HL Deb 05 June 1984 vol 452 cc492-5

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what proposals they have to prevent the misuse of public funds by commercial landlords letting accommodation to homeless people.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the role of the supplementary benefit scheme in supporting homeless people in board and lodging accommodation is to pay sufficient benefit to enable the claimant to meet the charge for the accommodation of his or her choice, subject to a locally determined limit which ensures that payment is restricted to a reasonable level for the area concerned.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Does he not agree that the DHSS should give some guidance to its local offices on the standards that bed and breakfast accommodation should attain? Is there any prospect of this guidance being given? If so, will the DHSS review the results? Can the Minister also say whether there are any plans for producing a leaflet for claimants showing them what are their rights in respect of bed and breakfast accommodation? Have the DHSS any plans for not giving claimants vouchers for accommodation that they reckon to be substandard?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will be aware, responsibilities in the matter are split between local authorities on the one hand and the Department of Health and Social Security on the other. Local authorities have wide powers under the Housing Acts to require improvements in standards of board and lodging accommodation. The Department of Health and Social Security plans to remind supplementary benefit staff that they should inform the local authority of any establishment that they visit where there seems to them to be cause for concern. I note the noble Baroness's point about leaflets; but so far as the issue of vouchers is concerned, it is for the benefit claimant to find his own accommodation. If the landlord insists on the issue of a voucher before he will accept him as a resident, then a voucher will be issued whatever the standard of the accommodation.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether it is true to say that his right honourable friend the Secretary of State has done a survey into the whole position with regard to social security? Can this matter not he looked at with more care than has been shown in the past?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am sure that this particular matter will form part of my right honourable friend's survey.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the costs of keeping people in bed and breakfast accommodation are far higher than the revenue cost of building new homes, which is really the only economic and humane way of reducing the enormous number of homeless people?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I do not think that the picture is as black as the noble Baroness points out. This Government have a record of selling council houses to those who need them, which has been a highly popular move; the noble Baroness will be well aware of that. Local authorities are beginning to build, particularly sheltered houses. Furthermore, there are a great many joint schemes, in conjunction with the DHSS, which are also beginning.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that, despite his answers, the prospects under this Government of adequate housing for the homeless are being reduced quite dramatically from the point of view of accommodation and also social security payments? When are the Government going to bring in measures to reverse this trend?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I know that some landlords make excessively high charges and this is something which we must draw to the attention of the local authorities when these matters arise. But, as I said just now in answer to the noble Baroness on the Front Bench, this Government have done a great deal and are continuing to develop means of improving the housing situation throughout the country.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he himself touched on the vital point, and it is right and proper that he did so? What annoys many people is this. Private organisations which own sub-standard housing accommodation and let it to the very poor in point of fact are drawing social security but getting very poor people to go and fetch it for them.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am not entirely sure what point the noble Lord makes; but, as I said, in the cases where excessive charges have been made by landlords every step that can be taken to bring it to the attention of the local authority is being taken.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that despite the responsibility which the local authorities have for inspecting the premises, it is only the DHSS, who hand out the vouchers, and the social security people who are capable of knowing if a house containing 20 rooms is housing 60 or 80 people?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, it does not apply just to the DHSS; it also applies to the local authorities. That is why, in answer to an earlier supplementary, I said that when the supplementary benefit officers go round and look at the accommodation they will draw to the attention of the authority standards which are not satisfactory.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister if he is aware that I have been informed that during the past two years a considerable amount has been done in helping the single homeless to find homes? Indeed, since Rowton Houses were closed many other much more suitable premises have been taken over and are now being used by local authorities and the DHSS. Is he aware of that?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for her helpful supplementary question.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that where unfurnished accommodation is available and the claimant has no furniture a single payment out of public funds for furniture is better than putting that claimant into furnished accommodation, which very often is bed and breakfast and is going to cost a great deal more than a single furniture payment?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I am aware of the situation with single payments; but I can say to the noble Baroness that this is a question to be decided jointly between the local authorities, who provide the houses, and the supplementary benefit authorities.

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