HL Deb 24 April 1985 vol 462 cc1121-52

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal rose to call attention to the case for investment in public housing and the severe difficulties facing the homeless and badly housed; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the intention of the debate standing in my name on the Order Paper is to draw attention to the wretched housing conditions endured by a great number of people who live in unfit and overcrowded circumstances or who are living in bed and breakfast accommodation, some of it described as squalid boarding houses and tiny bed-sits. If noble Lords wonder why I should be intending to draw this problem to the attention of your Lordships, I have experience as chairman of the Housing Committee on Birmingham City Council, where I was fully aware of the appalling conditions in the inner city of Birmingham. Also, the ward that I represented on that council, and the seat that I held when I was a Member of the other place, included what is called a deprived area. All I would say in describing that ward and that constituency is that it included the Birmingham gas works. That gives some idea of the conditions that are always found on the wrong side of the track.

But it is not only my own personal observations that have to be drawn to the attention of the House this afternoon. Only last week, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, for whom we in this House all have great respect, was speaking at the launching of the British Campaign for the United Nations International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. He said: Britain faces the prospect of a new generation of slums by the end of the century, unless something is done about the country's growing housing crisis. He went on to say: We in the United Kingdom are facing three major potential areas of crisis: a new generation of young people looking for homes, a rapid deterioration of housing stock and a low level of rebuilding, improvement and new building.

Earlier in the year, we had His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh chairing a conference on the interim report of the National Federation of Housing Associations and he spoke of, the serious difficulties facing the many people who would like a home to rent rather than to buy. On the other hand, he said: Renting from the local authority or a housing association has become much more difficult as a result of the decline in investment in this sector in recent years.

The Royal Institute of British Architects has recently launched a campaign on decaying Britain, and only this morning, without any prompting from me, I received a letter from the National Council of Building Material Producers, who stated that survey after survey has shown there is a vast backlog of work in the public sector that is an urgent and growing one, but is falling further and further behind.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting revealed in its recent homelessness statistics that there were 3.26 households claiming homelessness in 1983–84 per 1,000 of the population, and that the net cost to those authorities that are having to bear the burden of trying to do something to keep homeless people off the streets was in excess of £27 million.

I hope that the noble Lord the Minister who is to reply from the Government Benches will not give the same reply that we had on 15th April at Question Time, when at col. 438 of Hansard the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said: regarding local authority housing it is, as I say, a matter of priorities for the local authority concerned. I shall try to give the lie to that assertion. Local authorities thought that a very promising feature of local finance appeared to be the net accrued funds from the sale of council houses and land.

They felt that money raised in this way seemed the obvious remedy to alleviate the housing shortage and make substantial inroads into repairs. How bitterly disappointed they were when it became known that the Government intended to reduce capital receipts and reduce the proportion that they can spend. First, they were able to spend 60 per cent. of the capital receipts. This year they are being allowed to spend only 40 per cent. and next year only 20 per cent. The amount of good things that the local authorities thought they were going to achieve with those capital receipts is diminishing very quickly.

Let us look at the average amount spent in London and the London area on bed and breakfast accommodation. The figures given to me show that it costs approximately £5,000 a year for each family. What answer can anybody give to a local authority which has money in the bank from capital receipts which it cannot use and yet it has to spend millions of pounds per year on providing homeless families with accommodation which in many cases is completely unsuitable? Can the Government describe this as cost effective?

It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify also certain key issues in relation to the recently announced city action teams. For short, I think that the Government are calling them CATs. I am not going to say "miaow". Last week Government spokesmen gave more information regarding CATs. They said that the aim was to increase value for money and to achieve better targeting. I have never understood such phrases from the Government. They seem to me to become so monotonous because one never sees or hears the end results of how much money is going in, how much they have saved and, because of their better targeting, what better results they get. But we were led to understand from the press reports—we have been assured on this—that no money has been taken from other funds to fund CATs. No other programme is going to suffer.

Would it be impertinent of me to ask from where the Government have found this extra money? Will the partnership and programme authorities, which are endeavouring despite a lack of resources to tackle the problems of deprivation in the cities, have their funding continued? Will the priority estates projects which are operating in inner city areas continue? Is the placing of what the Government call extra resources under CATs to inner city areas merely a propaganda exercise or is real money going to go into the areas?

The Government are cutting capital expenditure, as I have outlined, in addition to making severe reductions in housing investment programmes. Perhaps I may give a quotation. It is not private but comes from the public council meetings of the Birmingham City Council whose report says: The House Conditions Survey 1981 clearly demonstrated the enormity of the problems facing the City. In general, the survey showed that house conditions in Birmingham were far worse than the situation nationally". As a result of those conditions, Birmingham's investment programme allocation this year is just a little over £62 million. This is a reduction of 7 per cent. on the previous year. How local authorities are supposed to be able to invest more when they experience such serious cuts is beyond me.

The housing waiting list in Birmingham at present is more than 16,000, which represents an increase of 25 per cent. on last year. The council has normally throughout the whole of the year more than 7,000 homeless families. The withdrawal of large sums of money in grant penalties does not help local authorities, either. I shall give one example and this will be my only other example. If we are to tackle homelessness, we have to look at it in terms of the amount of money that local authorities spend. The local authority in Birmingham have gone 2 per cent. over Government expenditure targets. This means that they are suffering a penalty of over £18 million less to spend. Perhaps I may use that figure to show how iniquitously the Government's grant penalties operate. If they had a 2 per cent. overspend last year, the penalty would have been only £7.71 million; but because of the increasing penalties which the Government keep on placing on local authorities, the penalty this year is £18.80 million.

Housing finance for building and for rehabilitation is a mess. The system of annual allocations makes it impossible for local authorities and housing associations to plan their programmes properly, and for the building industry to respond as effectively as possible. I urge the Government to make a commitment to funding extending beyond a single year. The mortgage cost coupled with finding a deposit effectively rules out many people in the housing purchase world. The fact is that the poorly-housed or the homeless are for the most part those on low incomes. Waiting lists of local authorities show quite clearly that there is a proven demand for public housing, either that provided by the local authority or by housing associations. The Building Employers' Confederation say that they have the capacity to satisfy that demand.

I had hoped to hear in the House this afternoon from an employer of a large building firm speaking as a specialist on how building employers would offer their aid to the Government in trying to overcome the serious problem in public housing. I would earnestly ask the Government to consider allocating further public funding for new building and rehabilitation work. The problem of finding decent homes for many people who have no homes or who are living in unfit conditions could be solved quite easily because there is massive unemployment in the construction industry. The money which is spent on dole payments for those persons and the loss of national insurance contributions and taxation means that some of that money is wasted money. It could be spent on employment and there would be a return to the Treasury kitty in the form of the tax that they would pay and national insurance contributions.

In conclusion, I would draw your Lordships' attention to a statement made by the Prime Minister recently. She said that the matrimonial home is the strongest thing in a free society. I would not disagree with that statement. I hope that this debate will show to the Government that we wish to improve the effective method of increasing family stability because clearly social benefits are attached to housing the homeless and the badly housed which go beyond building and repairing the accommodation needed.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.10 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for initiating and introducing this debate on so important a subject, and I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, for providing a text for the contribution I wish to make to it. He was speaking as he took up his presidency of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless Trust. He said: Adequate shelter is a necessity and should be seen as the right of all. This is one of the great causes of our times, for the provision of decent homes is the first step to overcoming so many of the other problems of the world's, and the United Kingdom's, disadvantaged". It will be our shame if we lend our weight to United Nations Year in 1987 without proving our determination to tackle much more thoroughly and imaginatively—and, yes, I dare say sacrificially—the challenge of the homeless and the ill-housed in our midst.

Because we probably very seldom penetrate areas of urban dereliction or stand among the desperate queues of applicants in local authority housing departments, we are usually only made aware of the need for greater investment in public housing when we grumble over our rates demand, or hear yet another speech in the other places stressing the inability of government to countenance further public expenditure, or perhaps when we walk along the Embankment under Hungerford Bridge and see with our own eyes one small, pathetic symptom of a problem which I fear is rapidly worsening.

All of us have our favourite causes which we wish to espouse and which we believe ought to be exempt from economic constraints. Mine is usually education; other Members of this House could rise to speak with equal passion, no doubt, on behalf of the Health Service, the environment, overseas aid, the unemployed, or many vital public services. But if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, is right in describing the provision of decent homes as, the first step to overcoming so many of the other problems"— and he has every right to make such a judgment out of his lifetime's engagement with some of the worst consequences of those problems—then we should be wise enough to unite in this cause, whatever other priorities we espouse.

I will not weary the House with statistics. Indeed, the statistics of homelessness are difficult to evaluate, as the Department of the Environment survey in the early 1980s recognised. The only certain conclusion to be drawn from them is that homelessness is still increasing and that it should be stemmed at all costs. Often, legislation which is intended to bring about this result has been nullified by unforeseen circumstances. For example, the new board and lodging regulations which come into force at the end of this month are forecast by the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless to result in an army of 50,000 young people constantly on the move from one unsatisfactory residence to another.

Homelessness, like poverty, has been with us for a very long time. We should have learned by now that short-term expedients can exacerbate the problem—and above all, that politically-motivated palliatives or penalties cause more long-term damage in housing than in any other field. Much of the present misery of the ill-housed is the harvest of earlier housing policy defects. For example, the latest estimate of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities is that £9 billion is needed to rehabilitate local authority inter-war housing stock and an equal sum to repair the defects of post-war building systems. These are figures which, in our present economic climate, will induce a state of paralysis among Chancellors and Governments, and so we are always in danger of passing on the problem while more and more potentially good homes are declared unfit and still thousands more house only those unfortunate citizens who dare not complain about the damp, the stench and the rats.

The House will not expect me in this debate to enter the controversy surrounding the Government's home ownership initiatives. Indeed, if all our citizens could own and maintain their homes there would be no need for politicians—and some might say that there would be no need, either, for bishops, for the Kingdom of God would surely have come! The right-to-buy legislation has achieved some increase in home ownership, and local authorities and housing associations have wrestled with the complexities of selling off part of their properties. They did so in the full expectation that the capital receipts would be available for ploughing back into the dwindling rented sector. By what reasoning, then, are they confined to spending only 20 per cent. of such receipts?

This brings me to my final point: the morale of the voluntary housing movement, dubbed by a former Minister of Housing and Local Government, Sir Keith Joseph, as, "the third area in housing". Most Members of this House will, like myself, have personal knowledge of the work of housing associations. In every part of the country and wherever there is a housing problem, however intractable, these associations, with their voluntary managers and expert staffs, will be found at work. Their motives are to combat precisely the conditions which this Motion deplores. Their record in making the fullest use of limited financial resources is an example to many public corporations. They have proved adaptable to the largest scale of housing development and to the smallest local and specialised enterprise. They have enlisted the support, encouragement and often the involvement of many Members of this House.

Is there any more suitable and less controversial way of meeting the difficulties facing the homeless and the ill-housed than substantially to increase the funding of housing associations? Faced by increasing demand and decreasing resources in real terms, the morale of both voluntary and professional workers is declining. We shall be unlikely to recruit another army of enthusiasts if we allow the present staff to dwindle to a demoralised remnant.

The Churches have played a significant role in increasing and sustaining the voluntary housing movement, and I can therefore make this m) final point with some relevance and certainly with conviction. I appeal for an increase of investment in housing associations so that homelessness can be banished from our midst and we can rid our society of this reproach. If we were to invest more money in housing associations, whose membership is so well and widely placed to influence public opinion, I am sure they would accept the additional responsibility and respond with enthusiasm.

3.18 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I am very pleased to be following the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry in this important debate. They have spoken tellingly of the social problems created by homelessness and inadequate housing in our midst—in the midst, we should remind ourselves, of a country which is among the most affluent in the world. We are in the affluent group of countries and yet we have these problems in our midst.

I should like to speak about the economic aspects of this problem dealt with particularly in the first words of the Motion. I should declare an interest as I am involved industrially with a number of firms in the building industry. Seeing the problem from that point of view, I should like to emphasise to your Lordships that it is very remiss of us not to be taking much greater care of the assets we possess than we do at present. There are many aspects of what is known as the infrastructure which call for a substantially increased investment merely to keep them up to suitable standards. Among these, the quality of housing calls out for serious action. To let that asset progressively decline over the years seems to me to be nothing short of neglecting our basic interests.

There are a number of bodies such as the National Economic Development Organisation which reported on this subject in January of this year. The Confederation of Building Employers, the National Council of Building Material Producers and a number of others have looked at this problem in great depth. They have come to the conclusion that we are running the risk of letting this asset essential both economically and socially, progressively run down.

Perhaps I may quote from a report of the Confederation of Building Employers when they were writing recently about the question of new houisng. I think it is worth repeating because this is from a professional body. They said: Construction of new housing is lagging far behind the need. The private sector faces serious difficulties in making up the whole of the shortfall caused by public sector cutbacks and unless something is done now the problem will only get worse". It is not only that the new starts are falling to historically low levels; in the public sector, for example, the forecast is of no more than 30,000 houses being started in the current year and next year, which is as low as records show, but it is also that the quality of the remaining houses is deteriorating. The longer that deterioration is allowed to continue, all the more shall we have a problem when finally we cannot avoid dealing with it.

Furthermore, in the meantime a large number of people will be condemned to live in indifferent and inadequate housing, if they get houses at all. So although in theory we have more houses than are needed, when you take account of the fact that 20 per cent. of the houses are conservatively estimated as requiring major repair and renovation, if you allow for that, then in fact we are living in a society which has totally inadequate housing.

If I may conclude my short intervention, it is to say that I believe in this issue of housing there is not only a major social problem to be faced, but also a very major economic problem. I believe when you have a combination of economic necessity and social need, serious action is urgently called for.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Soper

My Lords, in approaching even in a short debate a problem of such enormous import I propose, if I may, to set it within the categories of numbers and thereafter before I sit down to try to say something about the moral and the spiritual setting as well. I will quote from the statement given by Shelter in Crisis in Housing; and here I suppose I ought to declare an interest. For many years I was the chairman of that admirable association. It says: Eighty thousand households a year are accepted by the local authorities as homeless. About the same number are turned away; many more single homeless people, couples without children, are not even counted, let alone helped. Over 1 million households live in homes officially classified as unfit for human habitation; 2 million households share with others because they have no home of their own; 1 million households are overcrowded; 4 million households live in homes which are substandard or in need of major repairs, and over 1¼ million people are on council waiting lists". To add to that sorry catalogue, as has already been said, the situation is not improving; it is getting worse.

What is to be done depends in very large measure on the instruments by which this problem can be faced. According to such evidence as has come my way, there is an overwhelming argument for the infusion of large amounts of public money into one area of homelessness in particular. It is either the absence of or unsuitability of such accommodation as is desperately needed and cannot at this time be satisfied within the framework of existing legislation and provision.

Therefore, I make the first and what seems to me to be the most important claim: that what is required is a vast increase in the available accommodation at a suitable price and rent for those who are prohibited from finding anywhere to lay their heads today or are living in circumstances which are so totally unsuitable—and over a period of more than 60 years I have some knowledge of these matters—as to be an intolerable moral situation.

What can be done? I suggest there are certain specific ways in which the priority of provision in accommodation can be fertilised and undertaken. As this noble House will know, the Social Security Advisory Committee has been concerned to provide evidence and plans for a problem which perhaps is the most acute and difficult of all that faces us in this situation: the board and lodging which so often has to take place in the very unfortunate bed and breakfast hotel accommodation, so-called. I believe it is necessary for the Government to find the money whereby local authorities can purchase private property, which has been prohibited since 1979 by the Government; or at least where they are condemned to this thoroughly unsatisfactory situation of putting their homeless into bed and breakfast accommodation, they should be able to allow the local authorities to use that money for the building or rehabilitation of premises within their area.

Furthermore, I venture to say that this problem is exacerbated by the proposals of the present Government and makes for homelessness and rootlessness among youngsters, as was said by the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Coventry: not only those under 18 years of age who do not qualify, but also those under 26. Of course, there are various clauses whereby some can be helped in their present situation, but by and large, and I quote again from the Social Security Advisory Committee, here is a situation which cannot be regarded as less than tragic: One result will be the risk of creating a class of rootless young people unable to obtain permanent accommodation in one place because of the strictures on the time at which their supplementary allowance will be available, unable to find a job and obliged by benefit rules to move around constantly". That rootlessness is a major and peculiar danger, especially for those who are young. I have some knowledge of voluntary associations and will not spend the time underlining what the right reverend Prelate has already said. I believe that the voluntary associations have the capacity to do what, at this moment, is so desperately needed by way of the rehabilitation by service agencies of so much of the accommodation as is particularly occupied by old people who cannot improve sanitary conditions which are thoroughly undesirable.

Before I sit down, I venture to say something about the other dimension of this problem. It is my experience that if one thinks of the welfare state—and to me it is the most Christian thing that has happened in my lifetime—as providing, not on a basis of qualification but on a basis of need, food, clothing and shelter, my impression is that, in one sense at least lack of shelter is a more dangerous situation than even the poverty of the lack of food. I have known, and it has cheered my heart to find it so although it has not encouraged me to think of it as desirable, the way in which families have been held together in their poverty and have sacrificed for the common good such as is available to them. The psychological effect of homelessness is to deny to young people the vocabulary of their ideals or their beliefs. If, for instance, you take out of the vocabulary of the Christian faith those words which apply to home, to family table, to hearth fire, to brother, to sister, to family relationships, what would be left? Does it surprise your Lordships that in so many respects the secular generation of young people today is one which has been deprived, particularly in the field of homelessness, of the very categories of understanding whereby otherwise they might be inclined to adopt a less cynical, more optimistic and, indeed, a more reasonable way of thinking?

I believe that the welfare state is in danger of being eroded by those who fail to appreciate its absolute priority in terms of any civilised society today. Here we have an opportunity—and I hope that we shall not miss it or underrate it—to do what is required from the moral basis. If we are prepared, on the basis of necessity, to spend trillions of pounds upon arms resources because it is necessary for our wellbeing, I believe that it is much more necessary that we should be prepared to spend a vast sum of money which is much in excess of that which even our most optimistic opportunities of analysis have hitherto given either to the Government or to the Opposition. By so doing we shall be creating the wealth of a society in which ultimately the moral principles will prevail. I am therefore grateful for this debate, and I hope that it will result in an appreciation of the moral absolutism of providing for those who are homeless and without proper nourishment and care, because they belong to the family of God and should be recognised and aided.

3.33 p.m.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, I want to pursue a single issue, that of the DHSS resettlement units, which I raised in my Starred Question on 19th March in your Lordships' House and which I think comes within the general terms of the Motion put down by the noble Baroness, to whom we are all extremely grateful.

These units are the most basic accommodation of all for the single homeless. There are 23 of them throughout the country; they were originally run by the National Assistance Board and then by the Supplementary Benefits Commission; and the Social Security Act 1980 confirmed the responsibility of the DHSS. These units provide, in all, some 2,000 beds for men and women, about 1,600 of which are in use on any one night. If you go to one you are, of course, really down and out. In 1981, 51 per cent. of the residents had drink problems; 56 per cent. were considered unemployable; 49 per cent. had behavioural problems or characteristics which would make it difficult to place them elsewhere; and 30 per cent. had a record of mental illness.

We may wish that these things did not happen and did not exist in our society today, but it is a fact. Most of us can attest with our own eyes that living rough and begging are on the increase. My noble friend Lord Avebury, in a Question put by my noble friend Lord Grimond on 16th April, spoke of the crying scandal of those sleeping rough under Charing Cross arches and along the Embankment Gardens. We all know it happens. We can see it all round us. I shall not, in a short debate, go into the possible underlying social and economic reasons, but I will venture the assertion that in a civilised society these people are always offered some shelter and some help. It was so in the middle ages when the monastic institutions were the main agencies of welfare; it was to some extent so under the Elizabethan Poor Law, which persisted, until 1834; and it is still so today—but only just, because the Government want to phase out the current statutory provision and turn it over to voluntary bodies.

Before I pursue that, I want to conjure up a picture of a resettlement unit in the minds of your Lordships. I recently visited one at Crown Quay Lodge in Sittingbourne, Kent. I believe that the buildings originally belonged to the Territorial Army. They are sound and functional, and somewhat better than the barracks in which I started my army training, but with no frills. The staff are convinced of the importance of the job that they do and are skilled at it. There is a shift system which makes it possible to admit people round the clock, 24 hours a day. Some of the residents were in their 50s and 60s, and others notably younger. They were not all gentlemen of the road. It is a myth that these refuges serve only vagabonds who enjoy a life on the open road. They are used by the probation service and by local authorities who cannot make an immediate offer of housing, and they are often the only immediate refuge on the breaking up of a home.

The best features of Crown Quay Lodge are its dedicated staff, a high standard of cleanliness, the three hot meals a day, the discipline and the possibility of graduating to a single room. Last but not least, there is also the close relationship with local charities willing and able to attempt resettlement on a less transient basis. Crown Quay Lodge is a typical unit. Some are brighter and others are older and gloomier. Ideally, some should be closed and replaced. But they are the only 24-hours-a-day front line refuges in the country which will take someone in who has no money in his pocket and is desperate. Also, they act as supplementary benefit centres for their residents.

This brings me back to the Government's proposals and whether these are desirable or feasible. An immediate £2 million is to be saved by the closure of the rehabilitation centres, and these are basically retraining workshops which are attached to most of these units. The units themselves are then to be subjected to a rolling programme of closures accompanied by the distribution of the funds released in grant to voluntary bodies under Schedule 5 to the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 (as amended by the Social Security Act 1980). Two questions arise here. First, how much money is to be released? The total revenue cost of the units in 1983–84 was just over £12 million. It has been said that £8 million of maintenance work will be saved by the closures. On 19th March, in another place, at col. 457, Mr. Whitney said: the approximate annual amount saved from the closure of reestablishment centres which will be made available to provide better resettlement facilities is £2 million. That is £2 million per annum, if I understand it correctly. But if the full closure programme is implemented, surely that should release the current 12 million, excluding capital costs.

In his Answer to me, coincidentally on the same day, 19th March, at col. 404, the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, said: So far as charges are concerned, I can tell him that all the financial provisions which are made for DHSS units will be made available to the voluntary ones in the future, if they come about". That does not quite square with Mr. Whitney's answer, although I am sure there is no intention to mislead, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, will be able to clear up the matter at the end of the debate and tell us whether all the savings which are envisaged are to be ploughed back into the new scheme. If this is simply a cost-cutting exercise, we ought to be told that now.

The next thing is the role envisaged for the voluntary bodies. CHAR, the Campaign for the Single Homeless, which I think was referred to by the right reverend Prelate, has a rather curious position on this. It agrees with the Government that resettlement units should be closed and replaced on the following grounds: It is inappropriate for the DHSS or anyone else to run housing, income support, health and social services for homeless people that are separate, institutional, low standard and centralised". CHAR says quite categorically: Voluntary organisations have a poor record in running emergency accommodation but have managed shared housing very successfully. CHAR believes that emergency accommodation can and should be provided by local authorities and must not be seen as a function of the voluntary sector". It dots the "i"s and crosses the "t"s a little later on when it says: The experience of voluntary organisations running night shelters, crash-pads etc. is that they cannot properly meet the needs of homeless people, nor guarantee to secure housing for any but the smallest proportion of users". That rejection of the role the Government seek to thrust upon them by one of the principal charities concerned is, I think, partly due to the belief that these unfortunate people have a right to homes of their own and that the Government should change their housing policy. But that does not help us very much with the immediate problem in hand which the charities want to put on the lap of local authority housing and social services departments. That is their prescription.

That might be the right solution, but there is a major snag. There is no conceivable likelihood of local authorities being able or willing to take over those responsibilities under the present regime of rate capping, grant penalties and so forth. Nor am I at all convinced that an adequate case has been made out against a nationally run and funded network of refuges for the down and out. What is certain is that the proposal to close the existing network has not been thought through. In my view, there are few grounds for confidence that a satisfactory alternative will emerge.

I understand that a consultation process has been set in motion and that comments should be sent to Mr. Paul Blakey at the DHSS, Room 427, New Court, Carey Street. That is welcome and I should like to respond to that invitation on behalf of the SDP. But before sensible suggestions can be made it is vital that the Government should tell us how much money they are proposing to make available and what assistance, if any, they will give to local authorities if they are to carry the main burden, which is what will presumably happen. Obviously voluntary bodies will help but it is quite clear to me that they can play only an ancillary role. Do the Government accept that—that is, after all, what the voluntary bodies have said—and will they pay serious attention to the results of the consultative process? Finally, can the noble Lord say what sort of legislation will be brought forward to implement the Government's plans?

3.43 p.m.

Viscount Buckmaster

My Lords, like most of your Lordships in the Chamber this afternoon I warmly welcome the debate that we are having on the problems of the homeless and the badly housed. I shall deal with one area only, and that is the problems affecting the ethnic minorities; and I shall confine my remarks to the City of London.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that there are in this country altogether something like 2½ million people who are of ethnic minority. In London alone the figure is about 1.1 million and they represent no less than 18 per cent.—that is to say, almost a fifth—of the entire population. Whether we like that situation or not—and it may well be that some in your Lordships' House feel that there are too many of the ethnic minorities in Britain—they are here to stay and they have formed an integral part of our society. Indeed, so closely interwoven are they into the fabric of our society that the overall effect is something like that of a Highland tartan, and of course I do not mean any disrespect to the many noble Lords from Scotland. Let us call it a Highland kilt composed of many colours—brown, black, yellow, grey and so on. If one sends a Highland kilt to the laundry—I have never done it but many of your Lordships doubtless have—the whole of it has to be washed. We cannot say that we will wash only the white parts, the brown parts, the yellow parts or whatever it might be. The kilt has to be dealt with as an entity. I would submit to your Lordships that that is how we ought to consider the problem of our ethnic minorities.

Sad to say, there is discrimination in the spheres of housing and employment. That is despite the closely woven texture of our ethnic kilt and, much more important, despite the provisions of the Race Relations Act of 1976. I shall of course deal only with housing. In 1982 the Policy Studies Institute produced a very interesting report in which it concluded that 35 per cent. of the Asians in London were overcrowded and 16 per cent. of the Indian community, compared with only 3 per cent. of the white population. That is surely a very telling statistic.

More recently there was a report by the Commission for Racial Equality on the allocation of public housing in the borough of Hackney. That was published in 1984 and the conclusions that it reached are even more disturbing. Perhaps I may say at this stage that the London borough of Hackney has one of the highest proportions of ethnic minorities. The proportion is no less than 28 per cent. In Brent it is as high as 33.5 per cent—a third.

The report on conditions in Hackney reached three main conclusions: first, that black families on the council's waiting list were three times less likely to be offered a house, rather than a flat or maisonette, than white families in similar circumstances; secondly, that white families were over eight times more likely to be offered a new property than black families; and thirdly, that black families, on the other hand, were three times more likely to be offered pre-war property.

That report, as I said, related only to the London borough of Hackney. It seems that those findings could probably have been paralleled in other boroughs. When I spoke at the Second Reading of the Local Government Bill in your Lordships' House recently I pointed out that only one-third of the 32 London boroughs are now showing any real concern for their ethnic minorities. There is the very interesting case of the London borough of Ealing which has 25 per cent. ethnic minorities. That, believe it or not, is one of the least caring of all the boroughs.

Apart from the attitude of boroughs, another very important aspect is of course the attitude of many landladies. I think most of us would agree—indeed, I have seen it myself because I am in touch with many of those ethnic minorities—that all too often when a Pakistani, shall we say, or a West Indian comes to ask whether there is a room to rent he is given a flat-out, no, however much accommodation may be available. We do not know the full extent of this discrimination, but quite clearly it defies statistical analysis. It is very difficult to legislate against.

I come now to the specific problems of refugees, all of whom, of course, come within the broad category of ethnic minorities. Here I might refer to the very stimulating debate we had when the Supplementary Benefits Requirements and Resources (Miscellaneous Provisions) Regulations 1985 were debated in your Lordships' House on Maundy Thursday, 4th April. There was at that time an overwhelming feeling that these regulations were totally unjust.

I see that some noble Lords who spoke with me on that occasion will be speaking again today.

I will not repeat what I said then but I must just make two points very briefly. One is that if these regulations go ahead as they are drafted at the moment two internationally recognised hostels run by the British Refugee Council will have to close because the rents they charge are above the new figure stipulated. Secondly—and this point was raised briefly by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry—there is a provision that people under 26 should move on and seek different accommodation every few weeks. That is quite deplorable, particularly in the context of refugees who, above all, need the stability and continuity provided by stable accommodation.

My final point is that as I see it—and I may be wrong here—there is something clearly wrong with the system of making rent payments. I have been in touch with several refugees and they have been left in some cases for six or eight weeks without a single payment. They go along to the DHSS office; they are told, "Well, this is in hand; we will deal with it tomorrow; we will send you a form". The problem is not dealt with tomorrow; no form is sent. I served for many years in the third world. I was conscious of the most appalling bureaucratic delays and inefficiency, and I would almost say that some of these bureaucratic bungles in London seem to equal the worst I have experienced in the third world.

I think we can all agree that the problem of the homeless is a sore thumb which sticks out all over London. In my view, the sorest parts of this very sore thumb are the problems suffered by the ethnic minorities.

3.55 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I too should like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Fisher on providing this opportunity to discuss what I consider to be one of the most serious domestic problems facing our nation—namely, the increasing numbers of the homeless people of all ages, single or married. It is always a pleasure—a daunting pleasure no doubt—to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, who never fails to stir certainly my conscience with his contributions. I have heard him on a number of occasions in similar debates. I am grateful too to my noble friend Lord Soper, for filling in, from his vast experience in this field, some of the vital statistics that give us some idea of the size of the problem to which this Motion refers.

There have recently been a number of reports and surveys on different aspects of the homeless situation. Noble Lords may have read an article in the Guardian of 15th April last under the heading "£15 billion backlog on Council Maintenance". That is a telling figure referring to a report published by the Government auditor, the Audit Commission, which notes that local authority capital spending has fallen by more than 40 per cent. since the oil crisis in 1973. The report goes on to say that this £15 billion backlog is growing by £1 billion per year and that renovation will soon become prohibitively expensive. They go on to calculate that local authority spending is likely to decline from £75.5 billion last year to something like £3 billion in the year 1990. I could not believe the figures. If they had not come from the auditor—for whom I have the greatest respect from past experience—I would not have believed that such a reduction was possible, from £75.5 billion last year to £3 billion in 1990. The report mentions the waste that occurs because of the delays to projects, pressure to spend before the year's end, failure to plan ahead, and abrupt curbs in programmes.

I know that many members who have local authority experience will recognise the problems that were outlined in that report, particularly (in my own case) that aspect of spending before the year's end. It is something that always irked me when I was a member of a local authority and a member of a health authority: this rush to spend money before the year end seems an obscene way of dealing with our capital spending provisions. It is no accident, nor is it a coincidence, that all over London now you will see a spurt of road building or road mending activity—albeit very necessary—to spend the money that is left before the end of the year. That is a disgraceful waste of planning so far as the homeless and other priorities are concerned.

I was pleased to see that the Secretary of State has welcomed the report of the Audit Commission as part of his review. He did not say that he accepted it, but he certainly welcomed it as part of the review that he is having into local government capital spending. I should like to ask the noble Lord who is to reply when that review will be completed, and if he can assure us that the result will be debated in this House.

The Times on 19th April—and this has already been referred to by my noble friend the Baroness who opened the debate—reported an announcement by the Royal Institute of British Architects of its campaign called "Decaying Britain". The report quotes Mr. Michael Manser, the President of the RIBA, accusing, the Government of creating 'a revenue time bomb in neglecting essential repair and maintenance work on houses, schools, hospitals and other public buildings' … If current policies are pursued"— he said— they will irrevocably damage the built environment upon which every enterprise in this nation depends … We will become a dilapidated second-rate annexe to Europe and, worse, we will be divided between those who are adequately housed and those who are not, those who work in adequate, efficient premises and those who do not, and those who lead civilised and fruitful lives and those who do not". Those sentiments have been expressed by many, many noble members on both sides of this Chamber in recent debates, and are now being expressed by professional experts. The Government must listen to those kinds of opinion.

As has been mentioned, in voluntary organisations like CHAR, like SHELTER, like SHAC (with whom I have had close associations over a number of years) and many other dedicated organisations, have been pointing out the effects on the ground where these things matter: the effect in the street and in the homes, or the lack of homes, of the truths enunciated in these recent reports. We all know the causes, the causes of homelessness are well known.

The redevelopment of properties into self-contained units for long lease letting has meant the disappearance of many guest houses, lodging houses and digs. The updating of antiquated hostels—like the Rowton Houses—has meant a shortfall of thousands of places for the single homeless. One Rowton House alone being refurbished has meant a loss of between 500 and 600 bed spaces for the single homeless in London. That is a colossal loss in one particular hostel. That is multiplied many, many times certainly throughout London and more times throughout the country. It is a tremendous problem. The impending closure of large mental hospitals, for instance Friern Barnet, will create appalling difficulties for boroughs within those catchment areas. The borough of Camden, which I know best, is one of them.

There are the housing difficulties for single women, for whom there has never been enough provision. There are the ex-psychiatric patients I have mentioned. There is the problem that has emerged of the battered women. There are the ex-offenders who have been mentioned. There are children leaving care. These have all added to the figures. What a few years ago was forecast as a 4,000 or 5,000 shortfall in bed spaces has been overtaken long ago. The figure will be three or four times that amount if we now add all the other factors. There are the pressures of family stress, of marital breakdown, the increase in unemployment and the movement towards cities like London by young people and older people seeking jobs.

If we consider the cuts in local government and housing association revenue expenditure and resources, to say nothing of rate capping, then we have an idea of the colossal size of the problem that is facing the homeless, more than anybody, and the impossible problem that is facing the voluntary organisations which are trying to deal with it. When I was a Member in another place, with the assistance of many other Members, including notably my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick and another Member, Jim Marshall of Leicester, I tried to introduce private legislation to do something about these problems. We tried to firm up the legislation and to introduce new legislation. To be fair, we had some support and understanding from the Ministers who were then in charge and minor improvements were made. However, there has been a hardening, a toughening up, since that period. The situation has now become worse then even we anticipated in those days.

Yet another report, the report of the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, has taken up this plea, this demand for more legislation for firmer legislation and for more resources to be made available for the purpose of trying to resolve this problem of the homeless. There is the impossible dilemma, which I have mentioned, facing the voluntary organisations, particularly those involved with special needs housing. By "special needs" I mean the needs of those to whom I have referred, such as the ex-psychiatric patients, the ex-offenders, the battered women and so on. There are many. They are faced with problems, especially in relation to the possible abolition of the GLC and the inadequate provision that is being made in the event of that authority disappearing. The possibility of the revenue it was able to supply and the resources it was able to give to those organisations also disappearing is something that is extremely worrying.

Already we have not just proposals but almost firm bookings for what are called tent cities. I read about the possibility of a tent city being set up in my own area, on Hampstead Heath. If these voluntary organisations disappear and there are no resources, there will be so many thousands of homeless people wandering the streets that there will not be enough cardboard boxes to accommodate them. These cardboard boxes were mentioned by the right reverend Prelate in his speech. We know about the cardboard box problem in Chad. There will certainly not be enough cardboard boxes available. There is also talk about the setting-up of tent cities. I am sure that none of us can live with that kind of solution in 1985.

It has been mentioned that 1987 is the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. It has also been mentioned in the speech made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, who has been here for most of this debate, and who is the president of the council for that year in this country. At the introductory conference he warned that the United Kingdom may soon be facing the prospect of a new generation of slums. There are some, like me, who think we are already in that generation. It is not a question of "soon"; we have already arrived there, and we must do something about it. In view of this, and all the other reports which have been issued and to which the Minister has access, I should like to ask him what plans the Government have to combat homelessness, certainly in the international year for the homeless, and beyond.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing this extremely important subject. I also find it a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, with many of whose remarks I very much agree. I agree particularly with his remarks about the effect of local government finance, the need for repairing the housing already in existence, and also the effect of closing hostels and such like, which I think was also referred to by my noble friend Lord Kilmarnock.

So far, every speaker has emphasised the hardships caused by inadequate housing and homelessness. I do not intend to go over that again. My noble friend Lord Ezra pointed out that here we are, one of the richest countries in the world, and yet we are unable to house our population. The first question I want to ask is why this is so. It is not that we have not spent a great deal of money on housing, because we have; we have spent enormous sums of money on housing. Yet we face this situation.

First, I suggest that much of that money has been mis-spent, that our policies towards housing have led to inflexibility. We would have been wiser, where possible (though I agree it would not have met all cases), to subsidise the person who needed help in finding a house rather than the house itself. Such a person could then have taken that subsidy with him and tried to get a house where he wanted one. Secondly, we have to face this extraordinary situation of these hundreds of thousands of unoccupied flats and houses. In answer to a recent Question of mine, I think the noble Lord the Minister said there were something like 30,000 such houses and flats in London alone. I believe there are equivalent numbers in Scotland. I should like to ask him if he has any overall figure for the whole of Britain.

It is true that some surplus housing is inevitable because people move. However, I should not have thought it needed to be on this scale. It seems to me to have arisen partly from sheer bad planning and bad architecture. For instance, a good many of those tower blocks and many other kinds of housing were so badly designed and badly built that now people will not live in them. Secondly, much of the housing is in the wrong place. The population has been moving very fast and we now find that some places are over-housed while others are totally inadequately provided for.

Further, we are very guilty in not attending to repairs and improvements. This point was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. This throw-away society seems to have had a disastrous effect on housing. Instead of keeping up and repairing old houses, we allow them to fall into disrepair and then build new houses which in many cases turn out to be extremely badly built. Let us avoid the mistakes that have already been made. Let us avoid the type of architecture and planning which has led to this situation of there being vast quantities of unoccupied houses. What is to happen to these houses? I suggest they should be sold off. They have no tenants to be sold to, but they should be sold off to anyone who will take them off the hands of local authorities. The proceeds should then be used for either assisting people to find houses or for building new houses.

I reiterate what I said in my supplementary question a few days ago: that I believe that local authorities should be allowed to use at least a great proportion of the proceeds from the sales of houses in providing new houses for letting. I also suggest that the Government look at some of the suggestions made in the Economist on 6th April, particularly in regard to housing co-operatives and housing associations, which have already been mentioned by the right reverend Prelate. I believe that they should be much more used in this country and much more encouraged than they are at present.

I now come to the restrictions on letting. There is no doubt that the Rent Acts now are a considerable bar to flexibility in housing. They result in a great many buildings being under-used. To my mind, the present danger is not so much that exorbitant rents will be charged. After all, rent-tribunals exist to stop that. However, what is happening is that people whose families have grown up and gone away will not let rooms in their houses because they are frightened that once they take people in they will never get rid of them. Also, I have met tenants who are suffering harassment from landlords, not to get a higher rent out of them but to drive them out altogether because what they want to do is to then put the house on the market and dispose of it. These are the difficulties today. Therefore, I think that we should look again on the matter of the Rent Acts and look at the effects which they may be having on the use of our housing stock.

I emphasise again that it is not so much that we lack housing stock but that it is in the wrong place and very badly repaired and maintained, as are many of the neighbourhoods. In visiting many cities, I am deeply depressed not only by the housing but also by the surroundings and the fact that people who really need housing have not the means to find it or to pay the rent. If the Government are maintaining the attitude that housing is not really their primary responsibility, that it is the responsibility of local authorities and that all they have to do is to give guidance, then I beg them to give guidance along the lines that I have suggested, especially as they have emphasised this matter of empty housing. The Government should give guidance to local authorities on how they should dispose of this quantity of useless buildings and what they can do with the proceeds.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, may I first express appreciation, like other noble Lords, to my noble friend Lady Fisher for introducing this debate on housing and the homeless. This is in natural accord with her longstanding interest in the topic. As my noble friend has herself stated, she was a former chairman—a distinguished one—of Birmingham housing committee. Our political careers appear to have progressed somewhat in tandem. During the same period, I was chairman of the housing committee of another large city having, like Birmingham, severe housing problems. That was Manchester. It is for these reasons that I speak today.

The debate enables me to express, together with other noble Lords, my concern regarding the deteriorating situation in housing. Gone are the halcyon days of building more than 300,000 houses a year under either Conservative or Labour Governments. The house-building programme under the present Government is pitiful by comparison. This is mainly due to the Government's progressive reduction of financial limits imposed on local authorities in their housing investment programmes.

The only success that the Government seem continually to claim, although we have not heard much about it lately, is the enforced sale of council houses—a somewhat shallow claim now, I believe, when one considers that the capital receipts raised by such sales, referred to by my noble friend Lady Fisher, are being denied to local authorities on an increasing scale. One recalls that the main plank on which the present Government were supposed to have introduced and implemented the sale of council houses was to raise money for replenishing stock and building new council houses to replace those that had been sold. However, the money is continually being reduced and almost withheld.

The continued withdrawal and reduction of financial targets to local authorities by the Government has wrecked any possibility of housing authorities formulating their forward-looking programmes. This is at a time when local authorities are having to grapple with corrective treatment or the demolition of housing accommodation built by the use of industrial systems sponsored and supported by successive Governments of both major parties. This matter has already been mentioned during the debate. I know that the Association of Municipal Authorities has quantified the sum required to deal with this problem as a minimum of £10 billion. This comes on top of some of the other pressures that we are discussing in the debate.

May I now refer to an article in The Times on Monday this week headed "Housing in crisis" which stated (and by leave I quote): Under pressure from both the public and private sectors, the Government is to undertake a comprehensive survey of the housing stock to assess how to maintain and improve the country's dwellings, which, in spite of considerable effort, is no nearer to solution than a decade ago". In fact, figures show that the situation has deteriorated seriously over the last decade. The article goes on: The survey, to be carried out through local authorities, should be completed in time to influence next year's public spending plans, and will almost certainly corroborate evidence collected by bodies, including the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Building Employers' Confederation and the National Home Improvement Council, which shows the stock to be in a parlous, and in some cases still deteriorating condition". May I make a personal plea to the Minister and ask that he accepts the situation and that he will give serious consideration to any submission made to him by the Institute of Maintenance and Building Management, whose members, talking in terms of the public sector, will have the major role in organising and carrying out any policies determined by the Minister. I do not believe that there is any need for such a survey. The evidence has already been collated by a number of well-established and non-political bodies which have reported on the issue. They include the Policy Studies Institute and NEDO, to which reference has already been made, and the Audit Commission on Local Government mentioned by my noble friend Lord Stallard, which reported only just over a week ago. The RIBA has also expressed its views in similar terms.

Every known agency dealing with the public sector—non-political in absolutely the purest sense—is coming to the same finding, that the time for action is now and that it is urgent. Along with a number of colleagues who have been fighting this battle for a number of years, I am pleased also to discover the new allies that we appear to have attracted in the form of the support of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, who I am sorry to see has had to leave the Chamber. The support of such worthy people in our cause is gratefully received and very much appreciated. Though these people were showing their concern, I do not believe that there is any need to await the findings of any further bodies. Action must be taken now as a matter of extreme urgency. Any proposals put thereafter can be built into an ongoing policy or programme. I have so far tried to show the problem as highlighted by various responsible bodies. Let me now give some details and illustrations. It was, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who referred to a report by the Building Employers Confederation. The confederation has issued some worthy, excellent and detailed reports on what has been happening. A statement that it issued on 12th February, headed "Serious housing shortage threat", stated: A disturbing shortfall of 100,000 new homes built in each of the past seven years is revealed in a report—'Spotlight on new housing'. It says that construction is lagging far behind any reasonable assessment of need. In 1984 only 198,000 houses were completed compared with an average of 304,000 per annum during the 1970s. Last year only 152,000 new private homes were started by builders—15,000 fewer than in 1983—while council house building in the public sector fell to a post-war record low"— this was also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra— of only 38,000–9,000 less than in 1983 and 25 per cent. of the level of a decade ago". That means that we are building one house now for four a decade ago. The report goes on: There have recently been massive cut backs in the public sector, yet the private sector faces serious difficulties in making up the shortfall due to shortages of land at prices that enable house builders to meet the demand for housing that people can afford. The private sector is also faced with the widening gap between incomes and house prices". That is what the confederation says. It concludes: We need to build many more new homes to high standards at prices people can afford if we are to realise the Government's stated goal of making Britain one of the best housed nations in the world. The alternative is to continue the present policies of neglect and see an increasing number of people trapped in unfit, sub-standard and overcrowded accommodation which requires extensive renovation or demolition and replacement. That alternative will lead to a serious housing crisis by the end of the decade". In the short time remaining I should like to say a few words as regards maintenance. Twenty per cent. of all our housing is deemed to be in need of basic improvement to the tune of £2,500 per property. Those of us concerned with housing all know that because of Government cutbacks there are tremendous cuts in the normal routine maintenance that local authorities like to undertake of necessity to rescue and retain their housing stock.

Finally, the Motion refers to homeless people. Today we are seeing an ever-increasing number of people registering on waiting lists for houses. We are seeing an ever-increasing number of people who are being registered as homeless under the existing laws. The agencies which I have mentioned on the professional side, the building side and the trade union side—such as the major union UCATT—are ready to respond to this call and to deal with the problem. There is only one component lacking and that is Government support and Government funding to deal with the problem. I urge the Government to reassess their policy without delay and to set these agencies and people at the task of correcting the deficiencies that we are now experiencing.

4.21 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I rise a little earlier than I think the timetable as originally scripted would have called upon me to do, but that is certainly no criticism of those who have spoken. I believe that every speaker has spoken with a full measure of seriousness, of knowledge and of experience. They have all demonstrated that they are highly critical of the attitudes, the performance and the philosophy of the Government.

The sad fact is that until the Minister rises there will not have been one speaker in what is admittedly a short debate who has come along to this House to defend or to support the Government's record in this matter. I of course join with everyone else who has spoken in warmly congratulating my noble friend Lady Fisher not only on her good luck, but also on the tone of her speech. My noble friend made a constructive speech, a speech which was designed to help the Minister and to remind the Minister, if indeed he needed to be reminded—and this is not an offensive phrase—of the true nature of the problems that many Members of this House come across every week. There was no one better than my noble friend Lady Fisher to bring to the House the depth of experience which she possesses. I would certainly say that not only on her behalf but on behalf of everyone on this side of the House.

People sometimes ask why we on this side of the House constantly bring back housing as the subject of debate time after time after time. I can tell the noble Minister that so far as we are concerned we return time after time to the subject of housing because we understand the true gravity of the impact on the lives of ordinary people of being adequately, poorly or well-housed. We know—and we are not exclusive in this regard—from our experience of serving as councillors and living in constituencies (because we are still in touch with local conditions) the wretched conditions, and we know the people and the families. They are not statistics; they are not simply part of a report. We know the devastating effect on relationships and the appalling consequences for families and, indeed, for the nation.

I begin my contribution to this debate by supporting the main indictment and charge which has been sustained by previous speakers against the Government. The Government have no programme for dealing with the nation's housing crisis. They have no resources and will make no resources available. They offer no hope to the millions who are in housing need. This is a hope-less Government.

I should like to remind the Minister of the state of the housing stock and the related housing needs if, indeed, he needs reminding—and I believe he does—time after time. The situation is as follows: 1,200,000 households are on waiting lists for council accommodation, of which 200,000 council tenants are in what is officially classified "overcrowded" accommodation; 200,000 are sharing accommodation; 190,000 are on waiting lists for sheltered housing; 17,000 are waiting for disabled units. According to the English House Condition Survey—and these statistics have already been alluded to but they are worth repeating—1,100,000 dwellings are unfit for human habitation; 390,000 are fit but lack basic amenities; 574,000 require repairs costing more than £7,000; and 2,500,000 require repairs costing between £2,300 and £7,000. Over 80,000 households will be accepted as homeless this year, many more will be refused help.

When we look at the slum clearance programme, we find that it is at an all time low level and at that level of clearance it is estimated that every existing house will have to last 900 years. We know the enormity of a problem of that nature.

Last week the Minister alluded twice to the number of houses managed by councils that were left empty. The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, also made reference quite properly to the better use of these properties. From the way in which the Minister talked about empty housing, one would think that councils were the biggest culprits in keeping houses empty. In fact, 2.3 per cent. of all public sector housing is empty. Indeed, that is a matter to which the Minister alluded. However, 4.2 per cent. of all private sector housing is empty and 6.9 per cent. of all Government-controlled properties are empty. Therefore, when the Minister is trying to find reasons for hitting councils over the head once again for keeping property empty, he ought to say why it is that three times as many properties owned by the Government are kept empty. It all has to do with the resources, the HIP allocation and a great many other matters as well.

The Government are wholly sovereign over the ability of councils to make any impact upon the dreadful catalogue which I have just read out. They do so through two prime agencies—the rate support grant and the housing investment programme. Let us spend just a little time looking at how the Government help to solve the housing problem through the rate support grant and the housing investment programme. We have just seen the devastating indictment of the Government's policies published this week by the Audit Commission, which points out that, globally, as a result of Government policies, ratepayers have been forced to pay £3 billion more over the past few years simply because the Government have denied the councils a fair and proper allocation of rate support grant.

In 1979–80 London as a whole received in rate support grant a sum of nearly £1,296 million and that was equivalent to 40 per cent. of its total expenditure of £3,229 million. If in 1984–85 London as a whole had received in rate support grant a sum equivalent to 40 per cent. of its total expenditure, it would have received £2,294 million. This would have been £918 million more than was actually received.

I live in the London Borough of Enfield, which I have had the pleasure to represent. The London Borough of Enfield received in rate support grant in 1979–80 the sum of £41 million, which was equivalent to 60 per cent. of its total expenditure. If in 1984–85 the London Borough of Enfield had received the same equivalent support of 60 per cent., it would have received £60 million. However, it received only £46 million. Therefore, the ratepayers of Enfield have paid £14 million more in rates simply because the Government have decided that they are going to save the money.

As regards the HIP allocations, I should like to give some figures from the London area. I happen to have the honour to be president of the Association of London Authorities. May I simply take the authorities who are members of the ALA. In 1979–80 they put in a bid for £1,548 million and they got £1,000 million. They got, in effect, almost two-thirds of what they asked for. But in 1985–86 they put in a bid for £1,023 million and all they got was £333 million, one-third of what they asked for.

Authorities do not idly ask for money. They ask for it because they have programmes which the Government have told them to get on with. This Minister has said more than once that it is up to the authorities to decide how they are going to spend their money. They want to spend their money on improving housing, and they want to get rid of the homeless. They ask the Government for adequate sums of money, and that is the response. The London borough of Enfield received, in 1979–80, 95 per cent. of what it asked for, but in 1985–86 it made a bid for £18 million and it got £5 million, 30 per cent. of what it asked for. These are some of the realities that the Minister had better take on board when he is trying to pass the blame and the buck so far as local authorities are concerned.

This Government say that they have a solution to the housing problem—owner-occupation. Let me tell the Minister what the Housebuilders Federation has said about people becoming owner-occupiers: One million households on £6,000 or less have a maximum mortgage capacity of £17,500. Where the household contains one person, the maximum is between £12,500 and £15,000. The average cost of a new house is £33,000, and that of existing houses is £29,000, although these figures hide substantial regional variations. However, the average price of houses bought by first-time buyers is £21,000. This means that those on incomes of £5,000 or less face a gap of between £3,500 and £7,500, which needs to be made up by a saved deposit". What conclusion does the Housebuilders Federation—certainly no friend of Members on this side, and possibly more allied to the Government—come to? It says that the, Government must therefore turn its attention to the provision of rented housing as for most people this is now the only form of housing which they can have". Let us look at the advice that the Government are receiving from building societies. Let me quote from a reputable and successful building society, the Nationwide: An 'average' first-time buyer with a 25-year mortgage would have had to spend 24.1 per cent. of net income on repayments last quarter—up from 18.3 per cent. in the first quarter of 1984. With house prices rising faster than borrowers' average income, the recent increase in mortgage rates is particularly hard for buyers to afford. Previous owner occupiers taking out mortgages have also been hit by these trends, and were spending 22.6 per cent. of net income on repayments in the first quarter of this year, compared with 17.2 per cent. a year previously. There are, of course, a great many aspects to the problems of housing and many of them have been touched upon. Let me simply remind the Minister of the trends over the period in capital and revenue spending. Housing revenue and capital expenditure have both been cut in absolute terms, and the housing programme as a whole has suffered a disproportionate cut as compared with the other areas of public expenditure. This of course is direct Government policy. The trends over the past 10 years are alarming. Ignoring inflation, for every £100 spent on public housing in 1974–75, £65 will be spent in 1984–85. Allowing for inflation, for every £100 spent on publiic housing in 1974–75, £21 will be spent in 1984–85.

After substantial consensus since the war, for more than 30 years, as an act of deliberate political policy by this Government, housing has been taken off the nation's agenda by Secretary of State Heseltine and by Housing Minister Stanley. Despite the most alarming and depressing reports from, among the others, the House of Commons Environment Committee and the 1981 English House Condition Survey, this Government have closed their eyes and their ears to all sounds of pain, of anger and of despair. In public housing we have seen a steady, heavy transfer of cost and charge from the public purse to the tenant. The most cynical aspect of this abandonment of the needy in housing to the tender mercies of what the present Housing Minister calls "the magic of the market place" is the furtive, secretive, clandestine way successive Tory Housing Ministers have sought to keep their disreputable deeds out of the arena of public debate.

Relations between this Government and local authorities are at an all-time low. Nowhere are they lower than in the field of housing. My noble friend Lady Fisher, from her lifetime involvement in seeking to improve the lot of working people, recognises that if a family has a decent home—not just a roof over its head, but a chance to grow—it can give to the nation far more than the nation need ever give to that family.

This Government think they have a housing policy by selling council houses. They are wrong. This Government think they have a housing policy by producing legislation which cripples the abilities of councils who want to solve their housing crisis and by interfering and bullying them into submission. They are wrong. This Government have betrayed the trust of millions in housing need who voted them into office. They have abdicated their responsibilities not only to the needy but to the nation. It will fall to the lot of the next Government, a Labour Government, to see that those who have been abandoned and betrayed get what they so desperately need—a Government who put better housing for all our people at the top of the nation's agenda.

4.37 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the subject of housing, with all its ramifications, has been one of recurring interest in your Lordships' House for many years. I therefore welcome this opportunity to debate these important issues again. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, for putting down this Motion today. It will not surprise her to learn that I do not draw the same conclusions from her speech as she did. She says, "The problem can be solved quite easily" by (guess what) the same old, pale, tired solution of throwing money at the problem which resulted in throwing this country into the arms of the IMF.

In considering this subject, we must be aware of one very germane point which is so often ignored, particularly by the party opposite. I was interested to note that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry was obviously aware of it from what he said. This is that the overwhelming choice of people today is to own their own homes. Not only is this what they want, but surveys have shown that over 90 per cent. of young people aged under 35 expect to achieve that aim within 10 years. We have responded, and will respond, to this need.

This is why home ownership is the cornerstone of the Government's housing policy, and the success of this policy is amply demonstrated by the undeniable fact that since this Government came to power the country has seen one of the most rapid rates of expansion in home ownership since the war. By the end of last year the number of owner-occupied dwellings in Great Britain had increased by 1.8 million since May 1979. Owner-occupation has now passed the 63 per cent. mark in England. There is no reason why it should not rise to 70 per cent. over the next decade. The Government's right to buy policy has played a major part in this. Since 1979 over 800.000 public sector dwellings have been sold in Great Britain, almost all to sitting tenants, and most under the right to buy.

Not only this. Through our low cost home ownership initiatives we have made home ownership a reality for thousands of people who would not otherwise have been able to buy. Over 70,000 homes have been sold under low cost home ownership schemes, including building and improving for sale, homesteading, shared ownership and building under licence. And over and above that, 70,000 homes and more than 5,000 acres have been sold by local authorities and new towns—sufficient land for over 45,000 homes.

I am sure that the House will agree that this is a considerable achievement. Indeed, the private sector is making an increasing contribution to meeting housing need. Expenditure in the private sector is now the most important measure of investment in housing. Out of 200,000 dwellings completed last year, over 150,000 were in the private sector, the highest figure since 1976; and the most recent House Builders' Federation State of Trade Inquiry, published this month, is optimistic about the future, reporting that house builders were planning to increase their level of starts over the next year.

The Government therefore expect more people to have their needs met in the private sector. That is not to say there is not a role for the public sector to provide homes for rent. Of course, there is. There will always be a need to cater for those who are unable, for one reason or another, to own their own homes or meet their need in the private-rented sector. But, as more and more people fulfil their wishes to buy their homes, this role will change over the years to come. Contrast our approach, my Lords, with the blinkered and ineffective thinking of the party opposite! As I understand the speeches that we have heard today, from the other side of the House, their only solution is a massive programme of council house building. Why build vast municipal estates that people do not want to live in? A good, well-run local authority is one which puts the needs of the people that it is elected to serve before any other constraints. It is one which, if it perceived the demand for housing for, for example, first-time purchasers, says to itself, "How can we provide good quality housing for these people at prices they can afford and at the same time meet some of our own housing needs at little cost to the council?" The local authority with some lands owned for housing has basically two choices: to build for rent or to provide housing for sale either itself or by bringing in a private developer. What happens? We see local authorities split along ideological lines. What a nonsense this is I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, would agree. I may be old fashioned but I believe in giving people what they want. Take housing out of politics! That is what I say.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. It seems a little while ago but I recall him saying words something like: Why should we build vast council estates to put into them people who do not want to live there? Quite frankly, that is nonsense. I should like the Minister to tell us of the evidence from the people who are homeless and who want to be rehoused but who do not want to live in vast council estates. If the Minister is arguing about architecture or the manner of building public housing in the 1990s as opposed to the 1950s, he will have me on his side. However, public housing has advanced. But surely what we are talking about are the hundreds of thousands of council properties which have been denied being brought up to a good state of repair simply because this Government have said, "You shall not spend your own money through capital receipts, and even if you wanted to do so, we are not going to allow it; and we will reduce your rate support grant as well".

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, will allow me to make my own speech in my way. I shall come to those points which he has made and I fully recognise that there have been improvements in design, in building by local authorities such as he has said, since the 1950s. But I still reckon that all is far from perfect. There is quite a lot more that could be done in the public-rented sector to give people what they want.

I believe firmly that if local authorities and the private sector work together, it is possible not only to make a significant impact on housing needs but also to provide people with the housing they want. For example, a local authority could sell a site to a builder on condition that he builds low-cost homes that are offered to people either in local authority accommodation or on the waiting list. That would not count as public expenditure. In fact it would be the reverse. The local authority would enjoy the receipts from the sale of the land. As the properties were sold to sitting council tenants or to those on the waiting list, the local authority would get the benefit, at no cost to itself, of the re-lets or it would benefit from the reduced pressure on the waiting list. That solution would bring about a better form of tenure because, as I have said, home ownership is what people want.

Anyone looking objectively at housing, as did the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, should feel that that is a legitimate and cost-effective approach to tackling housing problems. If it is measured only in terms of the level of public expenditure, then it does not show up. That is why the analysis on which some noble Lords opposite rest their case is unsound. What the Government are doing and will continue to do is to harness the energy and resources of the private sector to tackle the problem with which the House is rightly concerned.

Your Lordships may well think this is a long introduction to the Government's response to the Motion of the noble Baroness this evening. However, I thought it right to put the rationale of our housing policy to the House. So, the question that I now have to answer is the one put essentially by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra: have we made sufficient resources available for public sector housing? Contrary to the impression given by the party opposite, we have made very substantial sums available. The gross provision for public sector investment in housing for the present financial year is just over £3 billion. This has been referred to by many noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord Soper. All have said that they did not reckon that this was enough. The housing corporations' programme for 1985–86 of £685 million is sufficient for new starts on about 17,000 rented dwellings and 5,000 low-cost home ownership dwellings. By any standards, it is a substantial programme of public expenditure to support investment made by housing associations. I am not talking about the total figures; I am talking about these particular figures.

It reflects the fact that this Government continue to attach great importance to the contribution that can be made by housing associations in meeting a wide range of housing needs. It is certainly true that we have taken some firm measures to reduce the risk of actual expenditure in 1985–86 exceeding that provision. That has been necessary because spending in the past two years has run well ahead of the planned level and of what the country can afford. Keeping the total public expenditure within the planned levels is essential for economic strategy. If public expenditure is allowed to rise significantly above those levels, the public sector will absorb too big a share of the available finance; there will be increased pressure on interest rates and growth of investment in the private sector will be impeded. Investment in economic recovery is proceeding apace and it is expected to gather further momentum in the year ahead. In the long run it will help no one if this recovery is interrupted.

Before I leave the subject of capital receipts, perhaps I might remind the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, that not all capital receipts are restricted to 20 per cent. There are some categories that remain at 100 per cent. and these reflect our particular policies. They are building for sale, building for sale under licence and acquisition of housing for resale; for example, under shared-ownership schemes. Even where the prescribed proportion has been reduced to 20 per cent. we are not depriving the authorities of the use of these receipts. What we are doing is spreading their use over a number of years to reduce the economic impact. The housing needs of the homeless have been the subject of recent discussion in your Lordships' House and they were graphically described in the horrifying words of the noble Lord, Lord Soper. Again, I have no doubt that he is right in what he says; but, again, I do not agree with his conclusion; and I shall explain why.

I have explained the Government's policy on the homeless in answer to questions from the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 imposes a duty on local authorities to arrange accommodation for homeless people in specified priority need categories. For homeless people outside the priority need categories, the authorities have a duty to provide advice and appropriate assistance. The Government have asked authorities to interpret this duty as generously as resources permit. In England, in the first half of 1984, 9 per cent. of those for whom authorities arranged accommodation for the homeless were outside the priority categories.

I can assure the House and the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, that the Government are fully aware of the difficult problems being faced by some local authorities, particularly in London. I can tell him that we take particular account of those problems when making the housing investment programme allocation. Ten per cent. of the generalised needs index, which is the formula used to distribute the HIP resources, is made up by a special homelessness indicator. The department takes account of particular problems faced by individual authorities through the local discretionary element of the distribution.

We are helping in a number of other ways. For example, the Government's hostel initiative has resulted in a major expansion in the provision by housing associations of small, modern hostels, often providing care and support. It is estimated that some 11,000 places have been approved since May 1979. This has been a valuable way of improving provision for the single homeless, including those outside the priority need categories of the Act. Under the housing association grant arrangements, associations providing accommodation in hostels, other forms of shared housing and self-contained dwellings for rent are supported by the Department of the Environment with capital and also, when necessary, revenue finance. The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, spoke of yet another Government initiative which I believe he thought rather questionable. As I understand it, the DHSS has decided that it should no longer run the particular hostels that he was talking about, and therefore the money can be reallocated. I shall of course check on that assertion and write to him, if I may, in any event.

Noble Lords have highlighted the plight of those living in bed and breakfast accommodation. I am sure there is no disagreement between us about this. Using bed and breakfast must be a last resort. It is expensive and unsuitable, in the long term, for single people, let alone families. I cannot imagine that any Member of your Lordships' House would wish to live in this way, but the answer is not to embark on a major council house building programme, although some new build will undoubtedly be required. However, there are other options.

As public sector resources are limited we must make the fullest use of all existing accommodation, including empty dwellings, whether public or private. The Government have taken a number of measures in order to help. The department's recent empty dwellings report demonstrated that there is a good deal of scope for making better use of local authority stock by improving management practices, both to speed up changes of tenancy and renovation schemes and to turn round run-down and unpopular estates. We shall shortly be issuing a circular to local authorities setting out ways in which better management can reduce the number of empty dwellings. There is also scope for more short-life schemes for both public and private sector tenants, to provide temporary accommodation. To help to develop this, the Government have decided to restore eligibility for housing association grant to local authority-owned short-life dwellings.

A number of noble Lords have argued that the Government need to do more to improve the condition of the nation's housing stock. We recognise that in the public sector some authorities are facing difficult problems of disrepair in their own stock. We gave greater weight to public sector disrepair in the distribution of housing investment programme resources for this year, but better information about the condition of the local authority stock is needed. As a first step towards obtaining more systematic information, the Government launched a special inquiry into the repair and improvement requirements of their stock on 11th April. This will give a much better estimate of the scale of the problem at the national level. The Government are also helping by providing technical advice. The Building Research Establishment has carried out research into defects in a number of types of housing and is currently investigating large panel systems.

We have also given a high priority in recent years to the improvement and repair of private sector housing. The noble Lord, Lord Dean, mentioned this. Spending on home improvement grants was over £900 million in 1983–84 and is estimated to have been nearly £750 million in 1984–85. I was interested to learn that these figures compare with £90 million spent in 1978–79. The Government have been carrying out a review of private sector housing improvement policy, and we expect to publish the reports in the form of a consultative document very shortly. This document will be given a wide distribution. The Government are keen to receive comments on the proposals before these are finalised and the necessary legislation is brought forward.

By all the rules I ought to be perorating about now, but I think perhaps your Lordships will allow me a few more minutes. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked me, very fairly: what about the private sector? He also made various allegations. We in this Government are convinced that one of the major reasons for the decline of the private rented sector is the Rent Acts. That is why we have recently put in hand a Ministerial review of the working of the Rent Acts. I have already told the House about this on a number of occasions: it is being undertaken by my honourable friend the Minister for Housing. I expect the conclusions to be made available soon.

The other thing I ought to say is that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has good "forgettery". The party opposite was much more successful in cutting resources than this Government. In four years from 1974–75 to 1978–79 investment in public sector housing fell by 45 per cent. In the five years of this Government it has fallen by only 26 per cent.—and we have also increased the number of families who are housed in the conditions that they want.

We have had an interesting and thought-provoking debate today. I appreciate that there are many questions—for example, the new city action teams, which were asked for by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher—that I have not been able to reply to. Nor have I been able to reply to a number of detailed points on what might be called mental and physical health. I hope that I might be allowed to write to those noble Lords who have mentioned such points.

Nobody, least of all this Government, underestimates the serious nature of some of the problems that we face. But my message is this. We must not be deceived into thinking that a vast increase in public sector investment is the answer. We have a duty to provide the sort of housing that people want; we have a duty to maintain the economic recovery—and that means keeping firm control over public expenditure. The way forward is to harness the energies and resources of both public and private sectors to provide the right mix of housing at a price the country can afford. And, my Lords, the other way forward is to make sure that we get value for money for every penny spent, as the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, has so cogently pointed out this afternoon.

4.59 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said that he would not be saying things I would agree with. I am sure he does not expect me to agree with most of what he has just said. What I was trying to point out clearly was that we on this side of the House are just as concerned to get value for money as are the Government; hence, why spend millions of pounds every year on giving to homeless people bed and breakfast accommodation when they could be provided with housing? Is that value for money? Why waste money? You have got no asset at the end of the year except somebody's chewed-up breakfast. It seems to me elementary; I do not think one needs to be a student of economics to regard that as being cost-effective.

When the noble Lord was giving his reply, to be quite truthful I thought to start with that this was Lord Graham's debate. I think I got a mention a couple of times, and the noble Lord has said he is going to write to me. I listened to hear how many times he mentioned homelessness and the badly housed. I do not think that he mentioned the badly housed once. I shall read Hansard carefully tomorrow, but I think that homelessness was mentioned only four times.

This debate has been to call attention to the need for investment to overcome the difficulties facing the homeless and the badly housed. Later this evening we shall have an Unstarred Question on whether there are any further plans to save more of our cultural heritage. Noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have been trying to preserve the people and their homes, which we think is the national heritage—not the cultural heritage.

In conclusion, may I say thank you to all those who have joined in the debate and who made some excellent points. I am grateful for all the support that I have had this afternoon. I would say this to the Minister. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, who was here for the greater part of the debate, is chairing the International Year of the Homeless in 1987. I should like to feel that after this debate the Government will not turn their back on that Year of the Homeless. If they do, they will be turning their back on those who are ill-housed, the mentally handicapped, the battered wives, the ex-prisoners, the psychiatric patients and the ethnic minorities. If the Government do not do something to play their part in the International Year of the Homeless—and the plans have to be laid now—they will be turning their back on all those people. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.