HL Deb 23 January 1989 vol 503 cc451-4

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What further measures they are contemplating to deal with the deteriorating situation regarding homelessness highlighted in the recent report of the Institute of Housing.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, the Institute of Housing's report on homelessness is one of a number that have recently been or are about to be published. We wish to assess the findings of all these studies before finalising our review of the homelessness legislation.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that since this report there has also been a report issued by the organisation Shelter which shows a similar trend? Is the Minister aware that it is calculated that there are now over 120,000 households homeless? In terms of numbers of people this is over 200,000. It should be borne in mind that the legislation came into force only recently, since when a representative of small landlords has said that they expect rents to double in the near future. That means that wherever they have the opportunity they will double rents. How does the Minister expect the homeless to be able to obtain rented property in order to leave the homeless queue?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dean, is right to say that there are about 120,000 households which have been classified as homeless and which have been found accommodation by the local authorities. As the noble Lord will know, there is a substantial programme of money devoted to the housing associations. They have had an increase of 80 per cent. over the next three years in the moneys that they are to receive from the taxpayer. That, combined with the continued resources to local authorities and the improvement in local authority efficiency and the private sector, should make a great dent in the homelessness figure.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the problem of homelessness would be reduced if councils were allowed to retain for new building more than 20 per cent. of the receipts from the right to buy?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I do not think I agree with my noble friend. It is important that this matter is the responsibility of the local authorities and, if they brought back into use a proportion of the 100,000 empty properties that they possess, it would make a great difference.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this is primarily a London problem?

Noble Lords


Lord Mellish

My Lords, I repeat, it is primarily a London problem. It is like talking to yourself, with some of these people. It is primarily a London problem and relates to only about four London boroughs. May I appeal to the Minister to consider this as a matter of national urgency, to set up a statutory authority whose problem it will be to deal with homelessness and to give it the money and power to solve the problem? It should have the power, for example, to take away from some of the local authorities the empty properties that they possess.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord has come up with an interesting idea which I should like to study with care. However, before one takes powers away from local authorities, one should give them one more chance to put their own house in order.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, will the noble Earl explain a little further his answer to his noble friend? The noble Lord asked about the use of moneys from selling council houses. It is not at all clear to me why the noble Earl thinks that placing more money at the disposal of local authorities for them to spend would not be a means of increasing the stock of housing. On the face of it, that seems self-evident.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, if the money were used precisely for the homeless and targeted in that way, it might help. However, as the noble Baroness knows, it is up to local authorities how they spend their money. I can tell her that from December 1987 until just recently we had given the local authorities a further £74 million specifically targeted towards helping the homeless.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Minister has said that the cost of housing homeless people in bed and breakfast accommodation is far greater than the cost to a council of housing them in normal housing. What is the Minister doing to reduce the use of bed and breakfast accommodation and to encourage an extension of council house occupation? The Minister has referred to the percentage of housing owned by councils which is unoccupied. Will he confirm that the amount of housing in the ownership and gift of the Government is far greater than the unoccupied housing belonging, to councils?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, asks what the Minister is doing. The question is what are the local authorities doing about empty housing? One sees vast differences between certain London local authorities which use a lot of bed and breakfast accommodation and others with virtually identical problems but which use no bed and breakfast accommodation.

As for the difference between the empty local authority housing and the empty government properties, the local authorities have something over 100,000 empty properties and central government have about 16,000.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the figure of 120,000 to which both my noble friend and others have referred relates to families which are in principle eligible for support by the local authorities? Does he further accept that beyond that, there are scores of thousands of single homeless people, many of them in great need, who are not covered by this Act? Will the Minister take into account in his further deliberations upon how to tackle this national problem the needs of single homeless, both in London and elsewhere?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important point about the definition of homelessness. Of course the single parent or single person, particularly the young single person, does not tend to qualify under the definition in the 1985 Act. That is the responsibility of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. I know that there are special hostels, and he is looking at the matter.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, during the passage of the Bill, when the Minister was questioned he placed great emphasis on the fact that when the Bill became an Act it would help with the rehousing of homeless people? If rents double as the representatives of the landlords predict, will the Minister give an undertaking that if people who are registered as homeless are able to negotiate a tenancy with one of these private landlords, irrespective of the doubling of the rent, the prospective tenant will be funded by housing benefit? Or is the whole thing "kidology" and a hoax? If so it is most unfair on the people concerned.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as the noble Lord is fully aware, Part I of the Act relating to assured tenancies only came into effect on 15th January, a week ago yesterday. There is a lot of interest in the ability of the private sector to provide an increasing part of the market which it has been forced out of since the introduction of the Rent Acts. I confirm that housing benefit is available.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that part of the reason bed and breakfast is used extensively by some local authorities and also the reason there are unused properties is the problem of finding capital, as opposed to the day-to-day expenditure, to produce the new buildings that are required?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, that is indeed one of the problems. The other is the need for more efficient management of those properties and a proper housing policy. I am sure the noble Viscount would wish to support that. He will be aware that there has been no restriction on the use of accumulated receipts for capital repairs. If some local authorities had used that route, we might have got a lot further.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, will the Minister give us some idea at what speed the Government are reducing their admitted figure of 16,000 empty houses? The Minister mentioned that figure earlier.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord a detailed answer. All I know is that there is a big drive within central government to ensure that when properties become available they are disposed of.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, according to the latest figures from the DoE, since this Government took control the number of homeless people has doubled. Does the Minister agree that one cannot put all the blame on the shoulders of local authorities? If one looks at the statistics of local authority spending on housing, one sees that every year the figures have gone down and down because of the lack of government subsidies on new build.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that the HIP allocation for next year is up 12 per cent. It is not just local authorities that provide housing. The private sector and the housing associations also provide housing, and they are being heavily funded.

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