HL Deb 20 January 1988 vol 492 cc247-84

5.27 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick rose to call attention to the number of homeless people; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to commence by expressing pleasure and gratitude at being lucky in our ballot. It gives me the opportunity to debate in your Lordships' Chamber an issue that deals with probably the most underprivileged section of our community. I am also delighted at the response to the Motion. It has attracted a number of distinguished Peers and Peeresses who have put down their names to speak to show their concern at this human problem.

It is of course a fact of life that within our communities there are powerful sectors and there are weak sectors. Obviously the powerful sectors are articulate and speak very well on their own behalf. I am of course talking in the main about people such as the City of London and the financial institutions, the CBI, and to a lesser extent these days organised labour as represented by the trade union movement. But this debate is about that section of the people who have no public platform within the legislative procedure. I think it is of great benefit to them if we can show them that your Lordships' House cares on this type of issue and is prepared to debate the problem in order to try to do something for them.

Over the past two or three years in your Lordships' House there have been extensive and quite numerous debates on the problem of housing in general. I think it commenced about two years ago when the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm—who I am delighted to see present and down to speak—moved a debate, on behalf of the Cross-Benches, on the Duke of Edinburgh's report on housing.

The last major debate on the subject related to Faith in the City, the report of the commission of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some noble Lords who spoke in those debates are down to speak again today. It is a sad fact of life that some of the the things that will be said today were said in both those debates and have also been said previously at Question Time by noble Lords on all sides of the House. Therefore we have to backtrack a little and recall what has been said. However, I do not want to blind your Lordships with a battery of statistics. I have no doubt that noble Lords who follow me will produce their own when presenting their cases.

Only a few days ago the Prime Minister was congratulated on being the longest serving Prime Minister this century. It would be churlish to say that that was not a tremendous achievement. There is no doubt that during her period of office some sections of the community have done very well. In the extension of home ownership through the right to buy, some people have benefited considerably. Howeyer, whatever criterion is used to assess the plight' of the homeless in this country, their position has become worse during that time. When something is tragically wrong, the leader of the legislative body in this country, the Prime Minister, who wears the laurel wreath for achievement, must also accept the crown of thorns in relation to a problem which should have been tackled on a forceful and urgent basis.

Let us look at some of the figures. In 1979, 56,750 households were registered as homeless. For 1987 this figure is between 110,000 and 120,000. That is a tremendous increase by any standard. It is feared that the percentage increase which has occurred each year, almost regularly, will further increase unless something drastic is done. There are a variety of reasons for what has happened. Some of the reasons given are disputes between families and the breakdown of relationships. One of the most significant factors is the persistent increase in the number of people registered as homeless who have defaulted on mortgage repayments. In an effort to house themselves and their families they have taken a gamble and have overstretched their limited resources. Some have become victims of unemployment for which nobody can be blamed. The end result is that they lapse on their mortgage repayments. They are then evicted and have to seek other accommodation.

More than 100 authorities in England make use of bed and breakfast hotels to house homeless families. This occurs because insufficient new lettings are available to allow local authorities to house all the families for whom they are statutorily obliged to provide accommodation. In a period of rising demand from homeless families the number of new lettings available has fallen by 10 per cent. since 1979. This is mainly due to the effect of the right to buy provisions and cuts in the housing investment programme.

Your Lordships will recall that two weeks ago I questioned a Minister about homelessness. He gave figures of the increased amounts which he deemed were being made available to deal with the problem. At the same time as that announcement was being made, the housing investment programme was once again being cut. That has occurred even with the type of problem that I am highlighting today. The effect of the policy has been to reduce the chances of families on the waiting list being rehoused. Lettings from waiting lists in London have fallen by 54 per cent. since 1979, and 25 per cent of all new lettings by local authorities in England now go to homeless families.

In some parts of London, bed and breakfast hotels and other forms of temporary accommodation are used for those on the waiting lists. Some authorities are unable to predict when or if households in temporary accommodation will move into permanent housing. One, Camden, estimated that a family in bed and breakfast accommodation who require a four bedroomed home would have to wait four years. The use of bed and breakfast accommodation is escalating alarmingly. In 1984 there were 3,270 families in bed and breakfast accommodation in England. By the end of September 1987 there were 11,240, 8,600 of them being in London.

The standards of bed and breakfast hotels range from reasonable to the appalling. There are numerous examples of overcrowding and families living in one room. A recent report by the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children found that children in bed and breakfast accommodation were often not receiving adequate health care or education. It is estimated by one London borough that the average cost of bed and breakfast accommodation is £13,500 per annum per family. The cost of the exercise is astronomical.

When this issue is raised with the Prime Minister in another place and with Ministers in this House, they always fall back on one or two standard reasons. They refer to empty properties, and local authorities always bear the brunt of this criticism. I am not putting this forward as an excuse but only 2.3 per cent. of local authority total stock is empty. Housing associations have 3.8 per cent. of their stock empty. The private sector has 4.2 per cent. of its stock empty. The Government, who would do well to put their own house in order, have as much as 6.9 per cent. empty. It is a little naughty when the burglar starts castigating the policeman as the wrongdoer. The Government would do well to set the example and put their own house in order.

Over the years I have pursued a campaign on homelessness. In the 1970s I sponsored a Bill in another place about houses in multiple occupation. It is eight years since I introduced that Bill. Since then other Members in another place have followed that through and have tried to put some rationale into a policy of protection for people who have by force of circumstances to live in hostels. There has been little progress in that direction. Those involved on the social side say that the risk of death and of maiming through fire in smaller hostels in multiple occupation in this country is as high as it ever was—as bad as at the time of the appalling fire in Kilburn when 11 ladies lost their lives.

We have a situation where the financial pundits in the press and in the media are saying what a tremendous job the Chancellor has done and commenting on the funds that he now has available. Every one of the debates that I mentioned which have taken place in your Lordships' House arrived at the same conclusion; that there was a need for an extensive and massive injection of government money into the housing programmes in this country in order to deal with the situation. Unless that happens, the figures that I have quoted and the deterioration that I have highlighted will continue to be with us.

I was going to refer to this situation regarding homeless families as a scab on our society. But it is not a scab, because a healing takes place under a scab. When the scab falls off, very often healthy tissue is left. I class this as a running sore or an ulcer that is getting worse.

We spend less per capita of our population on housing from central government than any other government in Europe. I think it is time the Government listened to people who from a nonpolitical point of view are deeply concerned with this problem and who keep trying to better the situation for these homeless people.

I hope that your Lordships' debate today will impress upon the Government the need for urgency felt by people of all political persuasions who are grappling with the housing problem. I think it is not too much to ask for a bigger housing investment programme with money targeted towards a crash programme to relieve the stress areas of homelessness. I hope the Minister in his reply will be able to give some encouragement to what I believe is a reasonable request. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.42 p.m.

Baroness Lane-Fox

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, for introducing this debate on such a currently worrying subject. It is very good to follow a fellow Yorkshireman in any case, although our views on everything are not always exactly the same.

There is no doubt about the genuine effort made by numbers of voluntary bodies and by some professional practitioners to help people arrange their lives. Yet the United Kingdom is suffering notably from the effect of broken homes, and this is instantly reflected in the total of those who are homeless. With the United Kingdom divorce rate. the second highest in Europe, it is no surprise to find more illegitimate children . and separate establishments. More young people want to leave home at an earlier age, wanting to set up their own establishments away from the family. Quite often they have rather fancy ideas about the accommodation to which they should be entitled.

My own view is that television and advertising programmes do a lot to raise hopes and little to achieve them. Young viewers may realise that while "Dynasty" accommodation is way beyond them, "Coronation Street" shows some fairly tempting pads. This is no criticism but it points to an attendant risk. Our state of greater mobility means that many more people are ready to leave home to follow their job. In a new district they sometimes go to live with friends, but that arrangement very quickly is apt to wear thin, break down, and they then become homeless.

Much the most difficult clients to house among the homeless are families, as we know, with dependent children, pregnant girls and women, and older people, especially if they are mentally handicapped. I recognise these exactly from billeting in the government evacuation scheme.

London has the highest number of those accepted as homeless. Once someone has been recognised as homeless, legislation provides a basic safety net. About one-third of those accepted for housing are found permanent housing straight away in a council house or through a housing association or in a private sector dwelling. Of the rest, some are sent to temporary accommodation and, as the noble Lord mentioned, others to bed and breakfast accommodation in hotels.

Despite my great sympathy for the situation I was very encouraged the other day when I visited the Bayswater centre for mothers and young children from these families. They were coping remarkably well despite their circumstances. I admired the organisers and the way the mothers managed to turn out their children well, notwithstanding their cramped quarters. It was awfully good to see how cheerfully the offspring made use of excellent toys and play equipment, much of which had been given by wellwishers.

I had a very pleasant reason for visiting the centre as the bearer of a cheque given by Thames Television Help Trust. I made a similar visit for the same reason to the Thomas Coram Foundation, where they are hurriedly establishing much more capacious day centres which they hope will include cooking for some ethnic minorities.

It may sound naive, but much is being done to try to prevent homelessness, partly by influencing underlying causes. The Department of the Environment pays for advice for young people about leaving home in an attempt to get them to think realistically. The Government also help to fund the Citizens' Advice Bureaux as they also give advice about mortgage arrears. The Housing Corporation has some very clever plans both in attracting private money into the scheme with grants and in creating more rented accommodation. New forms of home ownership include shared ownership, part buying and part renting, to allow people with low incomes a better chance of ownership. Some families already accepted as homeless have found this to be an attractive option. The Housing Corporation is taking great trouble to chase up empty dwellings on council estates.

With our shortage in precious land supply, many planning schemes are opposed by the conservancy people and others, so surely the quickest and most realistic way to help the homeless must be through existing housing stock. Those of us who long to see a chance for everyone who needs a home have to see that homelessness in the big cities is unlikely to end. This affects not only the young and the broken homes but also the dossers and the tramps. Those are the next generation of those we saw in the 'twenties and 'thirties. It is surprising that the psychologists have not succeeded in doing more to help this inadequacy.

I must end by saying that it is a problem that deserves our combined effort in every practical way, and in this I so much agree with the noble Lord.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, perhaps I may start by very briefly thanking everyone for all the kindnesses shown to me on taking my seat in this noble House. I can only say that I shall do my best to live up to the honour bestowed upon me. May I also congratulate the noble Baroness? I totally agreed with a lot of her speech, especially when she finished up with her compliments to the Housing Corporation.

It was nearly 11 years ago, on 11th February 1977 precisely, when I proposed in the other place that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Bill be read a second time. Despite the support of the Government of the day and senior civil servants, and, in particular, the former honourable Member for Fulham, Mr. Nick Raynsford (to whom I should like to pay tribute) I cannot claim to have enjoyed the experience of promoting private legislation very much.

One minute I was being accused of giving too much ground by the various charitable bodies involved with housing (of which there are many) and the next I was being called various rude names by the chairman and officers of local government housing committees up and down the country. I was often accused of introducing "a charter for scroungers". But it surely was right to give statutory protection to young mothers and the vulnerable elderly, and to move the responsibility for housing them away from the social services, who had no property, to the housing authorities who did.

Despite no fewer than 60 amendments—and I expect that some of your Lordships will remember the occasion—introduced into this House on the very last day of the summer Session, and piloted through the House by my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Wade, the Bill finally made it to the statute book and has survived despite several reviews. It has now been consolidated as Part III of the Housing Act 1985.

I was well aware that local authorities were desperately short of housing stock, particularly in the South, and it had been my intention when promoting the Bill to include four clauses dealing with the removal of certain lettings from the protection of permanent security of tenure. But this proved to be too controversial and had to be dropped. I therefore offer my support to that particular part of the new Housing Bill which was recently introduced into the other place.

It was however one of the reasons why I knew that we could not extend the Bill to cover the single homeless, despite its obvious desirability. The local authorities would have revolted and I would have lost the Bill. But what I never imagined was that 10; years later we would have seen the number of the homeless practically double. What a blot on our social record!

Today in my former constituency, the Isle of Wight, the two borough councils have a total of 24 families in bed and breakfast and no fewer than 104 in temporary accommodation, principally wartime prefabs. We still have those. I am told that some in bed and breakfast could be there as long as a year and those in the prefabs much longer. I think that one gentleman has been there 15 years and does not want to move. What is even more worrying is that the trend of acceptances of people being homeless is still upwards. It is not only a human tragedy, but is a terrible waste of public money. The growth industry of today is the one bedroom doss house, the proprietors of which are making good fortunes out of the DHSS. When in force, the Housing Bill may bring more properties on the market to let; but what rents will be demanded? Many people in the housing field are already predicting rises of over 50 per cent. or even worse.

In the current financial year, my two authorities may complete a maximum of 31 housing units and there is no provision whatsoever for any new build in 1988–89. Starts in the public sector in Great Britain are now down to 31,900. I think I am right in saying that this is the lowest since just after the first World War, and that includes Scotland. Homeless acceptances continue to rise. We had 73,600 in 1982 and 104,960 in 1986, and the noble Lord mentioned that the figure has gone up since then. In fact, in the third quarter of 1987 there were 28,700 acceptances. Where are we to look for some relief?—certainly not, it seems, at present to the forthcoming Housing Bill unless there is an unexpected conversion.

I am a founder member of our local housing association which I helped to form in 1973. We now have something like 350 properties. I did that with others at a time when house prices were going through the roof. Many people at that time and since have given literally hundreds of hours to the movement without financial remuneration because they wanted to help their local communities, young and old alike, the disabled and the small offenders from broken family backgrounds. There is even one which has my name on it in Bedford and I am very proud of it. Now it seems that it is to these same housing associations that the Government are likely to look to take over from the local authorities, who in turn, it seems, are to be left with nothing to offer those made homeless priority cases, but houses on run-down estates.

I am asking the Government: please listen to the housing associations and act now before it is too late. Give to them the special type of tenancy agreement which meets their particular needs, and please, too, be more generous with your HAG funding to those housing associations. If not, we shall have a disaster on the rent front.

The urgent need at this time is to identify the areas of greatest stress, and many of these, I have to say, are in the South and West of England. Let us then provide the funds and build the houses and cure this curse once and for all. At the moment, a whole generation are losing an opportunity of being able to acquire a home of their own. My own son aged 31, earning £8,500 a year, bicycles every day to work in Sloane Square and has two children. He has not a hope in blazes of ever buying a house, not even in my own constituency. He has been priced right out of the market and there are many more like him. Frankly, the property pages of Country Life must really seem obscene to them. If they too are not to join the ranks of the homeless, there needs to be some radical rethinking so far as concerns the Government's housing policy. If that cannot be achieved in the other place, I hope and pray that noble Lords will not shrink from the task when it comes to our turn.

5.56 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, this is the first occasion on which I have followed a maiden speech and it gives me great pleasure to express the appreciation which I know will be felt by all your Lordships for the careful and informed speech which we have just heard. The noble Lord, Lord Ross, is an experienced politician who, as he told us, represented the Isle of Wight, where I think he still lives. It is a part of the country which is seldom mentioned in this House and I hope that it will be mentioned again, because personal experience often enlivens these debates. I hope—and I am sure that I speak for all of us—

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, will the right reverend Prelate allow me to intervene? Would he mind sitting down? May I tell him that if he was here more often, he would hear me sounding off about the Isle of Wight on many occasions.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, I am very sorry. It was a point worth trying to make. But what I want to say—and I am sure that I speak for all of us—is that we look forward very much to the further speeches and contributions that the noble Lord will be making in this House in due course.

It is easy to describe the growing number of homeless families, especially in London and the South—and they are the officially recognised ones—and beyond them, the much larger number of single homeless who are not yet officially recognised. The statistics are there for all of us who care to read and we were given some of them by the noble Lord, Lord Dean, in his opening speech.

It is quite easy to indicate some of the complex and varied reasons for the growth in the number of homeless, such as the breakdown of more marriages, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox; the concentration of jobs in the South; the collapse of the private rented sector; the increased emphasis on community care; the baby boom from 1957 to 1964; the reduction of capital for housebuilding over the past few years and so on. Councils are not allowed to spend quite a lot of the money which they already have.

It is far less easy to understand how a prosperous and highly developed society such as ours can have got into such a miserable tangle of misjudgment, argument and inefficiency, so that numerous families, children and single people are subjected to enormous discomfort and hardship while the rest of us prosper. This, I submit, has now become a crisis—and I use the word advisedly; it is not any longer just a problem, certainly not in London—and indeed something of a moral scandal, which all of us must want to address and address quickly, before the toll of expensive and unnecessary suffering mounts any higher. I believe that I say that for those of all political beliefs and for those who have none.

In a speech which is limited to seven minutes I can make only two main points.

Noble Lords


The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, it has gone down to six minutes. Well, I had first to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport. The immediate crisis of homelessness for families and children is centred on the South and London and is symbolised by the growing number in bed and breakfast accommodation. What is needed here is an immediate injection of funds sufficient to bring back into use property which is in disrepair, short-life housing and flats over shops. Local authorities and housing associations know how to do that, given the right financial help and perhaps some technical and administrative support. Schemes could be submitted and a special section of the DoE set up to give them rapid clearance. I should like to see the first line of the job description for all who work there being, "Get moving".

Just over a year ago I wrote to the Minister of Housing, Mr. John Patten, about this problem. I eventually had a courteous reply, much of which concentrated on the need to decontrol rents and promote more mixed funding for rented accommodation. I do not quarrel with either aim as such. After all, we said as much in the Edinburgh housing inquiry. Those are long-term changes which will have only a gradual effect. They will not provide much, if any, low-cost rented housing even then. Without other measures, they will do nothing to relieve the crisis in London caused by the high cost of land. Everyone is agreed on that.

My first and main point is that we must distinguish between the immediate and crying need for which short-term decisive action is now needed and the longer-term changes needed to increase the total stock of rented accommodation but, more especially, low-cost rented housing, for all those who need it.

My second point is that we must recognise how huge the demand already is, not only among homeless families but among the homeless of all ages. Yesterday, my wife and I had the privilege of seeing some of the work done by one of the interval projects of the Rainer Foundation in South London. The foundation offers financial and emotional support to young people who are setting up home for the first time. I wish there was time to tell your Lordships something about the sensitive caring which is being offered. The one thing that stands out in my mind about that visit is that most of those young people could not go back home even if they wanted to do so. Nowadays, there is seldom an extended family. However, it is government policy still further to reduce grants to young people in the near future. The funding of workers in voluntary groups such as this is under constant threat because of other cuts. Do we want more people on the streets, more crime, more people in prison, more people using drugs, more demands on the health service, more prostitution and all the rest?

Money spent on overcoming homelessness and providing adequate accommodation at a rent which people can afford will save money in other ways. Why do we find that so hard to understand? Why do we still make it so difficult for those who are trying to help in an area of such pressing need?

6.3 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, the causes of homelessness are legion. Anyone who visits places where the homeless, especially the single homeless, to whom the right reverend Prelate has referred, gather, realises that all human life is there. One important factor has been the alarming increase over the past three or four years in the amount of homelessness caused by the closure of our large mental hospitals. The closure of such places as Claybury and Friern and the acceptance of patients into the community is obviously welcome and desirable. But caring will only work if there are enough carers and support services. Far too often, people are being discharged from mental hospitals into emergency accommodation with little or no support.

I shall relate one instance of many given to me by the housing adviser to the West London Methodist Mission, which was presided over and directed with such dignity and compassion for so many years by my noble friend Lord Soper. The adviser said: A man of 52, known to us for two years, a patient in a Hertfordshire psychiatric hospital for 21 years and diagnosed as a chronic paranoid schizophrenic, was discharged in August 1983 to a large hostel in Central London. During the last 18 months he has drifted from one DHSS reception centre to another. His poor mental state and past history of living in institutions do not equip him for independent living or to cope with the procedures of claiming supplementary benefit. Thus he is reduced to living on hand-outs and begging. This man requires a far more supportive sheltered environment in order for him to find any level of stability". He continues: There is a dramatic increase in the number of people we see who have a history of mental illness". The classic pattern for both men and women seems to be that although some may be discharged to organisations such as Carr Gomm or the Richmond Fellowship, many are discharged on medication to hostels or reception centres. Many of the hostels are well meaning, but they are large and impersonal. Few have staff who are trained to deal with social and medical problems. Many of the ex-patients are required to look after their own medication when previously that was the hospital's reponsibility. For one reason or another, they cease to take their medication; they lose their accommodation; and they find themselves on the streets. These are not isolated cases.

Dr. Malcolm Weller, who is the consultant psychiatrist at the Friern Hospital, published in The Lancet the results of research he carried out in 1985 and 1986 into "Open Christmas" provided by Crisis at Christmas with which the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, from whom we shall hear, is closely connected, and to whom, with her late husband, society owes a great debt for its initiation. Dr. Weller found that in a sample of the people he studied in the Christmas provision for the single homeless, 34 per cent. were actively psychotic, 36 per cent. had had previous in-patient psychiatric treatment, while about a quarter of those he interviewed were probably schizophrenic. That compares with one in 3,000 in the population generally. The findings tally with research by other groups such as the No-Fixed Address research group in East London and with the experience of' people in mental hospitals and in the voluntary organisations such as the Whitechapel Mission and the West London Mission who are trying to cope with the situation.

However fine, in theory, the closure of the big, old mental hospitals may be, it has degenerated into doing the right thing for the wrong reason: to save money. We can see the practical consequences of that in Whitechapel and the Commercial Road any night of the week. What has already been said, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, in an admirable maiden speech, and by others, has set out the methods that are needed in the housing field if we are to start to cope with the core of the problem. I shall make three brief points about that class of person.

First, we need a major health promotion campaign directed at the homeless, designed to improve their health and to make them aware of their rights to health care as well as to social benefits and to housing provision.

Secondly, as will be said time and time again, I am sure, during the debate, local authorities and health authorities urgently need more resources. They need resources to train medical and social staff, notably community psychiatric nurses, a very rare commodity. We need many more. The authorities need money to provide direct access hostels for those who are squatting and living rough. Something like one-third of the single homeless are living in squats and "skippering".

Finally, we need to slow down the process of closing wards and discharging patients from mental hospitals until there has been a thorough appraisal of what has happened to patients who have been discharged, that is to say, putting flesh on the bones of the reports produced by the Audit Commission.

6.10 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, on two counts I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport: first, for his maiden speech; secondly, I was director of the social services when he worked towards the moving of housing of the homeless from the social services to housing. For that I was deeply grateful. Inevitably, we shall all cover some of the same points.

I should like first of all, as many other noble Lords have done, to take up the really appalling situation with regard to bed-and-breakfast hotels. We are all responsible for this, whatever political party we come from. The problem was there in 1968. I remember holding a public meeting about bed-and-breakfast way back in 1968. It is sad that both at the local level and at government level we have allowed this to escalate year by year so that it is now like Pandora's box, almost out of control and extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

Those in hotels of this kind have been very fully dealt with in a report to which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, has already referred, by the Thomas Coram Foundation. That foundation has done a very good report, it states that the families in bed-and-breakfast hotels are without ownership. They own very little themselves and are largely disowned by the support organisations other than the few which have been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and the right reverend Prelate. On the whole, they are unseen by central government, unwanted by the host boroughs and neglected by the home services.

That leads me to take up a point of management. I shall now only refer to London because the Thomas Coram report was about London. Local authorities in London seek a bed-and-breakfast vacancy in a borough which is not the borough where the family originally lived. They find a place in another borough and therefore the family move from the host borough. It is in this way that the family is lost, it is lost by its own local authority which is responsible for housing it, it is lost by the voluntary organisations which it knew in its own host borough. One must put in a plea to the London boroughs to have a management structure between themselves. I have to say that managerially the London boroughs are not working together. They are not formulating an overall policy for London. I think this is one of the great tragedies.

I am bound to mention the position of children in bed-and-breakfast hotels. The children are showing signs of disturbance, signs of ill-health. Many of them are not attending school and they are not pursued by the schools because the schools do not always have the names of the children who live in that borough since they are not in their own borough. Managerially this is a very serious situation. We are bringing up a number of children in our city who will themselves be homeless and unable to manage their affairs when they grow up.

Perhaps I may take up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Murray, on mental patients which was very clearly brought out in the Audit Commission's report. Many of the bed and breakfast hotels where there are single women and children have a number of mental patients from hospitals. I have no time to say (nor if I had the time would I tell you, my Lords) what goes on in some of those bed-and-breakfast hotels. None of us knows. If it went on in other places there would be a number of court cases; but the people in bed-and-breakfast hotels will not complain because they are frightened of losing their rooms. This is a really serious situation.

I should like to refer to the number of empty properties in London. That has already been referred to. That amounts to 94,000 empty houses in the private sector and 28,000 in the public sector. Perhaps noble Lords will correct me later if I am wrong; but could we not do as we did during the war and requisition those properties, pay a rent to the people from whom they are requisitioned and give them back at a time when those people need them? It is a scandal that there are so many empty properties which are not in use and which we could use. We did it during the war, and I say that there is a war on with regard to homeless families and that this should be considered.

I then go on, as other noble Lords have done, to costs. The cost of a flat for a homeless husband, wife and two children is £7,601; bed and breakfast costs between £14,000 and £17,000 a year. What are we doing throwing this money away? I come back to the war, during the war we had mobile homes. I would much rather live in a mobile home than in a flat or one room in one of these terrible bed-and-breakfast hotels.

There are many other points to which I could refer, but I shall just touch on a last one and the right reverend Prelate will know I am going to touch on it. That is the sense of responsibility. I have not had the time nor or would I think it wise to give the amount of money which is owing in London boroughs. If everybody paid their rent, if managerially the housing departments saw to it that people paid their rents, there would be much more money to build houses instead of calling for further government resources. We need better management in the housing sector.

6.20 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, from the speeches of all the noble Lords who have already taken part in this short debate, there is little doubt that in the United Kingdom there is much unnecessary human suffering and misery arising out of the growing number of homeless people. Perhaps I may in this respect compliment the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, on his maiden speech, a very telling and moving speech on this occasion and one which I shall remember. I hope he will feel very much at home in this place and a part of the proceedings.

I wish to speak about homelessness in Northern Ireland. At the outset I should declare that I place housing as one of the three crucial issues confronting the Government, the politicians and the citizens of Northern Ireland. The first issue and the greatest need is community peace and the freedom from terrorism and fear. The second is the chronic unemployment and absence for many of the hope of regular paid work. Those two essential human requirements for civilised living are inextricably linked with the need for adequate housing accommodation for all.

The problem of homelessness among the young and the old is essentially the problem of an inadequate housing stock. In this respect Northern Ireland has a greater problem than any other region of the United Kingdom. The population of Northern Ireland represents 2.8 per cent. of the total United Kingdom population, yet the Province contains only 2 per cent. of the total housing stock. Some 27 per cent. of that housing stock is in need of remedial action, as compared with 20 per cent. of England's stock.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, as the public body responsible for housing, has made much headway over recent years in improving the Province's housing stock through its new build, its redevelopment, its improvement and its repair programmes. However there are still 24,000 people currently on the housing executive's waiting list. Of these 6,842 are living under shared, crowded accommodation conditions and have a priority rating on the waiting list. While the precise number of homeless people in Northern Ireland is difficult to assess, some 5,500 present themselves annually as registered homeless.

In Northern Ireland there is no specific legislation to deal with homelessness but the Government have announced their intention to enact legislation in regard to this homelessness within the next year. The legislative provisions are those already enacted in Great Britain in the Housing Act 1985 and the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. We have already heard that those two Acts have indeed done little or nothing to lessen the acute homelessness problem throughout Great Britain. Yet we are proposing to enact the very same legislation in Northern Ireland to deal with this terrible problem.

The legislation is anticipated to place additional responsibilities on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, yet I understand that there will be no additional resources made available to that housing executive. Indeed recently the Government announced cuts of at least £118 million in the executive's housing programme over the next three years.

I have already mentioned that the legislation is to be similar to that enacted in Great Britain so I do not wish to go into the details of what this means and how people's rights will be affected under the legislation. But it will certainly mean that single people who are homeless will receive limited assistance. Indeed the changes in the board and lodging regulations and in single payments will adversely affect single people. Studies which have already taken place in Northern Ireland show that single people represent the majority of homeless people. Somewhere in the region of 60 per cent. or more of homeless people are single.

The introduction of legislation coincides with the implementation of the community care programme by the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Social Services. The statutory and voluntary agencies involved in housing have already identified growing numbers of ex-psychiatric patients being returned to the community. In addition, there are those with personality and social problems who are in need of the care and attention that has already been mentioned in this debate. We should be aware that the legislation has already been in existence here for a number of years and yet we are imposing it on the situation in Northern Ireland.

There is much that I could deal with in this debate but I see that time is running out. The burden of what I wish to say is that Northern Ireland has a crucial housing problem. There is a growing number of homeless persons in both the urban and the rural areas in the Province. The proposed legislation will neither resolve nor remove the social problems and the human misery of homelessness. What is required is co-ordinated, effective human and financial resources. We have already heard that special projects are necessary. The Government have proposed the ends; they should will the necessary resources to take care of this particular problem.

Let me conclude by requesting the Minister who is to reply to the debate to use his good offices to draw my few remarks about Northern Ireland to the attention of the Northern Ireland Office. I hope that that office will rise to the occasion and remedy the situation that I see in Northern Ireland.

6.24 p.m.

Lord Soper

My Lords, the House will be particularly grateful for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, on two counts and perhaps on many more. Those two counts are the historic setting in which he put the case to which we are directing our attention now and the sense of crisis which infused what he had to say. I shall begin with the latter point. I regard the situation as unnecessarily deplorable and as one that demands a radical approach if any permanent solution is to be attained.

I think it is necessary to remind ourselves at the outset that there is a difference between (shall we say?) houselessness and homelessness. Homelessness is the personal result of houselessness but it has a much deeper significance than can be answered by the provision of housing stock. I suggest that it is necessary in a very short speech to say something about the underlying principle upon which a successful approach to this problem should be made. After all, bed and breakfast accommodation is a form of homelessness and a very terrible form of it. The large numbers of single unemployed or single homeless which are not quantified are in my estimation, from the experience which comes my way, increasing hand over fist.

What is even more significant is that there is a higher rate of delinquency among the single homeless, as I have every reason to know from the hostels in which I have been engaged where we have tried to do something for youngsters who have nowhere to put their heads down at night. The problem, as I see it, is one of principle. I happen to believe that the question of food, clothing and shelter is imperative. It springs from the concept I have of the Christian faith and in some measure is already represented in some aspects, particularly food. No one would tolerate in a so-called enlightened community a starvation process which would be terminal unless succour were offered. No one would suggest that the concern for clothing is a matter which can be left to market forces. In that case why should we not agree that the third of this trilogy is as imperative for those who are concerned with the wellbeing of the community as it is natural to the wellbeing of those who may suffer from these deficiencies. As I say, that deficiency has a terminal effect but not nearly so quickly as the denial of food or clothing.

I tried out this theory a few hours ago on Tower Hill. We had a fairly damp time but I was gratified to discover that a crowd which does not always agree with me by any means was almost unanimous in recognising the obligation to provide the opportunity at least of shelter just as much as the obligation to provide food and clothing. That is the beginning of the answer: we have an obligation at least to offer to everybody, whether or not they can pay for it, the opportunity of having somewhere to lay their head and a roof over them when they go to bed. In my judgment it is not a matter of choosing, as the present Government do, between those who are entitled to be housed if they are in families and those who are not entitled to be housed if they happen to be single.

I wish to make one or two suggestions very quickly which I think are necessary in the light of this overall sense of compulsion. The first, with which I heartily agree, is that we are in a crisis in which requisition if it is necessary is perfectly justified. Indeed it may be the only way in which we can reclaim for occupation the kind of premises which have been lying rotting for so long and which must be an insult to those who pass them by and know that they must sleep out or, if they can sleep at all, in doorways.

Secondly, I am quite sure that there is a paramount need for the provision of rented accommodation. That is the only possible way that many of the youngsters today can meet the demands that would be required. They certainly cannot pay rents that will increase. They certainly are in no position to acquire properties and become property owners.

I put forward those two propositions which, in my judgment, demand immediate concern and for which I suggest there is an altogether antecedent problem which has already been faced in the questions and issues of war. This is warfare. Even in my old age I feel militant about it. I know, from the experience of being a social worker for so long, that houselessness and homelessness are perhaps the most terrible inflictions that can be imposed on people. Their effects are increasingly disastrous.

We have the money and the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to dispose of it. I suppose that the answer will be to give power to the people. I want power for the people who do not have any power. The power to live somewhere is absolutely their right. If there are those who say that we cannot afford it, then I conclude by saying, not with any trepidation, that I am in favour of finding that money by a wholesale reduction in the money spent on the killing processes of war. That is part of our bounden duty and service, not only as Christians—as I try to be—but above all as members of the kind of society that calls itself caring. I want to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

6.30 p.m.

Viscount Buckmaster

My Lords, I emphasise at the outset that the problem which we have been discussing is not confined to the United Kingdom. We know that there are large numbers of single homeless people in France, where emergency provision was made for them during the cold winter last year. We read that the Pope recently gave a dinner in Rome for the homeless. In the United States I understand that in New York and other large cities the problem is perhaps even as grave as it is in Britain. I mention that because I recommend that the Government study the situation in those countries, as well as such remedies as may have been found.

It was John Masefield who said: He who gives a child a home builds palaces in Kingdom come". What a lovely thought that is! Perhaps for the word "child" we may substitute the word "person".

As I see it, the real tragedy as regards the single homeless is that most of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Ross, has mentioned, have no right to housing under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, spoke with her usual wide knowledge of conditions in bed-and-breakfast hotels. However, it is not only bed and breakfast hotels which are used to accommodate the homeless. There are also night shelters and hostels. In most of those, as in the bed-and-breakfast hotels, we find lack of privacy, cramped and sometimes unsanitary conditions and lack of proper decoration, although conditions may vary.

I am sure that all those who have had more experience than I in this field will agree that the community spirit in those institutions is tremendously strong. I remember, Christmas before last, walking along under the arches in Charing Cross. I saw the usual distressing collection of people sleeping in cardboard boxes. Not a single one of those people complained to me about conditions. They all said, "Happy Christmas" with a cheerful smile. That is a wonderful thing.

Perhaps I may share one or two personal experiences with your Lordships to bring the problem rather closer than might otherwise be possible. I remember walking past Westminster Underground station a year or so ago. I saw a homeless woman in black rags. She was dishevelled and distressed. Her body, so far as one could see, was covered in dirt. One was immediately reminded of someone out of a Dickens novel. A bit further on near the same station I met a man who was unable to talk. He was sitting in a corner shivering.

Perhaps the most revealing experience was near my own Underground station of Gloucester Road. I saw a man lying on the forecourt of the station, coughing his lungs out. No one stopped. As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, everyone passed by on the other side. The point is that the man was taken to a hospital and treated. Four or five days later, I saw the same man back on the streets again. I am sure that that situation is paralleled in many cases.

I shall not detain your Lordships' House for very long. However, I wish to refer to what I believe is a marvellous organisation which has not been mentioned by any noble Lord so far. The organisation is called CHAR. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, nodding her head. CHAR is the campaign for the homeless and roofless. It has made four recommendations for emergency accommodation. The first recommendation is that accommodation should be provided with single rooms rather than dormitories. There should be a maximum of 30 bed spaces in each hostel.

The hostels should be open to residents at all times. What is more distressing than seeing those people turned out from their accommodation in the middle of the day to fend for themselves in cold and unpleasant conditions? The next recommendation is that there should be adequate staffing with good working conditions for staff in order to maintain morale. That is hard to achieve in those situations. There should also be links with a range of other accommodation and services. Finally, there should be no limit to the length of stay. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some assurance that those recommendations will be studied.

6.37 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I should like to draw out what I think is an implication contained in the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, which has been either implied or stated by earlier speakers. However, I mention it at the beginning of my speech because I may find myself being cut short later on. If there is one single step which can make a difference, it will be to introduce legislation to place a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide housing for the single homeless. There are also other important reforms which have been touched on in this debate.

There are various views concerning the Government. Some people say that they are successful and others that they are unsucccessful. However, I do not believe that there can be any doubt that they are the most self-satisfied government within living memory. I do not apply that phrase to any of the members of the Government who are surviving on the Front Bench today. The noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, is not a self-satisfied man at all and I think he will find it even more difficult, therefore, to cope with the arguments rather than simply say, "We have done wonders". However, he will make his own speech when he gets to it.

I cannot keep altogether silent in a debate on homelessness which has been started so well by my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithful], has been called by me on other occasions a humanitarian mole. I think that that phrase is more apposite than ever today. She took us back to 1968. In 1968, I left the government of the day for educational reasons. At that time I was obsessed with the helplessness of young people. I took the initiative in starting New Horizon for young people, which continues to prosper. I am no longer running that organisation but for many years I was the chairman. I believe that it now looks after about 3,000 people.

A great change has come about in the composition of young people since we began that organisation 20 years ago. Those were the days of full employment. That went on for some little while and gradually we came to the opposite situation, which has obtained now for a number of years. However, this is not a debate on unemployment. If one is talking about homelessness one cannot divorce oneself from the fact that this Government have presided over enormous unemployment, and that is the background to this whole discussion.

At any rate, in those days there was full employment and the people who came to us were people with problems—what we would call personality problems. We did not get a great many people who were what would be called normal. Now, however, ordinary young people are in a position in which they have to go there or to similar places because otherwise there is ho hope left for them in life. I am glad to think that we see a lot more women than we used to, and more black people—women and black people whom I hope can be called normal. Our clientele are thoroughly normal today and come as a result of unemployment and the total absence of adequate accommodation.

I am assured from my conversations with them that the vast majority of those young people are totally insecure in their accommodation. I am informed that they have probably bedded down in at least 12 different places during the past year. That is their life. That is what we are doing for them. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, sees the full moral implications, as do other speakers. We shall be lucky if those young people do not turn into hooligans or criminals.

What about the conditions that produce hooliganism and crime? We ought as a community to be thoroughly ashamed. One ought to be careful about imputing blame to anyone where the guilt is fairly widespread. The present Government have been in power for eight years and claim a phenomenal degree of success. So noble Lords heard earlier today when we were told that this country is now the wonder of the world. The theory of the Government is that if they make the rich richer the benefits spill over to the poor. Well, they are not spilling over to the homeless, and I think it is a terrible story that the Minister has to defend tonight.

6.42 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, anyone who has been a public representative at council or parliamentary level or in some other capacity will know that the problems of housing and homelessness are the most intractable and the most frequent that have to be dealt with.

I shall not rehearse the details so ably presented by my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick and others during the debate. There is widespread agreement that we are faced with a mounting toll of human misery. At the same time a proportion of people in our society is paid to move out of satisfactory accommodation and to occupy desperately needed accommodation in other parts of the country. These are the students in higher education.

The students come mainly from middle and upper class backgrounds. I am sure your Lordships will be aware of the anxiety of the universities that so few students from working-class backgrounds attend higher education. While there are over 100,000 families who are homeless, society is actually encouraging the luxury of paying higher education students to move out of satisfactory accommodation. I do not find that a very easy argument to present, because most of the people to whom I address it are successful products of this system. But the fact remains that this is one of the worst causes of our housing problems.

Universities and polytechnics, even though they control 190,000 bed spaces themselves, cannot provide accommodation for more than half of their registered students. The 1985–86 figures for England and Wales show that only 6 per cent. of university students and 25 per cent. of polytechnic students studied from the parental or marital home. That leaves approximately half a million extra people unnecessarily competing with the homeless in the decreasing private sector of rented housing. Having taken up this housing the students then leave it vacant for perhaps 20 weeks of the year.

Students are not only competing, but, in some areas, have an unfair advantage because their institutions frequently own property in the town or have made special leasing arrangements with local landlords. Very often, I am afraid, students will accept substandard accommodation which ought to be repaired and is unfit for families. So there is very real pressure from this source.

It is a fact that hundreds of thousands of units of accommodation would be released if students were not automatically given the option of studying away from home. This would ease the housing crisis immediately without any large-scale building works. Temporary accommodation would be available on campuses for homeless people who, very often for the first time in their lives, would be able to experience the enrichment of living in decent surroundings. Such surroundings, as my noble friend Lord Murray pointed out, have important mental and physical effects on health. It would make much more efficient use of our resources if we were to look at this situation very seriously. It would also solve the problems of many students who say that a great deal of their time is taken up with housing, as is a great deal of the institutions' time.

It is now nearly 30 years since the Anderson Report on student grants appeared. The report did not envisage the growth that has occurred in student numbers and the problems of housing and homelessness. Our new priorities should be to expand educational facilities and to provide homes for people. We should not be concentrating on providing students with second homes. We must loosen the tradition of going away to study. There is no objective evidence to show that academic results are better if students move away from home rather than stay at home. The arguments always put forward are that it is a maturing process, growing up, and so on. But students who put this point to me always rebut any suggestion about the benefits of the possible reintroduction of National Service. It is time that we asked students to think seriously about helping us with this housing problem.

To take my own city of Bristol, only 2 per cent. of Bristol University students and 15 per cent. of first year Bristol polytechnic students live in the marital or parental home. In Bristol, there are some 700 people officially homeless, and the 1986 council survey showed that there were 6,400 homeless single people living in unsatisfactory and unfit acommodation. If Glasgow, with over 50 per cent. of students living at home, and Strathclyde (over 70 per cent.) can do it, why cannot we in England? Nobody has ever said to me that the Scottish higher education system is in any way inferior to ours. Who are we asking to make this purely subjective sacrifice? We are asking the young people in society, the ablest and most gifted who are getting a free public education to prepare them for a qualification which will earn them a living for life. If the students and the authorities were asked to reassess the situation, we would solve the problem of homelessness in three years and release thousands of millions of pounds' worth of resources for other purposes.

6.49 p.m.

Lord Seebohm

My Lords, time is very short so I shall omit the courtesies and not repeat any of the figures that have been given today. They are well known. They are horrific. They have been known for so long that I am surprised that such a debate is necessary. The Government should have taken crisis action quite a long time ago. I also believe that in addition to the horrific figures that we have been given, there are a great number of people for whom the Government do not acknowledge that they have any responsibility—the people one finds sleeping in cardboard boxes when one goes home on the Underground, those sleeping in the backs of cars, and those sleeping near the brickworks, where at least it is warm.

I have been interested and involved in housing all my active life and know the problems of the homeless. I know, and the Government must know, that ever since the beginning of this century, and probably for a long time before—I guess it will continue at least until the end of the century—at least a fifth of the population could not afford to pay even fair rents. We experienced that in the trust that I was concerned with for some 35 years. We tried to build houses so that people on lower incomes could pay a rent. It was absolutely impossible and never worked. This has to be faced and we have to realise that subsidised housing must be provided probably for ever.

I am one of those who believe that the responsibility must be on the shoulders of local government, but it must be given the resources to do it. It has quite a lot of money of its own which it is not allowed to use to repair those houses that are standing empty and are dilapidated. If this is not acceptable to the Government, I suggest that special grants should be made available to housing associations so that they may do the work. What is more, more money for the housing associations should be made available for the private sector where houses are in an even worse condition in many cases than in the public sector.

Money must be made available, if it is not already, for the voluntary bodies to run day centres to help the bed-and-breakfast people who have nothing to do and nowhere to go during the daytime. That is a very important provision. There is no doubt whatever that the first and immediate thought must be given to housing for rent.

I have a proposition which, rather like that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, I ask your Lordships to consider. We are told that bed-and-breakfast accommodation is costing many young people £65 a week. That is nearly £3,400 per annum. I believe that university-type hostels with self-contained units for two people could be built for approximately £20,000, perhaps less. Even if it costs more, my argument does not fall to the ground. If the cost were £20,000, at 10 per cent. £2,000 per year could be funded from the private sector, from institutions, and so on. That would save £4,800 per unit. This is something that must be looked at and a start made on providing this sort of accommodation. It would not just be accommodation, but real homes for a great many people.

I believe that the money could be raised from institutional sources and that a national housing loan would be well taken by people. It would have no effect on the PSBR. If money is raised by the Government through the banks, that becomes inflationary and affects the PSBR. There is no reason whatsoever why the money should not be raised from the public in the ordinary way, just as vast sums were raised for the privatisation programme.

I say again that we are in a crisis situation. Quite frankly, only crisis steps can put this right and not only help the thousands of people who have no houses but stop the continuing misery.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank my noble friend Lord Dean for giving us this further opportunity to discuss the problem of homelessness. I congratulate him on his opening remarks. I join in the tribute paid by the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, and others, to CHAR and the voluntary organisations Shelter and SHAC which have waged a ceaseless campaign for 15 years or so, trying to improve the conditions of homeless households and single people.

It is a depressing thought that in spite of all the campaigning and the publicity on press and television, the problems of the homeless are worse than they were when we first started. In fact a recent Shelter report commenting on the statistics for the first half of last year, 1987, stated that homelessness is now at the highest level ever recorded. The use of emergency accommodation is now higher than ever before; bed and breakfast accommodation is being used more and more as emergency accommodation. Indeed, the most rapid increase in the use of bed and breakfast has taken place not in inner London where one might expect and where everybody thinks it has taken place, but in the Home Counties; in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey and Sussex. The problem is spreading nationwide and is not now just confined to the inner cities about which we know so much.

The increase in the Home Counties in 1986–87 was double the increase in inner London. That is nothing to be proud of, but it is fact. All the statistics that we can mention—we have mentioned many in this debate and others—are only the tip of the iceberg, as has already been said. The statistics only take account of those people who satisfy the criteria of the Homeless Persons Act 1978. Many hundreds of thousands are homeless. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, mentioned them and we could go into much greater detail. Many thousands are not registered, but they are just as homeless and are living in probably more squalid conditions, if possible, than some of the others. We ought to hear that in mind.

There are many facets. For example, the statistics do not take account of the official waiting list. The official waiting list of local authorities now stands at nearly 1½ million people. Many of those are living in conditions that, if the definition of homelessness were more definite, we would include in the homeless category. We know that about 11,000 people are accommodated at present in bed and breakfast, 5,000 in hostels—and hostel accommodation is rapidly dwindling—and another 7,000 in short-life accommodation. Between 1,000 and 3,000 at any one time are living in cardboard boxes, as has already been mentioned. We know that roughly 12,500 people are squatting in London.

The problems are immense. It has been said that we ought not to have another debate, but that the Government should have listened and done something about it. Governments of all descriptions have done very little about the problem since 1970. Children in bed and breakfast accommodation were mentioned. We know that in London at present 15,000 children are so accommodated. Most of those children will spend most of their pre-school life in bed and breakfast accommodation in places such as Camden and other inner London areas. As the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said, this is causing great concern to health authorities and social services departments in those areas where the problem exists.

Some of the causes of homelessness have been mentioned. I do not want to go over those, except to say something about what the Government are allegedly doing about the problem. The Government believe that their Housing Bill, now before Parliament, will create a resurgence in private renting. But once again virtually all commentators have pointed out that the proposed decontrol of rent and removal of security of tenure are unlikely to lead to an increase in the supply of privately rented dwellings. The fact is that two-thirds of new lettings are already outside rent control and have been for a number of years, yet the privately rented sector continues to decline by about 70,000 a year.

Further, landlords have had the option of creating assured tenancies or shorthold tenancies since 1980 on a market rent basis and only 700 assured tenancies have been created since then.

The Association of Municipal Authorities, and many other organisations such as the House Builders' Federation, have pointed out that the economics of private market rent do not add up. Market rents in London would be between £150 and £300 per week and at least £75 outside London. The average family cannot afford such rents. The only people who can afford them are those who can also afford to buy. That is what is happening.

Housing benefit is not available to bridge the gap for those on low incomes. In fact 100 per cent. housing benefit is guaranteed only to those people who are on supplementary benefits. Housing benefit is being withdrawn from people in work at the rate of 85p in the pound. In other words, for every £1 earned over the housing benefit, 85p will be taken from the wage packet. Probably nobody in work could afford market rents, certainly not in London or its environs. Tenants' choice will do very little, as I could explain if there were more time.

In spite of all that has been said, the existing government proposals will do little, if anything; in fact, they will worsen the situation of homelessness. I suggest that we bend our minds towards trying to introduce as many changes in the housing legislation before us as a first constructive attempt to do something about the problems of homelessness.

7 p.m.

Lord Jay

My Lords, I also wish to support strongly but briefly the quest of my noble friend Lord Dean for real action to achieve a result in the present homeless situation. Over the past two years the volume of homelessness in the Home Counties has increased by over 80 per cent. It is now far worse than in 1968 and it is continually worsening.

For many years I represented a London constituency in another place, as did my noble friend Lord Stallard. Judging by the letters that I received, and from approaches made to me during constituency surgery, throughout that time I learnt that housing was far the most important hardship suffered by people, particularly in the London area. Out of all the subjects affecting people at that time, four out of five people appealed to me about housing. Whatever one may think about the causes, it is not the fault of the young children living a miserable bed and breakfast existence that they have been reduced to that level.

I believe that the remedy for the present housing and homeless situation in this country is perfectly plain. It is greatly to increase the number of homes to let at reasonable rents. Of course it is sensible to encourage housing associations and other collective landlords of low-rented houses, provided that we also vigorously expand the stock of council houses and flats. It is the reduction in that stock which has produced the present situation. Of course it is sensible for actual council tenants to buy their homes if they wish; but it should have been on the condition that when they were sold they were sold back to the council. The reasonable wish of people to live in their own homes, without reducing the stock of council houses, could then have been met. The present Government's failure to make such conditions strengthens the suspicion of some people that their housing policy is really an electioneering policy and not a housing policy at all.

Certainly home ownership should be encouraged; but the homes that are to be owned should come mainly from the private sector and new private building and not necessarily from the council stock. It is not necessary that houses should be taken from council stock in order that people should own their own houses; we need both sectors. The present Government's attack on council housing, which appears to me to spring almost solely from the Prime Minister's feud with local government in all forms and particularly with council housing, is the main factor which has led to the present situation of homelessness. As that statement is the truth, I think that noble Lords should say so bluntly in this House.

Present housing policies are not saving money, as many noble Lords have pointed out today. The most ludicrous feature of the situation is that the cost of the dreadful bed-and-breakfast homes has risen to a level at which the Prime Minister is not able to satisfy her other heartfelt passion for saving public money. I believe that at a time when we are told almost daily to expect a huge budget surplus with large presents of money going to those with already the largest incomes, the present state of homelessness in this country, particularly in the South-East of England, is not only a national disaster but is becoming a national scandal.

7.4 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I agree with all noble Lords that this is a grave matter. All noble Lords have taken on board the fact that we in this House are deeply concerned about the present state of homelessness and the housing shortage. It brings tragedy to so many people. But why are people homeless? It is fundamentally a social problem. We must realise that one in four married couples divorce, therefore two homes are needed instead of one; that one in five births are to unmarried mothers and they need a home. We know that unemployed people come South to try to find homes, but there is none to rent. We know also that young people are taking it upon themselves to leave their homes for whatever reason—perhaps unhappiness—and to come South, and that they need a home too. In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Murray, said, people discharged from mental hospitals form a large proportion of those who have no homes not through any fault of their own but because there are no homes available. I have mentioned those few categories (not in any specific order) because they all contribute to the lack of housing and to the homeless.

On 1st April last year there were 102,000 council dwellings standing empty. I should like to support my noble friend Lady Faithfull. I believe that if the local authorities are not using those dwellings, there should be a form of requisitioning. A quarter of those dwellings were empty for more than a year. In London 27,000 properties were vacant, 9,800 of which were vacant for more than a year. That is bad management and bad control; and it is not using the resources which they should have. Those people who have homes should be paying rents to the authorities throughout the country. Throughout the country £212 million is owed in rent. One thinks what could be done if one had that amount of money to spend on those who need houses and homes.

It has become clear to all noble Lords tonight that more must be done. I have been advised by those to whom I have been talking that it is the housing corporations which should be better funded by government, and through them the housing associations mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport. They help people of all kinds and in all situations, both in renting and buying accommodation.

I hope that I am not taking up time in the wrong way; but I should like to pay a deserved tribute to those who, in a voluntary capacity, help not only the single homeless but the homeless throughout the country. There are large numbers of agencies and associations not only in London but throughout the country which help such people completely voluntarily. They occasionally receive a local authority grant, but they are nearly always staffed by volunteers. I should like to pay tribute to those people who give up their time in order to help others less fortunate than themselves.

I should like to use the minute that I have left to tell noble Lords what it is that we do at Crisis at Christmas. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Murray, who is now our chairman. I was chairman for a long time and I think I have now been demoted to president. Crisis at Christmas epitomises all that we want to do for those who are without a home, without roots, without housing and very often without roofs.

This happens at Christmas time for seven days and seven nights. I should like to pay my personal tribute to Members of your Lordships' House who sing on the station platforms and who come and wash up for us at the open Christmas. One or two have even walked from Canterbury to London in aid of, and raising money for, Crisis at Christmas. We have an open Christmas for upwards of 500 people for seven days and seven nights at Christmas time, very often in a disused warehouse. The noble Lord, Lord Murray, also visits us.

At this point I should like to mention Mr. Terry Waite, who last year helped us every day by washing up and by being kind to people. I can see that the Opposition Chief Whip is having a good look at his watch, so I should just like to thank everybody for all the help that they have given to Crisis at Christmas.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, as has been said earlier, homelessness is increasing tremendously, quite rapidly. We ought to do something to reduce it and abolish it, but we do not seem to be doing anything. Homelessness has doubled in the past eight years. Worse than that, we are aware of the increasing homelessness and yet it has increased by 14 per cent. over the past two years. Therefore, the condemnation of us for allowing this to happen is considerable.

Moreover, as has been said before, the figures that we have for homelessness relate to people who have been accepted by the local authorities. There are nearly as many who have applied—which means that they consider themselves to be homeless and have not been accepted. Therefore, we have to keep that figure at the back of our minds because the local authorities only cater for the priority areas—those who by law they have to look after; for example, people with children, those who are over pensionable age or who are judged to be vulnerable. That is what the Act tells them they must do. The rest are not looked after at all.

As the noble Lord, Lord Soper, said, one of the biggest problems is the increase in single homelessness. Nobody seems to be taking that on board because, as the noble Lord, Lord Soper, said, it is attendant with many problems; namely, crime, drugs and other aspects which are attendant on these single people who are homeless. Therefore, it probably costs society a lot more than people seem to realise.

Even the people who are accepted as homeless are put in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, as has been mentioned. That is very unsatisfactory, particularly for children. It is also associated with a great deal of ill-health. What is worse, they have difficulty in receiving primary care because they are not registered with doctors. There are plans to pay doctors directly to look after those people rather than have them registered. I believe that will help to deal with the problem. However, it is a serious problem.

In the next few minutes I should like to talk about government proposals. They will probably make the position worse rather than better. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. The Government have set as their goal stopping the decline in private rental housing. I am not saying that is a bad objective, but even if they succeed it will not help the problem of homelessness because success can only be achieved by providing houses at market rents; and market rents are not within the capacity of people on a low or average income. Therefore, they also need to be provided with some accommodation other than that.

There are proposals on housing associations; but they are really proposals to privatise them, reduce their subsidy and make them increase their rent. That too will make the situation more difficult. Therefore, the proposals coming before us, far from reducing homelessness, may well increase it. I merely ask noble Lords to remember that mortgage arrears and subsequent repossession is one of the largest causes of homelessness. I ask noble Lords to try to remember that fact.

There are many people who are suffering quite unnecessarily because, as the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, pointed out, the cost of keeping people in bed and breakfast can provide good homes. In fact, it has been estimated that the cost of keeping two people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation would amortise provisions for building three houses. In any case, as we all know, the local authorities have £8,000 million in capital receipts which they wish to use but which they are not allowed to use.

Again, as I said on a previous occasion, I do not defend the fact that there are houses which are not let when they should be in occupation, but many are not let because they need to be repaired. If there is this restriction on funds and on capital expenditure the councils cannot even repair the houses. Therefore, I really and truly say to the Minister that, whatever may have been his brief today, I want him to take back to his right honourable friend that we can and should tackle homelessness urgently. There have been several proposals made here earlier this evening which could be carried out now; for example, requisitioning empty properties. In any case, there is need for a very large housebuilding programme and the money is available to do it.

7.20 p.m.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, some 30 years ago there was in circulation a bitter jest which, I believe, was of American origin and ran as follows: "Do not believe all this you hear about a housing shortage; it is just a rumour put about by people who have nowhere to live". That rumour has become louder and more insistent. It is fearful that the problem of homelessness is twice as great as it was only a few years ago. One of the results of that is the putting of people into bed-and-breakfast accommodation which, by common consent, is wildly expensive, often squalid, damaging to family life, to the upbringing of children and the opportunity for children to benefit from the education which a benevolent government may provide for them.

What is the remedy for this? The suggestion is that there are too many divorces. However, we cannot solve the housing problem by prohibiting people from getting divorced. We have to deal with the problem as it is, regrettable as that may be. The real reason is that there is not enough accommodation available at reasonable rents. The noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, made it clear that if one wants to provide housing, for most people it has to be subsidised. Of course people who buy their houses have had subsidised housing via income tax for a long time and this must be generally accepted.

I believe that we ought to have in the Department of the Environment, as a result of special legislation, somebody who has the power to encourage and to help local authorities to get on with building, to allow them to use the money which they have for housing, to co-ordinate the work of local authorities with the work of housing associations and, adding to that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull suggested, if need be, the power of requisition. I remember what a headache requisitioning was to the authorities at the time. It is a measure of how far we have gone back that we are having to consider using that rather desperate remedy. I certainly would not say no if it were necessary in order to deal with the problem.

I believe that is how the Government need to look at the problem. As everyone has said, there is a crisis; there is almost a war situation requiring special legislation and special powers. These remedies can perfectly well be implemented. It is quite true that they will cost money. We are always told that a problem cannot be solved by throwing money at it. It is also painfully true that a problem that needs money cannot be solved without spending money on it. The Government really must understand that.

I believe that if the Government gave themselves the legislative power to bring together the work of the local authorities and the housing associations, introduced requisitioning and provided or made possible the use of the necessary funds, we could solve this problem. It is horrifying but it is not as great a problem as some of the problems with which we have had to deal in the past. It is a problem that we could deal with if we had the mind and the will.

7.21 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, we all seem to agree that homelessness is the most evil thing for all members of our society. The very thought of my not having a roof over my head strikes fear in my heart and I have the security of knowing that the possibility is remote. To 120,000 households, the possibility is a reality. We have heard very clearly tonight of the problems they face and many noble Lords have offered helpful solutions.

As might be expected, I propose to confine myself to the effect that homelessness has on health. Homeless families who do not fit into the priority needs categories laid down by local authorities or for whom local authorities cannot provide suitable accommodation have the alternatives of accepting bed and breakfast in designated hotels, overnight accommodation in hostels, or living rough. Whatever happens they are going to be severely deprived of primary health care and as a result will need to depend upon already overstretched hospital services.

The Victorians recognised that one of the greatest evils in society was poor housing. They recognised also the effect it had upon health. The social reformers of more than 100 years ago did a great deal to eliminate the evil. Today we condemn a small but growing number of members of our society to living in circumstances which not one of us would wish for ourselves. Overcrowded, dilapidated and infested accommodation is not conducive to good health. Those who have to live in these conditions are exposed to stress; and people subjected to stress for long periods are predisposed to suffer physical and mental illness to a much greater extent than other citizens.

A family which has to live, eat, keep clean and sleep in one room must face insurmountable problems. Domestic accidents occur at a much higher rate than is the norm. Children deprived of proper nutrition, because of rudimentary cooking facilities, and sleep, because they cannot settle down at night before their elders, do not grow or achieve like their more advantaged peers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said, their emotional development can be severely impaired. Whole families are vulnerable to skin, digestive and respiratory infections. They, of all people, need the services of those who provide primary care. They who need it most have the most difficulty in finding it.

The medical profession as a whole—the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, made this clear—recognises the problems of the homeless. But, as in all walks of life, there are general practitioners who do not care and who will not do anything to help. Others care but cannot help. Thankfully, there are some who are willing to make tremendous sacrifices in order to gain the confidence of, and provide an element of continuity and support to, families and individuals.

The DHSS seems to be remarkably reluctant to encourage and finance general practitioners who are willing to provide primary medical services to the homeless. Most of the schemes I have come across have been funded by private charities or by other government agencies. In the medical press last week there was the case of a Leeds GP who, since 1984, has been treating many of the 1,500 homeless in that city in makeshift surgeries. The doctor was originally funded for his own salary and that of a nurse through an urban development grant. Last year there were insufficient funds for the nurse. This year there will he no provision on a regular basis for the homeless in Leeds unless the DHSS is prepared to provide the funds.

The family practitioner committee is anxious that the scheme should continue but, despite numerous letters, has received no assurance that funding is forthcoming. We who have should not stand by and allow this to happen. I have asked in the past why there seems to be so little co-ordination between government departments. The Black Report, published in 1980, made a number of recommendations which seem to have been ignored. The report acknowledged, the multicausal nature of health inequalities within which inequalities in the material conditions of living loom large". It added: Our recommendations reflect the fact that the reduction in health inequalities depends upon contributions from within many policy areas, and necessarily involves a number of Government departments". I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether his department attempts to deal with this dreadful problem in isolation? Or do he and his honourable and right honourable friends in another place from the Departments of Health and Social Security, Employment, Trade and Industry, Education and the Environment, meet and look at the cause and effect of their policies one upon the other? I feel sure that this would not be a crisis if they had done so.

7.26 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, in February 1984 I instigated a debate in the House calling attention to the steady increase in the number of homeless people in this country. I have read the debate again and, being the nineteenth person to speak this evening, I have been able to compare what was said then, nearly four years ago, with what has been said this evening. There is a tragic similarity in all the concern expressed then and now; indeed one finds complete agreement between all the speakers in that debate and those who have spoken today.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Replying to the debate four years ago, the Minister concluded his summing-up by saying: I hope I have said enough to make clear the Government's approach to solving the problem of homelessness. … I will do all I can to case this shameful problem which is one of great concern to all of us. … Our job as Government is to ensure that [the local authorities] have the best practical framework within which to operate, and this we will continue to do".—[Official Report, 8/2/84; col. 1186.] That concern, as we know, has expressed itself in a rise of the registered homeless from 73,600 in 1984 to the 1987 level which has been given today and which is thought to be up to 120,000.

It is therefore clear that the government concern did not translate itself into the correct action to get rid of what the noble Lord, Lord Ross, in his very good maiden speech, said was a social blot and that the Government's housing policies are still geared towards giving a wider choice to the well-off and so removing any choice from the less well-off. As numerous speakers have said, there is no secret why there is an increase in the number of homeless people. It is because there is not enough low-rent housing made available to the number of people who want it.

It is for that reason that mothers and children are suffering, described by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, in bed and breakfast accommodation—the children suffering from a physical point of view and the mothers so often from a mental point of view. The mothers are not even availing themselves of services such as toy libraries for children.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark said it was impossible to understand how, with a prosperous nation such as ours—the Government remind us continually of the success of their economic policy—people who have a right to expect a home are not getting one and how this can continue with the Government expressing the concern I have described.

For one minute I should like to tell your Lordship about the efforts of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless of which I was a council member. Here another worry arises. We have arrived at the end of a year when the whole concern was to focus attention on the needs of the homeless, to raise the awareness of the public, and to fund innovative schemes to help the homeless. From the point of view of awakening public concern the year has been successful. People no longer think of the homeless as a few drunks at Christmas time. They know that it is a national shame. Everybody seems to be aware of this apart from government members who are responsible for doing something about it.

Important schemes such as a day centre for the young homeless in the West End have also been funded. There is no point in hoping that these young people will stop coming into London. They will continue to do so. What we must do is to try to save them from suffering from the related dangers of London. This is a centre which has been funded by the international year which gives advice, counselling, cheap food, a telephone and advice as to how to move on to permanent accommodation. In this way these young people will be saved from the further dangers that they experience when coming to London. In the absence of the GLC, many statutory bodies disclaim responsibility for a day centre of this kind; and the danger in the future is that it will fall between all the different stools.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, as president of the Council for the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, has said: Unless something is done in the next few years, by the year 2000 we could be facing a new generation of slums with all the human misery and degradation that implies.". I very much hope that the Minister replying today will tell us something which will alleviate the great anxiety that he, and all of us, have.

7.32 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, as time is constrained, I want to put two direct points to the Minister. First of all, in view of the numerous comments made—by I think almost every noble Lord who has spoken—about the record figures that have now been reached (I will not say achieved) for homelessness, the numbers in temporary accommodation, and the numbers in bed and breakfast, what are the Government going to do? They have made no reference at all to this in their White Paper on housing problems. Hardly a noble Lord who has spoken believes that the Government's Housing Bill will do anything to rectify the problem.

Secondly, in view of the need for investment in housing projects, why will not the Government listen—and we have heard this this afternoon—to the repeated requests for the local authorities to be able to use at least some of the £8 billion which they have in capital receipts? It seems to be nonsense to the ordinary person.

I am going to discard everything else I had planned to say because I just cannot reply to the various points. I shall simply read part of a statement that I received today from the Bayswater Families' Campaign Group, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, referred. It is from families in Bayswater bed-and-breakfast hotels. It deals with all the problems that we want the Minister to deal with and to answer. After explaining who they are, and why they are in this situation, they say: Our problem is that we can't find anywhere to live that we can afford. House prices are too high; there aren't enough council fiats; landlords won't accept children even if we could afford the rent … All parents worry about their children but imagine how much worse it is living, eating and sleeping all in one small room with the constant worry of illness, accident and fire. Our hotels arc overcrowded, unsafe and overpriced. Isn't it silly that the same money could be invested in permanent homes which everyday families could afford? If we had a secure home we could start to live our lives. They conclude: We though that in International Year of Shelter for the Homeless someone would listen and something would he done. All we need is a home. Is this too much to ask? This matter should not be a political issue. But unfortunately it has to be because unless there is political action nothing is going to be done. Really the only people who can institute political action are the Government. I hope that when the Housing Bill comes before us noble Lords will keep this debate in mind, and keep in mind the problems of the homeless even though they concern a minority. The terrible fact is that they are a minority problem, and therefore the great mass of the people do not realise that the problem exists. When that Bill comes before us, let us see how we can relate the problems that noble Lords have mentioned today to amending that Bill so that it does something concrete for the homeless in our society.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity which the noble Lord, Lord Dean, has given us to discuss this issue. It is some time since we last debated homelessness in this House, and things have moved on since then—both in the increase in the numbers of homeless people and in the Government's measures for improving the housing situation.

Before I say anything else, I feel that it is a great pleasure to be able to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, on a truly excellent maiden speech, particularly as we are all well aware of his involvement with the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. I feel that it is an honour to be in the same Chamber with a man so intimately acquainted with the subject that we are discussing today.

I am sure that all of us share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Dean, about homelessness. It is not a new phenomenon—34,000 households were accepted as homeless by local authorities in 1976 and 53,000 in 1978, the first year of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act which gave authorities the specific duties they now have towards the homeless. The legislation is now consolidated in Part III of the Housing Act 1985 and, as the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, pointed out, we have passed the 100,000 mark; that is to say that 100,000 households have benefited from the Act by being found accommodation and are therefore no longer homeless.

Local authorities' main duty under the Act is to secure accommodation—not necessarily in council property—for unintentionally homeless households in the priority need categories set out in the Act (families with dependent children, pregnant women, the elderly, the disabled, other vulnerable people, and those made homeless by fire or other emergency). Comparable duties relate to those threatened with homelessness. Those outside the priority need categories (broadly, healthy single people of working age and childless couples) receive advice and assistance only. Authorities have a duty to accommodate temporarily in some cases, while intentionally homeless people are trying to find a place for themselves and while they are inquiring into people's circumstances. In carrying out their statutory duty, the homeless authorities are required to have regard to the department's Code of Guidance and in selecting their tenants to give a reasonable preference to homeless people.

Even so, authorities are left with a wide range of discretion. They have to decide whether someone is homeless, falls into a priority need category and is unintentionally homeless, as well as considering the local connection angle. Authorities can vary in the consideration they give to housing conditions and mental stress in assessing homelessness. They can vary in whom they count as vulnerable. They can vary in how they view intentionality.

Some degree of variation is of course to be expected, reflecting local attitudes and local circumstances. But we do wonder whether some authorities go too far, becoming a "soft touch" in areas of housing pressure and thus increasing their own problems; also, incidentally increasing their share of housing resources since the number of homeless acceptances is one factor in our allocations. In areas of housing pressure this also has repercussions on those on the waiting list—increasing their waiting time and in turn encouraging them to seek a council tenancy through the homelessness route. Some unscrambling of this vicious circle would be of benefit to all concerned, not just to reverse the trend of homelessness figures but to give more people more confidence in their future prospects.

The other important area for authorities' decision is how to accommodate homeless households. As your Lordships know, the use of bed and breakfast has increased rapidly in recent years. The figure for England at the end of September was 11,240 households, 8,510 of them in London; both figures are more than three times what they were three years ago.

That is rightly an issue of major public concern. We advise authorities in our code of guidance to use bed and breakfast only as a very last resort. It is certainly unsuitable for families for any length of time. It is also very expensive, as many noble Lords have pointed out; and authorities' expenditure on bed and breakfast facilities falls on the general rate fund with no assistance from subsidy. Why then do some authorities, like Camden, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets, use bed and breakfast accommodation so extensively, when others like Greenwich in apparently similar circumstances manage to avoid it? We hope that our current research will shed some light on that point. But certainly efficiency and the ability of authorities to organise themselves properly and to consider alternatives in a sufficiently imaginative way plays a very big part.

As I have said, it is for authorities to decide how to accommodate homeless households and there are plenty of alternatives to bed and breakfast as a short-term measure. Those suggested in our code of guidance include hostels, taking short-term leases of empty private sector property, and short-term use of empty council dwellings awaiting major repairs.

Where they nevertheless use bed and breakfast, it is for authorities also to see that conditions are satisfactory, as the noble Countess, Lady Mar, pointed out. They have wide powers to do so. They can require the provision of standard amenities, improvements in the building's physical condition and management, and a reduction in overcrowding. Use of these powers has, however, been patchy, and we are therefore considering what advice on best practice we could usefully give to authorities.

Some of the problems of people in bed and breakfast arise from being placed in establishments outside their local authority area of origin, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, pointed out. We would normally expect an authority so far as possible to accommodate its homeless within its own boundaries in order to avoid undue disruption of education, employment and other ties. But we accept that this may not always be possible. However, where homeless families have to be placed in another authority's area, it is important that the education, health and social services authorities should be notified. Homeless families have the same right to these services as anyone else and failure to notify can jeopardise this.

The Government's concern at the increased use of bed and breakfast is reflected in the fact that we have made additional resources available specifically to reduce recourse to it. Through Estate Action we have since August 1986 made some £5½ million available to bring 1,200 empty council dwellings on estates back into use; we have launched our mixed funding (public and private sector) initiative to provide through housing associations a better standard of interim accommodation for homeless families (a total of £30 million in all this year including £15 million grant provision); and the ink is barely yet dry on the £25 million extra we have allocated to authorities—more than half of this in London—targeted on reducing bed and breakfast through bringing other empty council dwellings back into use, acquiring empty properties as hostels for the homeless, and assisting housing association projects with the same object. The authorities' benefiting from the £25 million estimate that this will provide nearly 2,800 extra units of accommodation. This is practical evidence of our concern.

More generally, we have increased the provision for capital spending by local authorities on housing in 1988–89. Homelessness continues to be a factor in allocations and authorities are asked to give priority to the homeless and others in special need. Provision for the Housing Corporation has also been increased. The detailed breakdown of the corporation's programme has yet to be agreed, but provision for the mixed funding programme for homeless families will continue as will our support for the corporation's programme of hostels and shared housing for single homeless people among others. Though we have increased the gross public sector capital provision for the past three years, the Government's initiative in bringing in private sector investment to make every pound of public expenditure go further is, as I see it, one of the most important developments in the housing field.

But dealing with homelessness is not just a matter of money. A large part of the problem arises from social factors, as my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and my noble friend Lady Macleod all pointed out, as did other noble Lords. Our divorce rate is one of the highest in Europe with 150,000 divorces in 1986. By 1981 only 37 per cent. of single parents were living with their parents or relatives compared with 56 per cent. in 1973; and young people are generally tending to leave home earlier often with unrealistic expectations about the housing options open to them.

One can reasonably ask how far those trends towards smaller households are going to go and how far society at large can be expected to provide accordingly. We cannot ignore those wider questions.

In any strategy for dealing with homelessness, prevention is an important element. The scope for influencing marital breakdown may be relatively limited but we can and do grant-aid marriage guidance, and see that the housing consequences of any breakdown are minimised. We can ensure that young people have proper information about housing prospects before they decide to leave home; as we have done through our funding of the IYSH Trust's leaflet Moving Out. We can seek to improve arrangements for debt counselling to reduce evictions for mortgage arrears, as we have done, for example. through grant-aiding the housing debt line of the Birmingham Settlement Money Advice Centre. That problem was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, and by my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox. Those are all useful initiatives that we have taken, and I am sure that there is scope for some local authorities at least to devote more attention to counselling in order to prevent homelessness.

The other factor in dealing with homelessness is the supply of accommodation. It is not true to say that overall there is a severe housing shortage. There is in fact an aggregate housing surplus. But we recognise that there are problems in some areas, particularly London and the South-East, as the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, pointed out. In such areas we want to see the best possible use made of existing accommodation. So far as local authorities are concerned we are constantly urging them to bring empty dwellings back into use, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, said. There are some 112,000 local authority properties empty at the present time, a quarter of which (28,000) have been empty for more than a year.

The fact of the matter is that the number of empty properties far exceeds the number of households in bed and breakfast. The main answer to the homelessness problem and the use of bed and breakfast by some authorities must surely be that local authorities—particularly—in problem areas-should do more to get empty properties renovated and back into use.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord for one moment. I find it difficult to follow this line of argument when the local authorities in question have great difficulty in bringing those properties back into use because they need money to repair them in many cases. Will he deal with that point?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, if the right reverend Prelate will wait just a moment or two, I am about to come on to that very point.

Local authorities should be spending more of their receipts from selling council houses on bringing empty properties back into use. It is also a scandal that local authority rent arrears are now running at approximately £200 million, as my noble friend Lady Macleod pointed out. This is lost money that could be used to improve their housing and is another example of poor management. Often councils that plead poverty would have far more resources to play with if they had been better managers of their housing stock.

The noble Lords, Lord Pitt and Lord Underhill, brought up the matter of accumulated receipts. Local authorities can spend, as I am sure both noble Lords are aware, some 20 per cent. of their receipts on those projects which are prescribed; but this restriction does not exist at all when it comes to the matter of capitalised repairs expenditure. So there is additional scope within the current system for authorities to make inroads into any backlog of repairs and thus provide more accommodation.

We do not generally favour compulsion but we cannot entirely rule out legislation. The time may be coming when further measures are necessary and we are faced with using sticks instead of carrots. That is why there are elements of the proposed Empty Property Bill, supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, which warrant examination. The suggested approach of requiring local authorities to bring their own properties back into use may indeed be what is needed. Obviously, however, any compulsion forcing private owners to make their empty property available for the homeless would not be acceptable, though it might be to the noble Lord, Lord Soper. Rather we prefer the approach that an increasing number of authorities have adopted taking short term leases of private sector properties that would otherwise have remained vacant.

The noble Lord, Lord Murray, and the noble Lord, Lord Blease, brought to your Lordships' attention the closure of mental hospitals. We in the DHSS have encouraged housing and health and social services authorities to work together to provide the co-ordinated packages of care tailored to individual needs. We have urged housing authorities to concentrate their own resources on people with special needs and to make maximum use of the voluntary and private agencies. Those include the Housing Association movement through which we target grant towards housing for mentally ill and handicapped people, elderly people and those with physical disabilities. The noble Lords, Lord Soper, Lord Seebohm, Lord Stallard and the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, brought to our attention the plight of the single and the young homeless. We have taken various measures to help single homeless people. Specific allocations have been made to the housing corporation for hostels and other shared accommodation. Some 14,700 places have been approved since April 1981. The facilitating of sub-letting and taking of lodgers by council tenants and the encouragement of owner occupiers and landlords in the private sector to do so by recent booklets should help. We have increased grant aid to voluntary bodies for advising and assisting the homeless to over £600,000 in 1977–88, which includes grants both to CHAR and the IYSH.

By informing young people of housing options before they decide to leave home, single and young people will also stand to benefit directly or indirectly from our proposals in the Housing Bill, like others. The noble Lord, Lord Blease, brought to your Lordships' House the problems of Northern Ireland and I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my colleagues at the Northern Ireland Office. The noble Lord, Lord Cocks, suggested radical proposals involving higher education. I have done a great deal of briefing over the past few days, but I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, that this radical proposal was not one that I had spotted. However, I shall bring it to the attention of the appropriate authorities.

My Lords, the Government pride themselves on their achievements in increasing owner occupation. This has increased by over 2½ million since 1979 and now accounts for 66 per cent. of all dwellings. We are now aiming at a similar record of achievement in increasing the availability of rented accommodation, which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Jay, also wishes to see.

Your Lordships will be aware of our White Paper and of the Housing Bill which will be coming before this House in due course. Although our White Paper does not mention homelessness by name, it is quite wrong to suggest that our current Housing Bill is not concerned with homelessness. All its proposals will benefit the homeless and those in poor quality housing. The Bill will revitalise the private rented sector so as to provide more housing at all income levels, will establish Housing Action Trusts to deal with the worst local authority housing, and will give tenants a wider choice of landlord.

Noble Lords opposite keep urging the need for more resources for local authorities. As I have said, we have already made additional resources available in various ways to help with the problem of bed and breakfast, and the overall provision is to be increased again next year. In the areas of housing pressure authorities need to concentrate their resources on the homeless and others in special need and particularly on renovating their existing empty properties—with the aid of their capital receipts—in order to bring them back into use. We want to get away from the situation in which local authorities carry the whole burden of providing homes for people who cannot afford or do not want to buy. We need instead to encourage the greater involvement of other agencies, for example the Nationwide-Anglia Building Society which, through its Quality Street initiative, is making £600 million available over the next five years to provide a wide range of private rented accommodation. Authorities will have an important contribution to make in terms of housing expertise (they are in the best position to know what the local housing needs are) but the strategy will involve tenants, private landlords, housing associations and developers to help meet those needs. The private rented sector has declined by ½ million dwellings in the past 10 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, pointed out. This represents 10 times the increase in homeless acceptances over this period. Revitalising that sector, together with our other proposals, should make a great contribution to reversing the trend in homelessness that is the subject of the noble Lord's Motion.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, it remains for me to express my appreciation to the Minister for his very courteous reply to the debate. However, I have to say that if the Minister's reply is the Government's answer to the size of the homeless problem we are facing in this country, it is a complete and utter nonsense. It will cause nothing but despair among the people who have to deal with it. I can give the Minister an undertaking that we shall come back on this matter to make him aware of the deteriorating position that will continue if that is all that the Government are to do.

I should like to thank the noble Lords and the noble Baronesses who have taken part in this debate with a special mention for Lord Ross of Newport. I of course knew him in the other place when we used to debate this type of issue. His speech was of the standard that we would expect and I look forward to hearing him in the near future. Once again I should like to thank all the Members of your Lordships' House who have taken part. It has been a very important debate but I am saddened by the lack of content in the Minister's reply dealing with the subject. My Lords, on that basis I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.