by people who come within the definition of "homelessness".

Together with the people sleeping rough, it is estimated that the total number of homeless people in the Greater Manchester area lies somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500. I agree with every word that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, has said. She has indicated the lines upon which we must proceed. I would like those noble Lords who heard what the noble Baroness said, to remember her remarks.

A proportion of the people who sleep in these hostels every night are young people, and I contend that they should not be there at all. Recent research has suggested that there is a correlation between homelessness and offending. We have proof that that is true. I should like to quote from the report entitled, The Homeless Young Offender which says: Research shows that homeless offenders have high reconviction rates and that among homeless young offenders the chances of reconviction (which are one in two) are twice as likely as for those living at home". That same report referred to the pattern of offending which takes place once a person becomes homeless, having been attracted to the city centre. The situation runs something like as follows. A young person becomes homeless. If he or she is not already unemployed he or she soon will be. As that person has no fixed abode he has to sign on every day. The queues are long, it takes a long time and, therefore, he or she is unable to go and look for accommodation or even for a job. Financial necessity or boredom leads such a person to commit a crime. He is then caught and comes before the court, and because he is of no fixed abode he very often receives a custodial sentence. He faces accommodation problems again on his discharge. And so the situation repeats itself.

If we can get hold of a young offender after his first conviction we have a chance to help him; but that is not such a possibility after his second or third conviction, because then we really present ourselves with a challenge. Once a person becomes part of the "revolving door syndrome", as the judiciary call it, deprivation intensifies unless some incisive action is taken to prod individuals to action. We all know of people who have been on the homelessness circle for many years and who insulate themselves against society in overwhelming apathy.

The organisation to which I belong is called Selcare, and we have been trying for the past 13 years to provide accommodation which is now considered by everybody to be appropriate. It is a fine example of co-operation between a professional body—Crown court judges and magistrates—and volunteers who assist in the acquisition and running of various hostels in the Greater Manchester area. If the job is not tackled soon it will be ungovernable.

When we came to Parliament in 1945 we said that we would get rid of the workhouses. Everybody said at that time, "It can't be done; there isn't the money", and so on. Yet that magnificent government of 1945 got rid of the workhouses and all that they entailed, within two years. If the people have the will to do it, they can get rid of these hostels which are a blot on the landscape of our inner cities.

Your Lordships may ask what we do. We started 13 years ago with one house. We now have 17 properties. The number of people who are in them varies from one to another. But the project is succeeding, and where we have the opportunity to tackle a youngster after one conviction, I reckon that we have a 50:50 chance of saving him. If we save one person, we are only doing something which the Bible has been telling us to do all our lives.

We also do other things besides. We are able to achieve things with the help of the probation service. At this juncture I should like to say that I have never worked with such a wonderful body of people as the probation service who are prepared to give of their time and money to achieve what they believe in.

What we need in the Manchester area is a little more attention from the Housing Corporation inside the Department of the Environment. We should never look at volunteers as though they are wasting money. On average we have embarked upon two major projects each year since we came into being. We have six projects awaiting money and we hope that we shall be able to carry them through before the end of 1984. We only need money for bricks and mortar; we are coping with the revenue side of the matter by effort. We have six projects on the table now and it looks as though we will get the money for only two. I point out to the department that this is a good investment—there could not be a better one; and I appeal to the Government to be more understanding about the request that we are making.

4.39 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, in rising this afternoon I would like to associate myself with the congratulations expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, for making a very interesting maiden speech. I am sure that we shall all be glad to hear him many times again in future.

I am sure that anyone interested in trying to do his duty to his neighbour will be grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing this subject to your Lordships' attention this afternoon. It is not always easy to identify one's neighbour's needs, and one can only too easily hand the matter over to somebody else accompanied by a little conscience money, and then forget it until some film like "Cathy Come Home" or a speech like that made by the noble Baroness, gives one a jolt. I expect that most of your Lordships will remember the beginning to Tolstoy's famous masterpiece, Anna Karenina, which said: All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". If for one reason or another 1 per cent. of the 12 million families in this land are unhappy, then there are 120,000 individual cases to be dealt with and to be rectified.

Edgar Allen Poe coined a phrase which I remember from my schooldays because of its prose rhythm and alliteration: Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of the earth is multiform". He must have written that at about the time when the young Disraeli was formulating those thoughts later expressed as the "Two Englands" in Sybil. The "Two Englands": nowadays the sociologists would call them sub-cultures. The first sub-culture is that of happy families. It does not matter whether it is the Duke of Domesday's or Mr. Bones the Butcher's. They perpetuate their kind. Happy parents bring up happy children to become happy parents and grandparents in due course. But if the tradition is broken by whatever mischance or misbehaviour it may be, then the next generation will never provide their children with what they have never known themselves, and they will be sucked into that second sub-culture.

I often ask myself whether the run-of-the-mill democracy and democratic machinery to which we are accustomed here and in local government has the capacity for mounting rescue operations of this kind. If you accept that we are mounting a rescue operation, then a statistically-minded bureaucracy which deals in percentages and proportions and not in individuals may not be the right tool in the kit. The principles embodied in what we are accustomed to frequently fossilise until they seem to be unique, though they need not be. It seems to me that rescue operations in a democracy need the sort of authority possessed by the captain of a lifeboat. I do not quite know what that is, but I am sure that in the middle of a rescue operation nobody has to look at the book of rules or take up points of order, or put matters to a vote.

A new thought, my Lords, is rather like a new Bill. It needs to be read a number of times and turned over as if it were being debated in Committee while people get familiar with its ramifications. I do not expect that you will immediately set the seal of your approval to what I have been thinking of in this context. I searched for something analogous to the power that the American President has of declaring a "disaster area". In the case of a social mischief, I have in mind the appointment of some sort of parliamentary commissioner with quite exceptionally wide-ranging powers over, say, the rehousing of the homeless.

He would be answerable to a Select Committee of both Houses in the exercise of those powers granted to him. He would have an advisory committee of responsible local people very' much on the lines suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful'. There would also have to be a sort of hybrid between an ombudsman and the auditor general keeping his activities under review and taking the burden of detail off the Select Committee.

In the sort of case which the noble Baroness is bringing to your Lordships' attention he would of course have powers to override bureaucratic inadequacy by the possession of his own budget. The sort of inadequacy when, for example, as we have heard discussed before, the laws of taxation and the laws of public assistance collide wth one another and, instead of assisting people, produce impoverishment leading to homelessness as the noble Baroness has described. The homelessness produces unhappiness, just as unhappiness can produce the kinds of behaviour that can lead to homelessness.

Of one thing I am quite clear: we cannot just ignore the cases brought to your attention by the noble Baroness. We cannot just sit tight and hope that the problem will go away. We have created part of the problem by our own legislative laxity. We have emancipated from control all those forms of misbehaviour which have brought under attack that first sub-culture I referred to and allowed it to deteriorate into the second, illustrated by the homeless single-parent family. It is our responsibility under heaven to repair the mischief we have wrought.

4.44 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Mulley on his maiden speech this afternoon. I agree with almost everything he said. I certainly know of his interest in this subject; I certainly know of the tremendous record which Sheffield has in the field of housing and of the homeless generally; and I endorse everything that my noble friend said about that city. I should like to say how grateful I am to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity today to discuss this crucial matter. The problems of homelessness, as has been said, have been with us for many years. As chairman of the all-party group of CHAR—that is, the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless—for many years I have participated in a number of debates in the other place and have raised this question on many occasions.

Government reports, local authority surveys and reports, and reports from all the voluntary organisations, such as Shelter, SHAC, CHAR and others, have described the problem and produced recommendations over a long period designed to improve the situation. Yet, as the noble Baroness's Motion rightly says, the problem is worsening, homelessness is on the increase, and more single people are becoming homeless and at a younger age. I am grateful to all previous speakers who have mentioned those problems in detail.

London local authorities, housing associations and voluntary organisations, struggling with inadequate resources, now have another problem to contend with. This was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and my noble friend Lord Longford. They now have the uncertainty of the future of the GLC. The abolition proposals in respect of the GLC would completely wipe out the role that that authority plays at the moment as strategic housing authority in London.

At present the GLC has a London-wide role in respect of housing problems which spreads over the boundaries of individual boroughs; for example, the problems of the single homeless. They, too, spend substantial sums on financing schemes such as Arlington House—the biggest hostel in London for single men—where they are currently spending £470,000 on renovations. Who would shoulder this crucial task if the GLC were abolished? Are the proposed successor bodies capable of understanding the GLC's housing activities? What guarantee is there that they would be carried out effectively, efficiently and economically? We are entitled to ask for, and to be given, detailed assurances on these points. I hope that the Minister will be able to comment when he replies to this debate.

As has been said, the problems of the capital city form a substantial part of the whole country's problems. The Department of the Environment's inner cities directorate has recently completed a study of urban deprivation using census indicators. The 10 local authorities in England with the highest scores on the index of housing deprivation were all London boroughs; half the boroughs come within the first 20. Therefore, it is right that the problems of London should be mentioned.

A recent survey carried out by the GLC pointed out that bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families, as my noble friend said, cost the London boroughs over £6 million in 1982–83, a rise of 37 per cent. over the previous year. Indeed, local authorities, as well as individuals, are in a Catch-22 situation. They are obliged by law to provide accommodation for homeless families, yet the Government are cutting the capital funding which would provide permanent homes and at the same time penalising boroughs for revenue spending on temporary accommodation under the absurd rating legislation.

A GLC report also pointed out that only 27 per cent. of the homeless households accepted by the boroughs are housed directly into permanent accommodation. The rest, 73 per cent., have to go into hostels or bed-and-breakfast, or unimproved empty property. Nearly 3,000 families live in temporary accommodation at any one time, and the average length of stay for families in temporary accommodation is growing. In one borough families accepted this year will have to wait five years before they are considered for a home of their own. We know from recent reports, and certainly from a recent independent television documentary, that conditions in bed-and-breakfast establishments are appalling. They are often overcrowded, unhealthy, and most certainly distressing.

What has been done so far? With all these reports and all the demands and everything else that has gone on, unfortunately very little. The Government recently reviewed the workings of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 already referred to by a noble Lord, and decided to make no amendments, although there had been many calls for a widening of the provisions of the Act to help more single homeless, for a tightening up of some of the non-mandatory provisions in the Act, and for a redefinition of homelessness. The Government decided to tighten up the code of guidance to local authorities and simply commented on other areas of concern. I was particularly disappointed that the Government do not intend to expand the category of priority to include childless single people and couples, because this is where the greatest need probably arises. This was spelt out in detail by my noble friend in her opening speech.

If part of the price of zero inflation is the worsening of conditions and prospects for the homeless and—as the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, said during Monday's proceedings on the housing benefits scheme—a reduction in housing benefits of the elderly and disabled, then we surely have our priorities all wrong. The longer present policies continue, the more difficult and expensive it will be to tackle the problems. All the homeless and other vulnerable groups in my opinion deserve better treatment from a Christian society and we must inject more urgency into our approach to these problems. These problems exist in all our major cities.

Before I sit down I should like to say a few words about another problem area which has interested me for many years, having been an active member of the Northern Ireland group. I refer to Northern Ireland and particularly, to Belfast where voluntary organisations such as CHAR and Shelter and others are becoming increasingly alarmed about the scale of the problem in Northern Ireland. I have learnt in the short period that I have been here that many Members of this House share my desire to assist in the creation of an atmosphere there in which both communities can be reconciled and where political initiatives could then have some chance of success. The alleviation of problems such as homelessness must form a part of that process. A report of the activities of the Ormeau Centre in Belfast probably sums it up: About 4,000 single people in Northern Ireland did not have a home to live in during the past 12–18 months … Every night about 500 people were forced to live in hostels, and many more slept rough. And an increasing number of young people—aged under 25—were either sleeping rough or staying in hostels. The figures were revealed in a report of the activities of the Ormeau Centre in Belfast which caters for the single homeless. It opened in 1978 on the Ormeau Road to provide shelter, companionship and cheap meals for the homeless. In 1981 the centre transferrred to the Grosvenor Road when the original premises were reclaimed by the Housing Executive to make way for a road building programme". The report goes on to say: that while voluntary organisations have a major role to play in alleviating the immediate problems, the resolution of the major problem of homelessness must come from new Government legislation. This would give the Housing Executive a statutory obligation to house all people who require it in the province. And it would mean a greater priority given to the single homeless in the Executive's and Housing Association's building programmes. This would require the Government to provide the necessary finance". My time is up, but I hope I have said enough to persuade the Minister and the Government to agree about the urgency of this problem, to listen to the views of the various voluntary organisations that have been involved for very many years and are still struggling with the problems, to ensure that adequate resources are made available to those people doing the job, but generally to lift the degree of priority that has been given to this problem for many years.

4.55 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I should also like, not only to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for an excellent speech, but to congratulate her on being so clever, on being lucky in the ballot, to choose this Motion, coming as it does so close behind the matrimonial Bill and during the discussions on the housing Bill. That is particulary apt. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mulley. I listened, as did the whole House, to all that he had to say to us this afternoon. I hope we shall hear a great deal more from him.

Unemployment and housing are the main worries in all sectors of our society. The homeless, in my view—and other noble Lords have given us other categories—fall into four main categories: those who are unemployed; those coming to London to find work, including the young; those who prefer to be homeless—and there are many of those—and those, as we discovered in the case of the marriage Bill that we were discussing recently, whose marriages have broken down. We heard during the discussion of that Bill that one in three marriages break down, and it is obvious that one in three families need another unit of accommodation.

I am deeply grateful for the completely unsolicited testimonial that I received from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who sits in front of me. I do not think he quite realised that in his kind words about Crisis at Christmas he was speaking from a position in front of the present president and, indeed, the founder member of Crisis at Christmas. Having declared that interest, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I talk exclusively about the single homeless in London.

It seems from the figures we have had today that no one has accurate figures, but it is acknowledged that far more must be done to meet the needs in all sectors than is being done at present. It is estimated by CHAR—and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, as chairman of CHAR—that in London alone 14,000 single people are forced to stay temporarily in hostels, night shelters and DHSS resettlement units. Many thousands more are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, living temporarily with friends, squatting or sleeping on the streets. Three London boroughs have contributed considerably by buying the three Rowntree houses that came up for sale recently. Those hostels, which were to be closed, were bought by Camden, Tower Hamlets and Lambeth, and they total 2,200-bed accommodation. But these very antiquated buildings give only temporary shelter. Because of their age and overcrowding they will have to close in the foreseeable future. It is estimated that a total of 13,599 bed spaces exist, but that includes the common lodging houses, the DHSS resettlement units and the small-group houses in the London boroughs under the GLC.

There are many wonderful voluntary organisations which try to cater for the single homeless. It is quite invidious to mention any, but I feel that I must mention the Salvation Army, St. Mungo's Charing Cross Hostel, the West London Mission (which is synonymous with the name of the noble Lord, Lord Soper), New Horizon (also synonymous with the name of the noble Earl, Lord Longford), and very many others. They try to cater in their different ways for those in need of a roof and in need of support, and they also include trying to cater for mental patients.

Although we are a caring and humane society it seems that some of the boroughs turn a blind eye to their responsibility in this field. How often, driving round London, does one see a whole terrace of solid houses with boards up in the window spaces? If the local authorities really cared they would use to the limit the resources which are allocated for housing. At the present time many do not, and past homes which could be repaired for future homes are allowed to decay.

The future for these people is bleak unless more money is found to build more units and to replace old ones. The GLC have funded projects to the tune of over £2 million a year. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us how, when this authority ceases to exist, the funding will be organised. Those who work in this field are deeply worried, but if they can have an assurance that their dependent clients will be looked after adequately in the future, they will be able to cope with the present. My time is nearly up, but before I close, I would pay tribute to the idea of my noble friend Lady Faithfull, with her wide experience: the idea of a local council—very local; in my view, a national council would not do. I hope that this idea will be taken up. I personally would wish it well. This is a vast problem, caring for deeply unhappy people, but one that must be tackled.

5.2 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I want to confine myself to one aspect alone of the problem which the noble Baroness raised this afternoon and it gives me great pleasure to pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, because at one time I was one of his constituents. I want to take up the last point that he made about Northern Ireland and to confine myself entirely to that. Northern Ireland suffers the worst housing conditions of anywhere in the United Kingdom; 15 per cent. of the housing stock is unfit for human habitation; 20 per cent. of the houses in the Province lack the five basic amenities, and there are around 30,000 households on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's waiting list. What is more, this situation is getting worse, and it is getting worse because a quarter of the houses were built before 1919.

These appalling conditions of housing in Northern Ireland are closely connected with the question of the homeless in Northern Ireland. As houses fall into decay there are far fewer units of accommodation to go round. There is a certain degree of either hypocrisy or ignorance or both in the Government's attitude towards the shocking conditions of housing in Northern Ireland. And equally so in relation to the figures they give for the homeless. It was estimated that in the 18 months to August 1982, 4,000 homeless (out of a population of no more than 1.5 million) could be identified. As recently as December 1983, there were approximately 2,000 a year homeless; 500 a night use hostel type accommodation or sleep rough outside.

What do the Government say? What do the Department of Health and Social Security say? They say there are 142. What does that mean? It simply means that they have 142 in their hostels and they do not bother to count those outside. The 142 that the Government admit is, in fact, at least 500 a night and, as I say, something like 2,000 a year.

This is bad enough as a condition; but how are the Government intending to tackle it? How is it that the 1977 Act which, as I understand it, applies to the rest of the United Kingdom, does not apply to Northern Ireland? How is it therefore that there appears to be no public acceptance of responsibility for homelessness in Northern Ireland? How is it that if an individual has no address, he cannot register as one of the homeless and he is not placed in the emergency category? The Government are not taking responsibility for this dreadful social evil and the consequence is that what palliative measures can be taken rest almost entirely on the voluntary organisations. We all pay tribute to the voluntary organisations, but that is not enough. Surely, the Government must admit a responsibility and must accept responsibility alongside the voluntary organisations.

I hope that the noble Lord who is to wind up for the Government will address himself specifically to why the 1977 Act does not apply to Northern Ireland and to whether the Government have any intention of making sure that it does and of taking responsibility for the homeless of the Province. I would suggest that there are a number of other things that need to be done by the Government as far as both the poor housing and the homelessness of the people of Northern Ireland are concerned.

In the first place, there must be an increase in public sector house building and there must be at least a reduction in, if not an end to, the sale of public sector houses which is reducing the supply open to those who are in greater need. Secondly, I suggest that there must be a determined policy to improve the very poor housing conditions in the rural areas of Northern Ireland. A comprehensive policy should be developed to tackle the appalling conditions that one finds in travelling around the rural areas of Northern Ireland. Efforts must be made to prevent the decay of the existing stock of houses that is to be found in the Province. This stock is calculated to be depleted at the rate of 2,500 a year, simply through lack of the resources to maintain and restore it. Finally, there must be a determined attack on what is the scandal of the private rented sector, with rents raised without any demand that the landlords must provide adequate housing as a consequence.

If concerned about the violence in Northern Ireland, can we have a more flagrant example of the effect of social conditions on a political conflict? Can we have a more blatant example of how lives are lost, conflict is provoked, tensions are raised as a result of decades of neglect of basic social amenities? I ask the noble Lord who is to answer for the Government to address himself to what is one of the most urgent and dangerous of the problems connected with both housing and homelessness which we face in this Parliament.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I should like first to comment on the fact that today we have a new Member of this House in my noble friend Lord Mulley. I have particular reason to notice his coming here because I was his junior for a period at the Ministry of Transport. He would remember very well, as I did, about three weeks ago when the new part of the M.25 was opened, that we went out to look over Epping Forest to see how we could get that road through and cause as little disruption as possible to a very attractive part of the country. It is perhaps an indication of how fast we move in transport that it must be all of 10 or 12 years since we looked at that piece of road, and the road has just newly been opened. I hope that the housing situation does not take quite so long before we see some improvement. I certainly enjoyed the speech of my noble friend and I look forward to re-making his acquaintance in this House. I should also like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs for choosing this subject for a short debate. I think the response she has had in the number of Members who have put their names down to speak is an indication of how important this subject is.

I should like to speak primarily of the Scottish position as regards homelessness and to give some idea of how the situation differs although, as I listened to other speakers, it seemed to me that it might not perhaps differ as much as I had once thought. I should like to speak about homelessness in general and to talk briefly about the problems of the single homeless.

I should like to pay tribute to two groups who are doing a very important job in Scotland and who have been good enough to send me some up-to-date material on the subject. The first is Shelter-Scotland and the second is the Scottish Council for the Single Homeless. They, and many other organisations in Scotland and outside it, are doing a very important job to get something done about housing. First, they are making the public conscience much more aware of the terrible problem of homelessness. Secondly—and this reinforces the first part of their mission—they are acting personally with many people at the sharp end, at the difficult point, who are homeless: these are people who are in dire need. Shelter and the Scottish Council for the Single Homeless frequently deal with these cases of people in desperate need; so one side of their work reinforces the other. When Shelter or the single homeless people speak, they almost always speak from very great and deep experience.

No one that I have spoken to is in any doubt as to the increase in the numbers of single homeless. Figures for the three housing aid shelters run by Shelter-Scotland, for instance, make it quite clear that there is an increase in the single homeless and in general homelessness. Official statistics tend to show a different picture, but I believe that we should be cautious of official statistics. They only indentify a proportion of the homeless and they record only those who present themselves as homeless to a local authority housing department.

I have with me the latest available figures of people applying to housing departments as homeless under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. The figures demonstrate that there has been very little change over the past four years in homelessness; but the main flaw in the recorded statistics is that they take no account at all of what has been described by many speakers already today as the "hidden homeless". That phrase includes people who approach councils to make inquiries but who get no satisfaction and are not recorded as a statistic of application. It also includes a great many people who do not apply because they believe themselves as not in a priority group and so would not qualify under the Act.

The rest of the homeless consists of those sharing accommodation, often over-crowded, with relatives and friends; those living in damp or substandard housing; people living in insecure accommodation and those staying in institutions and lodging-houses because there is no other suitable accommodation for them. And of course there are the people who have been described many times in the course of this debate—those people who are forced, for a whole lot of reasons, to sleep rough.

Official statistics can be valuable, I believe. They are a valuable source of information about how the homeless persons Act is working. One of the main concerns in this connection surrounds the limitations on the existing groups classed as having a priority need. A vital flaw, I believe, in the 1977 Act is the whole concept of the "intentionally homeless". As regards this category of "intentionally homeless", certain Scottish authorities have made abundant use of this, and I have the figures for them. If we look at the Scottish housing statistics for the third quarter of 1982 we see that the Scottish average of what the jargon calls "intentionality" is that 731 cases out of 8,324 applications were considered to be people who had intentionally made themselves homeless: that is, 8.8 per cent. But the figure for Edinburgh was 39 per cent., while the figure for Glasgow was 2.3 per cent. This is not an Edinburgh-Glasgow thing although it is something that we all kid about in Scotland: it is that Glasgow have gone slightly ahead of Edinburgh. I hope that Edinburgh will catch up very quickly and will look much more sympathetically at the whole question of the intentionally homeless. Edinburgh has been applying the figures much more strictly than Glasgow. As I say, I hope that Edinburgh will take a leaf from Glasgow because their needs are just as great and I hope they will start looking a great deal more sympathetically on what "intentional homelessness" really means.

The code of guidance which came out after the 1977 Act stipulated that a great deal of investigation should be made of any cases suspected of being intentionally homeless so that a proper case-study could be made and it could be decided whether in fact it was intentional homelessness or somthing quite different. In any case, I believe that someone who is homeless is someone in need.

I realise that I have almost reached the end of my time, but I should like to say that many people who are homeless and who are offered accommodation by the local authority are in fact offered accommodation that is quite unsuitable—for example, poor-standard housing, housing in remote areas or inappropriate housing. As an example of that, I have heard of people being rehoused in former barracks. Sometimes people are left in temporary accommodation for far too long, and sometimes far too frequent use is made of bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

I hope I have been able to give some slight indication of the Scottish picture to prove that it is not greatly different from that of England, and I would join with all my noble friends and others who have spoken in saying that what we really need is a major housing programme which I believe would pay us, as a nation, not only in terms of a better standard of living and a better quality of life for people, but would also perhaps reduce pressure that is forced on other social services because of the terrible problem of homelessness.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I join the whole House in both welcoming and congratulating my very good friend and comrade Lord Mulley, who comes to this House with a fine record of service not only to his party but to the people whom he represented in another place. From what he has said here today, I am absolutely certain that the whole House will look forward to hearing him time and time again in the future.

We can never debate housing too often in this House or in the other place. There are millions of people outside who are looking for some hope, some comfort, some guidance and some relief from their problems, and the message of those of us who are not in government is that we believe that the words that we speak, and the arguments and the passion that we display in this debate and in other debates on housing, will be heard by those who have a major contribution to make to the relief of those outside who are in housing need.

Together with a great many others, I am specially indebted to my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs, who made a very deeply moving speech based not only upon her own compassion, but also upon her personal inquiries. She demonstrated her care and concern in this field. I can certainly say, remembering my consitituency surgery as a Member of Parliament, that the story she told was all too familiar.

We may very often feel helpless, but we in this House ought not to feel that we are powerless. We must believe that we can move the Government marginally in the direction in which I believe the whole House wants them to move. After the speech of my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs, never let this or any other Housing Minister tell the House that there are no solutions; that there are only problems. My noble friend was constructive and gave us a lead, for which I am very grateful indeed.

May I echo the tribute from the Liberal Benches to the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. Stephen Ross was, and still is, a dear friend and colleague of mine and we were in many fights. I was the Whip on the Government side when the then Labour Government, together with the Member for the Isle of Wight, struggled valiantly to save what we could of what was a much broader and more generous concept, which finally had to be reshaped in the light of the clear intention that that Bill would not make any progress at all. Many of the wrongs in the Act are a result of the way in which it had to be born. But, certainly, the Member for the Isle of Wight worked tirelessly and made himself very ill later on. He has now recovered from that illness, and the whole House and those who are looking to legislation owe a great debt to him, which I want to acknowledge from this Front Bench here in this debate.

I make a plea for parity of concern by this Government for a group in our society who lead wretched lives, who are often inarticulate, who are often exploited and who deserve a better fate. I refer to the homeless, and not just those who are accepted by councils as priority cases under the 1977 Act, but the many who are excluded from registration and who are real, alive and far from well. We know the housing priorities of this Government. If you are securely housed in a public authority home, you can buy it with up to 60 per cent. off. If you are a secure tenant with a good landlord, such as a charitable housing association, you will be given up to 60 per cent. of the purchase price of a house bought on the open market. If you are a tenant in a council house, you will share in subsidies in excess of £2 billion. If you are buying your house, you will share in mortgage relief of more than £2 billion.

But if you are not on any list, not in any mortgage queue, not a priority, and if you are either officially or unofficially homeless in Britain in 1984, your prospects are bleak. The word "bleak" was used earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, when she was describing circumstances that she knows. Your welcome at the council office or refuge will be less than jolly. It is not always the fault of the council or the association, nor is it all down to the Government. I shall not spare the Government from deserved strictures, but I shall withdraw them all if the Minister can tell us that he cares—and I know he can do that—and will join us in waging a ceaseless campaign until this battle is won.

I must mention the plan to replace the Rowton House hostels in London. The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, took up a great deal of her speech in pointing out the great difficulties which have fallen upon local authorities in facing up to their responsibilities. In a fine gesture of municipalisation, the Government aided and abetted three authorities, as well as voluntary bodies and the GLC, in taking over the difficult task of putting the three Rowton House hostels into some kind of shape. Yet what do we find? A joint initiative by the councils concerned, the GLC and the Housing Corporation, with the support of CHAR and Shelter, to put on a more efficient footing the housing of the single homeless, has been torpedoed by Government action, because the HIP allocation for Camden has been cut from £35 million to £32 million, which is a cut of 7 per cent., and in Lambeth there has been a cut of 10 per cent. from £43 million to £38 million. I do not know how the Government can expect councils, the Housing Corporation and voluntary bodies to help the homeless in the face of such action.

A special group which has been mentioned, and which I want to mention again, are homeless women, and the Women's National Commission has rendered a service in publishing a report Homelessness Amongst Women. I read with great concern about the particular problems of women. There are far more homeless women than are officially recorded. Many women with young children are caught in the "intentionally homeless" trap. The homeless mentally ill woman requires urgent housing and the quality of housing available in hostels for women is poor. There is a deep concern that cuts in funding voluntary organisations will diminish adequate housing for women in need of it.

The Minister will have been told by his officials that the position is desperate and for none more so than the single homeless. I have statistics with which I shall not bore the House, because they have been given here more than once. But may I raise a particular point; and I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, who knows the area that I served, and still serve, will prick up her ears when I mention Claybury and Friern Barnet hospitals. Bearing in mind the current initiatives to close several large psychiatric hospitals—and I have mentioned Claybury and Friern Barnet—and return the patients to the care of the community, who will care for them then? Who is "the community" in that context? We are asking the Minister questions which he may not be able to answer tonight, but we need to have answers. Where will those people live when they come out of hospital? Is the Minister making all the arrangements that he can? Will councils which may have to fund get special allowances so to do? I believe that we need answers to those questions, if not tonight at some other time.

I have spent a great deal of time in making notes about the intention of the Government to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties and this is a dimension of great significance. It was first brought to your Lordships' attention by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, and was referred to later by my noble friends Lord Longford and Lord Stallard—who speaks from his great experience in these matters—as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod. I am not even asking the Minister to spell out at length what the Government have in mind. Will he only tell the House that the Government understand the nature of the problem? If and when the GLC disappears, what will happen to the homeless?

CHAR has been mentioned. It represents 400 organisations which are working to house the homeless. These are voluntary bodies, almost all of which are under-funded and understaffed. Certainly all of them are under great stress and facing daunting challenges. These bodies work with the GLC and receive grants from the GLC amounting, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, has said, to more than £2 million. The GLC provides a crucial dimension, not merely by means of funding but by providing co-ordination, et cetera.

Let us look at the other side of the all too familiar public argument about bodies which are given grants by the GLC. CHAR gets £26,000, the Housing Advisory Switchboard £33,000, the Central London Advisory Service £14,000, No Fixed Abode £10,000. The Piccadilly Advice Centre, Centrepoint and New Horizon are all trying to help the London homeless. There are many other voluntary bodies and many other ways in which the homeless receive assistance: from day centres and advice agencies and from the specialist services which are provided for people with alcohol and drug-related problems. Before the Minister tells us that the London boroughs are eager, waiting and cheerful about doing in the future that which the GLC and the voluntary bodies have done in the past, I would suggest that he should ask the 32 London boroughs what they are doing now, without having to take on board additional burdens. These bodies already have a difficult task indeed.

In this context let me deal with the London dimension. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, pointed to the disparity between the total of registered homeless and those whom we know are homeless. In Brent, last year, 135 families were registered in a certain period as homeless. A survey indicated that there were 278 homeless families in the borough at that time. In Lewisham there were 43 families registered as homeless. The survey showed that there were 206 homeless families—in reality, five times as many homeless families compared with those registered. My noble friend Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove indicated a similar kind of situation in Scotland: the disparity between the number of registered and unregistered homeless families.

Last week, my noble friend Lord Underhill and I visited Hackney—not for the first time. The scale of Hackney's problems is daunting. The task facing Hackney council and Hackney councillors is enough to frighten most men and women, but not those we met when we visited Hackney. Despite rebuff after rebuff from the Government, they have rolled up their sleeves and are fighting to give their people a decent and fair chance in life. And what a fight they have on their hands, with 15,000 families on their waiting list and 200 of those families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation! Adult male unemployment is over 25 per cent. I repeat, adult male unemployment is over 25 per cent. There is environmental deprivation on every side. My noble friend Lady Jeger received a Written Answer today from the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, in which he pointed out that no direct Government assistance is given to councils with families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but that these costs are reflected in the rate support grant. When, therefore, we speak about capping the rates and stopping profligate overspending we have to remember the reality of the situation in a place like Hackney.

In conclusion, let me examine what we want. Recently, the joint charities group published a document entitled Homelessness: the Mounting Crisis. It concluded a stark appraisal of the plight of Britain's homeless by referring to "the dangerous rising tide of homelessness in Britain". We want a Government who are committed not only to stopping but to turning that tide. We want a Government who will get their feet wet in the cause of making life worth living for some of life's unfortunates. Therefore I invite the Minister and his colleagues to treat the homeless—families or single people—as an urgent priority. Resources will be needed and battles for those resources will have to be fought. I believe that everybody who has spoken in the debate will be behind the Government if they battle for those resources in order to improve life for the homeless. I believe that your Lordships' House is telling the Government that it wants action in this area and that it wants it now.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the subject which the noble Baroness has chosen for debate today is important and, rightly, one of public concern. I have listened with interest to the points which have been made. As has been pointed out, the debate is also most timely. Inevitably, large numbers of persons, large amounts of money and percentages have and will be referred to in this context. But the debate today is about people. It is as well to remember that fact.

When I was studying economics I had a wise young tutor who taught me not only that economics is an historical science but, more important in today's context, that before entering into any discussion you ought to define your terms. So, who are "the homeless"? People are, or become, homeless for all sorts of reasons. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark reminded us, only a very few people prefer to sleep rough. And good luck to them! This is a free country and I would defend their right to do so. They are homeless by choice, and I would discount them from my calculations. However, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has said, they are a small part of the problem. I am sure that most homeless people do not become homeless by choice, or at least not by such a clear-cut choice. They are the people we are concerned with in this debate.

They may have decided to head for the bright lights without thinking where they would stay when they got there. Despite housing benefits and housing supplementary benefits, they may have got behind with their rent or mortgage payments. They may have moved from an unemployment black spot in order to take up a job and then found that they could not get a place to live. They may have been thrown out of a job and, in consequence, lost the accommodation that went with it. They may have had a final break with their husband or wife and moved out, or their parents or the friends they were staying with may have decided that they could not put them up any longer.

In his excellent maiden speech the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, reminded us of the problems which face the old industrialised cities, and he made special reference to Sheffield and London. Regretfully, as the noble Lord knows, they are not unique. None the less, I hope that we shall again hear from him both soon and often. He has much to contribute and I hope that his arrival here will, in the words of the old song, be a transport of delight.

It is difficult in this situation to say who, or indeed if, anyone was at fault. I defy anyone, for example, to say which partner was to blame in the case of a family breakdown, which could well account for about half of those for whom housing has to be found. My noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve raised this matter. The number of people accepted by local authorities in England as homeless and for whom they should find accommodation rose by 41 per cent. between 1978 and 1982, but the proportion of those who were homeless because of marital breakdown rose only from 15 to 17 per cent. Marital breakdown does not, therefore, seem to be a major cause of the increase in homelessness. None the less, obviously it is a cause. It would be as facile for me to blame local authorities (to whom Parliament has given the duty of housing the homeless under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977) for the homelessness problem as it was for the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, during the Second Reading of the Housing and Building Control Bill on 30th January 1984 to say, at col. 465: The only, area where the Government have unfortunately achieved a record is in homelessness". That is not what the House would expect from me, nor should it. I see the Government's job as encouraging local authorities to perform this very difficult duty and giving them every help in doing so. I shall come later to exactly what help they should receive.

Just put yourselves in local authorities' shoes. They have to think about what they should do for those they have identified as genuinely homeless. Can the homeless man afford and find private rented accommodation? Can the ill-treated wife reasonably be expected to go back to her parents or to fend for herself? Or if she is battered, the victim of domestic violence, should she not, as we have recommended, be treated as having a priority need? Is there a young lad at risk of sexual or financial exploitation? If so, as we have recommended, the local authority should find accommodation for him but, if not, their only duty under the Act is to give him advice. These are difficult decisions and I do not envy local authorities their task.

How many homeless are there? The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, answered that question for us, but her figures and mine—which, incidentally, agree—are not the only estimates which have been made. In England, we feel that it is not safe to base any action on trends in the numbers reported by local authorities as applying to them. Local authority practice varies. What is to count as an application? A formal interview with the housing department would probably count; a conversation with someone in reception at the town hall would probably not. We tend therefore to look at local authority figures for those people they have accepted as being homeless and for whom they have found accommodation.

The increase in the number of homeless has been referred to, and part of that increase is the result of a change in the statistical systems, which has led to more complete reporting by authorities. Certainly the England 1982 figure represents only 0.4 per cent. of the households recorded in the 1981 census. But, by definition, people who have been housed are no longer homeless. At best, the figures can only be an indication of the problem—and only part of the problem at that, because they exclude those homeless people outside priority need categories for whom authorities did not find accommodation. They exclude also those people who, for one reason or another, were too proud to seek the help which can be provided by local authorities. There is no denying, however, that whatever may be the scale of the figures, they are serious.

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which is at the core of the legislation in this field, was reviewed by the Government fairly recently, as was our code of guidance to authorities. I must tell the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that it would be premature to undertake another review in the way she suggested. In the course of our review we consulted widely and received a large number of comments from local authorities, from voluntary bodies concerned with homelessness, and from others. Not all of them were on the same side. Some wanted the duties and guidance to be more restrictive. Others asked for their coverage to be increased, particularly in relation to the single homeless.

The noble Baroness criticised the Government for not extending the provisions of the Act. It was, however, clear to us that to extend the priority need categories would be counter-productive. It would mean in effect that everybody's priorities were reduced. We decided to leave the Act as it stood but to revise the code of guidance. The revised code was issued last July.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull suggested that that was not good enough and proposed an independent housing council in each local authority area. I find that idea tempting, but I fail to see how the homeless will get a better deal from local authorities. Perhaps my noble friend will explain that point to me later. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, whose ideas, too, (as so often) need kicking around for some considerable time, interested me. But I do not see that in a federal state, such as that which we have in this country, the idea of a Select Committee of the kind I understood him to suggest would be the right way of dealing with what is essentially a local problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, mentioned the problems of the special category embracing ex-mentally ill patients. I can tell the noble Lord that a duty has been placed on local authorities since 1959—before the 1977 Act—to provide after-care for mentally ill people. The Mental Health Act 1983 also repeated that point in respect of some formerly detained patients. These unfortunate people are already a priority category, under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. If the noble Lord has any particular cases in mind where the Act is not being properly applied, I shall be very grateful if he will tell me of them, so that I may take them up.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, referred to the false economy of providing homeless families with bed-and-breakfast accommodation. How right she is! It is of course a very expensive solution to the problem, but it is up to local authorities to decide how they spend their housing money.

Noble Lords


Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government's advice in the code of guidance is that such accommodation should be used as a last resort. Not only is it expensive but, as we have heard this afternoon, it is very unsuitable for families—especially those including young or even older children—although it can be useful in meeting a short-term emergency. Money can often be much better spent in making empty council accommodation habitable. Better still, improved housing management can often reduce the number of empty properties. It can prevent them being vandalised and incurring still greater cost.

Sometimes when reading and listening to the media, one gets the impression that this is the only option open to local authorities. There are of course many others. Finding accommodation for someone does not mean that a local authority has to provide council housing in every case. It may do that, but it may turn instead to a housing association. Housing associations play a valuable role, and I will say more about them in a moment. About half the lettings of most housing associations result from local authority nominations. Or the authority may turn to private rented accommodation in the same way. When an authority's duty is to find a temporary accommodation only, there are a number of other options open to it. One possibility would be to take a short-term lease on an empty house from the private sector. And when an authority's duty is only to give advice, it may again enlist the help of voluntary bodies running local housing aid centres. That is another area in which the voluntary sector has been performing valuable work.

Local authorities' assistance to the homeless forms a part—in most cases a relatively small part—of their overall approach to housing in their particular areas, which must embrace not only the stock and resources directly under their control but also what housing associations and other voluntary bodies are doing in their area; and the extent of the accommodation available to rent and to buy in the private sector. So far as the resources available to local authorities are concerned, these are inevitably limited by what the nation can afford. Nevertheless, the total local authority allocation for England in 1984–85 will be some £2½ billion. The generalised needs index is used to help divide that global sum, and the importance of homelessness as a weighting factor in the index has been increased.

The greater emphasis on homelessness will, with due allowance for other factors, be reflected in individual local authorities' housing investment programme allocations. Decisions on how they use those and the prescribed proportion of capital receipts are, however, a matter for the individual authority concerned in the light of its assessment of its area's overall needs. I hope that I will not hear more scoffing on that remark from the Benches opposite.

If local authorities do not spend all that money, or do not spend it all on housing, that is their decision. But I concur with my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve that allocations are there to be used. Local authorities will receive no criticism from me when they spend to their limits, provided they do not spend unwisely—for instance, as I have just said, by putting too many people in overnight accommodation, which is unsuitable to fit the problem. Nor will it bring local authorities into the area of rates penalties, as the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, suggested.

It is vital that local authorities make best use of their existing stock. Returns made by local authorities show that in England 107,000 council houses were empty on 1st April 1983. Of these, 23,000 had been empty for more than a year. In my book, that latter figure is disgraceful. For London, the comparable 1983 figures were 32,000 or 3.9 per cent., of which 10,000 were empty for more than a year. Again, that is far too high. We sent all authorities the Housing Services Advisory Group's report suggesting ways of reducing the number of empty dwellings. This is a help, but is quite useless when the will is lacking. I hope that, from now on, it will not be lacking.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, there are two points, if I may intervene. Would the Minister confirm that the authorities with housing unlet are disparate; they include councils of all political views? Therefore, it is not a political initiative which is required but a management initiative. Secondly, when councils are urged to maximise their use of housing receipts, that is the monies they get from the sale of council houses, does the noble Lord not appreciate that that is a wasting asset, that it is getting less and less? How do the Government square the fact that they want councils to use their resources to the best advantage while forcing them to sell some of their stock in order to maintain their housing programme?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, on the first point, yes, of course, it is a management problem and not a political one. There are councils up and down the country of any or no political persuasion who are at fault; there are equally councils up and down the country of any or no political persuasion who perform, in the Government's view, and I think the noble Lord's view, very well in this respect. It is not a political argument.

With regard to the point I am just making about spending allocations to the limit, the allocations are not only from the housing revenue account from the sales of council houses or whatever. These include, of course, the grants which have been provided by central Government, and my remarks apply equally.

I have dealt at some length with the local authority aspect because they have the statutory duties to the homeless and the lion's share of the public sector resources available for housing. The Government's responsibility as we see it is to allocate these resources, to set the legislative and regulatory framework, to disseminate information and advice, and to assist financially in limited spheres where some additional provision appears desirable.

Much of the debate—and I think possibly the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, was the first to introduce the subject—has revolved around the subject of the single homeless. Information on the characteristics, needs and preferences of the single homeless is contained in a recent research report, Single and Homeless by the Care for Environmental Studies which was commissioned by my department. The report concluded that two-thirds of the single homeless required ordinary mainstream accommodation with little more than sensitive help and advice from housing management. The main cause of homelessness was concerned with personal, financial and social crises. I would agree with the report in this respect. The results of a DOE research project to identify good initiatives to provide housing for single people which could be promoted by all sectors of the housing market were published in the report, Housing Initiatives for Single People of Working Age. Further research on the rehousing of hostel residents has just been published entitled, A Home of their Own.

This brings me very nicely to the subject of hostels. Very naturally, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, my noble friend Lady Macleod and others, referred to the three hostels in London formerly owned by Rowton Hotels. The Government agreed last year that the local authorities should purchase the hostels. I might point out to noble Lords opposite that this was not a GLC initiative but joint action between the Government and the boroughs. I will, of course, refer to the GLC in a few minutes.

To help meet the cost of running Arlington House as an exceptional measure we have offered to pay hostel deficit grant and the present estimate is £450,000 a year for the first two years. Three proposals to allow urgent refurbishment work have also been agreed, and additional HIP resources of over £3 million have been made available for use in the current financial year. The HIP allocation for next year for the authorities concerned has also taken the hostels into account. The breakdown of the Housing Corporation's approved development programme for 1984–85 is yet to be announced, but there is provision in it to enable them to finance new hostel schemes in inner London. I do not accept the criticism of some noble Lords who feel that the Government have not done enough towards the financing of this. The Government are extremely proud of their hostel initiative, of which this is merely a very small part.

If this debate has taught me nothing else it has taught me that the problems are not unique in the inner cities of this country. The noble Lord, Lord Hatch, spoke of the problems of Northern Ireland; the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, spoke of the problems in Scotland.

Lord Rhodes

And in Manchester, which I spoke of.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I accept the implied criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, but Manchester is neither a province nor a country.

The Government are aware of the need in Northern Ireland to review the system for co-operation between the two agencies responsible for dealing with the problems of homeless people. I am advised that there is no need for the homeless persons Act 1977 to extend to Northern Ireland as the same provisions are included in Article 15 of the Health and Personal Social Services Order (Northern Ireland) 1972 and the Housing Selection Scheme approved under Article 22 of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1981.

As far as Scotland goes, there is a separate Scottish code of guidance on the homeless persons Act. Since it was issued in September 1980 there has been no pressure from Scottish local authorities for amendment of the code or for a review of the Act. There have been few direct approaches from individuals or from voluntary organisations. The Scottish code has generally been well received and the indications are that it has been of real assistance to local authorities and to the homeless. But I will take up with my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, in his speech.

This has not been a debate on the demise of the GLC, although the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, sought, I thought, to make it so at various points in their speeches. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, and my noble friend Lady Macleod asked about what would happen if and when the Government's plan to abolish the Greater London Council went ahead. The general view in the Government's White Paper is that borough and district councils are fully capable of undertaking the GLC and metropolitan boroughs housing activities either individually or by voluntary agreement among themselves. The recent history of the Rowton hostels which I have just mentioned leads me to support this view.

A housing consultation paper was issued by the DOE; a Home Office consultation paper on grants to voluntary bodies sought views on the need for any new statutory means of reinforcing collective grant giving and asked for information about the extent of grants being given. The deadline for comments on these consultation papers was 31st January. Many comments have been received and these are now being analysed.

Another thing this debate has taught me is the great wealth of personal knowledge that noble Lords have about charities in this area. My noble friend Lady Macleod—Crisis at Christmas; the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes—president of the Selcare Trust; the noble Earl, Lord Longford, spoke about this trust: all doing things which for one reason or another the local authorities do not do or it is sometimes felt are doing inadequately. I am the first to praise them. The Government give quite large grants to them. But I am equally the first to say that this is not necessarily a satisfactory state of affairs. I believe that local authorities should be doing rather more so that the pressure on the voluntary bodies is not quite so extreme.

I have run out of time, but I hope I have said enough to make clear the Government's approach to solving the problem of homelessness. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, asked for my own commitment. I will do all I can to ease this shameful problem which is one of great concern to all of us. However, apart from such special interventions as our hostels initiative and the encouragement we are giving to the increasing investment of capital from the private sector, it must largely fall to the local authorities to act within the context of their overall housing policies for their areas. Our job as Government is to ensure that they have the best practical framework within which to operate, and this we will continue to do.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, will the Minister write to me about my proposal to extend the high rents scheme to assured tenancies?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, most certainly I will.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should first like to thank, as I did before, all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. Of one thing I am convinced: that all aspects of the subject, from the geographic, legal and human points of view, have been covered this afternoon. I agree with the Minister that one aspect that has emerged from this debate is the very great depth of knowledge and experience that so many of your Lordships have and how so many have such a deep commitment and involvement in the life of the community. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Rhodes who told us what is happening in Manchester and to my noble friend Lord Longford who told of his experience and his commitment to this particular area of the community. I am also extremely grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, not only for his characteristically elegant speech but also for putting forward very practical ideas, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, although there was not as much in it as I had foolishly hoped for. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for having gone very carefully over the whole terrain. Although he said he would tell us how the work of the GLC would be replaced after the GLC no longer existed I think that, in the end, he did not tell us. Possibly, he will be writing to us all. I was sorry also that the Minister felt that the review of the Act and the code of guidance had been sufficient, because from my knowledge a great number of people who are involved with the homeless feel that it is entirely deficient. I also think he was a little optimistic about the options open to the homeless. I think it is agreed that for the vast majority there is no question of taking private rented accommodation. Again, the Minister said that this was a human problem, and indeed it is, but the Government have a responsibility that I very strongly put forward in my speech. It is their responsibility to see that there is a balance, with subsidies to create a range of accommodation which meets the true needs of all people in this country. I do not think the Minister answered that.

We have discussed a very emotive subject this afternoon. Anyone who saw that marvellous film "ET" and heard that extraordinary extra-terrestrial being moaning about going home will realise just how emotive it can be. Of one thing I am sure: that is, the concern which has been expressed this afternoon from all sides of the House will mean that this unfortunate group of people who, so often through no possible fault of their own, have become homeless will not become a forgotten community. So. I wish your Lordships a safe journey home, rejoicing in the fact that you have one, and beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.