HL Deb 07 June 1989 vol 508 cc889-929

5.28 p.m.

Lord Ross of Newport rose to call attention to the problems of homelessness, particularly in central London; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I seek the leave of the House to debate the Motion which appears in my name on the Order Paper; namely, the problems of homelessness particularly in central London. I recognise at once that this subject has been discussed by your Lordships on a number of occasions in the past and that proper concern has been expressed from all sides of the House about the desperate plight that can befall our fellow citizens, most often through no fault of their own.

Perhaps I should at the outset remind the House of the limited provisions of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act which I had the honour of putting on the statute book in 1977. Put briefly, it gave statutory backing to two circulars issued in early 1974 by the then Conservative Government which asked local authorities to give priority voluntarily to finding accommodation for, first, anyone with dependent children or with whom dependent children might reasonably be expected to reside; secondly, to anyone vulnerable because of old age, mental or physical disability or other special reason, specifically including pregnant women; and, thirdly, anyone becoming homeless as a result of an emergency such as fire or flood.

The majority of the authorities complied but others did not. That is why in the end statutory backing had to be given. When I introduced that Bill it also extended to Scotland and switched the requirement for finding that accommodation from the social services to the housing authorities which made sense because they were the organisations with the houses. At that time the social services were having to find enormous sums of money for bed and breakfast accommodation. The whole objective was to try to keep families together and to avoid the cost and distress of placing children in care.

I regret to say that no priority was given to the single homeless which was widely criticised at the time. As a former councillor I knew that the local authorities just could not cope with that additional responsibility any more than most of them can today. But I must say to their credit that about 5 per cent. of them have taken this need on board. As regards the review that we understand has been taking place within the Department of the Environment over many months, I hope that we can at least receive an assurance from the Minister when he comes to reply that those priorities will not be weakened in any way.

Despite certain siren voices suggesting the abolition of priorities—I have heard them myself and I believe that they are being listened to in government circles—I consider that to do otherwise would be criminal folly. It can only lead to women and children sleeping on our streets. I am sure that the response must be shared by all sides of the House, but the sight of young mothers begging, particularly at the London rail termini, is distressing enough. The other day I saw three of them holding out plastic cups outside the gents at Euston. I suspect that that is more to do with the cutbacks in social security payments which came into effect in April and which perhaps should be the subject of another debate on another day.

Suffice it to say at this stage that the situation certainly has not improved the prospects of the single homeless teenagers in obtaining accommodation for themselves. I am assured that something over 40 per cent. of the single homeless teenagers in central London were previously in care up to the age of 16. I suggest to your Lordships that that is quite a staggering and worrying statistic. So much greater co-operation between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Social Security on this aspect is highly desirable, if not absolutely essential.

While the wording of this debate refers specifically to central London, I am well aware that the problem affects the whole nation. The cardboard boxes that are a so familiar and depressing sight at Charing Cross and Waterloo are now appearing at places as far apart as Canterbury and towns in West Yorkshire. In fact 43 per cent. of homelessness occurs outside London. A recent Audit Commission report found that the growth in acceptances was some 16 per cent. in metropolitan boroughs outside London; 14 per cent. in the non-metropolitan boroughs and 9 per cent. in London. At the end of 1988 homelessness in Britain stood at 126,825 which is double the figure of 10 years ago. In Greater London the figure was 28,950. Those are actual acceptances. The number of applications totalled 242,000, so over half were turned down for one reason or another. So much for the so-called "soft" local authorities.

What happens to these people we do not seem to know. I suggest that we should try to find out. As regards the single homeless, the London housing unit claims that there were 64,500 in central London alone, the majority being between the ages of 16 and 19. Many of us fear that this situation, which has already reached crisis proportions, can only get worse with prevailing high interest rates and many other increasing burdens such as water and electricity charges and the poll tax all on the horizon. In a Daily Telegraph article which appeared on 30th May it was reported that the School of Advanced Urban Studies at Bristol University had told the Association of District Councils that in East Anglia alone the number of families in work who cannot afford to purchase a house at current average prices has risen to 53 per cent. in Essex, 55 per cent. in Hertfordshire, 57 per cent in Suffolk, 59 per cent. in Norfolk and some 66 per cent. in Cambridgeshire. What on earth the position is in Surrey I dread to think!

While it is true that more private properties to let are now coming on to the market, a study of the columns of the Evening Standard will quickly reveal that the rents quoted are way beyond the means of the lower income groups. The other night I made a quick assessment and the average rent appeared to be about £150 a week. There was hardly anything available under £100 a week. That is the measure of the problem that will not disappear and which is already costing the nation over £100 million a year in bed and breakfast payments alone.

What is to be done? The Audit Commission which reported to the Department of the Environment last February indicated areas where local authorities could manage there affairs more efficiently. I am quite certain that the Minister will be telling us all about that when he comes to reply. The Commission was itself quite definite that there was no way in which 30 or more local authorities in the areas of greatest stress—namely, London and the south of England, where, incidentally, residential council house sales have been the greatest—can cope and avoid the massive use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation without the provision of much greater resources.

I know that he is not taking part in this debate, but there was a letter in the Independent newspaper recently from the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. He said that we are getting increased public expenditure on roads and in many other areas, but nothing on housing. How right he was! Certainly, leasing from the private sector is one temporary way forward and it is happening among London boroughs now. But what happens at the end of three years? The lease is for two years less one day of the third year, but where do the tenants go after that? Encouraging tenants to move out of council housing into housing association properties is another method. But are the people who have been persuaded to move then going to face market rents and less security of tenure?—because, as I understand the Housing Act 1988, that is what it means.

The London boroughs have actually co-operated to a quite remarkable degree despite differing political views, but they can only achieve so much. Moving families into other boroughs can cause stress and racial disquiet. What is to be the future role of housing associations in the provision of homes for the homeless? Only 2,600 homeless families have so far been housed by housing associations despite the provisions of Section 72 of the Housing Act 1985. New starts in both sectors are quite abysmally low though I gather that the 1987 figures for completions—namely, only 15,000 council houses and 9,000 housing association homes—are now being reversed, with housing associations actually making more completions than local authorities. But the figures are all appallingly small. It is a far cry from the forecast of the late Harold Macmillan of 300,000 houses a year. I remember a Conservative conference applauding that statement 20 or more years ago—I suppose it is 30 years now. The figures are still pathetically small.

I am assured by my local housing association, of which I was recently a member, that in the west of England the housing corporation funding has actually gone down from 12 per cent. to 8 per cent., and that is in one of the areas of stress. If the Government really intend that in future housing associations should play the major role in social housing provision, they will have to provide far greater resources and direct that that money be allocated to the areas of greatest stress. The Government will also have to make clear the housing associations' statutory responsibilities as regards homelessness. I suggest that they will also have to change their hostile attitude towards local authorities which still, at the end of the day, own by far the greatest number of properties that can be used to house those in need at affordable rents.

The housing market is currently depressed, particularly in London and the South-East. This then is surely the time to fund the councils and housing associations in the acquisition of properties on new estates for first-time buyers that are not selling at the present time. They can do bargains with those at discount prices. I believe that a bargain has just been struck at New Cross. I am sure that the Wimpeys and the Barratts of this world will be delighted to negotiate. There are also the larger properties that are suitable for conversion. I shall tell a sad tale of one that we attempted to buy in the Isle of Wight. In March we agreed terms to have four residential units in the property and there was also to be a resident caretaker. But by the time the money came through from the housing corporation in May the property had been sold. That was because of bureaucracy, which is so stupid.

As long ago as 1971 Professor John Greve published his widely-acclaimed study of homelessness in London. He said that it was a book: about inadequacy and failure; about defects and shortfall in the effectiveness of policies and the allocation of resources to cope with some of the most perplexing and resistant problems of urban society".

At that time he concluded that the need was for, housing of a reasonable standard, at affordable rents and with security of tenure".

If that was true then, how much more is it the case today?

In recent years we have done much to provide sheltered accommodation for the elderly. It is now surely time to give much greater attention to the needs of the younger generation. Last September I spoke at the launching of a booklet published by SHAC and Shelter entitled An Act of Compromise, a term I used to describe the 1977 Act. I said that it was "an Act of compromise". The document contains 13 recommendations, which I most fully support. I should like to summarise a few of them. There should be effective management to ensure that the number of empty properties is kept to a minimum. Local authorities have made great advances in this respect. The Government have been right to pressurise them and I think it is having an effect. Bed and breakfast should be used only as a last resort. If it is to be used, it should be regularly inspected, reasonable standards should be applied and there should be a co-ordination of support services, such as health and social services, to ensure that families have the necessary support and help. When the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act went on the statute book I was bitterly disappointed that the severance between social services and housing departments became much wider. It was promised at the time that they would co-operate. In fact they did not.

All obstacle courses to permanent housing such as minimum periods of time in temporary accommodation should be removed. Direct or indirect discrimination against black and other ethnic minority households in the offers of housing should stop. There should be a recognition of the reality that homelessness is now the main route to local authority housing and the removal of policies which inhibit the speedy and effective housing of homeless households. There should be adequate funding for women's refuges and an end to policies which force women to return to violent partners. Greater emphasis should be laid on prevention. Good advice from social services, securely funded, should be provided. More than two-thirds of local authorities still do not have adequate housing advice facilities either provided directly by them or by the voluntary agencies in the area. What is cheaper: paying for good advice or putting a family in bed and breakfast for two years?

The Audit Commission drew attention to this. I listened to a speech only this morning on the same subject. The Government should let local authorities get on with the job. They have the people, the expertise and the will. It is no good talking about ending their role unless it is quite clear who will carry it on and how. I praise some authorities for trying very hard in Housing Week to get statistics from local people by advertising in the local paper. In Powys the Radnor borough council should be congratulated on doing just that. There are others too.

The Government should ensure through housing benefit or other subsidies that homes are affordable. Cannot the Department of the Environment and the Department of Social Security co-ordinate? There should be clear enforceable agreements with landlords taking over council stock so that local authorities can nominate homeless people to that stock. There should be minimum standards for temporary accommodation of all forms and an end to the punitive use of intentional homelessness provisions. It is being abused at the present time.

Finally, we want to see a phased programme—I realise that this is asking for a great deal—to extend the present legislation to all homeless people over a five-year period beginning with the young single homeless and those approaching retirement age. In what we still hope and claim is a Christian society we surely should look after our fellow citizens to the very best of our ability. In this Motion I am asking the Government to do just that. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.43 p.m.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ross, has raised this extremely important aspect of housing. I would call it the Achilles heel of housing policy in this; country. It is the most difficult one to resolve. Although 14 speakers have their names down to speak, I do not know whether anyone will say how it can be resolved. I only hope that someone will. I was struck by the annual report of Shelter, which said—and the figures are obviously not precise—that one-third of a million people are homeless. I do not know whether or not that is true. There certainly is a large number, but what is formidable is that the number appears to be increasing. I do not know why Is it that the family bond is becoming weaker? Is it that divorce is too widely indulged in? Is it that mothers go out to work and leave the house empty and dull? All these factors may play a part—I do not know.

We have to recognise that since the early 1920s Parliament has accepted responsibility for housing the people of this country. It has had great difficulty in doing so but it has continued with one fatal element. I refer to rent control. One needs only the most elementary knowledge of economics to realise that if one controls the price one does not get the commodity. It is as simple as that. Until control is taken away we will not have the requisite amount of housing. We have wandered away from it at the present time. In 1920 90 per cent. of housing was rented. Today the figure is 7 per cent. That is the influence of rent controls on houses in this country. We will not change the position until those figures are improved. I know that this is hot politics. I realise the difficulties of talking about the removal of rent controls. But sometimes the hottest political issue requires a difficult decision. It is worth remembering that.

There has been a step in this direction, particularly through the housing associations movement which is playing a large role in this respect. We should congratulate Sir Hugh Cubitt as leader of the movement on having done an important job. Some of the housing associations are dealing with what I might call special cases—people who might otherwise be homeless. The housing associations need our full support. Any noble Lord who cares to encourage his local housing association will be doing a valuable job.

I should like to make two suggestions. First, in certain cases housing benefit will need to be increased. In addition, we shall need to encourage outside groups to help with rented property. The noble Lord, Lord Ross, talked about resources. I agree with him but let us find resources from places other than government. The Government will always be hesitant in increasing grants. They have so many calls on their resources—health, roads and goodness knows what else. Resources can come from banks, building societies and so on, but such organisations must be able to meet their expenses. That can be done and will be done.

In Australia a certain section of the housing world deals with welfare cases. Perhaps we should have a section, whether under local authority control or otherwise, to deal specifically with welfare cases who cannot deal with themselves. I do not know whether this would be popular with the Government; I think probably not. In many cases—I shall not say all—I do not think that local authorities are the ideal organisations to handle housing. Housing is a specialist and difficult area. I am far from satisfied that it has been looked after as well and as thoroughly as it should have been.

I shall listen with much interest to the next 14 speakers, many of whom will tell us perhaps in simple words how this severe problem can be resolved.

5.49 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the answer to the noble Earl's question. However, I want to concentrate on two aspects of homelessness: the effects on young people, especially those who are leaving care, and the effects on the education of children. I shall deal first with young people.

Less than 18 months after the end of the United Nations' International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, Britain has the fastest-growing youth homelessness problem in Western Europe. It is not the result of natural disasters, but the result of social security and housing legislation passed by this Government in the past four years. Not only has the amount of money paid to the under-25s, and especially to the under-18s, been reduced, but advance payments have also been stopped and loans have replaced grants so that money has to be repaid. Without money to put down in advance, accommodation is very difficult to come by.

Shelter estimates that more than 150,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 19 become homeless each year and do not appear in the statistics of homelessness. That is because they fall outside the protection of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. They are the hidden homeless. In 1987, 53 per cent. of young people who used Centrepoint had slept rough at some stage. The figure now is 78 per cent. None of us can have failed to notice the increasing number of young people on the streets of London. In one of the wealthiest cities in the world, a whole generation of young people is growing up in poverty on the streets with very little chance of finding employment or permanent accommodation. It has been said that we are back in Victorian times in that we now give more legal protection to animals than we do to young homeless people.

I should especially like to refer to those young people leaving care at the age of 16 and 17. As the noble Lord, Lord Ross, said, 40 per cent. of young homeless people have spent some time in care. Several of us here today took part in discussions on the Children Bill when it was going through this House. We made valiant efforts then to get the legislation changed, either by amending the social security Acts or by putting statutory responsibilities on the local authorities to assist the young people until they were at least 18—although I would have preferred the age of 21. We were not successful, but I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, for her efforts behind the scenes in persuading Mr. Moore to make some improvements—though not enough—to the Social Security Bill as it went through another place.

More important, the noble Baroness organised a visit by 12 or so young people who had been in care to this House so that we could hear at first hand of their difficulties. It was a moving occasion. They were very articulate. They explained their position and their problems. They were angry. It was not their fault that they had no homes to go to. They were upset by what had happened to their friends, some of whom in despair had taken to drugs and prostitution. At the end of the visit, one of them said, "Well, we've told you what's happened to us. What will you do for us now?"

We have an opportunity to do something for these young people this summer. We have in fact two opportunities. We are about to go into the Committee stage of the Social Security Bill and later we shall have the Local Government and Housing Bill. We must be quite sure that we amend those Bills to make things better and restore the position at least to what it was before the 1986 and 1988 Social Security Acts. We must also ensure that we alter the housing legislation so as to give local authorities and housing associations more powers and, above all, more money so that more hostels can be provided, houses in disrepair maintained and repaired, and more houses built.

As the Audit Commission said in its February 1989 review, a relatively modest reallocation of capital receipts from council house sales could, if the number of homeless households accepted remains at the current level, eliminate within three years the use of bed and breakfast hotels. It could also within four years return the number of households in temporary accommodation to the average levels which prevailed between 1970 and 1982.

I turn to the implications for education provision of homelessness, concentrating upon London where the situation is the most desperate. In September last there were 21,500 households classified as homeless living in temporary accommodation in the Greater London area, and there were 10,000 in the ILEA area. Unfortunately, and I suppose inevitably, the education of the children and its continuity must be the last and least consideration of the placing authorities. There is no proper system of notifying ILEA of the circumstances, the ages or the possible length of stay of families in temporary accommodation which could be two months or two years.

In 1986 57 per cent. of the homeless lived in Westminster and in Camden. But they could have come from 13 different boroughs. ILEA increased resources to cope with the 57 per cent. Two hundred and twenty five additional primary places were created that year, 495 in 1987 and 555 in 1988. That is equivalent to one new primary school per year over three years. One small primary school recorded 713 admissions during the year; its normal intake is 126. Of the 150 pupils at St. James and St. Michael's in Bayswater, 105 are homeless. One can imagine the difficulty for teachers in terms of curriculum planning and teaching techniques, particularly when 20 different languages might be spoken by the pupils and their parents. The teachers need to spend a good deal of time making the children feel welcome and secure.

To help cope with the problem, ILEA set up a homeless persons' unit, staffed by education social workers with the support of administrative staff and working with an adult education co-ordinator and a research worker. A small-scale survey by the unit revealed that of 730 school-age children in 88 hotels in Westminster 150 were without a school place and nursery provision was needed for 180.

The unit has been compiling a database of families and their children in order to monitor movements and to allow for speedier school placement and assessment of welfare benefits. The facility also means that placing boroughs need only contact one section of the authority to give information on families. That should be enormously helpful. I should like to ask the Minister what will happen to the unit when ILEA comes to an end in 1990. It is a most important resource and those working in it have a range of skills. The database which is being built up will be invaluable. I hope that the unit will remain as a unit for the whole of London and that one borough will be the lead borough. Westminster or Camden would seem to be the sensible choice as those boroughs house most homeless families. I hope that the Minister will give me an answer to that question.

What is distressing is the future that these children, having to endure this sort of life, can expect. Poverty means deprivation; but poverty and homelessness accentuate every problem—health, behaviour, play and jobs. I hope that the debate will stir the Government's conscience and that they will realise they have a lot to answer for as regards what has happened over the past 10 years. During that time the number of homeless householders accepted by local authorities increased from 53,110 to over 116,000; the figure has more than doubled.

5.58 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of London

My Lords, I too should like to express my appreciation for the opportunity to debate the issue of homelessness, especially in central London, provided by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport. I shall not spend time emphasising the urgency and gravity of the situation because reference has already been made to that in most eloquent terms. However, I should just say that this is a problem of which I am particularly aware.

Anyone who lives in Westminster and especially anyone who has to travel about at night cannot be unaware of the situation; indeed, it presses upon one all the time. To visit day centres, especially here in the heart of London, and to go out during the night to meet those who are sleeping rough, as I have done, is to be made very conscious of the misery and distress which the problem causes.

In the severe winter of 1986–87 we opened the churches to provide shelter for the homeless. And afterwards, thanks to the support of the Lord Mayor of London, I was able to appoint a chaplain for the homeless—a very experienced man who knows about the homeless and indeed knows many of them personally. He reports to me regularly. He seeks to make the homeless aware of the resources which are available to them. But, of course, he is constantly under pressure because of the fact that accommodation is simply not available.

The leaders of the Churches have repeatedly drawn attention to the urgency of the problem and, although they have not really spoken, they have sought to ensure that their Churches initiate projects and co-operate with those initiated by others. Cardinal Hume has been most active in this respect as has the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark who has made this problem something of a speciality. He would have been here this evening had he not had a prior commitment to address a conference on homelessness.

I wish to speak of two factors which have exacerbated, and which are still exacerbating, the situation, before making one or two general points. First, there is no doubt that there has been a marked increase in the number of homeless people with personality problems who have spent time in psychiatric hospitals. The closure of some of the larger psychiatric hospitals has resulted in far more people being on the streets. They cannot fend for themselves and they often need the support of an institution. The provision of community care is limited and wholly inadequate. My evidence for saying that comes from those who care for the homeless and from the hospitals which are being closed.

As evidence of what I have just said, St. Botolph's, Aldgate, houses more than 300 people per night. The increase over the past few years, which has been marked, is attributable in large measure to the increasing number of people who have been in mental hospitals. The second point I want to make concerns hostels. Hostels have played, and still play, a significant part in meeting the needs of the homeless; but the numbers are declining. In 1976, for example, the Church Army had eight hostels in London—five for men and three for women. There are now four—one for men and three for women. The requirement for improved standards, which is laudable and proper, has been accompained by a reduction in grants and resources. The position of the hostels will be seriously affected by the replacement of the board and lodging allowance with a mixture of housing benefit and income support. That will have an especial effect on the under-25s who are significant users of hostels. The Church, and Church-supported organisations, have tried, and are trying, to help, but as the need increases so does the demand upon us.

What I have said so far relates largely to those who are on the streets, but, as has already been pointed out, they constitute a minority. There is an unrecognised and hidden homeless population within our country and in this city. They provide the larger element. It includes those who are sharing accommodation involuntarily; those who are squatting; and those who are living in wholly inadequate properties, such as garages. They must also be counted among the homeless. The only solution for them is the provision of low-cost housing. There is no alternative. If that is left merely to private sources, it is bound to reflect the market rent which will put it out of reach of the very people who are in such need.

I do not believe that I am abnormally stupid. I have tried to equip myself by understanding the housing legislation. I find it extraordinarily difficult. Not only do I find it difficult, but when I read the provisions I am reminded of someone tinkering with a car by giving it a new coat of paint or new wheel rims when it needs a new engine. I feel desperate about that. What is to be done, as the noble Lord asked earlier? A major shift of policy is needed. I agree with the London Boroughs Association which put forward two proposals—the relaxing of controls on the spending of capital and the targeting of capital allocations. If a real effort were made in that direction, it could significantly change the situation.

I am not sure whether this point has been made, but the homeless are not all feckless or desiring a nomadic life. That point must be pressed home strongly. Perhaps I may give an account of one man. It comes from my chaplain for the homeless. Four weeks ago he met a young man in his early thirties from the islands of Scotland who had come to London to seek work. The man was a qualified chef. He had acquired from an agency a job working in a hotel in central London but the money was so poor that he could not afford to pay in advance for suitable accommodation and feed himself at the same time. He was saving his first week's money until he was paid his second week's money so as to be able to acquire the accommodation that he needed. In the meantime, he was sleeping in a cardboard box in the Waterloo area.

In the minute that remains I wish to say one more thing. I do not believe that homelessness is merely the result of the policy of this or any other government. The greatest cause, mentioned in all the papers that I have read, is disputes with relatives and within the family. That presents a challenge to the Churches. While it is right for us to be concerned with housing policy, we can only involve ourselves with a clear conscience if we also seek to apply the gospel we profess to the problem of family life and personal relationships, preparation for marriage, reconciliation in the case of divorce, and guidance on the upbringing of children.

The noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, referred to the significant number of those in their late teens and early twenties who are homeless and who had been in care as children. While we continue to work with housing associations, hostels, and places such as Centrepoint and to make known the needs in the community, the Church must be concerned to foster true family life and the right relationships which must underpin it.

6.7 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I should like to devote the short time allotted to me to the homeless who sleep rough. A high proportion of the homeless in London live rough. As most of your Lordships know—if you do not I can show you—if you go to the South Bank and along the Embankment you will see that a number of the older homeless who live rough have chronic or severe alcohol problems. That is not a new development. I understand that it has always been the case. When homelessness in London became a noticeable problem it was discovered that most people who slept rough did so because they had an alcohol problem. That has changed recently, and in particular during the past five years, with the unhappy growth of the number of young people who have become homeless. The situation is reversing itself. A large proportion of the homeless who live rough are likely to become chronically alcoholic through exposure to the lifestyle of those who live rough rather than living rough because they have those problems in the first place.

There is an additional problem among young people which is extremely worrying. When they form part of this living-rough culture, more often than not they mix alcohol with drugs. It is difficult to treat someone who has mixed drink with drugs—if he or she is lucky enough to be treated before something dreadful happens—in a detoxification centre or hospital.

There is a hard core of older people who live under bridges or on the Embankment in boxes. Two reports came out in the 1980s. They told us that there was a hard core of about 10,000 people in this country living rough, who, if not chronically alcoholic, were habitual drunkenness offenders. Of course, drunkenness in itself is not a criminal offence, provided that one gets drunk in one's own home. It is not something which I recommend to your Lordships. Drunkenness becomes an offence when it takes place in a public area. I suppose that it is logical that most people who fall foul of the law should be members of the homeless community, particularly in London. It is that problem which I wish to address because I do not think we in this country have addressed it in quite the positive way it has been addressed in America, Canada and other English-speaking countries where similar problems prevail.

When in the 19th century the problem of habitual drunkenness had to be tackled, the state created a number of offences. I believe that in the 1870s it became illegal under statute to be drunk and incapable; it became illegal to be drunk and disorderly; and, curiously, drunk in charge of cattle. Obviously, with the passing of time the approach of the state had to be changed. With the overcrowding of prisons the state came to believe that it would be better to separate habitual drunkenness offenders and put them in what were then known as reformatories. They were a primitive type of detoxification centre and, because they were so primitive, they were not very successful and were thus abandoned.

On top of that, there was a new approach of the law, which was to hand out severe sentences. Again that was not effective. Perhaps I may concertina history in this way: we have reached the position today where such is the load of work on the police and such is the expense, as it is viewed by the Government, that any attempt to deal with habitual drunkenness offenders by treating them has largely been abandoned. There has been funding of centres by voluntary agencies and also private sources, but those centres are all too few to deal with people who are constantly in and out of trouble.

One of the most startling aspects of this is that every year there are between 20 and 30 deaths in police cells as a result of drunkenness. Nothing sinister happens in the police station, the drunk is taken in because he is a danger to himself or to others. He is taken into the police station, which is very crowded, he is hurried along to a police cell where, more often than not, if he is in a severe state he develops health problems. He is liable to choke or to have other problems which cause death in many cases.

The police are extremely embarrassed by this and would like to move the treatment of drunks away. The police have to keep them in overnight and then caution them the following day, which does not help with somebody who is an habitual offender. All that happens is that he goes out, gets drunk again, comes back and becomes a tedious, dirty, often noisy and unpleasant nuisance for the police to deal with. They do not like dealing with habitual drunks.

However, if there were some alternative place to which the police could take them to be treated, not only to be put through a course of detoxification but to receive counselling as well, I feel, as I hope your Lordships feel, that there is a good possibility that lives might be saved and some people might be sent out on to the streets with a chance of reforming their behaviour. Perhaps it is too hopeful to expect that, but that alternative is better than the present state where many hundreds, if not thousands, of people in London are constantly in trouble with the law. The law, in the shape of the police, does not know what to do with them apart from slamming them into a police cell if it is absolutely necessary, and cautioning them, or, unusually, getting them into one of the Salvation Army homes or into an area where they can be dealt with differently.

That is the sombre story I have to tell. I daresay all noble Lords were aware of it already. I hope that the Minister agrees that the situation is very sad and it is unnecessary for a country with our standard of living to support this kind of tragedy on our streets, particularly in London. In the early 1980s—and I do not suppose that things have changed enormously—it was assessed that lp on a pint of beer would fund hundreds of detoxification centres, should the Government be minded to deal with the problem in that way. The provision of proper medical care and counselling might encourage more people to come forward voluntarily for care and help. That would be a productive step, rather than the cautioning which I have just laboriously described to your Lordships. I do not believe that the system is productive, and in many ways it is destructive. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

6.15 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has won the respect of the House by his skilful and gallant defence of many awkward positions in recent years. But this time I am afraid he has something quite indefensible in front of him. The Government are very proud of their record over the past 10 years. We are told that an unexampled prosperity has now come to our country through their extraordinarily enlightened efforts. We read in the papers that some eminent man—no doubt much respected—has recently had his salary doubled. All that is a lovely picture. But here we have the homeless: their number has been doubled. This gentleman's salary has doubled but the number of homeless has doubled in the 10 years of Conservative rule; there are rather more than twice as many homeless as before. I only hope that the noble Earl will not try to defend the situation but just for once throw away his brief and say, "kaput" or something of that kind. Not that that is very likely, but it would be the most attractive course.

I shall not deal with the causes of homelessness; they were well brought out by the noble Lord, Lord Ross, and other speakers. No doubt a completely new approach to housing policy is the only solution, but I must deal with the consequences for the treatment of the homeless in the few minutes available to me. The debate in February on social matters generally was opened by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. In it I mentioned five steps taken by the Government which have damaged the homeless and I shall now mention them very quickly and pass on: first, the board and lodging regulations in 1985; secondly, the social security upper limit for bed and breakfast; thirdly, the decision to pay supplementary benefit, now called income support, two weeks in arrears; fourthly, the benefit cuts to the under 25 year-olds; and, fifthly, the youth training scheme for the 16 to 18 year-olds which was introduced with little concern for the young people involved.

Those matters remain on the record; they are very damaging steps. Since then, other steps have been taken. On the whole, according to those whom I trust who are closest to the scene, those steps are damaging and I am told that there may be more in the autumn which will also be damaging. I shall not dwell on details during my few minutes; I wish to ask your Lordships to consider a more fundamental approach of the present Government to these matters—not the spiritual approach mentioned by the right reverend Prelate. I shall not rise to that, but deal at any rate with the fundamental political approach.

Last Friday I was reading with the utmost interest an article by Professor Brian Griffiths who is head of Mrs. Thatcher's policy unit. So far as I can see, he is the supreme adviser. I know that she is a lady of extraordinary independence of mind and will not be dictated to by anybody. However, in so far as she has a guru, I gather that it is this gentleman, Professor Brian Griffiths. It is worth studying the man since he might throw some light on what our ruler—or perhaps I should say rulers—are thinking.

I am sure that Professor Griffiths is a devout Christian. We can all concede that to him, but his Christianity does not work out in quite the same way as mine, or possibly that of the right reverend Prelate. At any rate, he lays down seven commandments which ought to be followed in his policy, and poverty comes fourth, I need hardly say after private property. The Professor says that the community should seek to relieve poverty rather than to pursue equality. On the face of it, that is quite a sound, conventional, conservative way of putting the matter. What is troublesome is that Mrs. Thatcher—who presumably is advised by this gentleman—has now disparaged the whole idea of poverty. She treats it as something with a rather embarrassing label. An article in The Times stated: The Prime Minister has too much respect for ordinary people to belittle those receiving income support or to denigrate children in such families by using labels like 'poverty' ". Coupled with the statements of Mr. Moore, the Secretary of State for Social Security, who apparently claims that poverty has, to all intents and purposes, been abolished, we realise that Professor Brian Griffiths' idea of tackling poverty is not that of other Christians. So, we are faced with a Government who view matters in this light. They put private enterprise, private property, capital accumulation and other such things first. At least Professor Brian Griffiths would give poverty some credibility in placing it in fourth position as regards issues of contemporary importance. However, it has now been conjured out of existence.

Professor Ruth Lister put it rather well in an article in the Independent on Friday, She stated: The effects of poverty on people and their families will continue regardless of the words we use to describe it". So it is really a sick joke and an insult to the homeless to talk as if poverty did not exist. I shall not take up more than a few more moments of your Lordships' time. However, I have expressed my own way of looking at this problem. As I have said, perhaps too often, I started the New Horizon Youth Centre for young people. That centre now receives about 3,000 people a year. It is situated bang in the centre of London. Therefore, I have been close to the scene we are discussing today. However, I am now merely a patron of that centre, and I do not pretend to run that organisation.

The position of homeless people has been described by previous speakers and will be described by speakers to come. If one sees the position of these people, one should feel nothing but human sympathy and compassion. In my eyes it is atrocious that today the whole subject can be talked out by a reference to poverty as an embarrassing concept.

I am afraid that whatever the virtues of the Government over the past 10 years—it would be ridiculous to pretend there had been no virtues—on this particular issue their record is thoroughly and fundamentally wicked.

6.22 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Ross of New port, for bringing before your Lordships' House the problem of homelessness, which has increased and is increasing at a most alarming rate. I wish also to congratulate my noble friend the Minister on being so apparently bright and alive when one considers the late night that he had last night on the Electricity Bill in your Lordships' House——

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

The Water Bill!

Baroness Faithfull

I beg the House's pardon. If it was the Water Bill, it must have been even worse, or perhaps it amounted to the same thing.

The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Ross, calls attention to homelessness, particularly in London. However, he also mentioned the situation countrywide. I wish to make two points in my brief speech. I wish to point out what is going on in Oxford county, which has five districts. My information comes from the Cherwell Housing Trust, which has a low political profile and which seeks to provide housing at affordable rents and low cost ownership.

The annual figure for families who are officially homeless, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ross, has increased over the past 10 years from 57,000 to 116,000 and perhaps to a quarter of a million people. The situation nationwide is reflected in Oxford county. I must point out that Oxford is a fairly wealthy county. It offers good work prospects. Therefore, it is surprising that the problem of homelessness is so extensive in that county. One must take that into account.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate that perhaps the homeless problem would be less acute if fewer family breakdowns occurred. However, as many of us know, a good family will remain a good family, but many good families are unable to remain as families because affordable accommodation does not exist for them. I agree with the right reverend Prelate, but I also believe that homelessness causes problems for families.

I wish to make a serious, if original, plea to my noble friend the Minister, who we know is a caring person and who is willing to listen to and to meet people. Will he allow me to gather together 15 organisations which deal with the homeless and bring them here so they can meet him and his fellow Ministers informally? I should like them to meet Mr. Scott of the Department of Social Security, Mr. Mellor of the Department of Health, the noble Lord, Lord Young, of the Department of Trade and Industry and Mrs. Rumbold of the Department of Education and Science. For good measure, I should like them to meet a representative from the Treasury. I realise that Sir Humphrey in the series "Yes, Minister" would not approve of that. I wonder whether the Minister's advisers would approve.

If the Ministers I have mentioned met these organisations together they would appreciate that overlaps and gaps occur in our social policies with regard to housing. If the Ministers were to meet the people whom the noble Lord, Lord Ross, and other Peers have met this week, they would realise that many ministries are involved in this problem and there are gaps and overspending. They would realise that one ministry is robbing Peter to pay Paul, and that a co-ordinated policy throughout the country, particularly in the realm of housing, does not exist.

I mention the example of the Department of Health. Children are now being accepted into care on a voluntary basis due to homelessness. I am not talking about those being taken into care because of delinquency or the breakdown of families. The British Medical Association in its report entitled Homeless Families and their Health indicates the problems of access to primary health care for homeless families. That problem must provide a hidden cost for the health service.

Bed and breakfast accommodation is a socially horrendous method of housing the homeless. Families are having to live in one room and to share facilities such as kitchens. That must have cost effects as regards the health of these families. Furthermore, community care cannot be developed. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned the problem of mental patients being discharged from hospitals in this connection.

For the Department of Social Security, bed and breakfast is a costly way of caring for people. Had the Government spent the money that they have spent on bed and breakfast on building low-cost accommodation, the necesary accommodation would exist and people would not be living in such appalling conditions in bed and breakfast accommodation.

As regards the Department of Employment, I dare to suggest that, but for the lack of low-cost rented accommodation, more people would be in work. As has been mentioned, information has been received from Centrepoint which suggests that the young cannot obtain a job if they have no accommodation. However, they cannot obtain accommodation if they do not have a job. It is a vicious circle. Who is to solve the problem? Therefore, the Department of Employment is losing out because of the lack of accommodation.

The Home Office is also losing out because homelessness, as has been pointed out, is causing many men to take to the bottle. I think I would take to the bottle in similar circumstances. Homelessness can lead to crime, drugs, AIDS and prostitution. As regards the Department of Education, the noble Baroness, Lady David, pointed out how children are losing out in the realm of education if they come from homeless families.

I suggest that, if my noble friend the Minister were willing to arrange, or to allow me to arrange, an informal meeting of the various organisations able to provide the information with all the Ministers concerned (including the Treasury), perhaps between them they could work out a co-ordinated policy and establish where money could be saved. In the first instance, Ministers would learn from those working at the grass roots who know what the problems are. Secondly, it is possible that they might be able to explain to those working in the realm of homelessness why they have adopted the policies that they have.

I know that that is a most extraordinary step to recommend. I doubt whether it has ever been done, although I must say that the Prime Minister met a group of people working with families and children. If my noble friend felt able to arrange a similar meeting, I believe that that would be appreciated and we might be able to work out a co-ordinated policy for our country.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, for this further opportunity to discuss this important subject. His homelessness Bill of 1977 was very much a trail blazer.

On this subject it is extremely easy to lay a political cane on the Government's anatomy. But this is a problem which cannot be solved simply by setting housing targets for the number of fresh starts, builds and so on, because there are variables beyond the control of any government. It is not possible to legislate against marital break up or the antagonism between relatives to which the right reverend Prelate referred.

In response to the invitation of the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, for somebody to produce an idea which might assist, I should like to put forward one which I have already floated in your Lordships' Chamber. I did so during a debate on homelessness initiated by my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick and it was also the subject of an amendment which I moved to the Housing Bill in July 1988. This idea was reasonably well received in most quarters of the House at the time. It concerns higher education and the fact that students, most of whom come from the middle and upper classes, are paid by society to study away from home, which thus exacerbates the problem of housing in this country.

In 1985–86 in England and Wales only 6 per cent. of university students studied from their parental or marital home. The figure for polytechnics was 25 per cent. Therefore the enormous burden of accommodating those students is placed on society. The universities and polytechnics together control more than 190,000 bed spaces and yet they can accommodate only half their registered students. The remainder compete with the homeless and the badly housed in the private rented sector. Moreover, the students' accommodation is then left free for some 20 weeks a year during the extensive vacations.

There are two steps which could be taken by higher education to help with this problem. First, I should like to see universities and polytechnics change their admission policies to take more home-based students. I believe that the arguments which are constantly put forward against that suggestion are spurious. If one takes the example of Scotland, in Glasgow more than 50 per cent. of students live at home during their studies and in Strathclyde more than 70 per cent. Yet nobody would suggest for a moment that the quality of higher education in Scotland is in any way inferior as a result.

Although this debate is linked to the problem of homelessness in London, perhaps in view of my association with the docklands development corporation I might draw on two examples from our local Bristol evening press. On 22nd May there was a very large headline, "Homelessness—a nation's shame", over an article which dealt with the National Housing Forum report. In the same edition here was another headline: Student leaders fear rent rise shock". The article describes the worries of students in the university halls of residence that they might be faced with another rent increase. It reads: the price of accommodation for its 2,300 students living at nine different sites". If those nine different sites were released for the homeless and badly housed in Bristol, what a difference those 2,300 places would make.

If the universities and polytechnics are not prepared to relax their admission policies to make a contribution to solving the problem, let them at least consider throwing open the halls of residence during the vacation to give sanctuary to homeless families. Instead of trying to drum up conferences and offering holidays to academics from other universities at cut price rates, they would be making a valuable contribution to society. Families which at the moment are driven from pillar to post in bed and breakfast accommodation would at least for some time be able to live in decent, dignified surroundings where they would be able to begin to rehabilitate themselves and build up their values.

Unfortunately the people who listen to this argument and are in a position to do something about the problem—those we loosely call the opinion formers in our society—are by and large themselves successful products of the system. Therefore it is extremely difficult to get anyone to look at the question objectively. However, I believe that if action were taken along these lines those in our society who are most gifted and able would be making a very marginal sacrifice of choice in order to help the most disadvantaged.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, we should all be deeply grateful to my noble friend Lord Ross of Newport for his comprehensive and masterly outline of this distressing subject. In addition, we should all be deeply ashamed for having to debate homelessness at all in so-called affluent Britain. We are constantly told that Britain now ranks among the world's leading nations—economically, politically, even industrially. So far as concerns housing in general and homelessness in particular we are not now even a second-rate nation. That is a scandal for which all of us must bear some responsibility.

As spokesman for noble Lords on these Benches on health, in my eight minutes I shall focus in the main on the consequences of homelessness. If I allow myself time I shall squeeze in a few words about our ludicrous, unjust and chaotic housing benefit system.

A home, and preferably a settled home, is crucial to health. A well housed nation is likely to be a healthy nation, but a badly housed nation is certain—not likely, but certain—to be an unhealthy nation. It is not for the first time that I have said that in your Lordships' House. I said it in my maiden speech more than 13 years ago. I am certainly not the first person to have linked bad housing with bad health. In fact it was Florence Nightingale who first went on record with that connection. Her words have since been reinforced by a wealth of scientific evidence: in particular, the report of Sir Douglas Black on inequalities in health, and more recently, the joint report referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, of the Health Visitors' Association and the General Medical Services Committee—which is the body which represents all general practitioners working in the National Health Service—on access to primary health care by homeless families. That is an admirable report and I commend it to all noble Lords and hope that Ministers will study it with very great care. I shall quote from some of its observations on the health of homeless families, many of whom are in bed-and-breakfast hotel accommodation in London.

On page 12 the report states: Children suffer physically, emotionally and educationally, showing a high incidence of depression, disturbed sleep, poor eating, overactivity, bedwetting and soiling, toilet training problems, temper, tantrums and aggression. Research in Bayswater found that up to 40 per cent. of children in bed and breakfast accommodation had behavioural problems. Overcrowded bedrooms and lack of play-space affect development and delay the acquisition of motor skills and the development of speech". The report found that: Children find it hard to do homework". Incidentally, many children never go to school at all.

The report went on: Infectious diseases are common and easily spread. Diarrhoea and vomiting are common because of poor water supply and shared sanitation. Children often have upper respiratory tract infections because of overcrowding, dampness and the need to vacate the hotels by day. Other viral infections (such as the infectious diseases of children) spread rapidly, yet the uptake of immunisation is low. Infestation with scabies, lice, fleas, bedbugs and mice is common…A survey of multi-occupied dwellings found that 38 per cent lacked a satisfactory means of escape from fire, 33 per cent needed major repairs, 28 per cent lacked proper amenities, 23 per cent had unsatisfactory management, and 16 per cent were overcrowded". The report shows clearly: The high incidence of reported accidents in bed and breakfast accommodation . . . Unprotected fires, and kettles and gas rings on the floor, cause burns and scalds. Electrical equipment is often old and worn. Unsafe and steep stairs without banister rails or stair-gates and the lack of provision of (or space for) cots, encourage falls. Many studies have shown that accidents are more frequent when the mother is under stress or depressed". That point was clearly made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. The report continues: There is also concern about the risk of non-accidental injuries resulting from family stress, and many children living in hotels on the social services 'At Risk' register". That is not purely anecdotal information. These are not purely the kinds of situation that I might claim to have witnessed in my medical experience. These are facts gleaned by health visitors and general practitioners working at the sharp end of medicine. As the right reverend Prelate said, it is not only the physical health, but also the mental, psychological and emotional health of the homeless that is endangered.

In a recent television programme Mr. Tebbit suggested that many of the homeless would be drop-outs or layabouts in any society, whatever provisions were made. I accept that that suggestion may be true of some, but, in all seriousness, if we allow children and young people to remain homeless for years, they will all be damaged for life and they will make Mr. Tebbit's gloomy words come true.

The report is directed primarily to access to primary health care for the homeless. It shows that access is virtually non-existent for many of those people except in the case of special arrangements such as those made by Dr. Stone and his colleagues in Bayswater. Dr. Stone is the son of our colleague the late Lord Stone whom many of us remember with great affection. In general, we find that homeless families cannot get on to a general practitioner's list. Few of the children are immunised so there is a risk to us all of a diphtheria epidemic, poliomyelitis or other illnesses that are controlled by immunisation. In his reorganisation of general practice Mr. Clarke should do something to provide positive incentives to general practitioners to take on homeless families.

This is an admirable report from which I differ on only one minor point. Having mentioned that, I should say what it is. It is Recommendation 6.2 which states: Homeless families should ideally be temporarily rehoused within their own localities". I am sure that that is true for most, but it is not true for one particular group with whom I am concerned as president of Gingerbread, a post that I took over from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner. Gingerbread does a great deal to care for single parent families, many of whom are homeless as a result of violence within the family. It is clear that some of those women need accommodation not within but outside their own locality. I am glad to see that the legislation that my noble friend Lord Ross of Newport was able to put on the statute book in another place clearly provides for that. It provides for the obvious need for women who seek refuge or escape from violence within the family to be rehoused with their children outside their own locality rather than within it.

As other noble Lords have said, the overwhelming need to deal with the problem of homelessness is for affordable, rented accommodation. However, the Government appear to be preoccupied merely with increasing the percentage of owner-occupiers. At the Institute of Housing Conference in June 1986, Mr. Nicholas Ridley said: If rents were set at market levels and there were a large number of landlords, both public and private with a large number of properties, then a market could emerge which could clear itself at a competitive price". If we merely abolish rent controls and do nothing else, we are likely merely to redistribute the limited existing stock of rented accommodation to those with greater market power while other tenants end up even more poorly housed than they are today.

The need to be able to pay rent brings us to the question of benefits. I have not left myself time to go into the details of housing benefit or the failure of the transitional arrangements which came into force with the new social security system in April. I shall merely state what we would do and what we think the Government should do now. As a nation, we should adopt a housing allowance which would not be needs-related at all, but paid as of right to all householders, like child benefits or old age pensions, with the tax system amended so that the Exchequer could recover the cost where the allowance was not needed. Whatever the system of income support, no part of that cost should fall on the locality. It should be borne by the community at large through an income support subsidy from the Exchequer. That puts the issue on a parallel with health; it is just as important as health. Everyone should qualify for a housing allowance. It should then be removed by the tax system from those who do not need it. That is the system towards which we must most certainly move.

I shall conclude merely by saying that homelessness destroys the mental and physical health of our population. It contributes to crime and to the breakdown of the social fabric of our society and leaves its victims scarred for life. We should no longer tolerate a situation that condemns hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens to live in circumstances that should not be accepted in an advanced industrial society.

6.47 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, when I spoke in the debate on homelessness in January 1988, I dealt specifically with the crucial issues of homelessness in Northern Ireland. Sadly, I must say this evening that none of those issues has yet eased. If anything, the problems of homelessness in Northern Ireland have increased and the issues have become even more acute. A commissioned study reported earlier this year that by 1992 over 10,000 families will be annually designated as homeless in Northern Ireland, but only 4,000 of them will qualify for accommodation under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Housing Order 1988.

By any civilised standard for housing, those Northern Ireland figures could be described as horrific. However, from what has been said in the debate today, the homelessness figures for the whole of the United Kingdom can be deemed appalling. The numbers and conditions of the homeless in central London are especially horrific. I do not therefore intend this evening to make a special plea for the position of Northern Ireland. As has already been said, homelessness throughout the whole of the United Kingdom is to be deplored. It is a blight upon the economic development of the nation. It is a disgrace to a nation that calls itself civilised.

The figures for housing conditions are well known to the Government, to Ministers and to the departments responsible. Although intrigued by what the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said—I hope that she will bring those points to the attention of those who make the decisions—I believe that Ministers are well aware of the position that obtains. Face to face contact with those who are suffering homelessness and the results of homelessness may bring some action, and that is what we require. Indeed we know the ramifications of homelessness and what it means. Now we need to act.

There have been several reports issued recently by competent researchers concerning housing and homelessness in Northern Ireland. We have heard today of challenging documents that have been circulated. There is an excellent, practical document on homelessness from the National Housing and Town Planning Council. There is also the joint report by the Health Visitors' Association and the General Medical Services Committee entitled, Homeless Familes and Their Health, which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley.

However, in case it may be thought that those interested in, and influential representative organisations concerned with, these reports may form part of some pressure group or a party political lobby, perhaps we should look at a report by the Audit Commission published in Feburary this year on housing the homeless. It is a strong indictment of the lack of will shown by the Government to deal with the issues of homelessness. The report makes recommendations about the action that should be undertaken by local authorities and that needed to be taken by central government. On page 2 it reads: But all these measures together will still leave a sizeable problem in a few authorities. In those authorities with the severest problems of homelessness, investment is required in homes at prices affordable by the homeless if the gap between the number of eligible applicants and the availability of lettings is to be bridged. This investment need not be channelled through local authorities but, to be effective, it must result in an increase in the number of properties available to local authority housing departments for homeless households. A relatively modest adjustment of priorities could, however, make a major impact on the most socially damaging aspects of the problem". At page 54 of the report the Audit Commission states: There is a strong case for taking greater account of homelessness in the allocation of capital resources by central government to local authorities". Those are the findings of the Audit Commission, an organisation often cited and supported by the Government when criticising local authorities and displaying their zeal for efficiency. When he replies to this debate, perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, will indicate the Government's response to the Audit Commission's report, in particular the recommendations for action by central government.

What we need is a massive capital investment in new public authority housing. Having said that I must admit that it will not completely remedy the problems of homelessness. In calling for that physical response to the problem we must not lose sight of the fact that homelessness has other social dimensions. Help must be more than the offer of accommodation and more even than the offer of financial assistance. It can often be seen that the incapacities which prevent homeless single people finding their own accommodation will also serve to prevent them retaining accommodation when it is found for them. That applies in particular to people who become institutionalised in hospitals as well as to psychiatric patients and young single persons who become alienated from their parents. It is not enough to offer housing to such people. They must be offered direct, personal help which will meet their special needs. Such homeless people have special needs and problems which will not go away. We must adopt a positive multi-agency approach towards helping them.

This will mean active co-operation between voluntary groups, housing associations, social services and housing departments in offering resettlement and counselling services. It will mean making "care in the community" a reality and not leaving it as a pious wish or using it as a political ploy. Indeed it should become not "care in the community" but "care by the community".

Time does not allow me to explain some of the thoughts that I have had about meeting particular issues in a practical way. But to be homeless and friendless is an awful human situation. Bricks and mortar do not make homes. As a civilised community we need to promote policies and measures for home making as well as for home-building. Health, homes and family life are much more fundamental than political issues about the economy, the balance of payments and the bank rate, although I fully accept that those are issues that cannot be ignored. There are moral aspects to government policies and the politics of civilised living.

I conclude with a quotation from the publication Homeless Families and Their Health, which I have already mentioned: Solving the plight of homeless families is not just about efficient access to primary health care. Each of us has a human and moral responsibility … The homeless make up a group that is poorer than the poor; all of us need to help them. We are convinced that a house is much more than a simple roof over one's head. The place where a person creates and lives out his or her life also serves to found, in some way, that person's deepest identity and his or her relations with others". I believe that the Government need to take action. I shall listen carefully to the Minister's reply.

6.56 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, for introducing this debate today. It is an important subject because it reveals an increasing problem in our country. I should like to see the Government pay the same degree of attention to the problem of homelessness as they have done so successfully to the problem of unemployment. I should like to find the numbers of homeless people reduced proportionately to the reduction in the numbers of unemployed in this country.

As other speakers have said, we need to keep distinct the two separate issues. There are those who are in bed and breakfast accommodation and in hospitals and those who are living rough or, as noble Lords know very well, what is called "skippering". I hope that in their forthcoming report the Government will not, as the press have suggested, revise the term "homeless" and substitute the word "roofless". That would involve only the second category that I have mentioned. I believe that the problems of both categories are important and need to be always before us.

I should like to mention three causes of homelessness, although the three are not exhaustive. They have all been mentioned before. First, there are family problems, family breakdown and the debt problem in this country. I see from Social Trends 1989 that this category of reasons for homelessness covers 73 per cent., which is a very high proportion. I fully endorse what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London said about the need for the Churches to look carefully at the problem of homelessness. Therein lies a spiritual and humanitarian task into which I believe we could be putting more effort. It is something which I feel is very important.

Family breakdown is also an issue which, for economic reasons, the Government need to consider a great deal more carefully. Family breakdown causes the Government to spend a great deal more money than they otherwise would have to do. It makes economic sense for the Government to pay more attention to the help that could be given to prevent the breakdown of family life. They need to look at this question more urgently. I have asked for a typical reason why somebody is homeless and have been given the answer, "Well, mum has taken into the home the third boyfriend in the last two years. The boyfriend doesn't like me; so I've got to go, haven't I?" So that young person becomes homeless.

The second fact I should like to comment on is the closure of mental hospitals, which has already been mentioned. This is encouraging a lot of people who cannot cope with working, finding a home and paying for it, to live rough. May I ask my noble friend the Minister whether any consideration has been given to refurbishing any of these mental hospitals and turning them into bed and breakfast institutions to provide a roof for those who are without? I believe that this would be a practical step that the Government could take to help the present problem.

The third fact, which has again been mentioned, is the forthcoming community charge. Is my noble friend the Minister aware that the charities who look after the homeless are nervous at an impending increase in the number of homeless, if only because of the exception that, quite rightly, is given from the community charge to those who are homeless?

There are three points relating to hostels on which I should like to comment as regards this issue of homelessness. The first is the compulsion on the managers of hostels today to reduce the number of beds available for the homeless. When we hear about the doubling of the numbers of homeless, this seems to me to be one of the most illogical and stupid bureaucratic steps being taken today. I have unearthed two reasons for this reduction in hostel beds.

First, when I and my wife visited this morning a direct access hostel just south of the river, I found that the environment and health authority has told those in charge that they must reduce their beds by a third because the beds are situated too close to each other to conform with modern regulations. Do your Lordships think that an individual would find it preferable to have to sleep rough to sleeping in a bed that a bureaucrat says is three inches too close to another bed? This is bureaucratic nonsense. Will my noble friend the Minister please look at this issue and arrange for these regulations to be amended?

The other reason for this reduction in the number of hostel beds is that local authorities are refusing to authorise an economic size of unit when a hostel is being built or restored. There seem to be two reasons for this. One is that they do not actually want any hostels because without them they will not have to pay the maintenance grants. The second is because there is a social theory around that small is beautiful. That sounds great. I can subscribe to that. But when it means that hostel beds have to go, I do not subscribe to that theory. Salvation Army bed-space numbers have been reduced by a half over the past two years. I call that a crying shame. Again this is a question that needs to be looked at. There is a right balance here, and I believe that local authorities do not have the right balance today.

The second point on which I should like to comment concerns the long-stay residents in these direct access hostels. In the one I visited today one-quarter of the beds were occupied by long-stay residents. "Why?" I asked. "Because no one wants them. No one will have them." I believe that it is the job of the local authority to provide for long-stay residents and not these hostels. That again is a question that needs to be examined, because I believe that the local authorities are not fulfilling what is required of them.

My final comment concerns the new financial provisions. I do not profess to understand them. I am sure that I have not one-tenth of the intellectual ability of the right reverend Prelate, who finds them difficult, so I should like to make one or two simple statements so that all of us may understand them. I understand that today an individual is paid his maintenance weekly in arrears. If he stays for several weeks in a hostel and, say, his pay clay is Monday, and he actually leaves his hostel on the Friday, there will be no remuneration for the hostel for that Monday to Friday. This is one reason, out of a number, why hostels are to an increasing extent largely going unpaid today.

My noble friend the Minister will no doubt have in his file the Salvation Army's response of 2nd June to the Social Services Committee of another place. From this he will see that the Salvation Army is expecting a deficit of £1.4 million in the current year on its own hostels. If it takes into account the additional space that it operates, this figure will be increased to £2.5 million. The Salvation Army cannot continue like this. If the Government do not meet the commitment that the noble Earl's right honourable friend the Minister has given that the hostels will be fully repaid, then hostel beds are going to have to close.

However, there is still worse to come. Under the new regulations which will come into effect this autumn an individual will have to go to three places instead of, as at present, one to collect his weekly money. He will have to go to the social security department in one place, to another for his housing benefit and to a third for the top-up grant. There is a great fear around in the country that this will mean even less money being collected by individuals and going to the hostels. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will pay attention to some of these problems that are particularly prevalent in London today.

7.6 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, for initiating this debate. I should like to stress that the number of people accepted by the authorities as homeless is the highest ever. That point needs to be stressed. In addition, there has been a rapid increase in people who are not usually even counted in these figures. I talk about the visible homeless; the people we see sleeping on the street. They are not included in these figures. Furthermore, there are what I call the invisible homeless who have to live unwillingly in other people's homes instead of having their own home.

The funny thing is that there is now an opportunity for the Government to bring forward proposals to reverse this problem and to end the widespread suffering that it is causing. I say that because the Government's homelessness review has been on the way for quite some time, and many reports will be published and considered during the period of this review.

The noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, mentioned two, both of which I want to underline. He dealt with the reports from Shelter and SHAC which stressed that the most important cause of homelessness is that homeless people cannot afford the cost of rents or mortgage payments in the private market. That was endorsed by the Audit Commission. In its report the Audit Commission stressed that we need more permanent housing at prices that those who are now homeless can afford. It went on to call for sufficient investment in homes at prices affordable by the homeless to ensure an increase in the number of properties available to local authority housing departments for allocation to homeless families.

Both those reports stressed the particular point of providing houses that are affordable. It seems to me that the Government have an opportunity to announce—I would hope that they could do so tonight although I doubt whether they will, but I hope they will annouce it soon—that, as a result of the review, they will attack the root of this problem and allow the investment and subsidy that will provide the housing required at a genuinely affordable price, because that is the point. It is not only that we must have the houses that are required but that they must be at an affordable price, because that is where the rub is.

I think that the Government can also bring forward and support measures in the Social Security Bill—with which we are going to be dealing soon in committee—and perhaps elsewhere to reverse the cuts in benefits which have led to increases in homelessness, especially among young people. They can remedy the plight of homeless families in bed and breakfast hotels, who have now had money for food taken away from them. I dealt with that during a previous debate on the Social Security Bill. Some of those people are nearly starving.

There is also the problem of the health of people in bed and breakfast accommodation. The condition of their health gives cause for concern. I am saved from having to go into that because the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, dealt with it admirably. It is a point of the utmost importance. The report he mentioned was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Baroness Faithfull. It was produced by the HVA and the general medical services committee of the BMA, and made several recommendations. I hope that the Government will regard the health of people in bed and breakfast accommodation as a matter of priority and set about doing something about it.

Bed and breakfast accommodation, as has already been said, is the most unsatisfactory and expensive way of dealing with homelessness. It is very much cheaper to build houses. That has been said in this House many times, but we do not seem to get anywhere with it. Again, I am hoping that the Minister will indicate that the Government are moving in that direction. The local authorities already have capital receipts with which to build houses, but what is required is permission from the Government to do it. The Government should support them because they need additional support for such building.

The Government will deny it, but they are having a battle with local authorities. This battle has been causing hardship to many people on different fronts. It is part of the cause of the problem we are discussing today, but it is also part of the Government's problem about community care. I have no doubt in my mind that the suggestion by Griffiths that local authorities should be responsible for community care is what is preventing the Government from acting on it. I want to make a plea to the Government to stop the battle with local authorities. The Government and the local authority must co-operate together in what they are doing. They must work for the benefit of the people of the country because that is the job of central government and local government in its own localities.

I hope that the battles between central and local government on issues which seriously affect ordinary people will stop and that we shall have co-operation instead of endless battles. I hope we shall hear that the Government will be moving in this direction. I hope also that the Government will promise to amend the Act introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Ross, to extend the categories because we must now move on. I hope also that the Government will accept the suggestion that some people have made of allowing homeless people the right of appeal to the courts when the local authority has rejected them on the grounds of being intentionally homeless. I hope that any future legislation will restrict the interpretation of the phrase "intentionally homeless" because it is being misused by many authorities to overcome having to look after certain homeless people.

I hope that as a result of the debate we shall be moving forward. I hope that when the Minister replies he will tell us that he has accepted the offer made by his noble friend Lady Faithfull.

7.14 p.m.

Lord Henniker

My Lords, like everyone else, I want to thank my noble friend Lord Ross for giving us a chance to talk about this important subject. I also want to apologise that I came into the Chamber after he had started speaking, but I hope I shall be excused on the grounds that I had to attend a meeting arranged long ago to try to think of ways in which we can deal with the problem of homelessness. I do not apologise for straying off the subject of the debate in my remarks because I want to speak almost exclusively about the problems in rural areas in which I am much involved.

I do not make any apology, because many people look on areas such as my own county as a paradise where such problems do not arise. In many ways it is a paradise, but in my county of Suffolk homelessness is becoming the biggest social problem and the most urgent. It is urgent because, as the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said, homelessness, like poverty, is a trap. When someone gets into it, it alters their whole way of life and it is very difficult to get out of.

It is also true to say that the problem of the rural areas is relevant to the problems of the inner cities, because homelessness in the inner cities does not happen by a process of spontaneous combustion. People who are homeless in rural areas are lured to London by the fact that they cannot find anywhere to live in the countryside, so they come to chance their arm. Those who, like me, have worked in Tower Hamlets will realise that many people who come to the end of their home-having possibilities come in from all over the country and end up there.

In my county we have been having a revolution over the past five years, with electrification of the railways, large-scale immigration and enormous rises in house prices. In many ways we have been lucky in that we almost have unemployment down to what is regarded as a normal level. People are mostly in employment, but there has been little trickle-down of wealth in most of the rural areas. Most wages are still tied to the agricultural wage. That means that people cannot afford a mortgage or to buy a house, the price of which has gone up in five years from £20,000 to £80,000, and even at this moment of stagnation, to £100,000.

I read the other day that Ipswich, which one would not think is in an afflicted part of the country, is the second worst urban area for homelessness. I was looking at some of the figures. They are in fact only for those who are registered. We believe that there are large numbers of unregistered people who sleep on the floor in friends' houses and who move from place to place. Possibly they are on their way eventually to London. I looked at those figures and I am told that every day there are 160 families on the list for rehousing in Ipswich. Last year only 14 families were rehoused. Bury St. Edmunds, which appears a dreaming cathedral city, has had an increase in the past two years of 25 per cent. in homelessness, and 53 per cent. of those on the register are looking for rehousing. Even in the most rural districts the increase over two years of the percentages of those who are homeless varies between 45 and 35 per cent. Everywhere there is a considerable increase, of over 10 per cent.

I want to support what the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, said. Our local authorities are imaginative, public spirited and hardworking. I believe that they feel desperate at the moment that they can do so little. There has not been enough investment in improving houses and there has been a tremendous fall nationwide in the number of completed buildings, from about 100,000 to 15,000 during the last 12 years. They are anxious to help to solve the problem but they are bewildered by demands and uncertainty as to what will be possible. Over the next 10 years we need about 42,000 houses—an underestimate considering the swing toward the East.

I am chairman of our local housing association, which was told that it would be one of the main instruments in providing affordable rented housing. It has been in existence for four years and has completed one scheme of six bungalows. Although the situation has been better over the past few months, building will take a long time. We have made a deep study of what people want and need. We know that many villages want housing, but we cannot provide it. We now have four new schemes on the starting line.

I do not know the solutions, but probably they lie in simplification. Wherever the association turns there appears to be doctrinal and bureaucratic barriers against getting a move on. The rural areas are not in the same situation as London, although they are seen as being so. I have always been in favour of the right to buy, but, however small, every house in a rural area appears to be attractive and commands a high price. The situation should be made more flexible.

Free market principles are applied, even with generous landowners—both public and private, and the Church—who are prepared to make land available cheaply. The association is often ruled out because it must calculate the cost as though it were free market. The local authorities are not involved and they feel uninvolved. They must be given a greater role to play.

As regards bureaucracy, the planners are uncertain often until the matter can be tested in the court. That leads to problems of delay and worry. We must be more flexible. The housing corporation does its best. However, it has timetables and cash flow problems which put new timetables on the housing associations. It is like a game of snakes and ladders; if you do not reach the right point at the right moment, you are down at the bottom of the ladder and must start again. There are ways in which the system should be simplified.

Finally, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, in saying that we must not allow the fight between local authorities and central government to interfere with the solution to this terrible problem. It is becoming a really terrible problem and we must do all that we can.

7.23 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Ross not only for introducing the debate but also for the work that he has carried out over the years in this House and in another place in respect of housing and homelessness.

In a recent circular Shelter claims that in London bed and breakfast accommodation costs £14,400 per family per year. However, the comparable figure for building a home with repayment over the years is £8,500. Those figures show two facts: first, that putting people in bed and breakfast accommodation—even if it were satisfactory in other ways, which plainly it is not—is a ridiculously uneconomic way of dealing with the problem and should be phased out as fast as possible; and secondly, that even with economic building at a relatively cheap rate it will be impossible to build at a price which the lower income groups have a hope of paying. In this country we have never been able to build a housing market for the lower income groups and there is no reason to suppose that we are seeing our way out of the problem at the present time.

It boils down to the fact that the Government can forget about market forces as regards housing for lower income groups. They must begin to think of it as a problem to be handled on the basis of sensible economic intervention. As regards economic and social terms, if only the Government would get over its "short-termism" and look more at the consequences of what they are doing, and still more at the consequences of what they are not doing, they would realise that money spent in this way is money very well invested.

I accept the fact that in some ways many people in this country are much better off than they were 10 years ago. I do not expect to hear any applause from the Left for saying that, but it is the case. However, at the same time we have a variety of hideous and increasingly serious social problems. I believe that in one way or another they are all connected with the problem of homelessness, although that is by no manner of means the sole cause.

To take the least important factor first, we are an increasingly dirty country. When one walks around any of our towns, not only the inner cities, one sees that parts of them are filthy. We are worried about our levels of illiteracy, especially when considering competition with other countries. We are worried about rising crime rates. I have been burgled twice during the past six months—my score is now 17—and so it goes on. The rising crime rate is of considerable concern to people.

We are also worried about family breakdowns. The right reverend Prelate referred to these as a cause of homelessness. But bad housing is also a cause of family breakdowns. It is a circular argument. On a few occasions during my life I have had to share a kitchen and bathroom with someone I did not much like. It takes one almost to the point of manslaughter. Ask any woman what it is like to share such facilities and one will realise the urgency about housing in relation to decent social behaviour. Under such circumstances decent social behaviour breaks down to a surprising degree.

For once will the Government not behave like book-keepers thinking as always about what the accounts will look like at the end of the week? Instead will they think long term about the effect of putting a decent amount of money into housing in order to check the evil consequences of homelessness? Although not exclusively, that is particularly important for 16 to 18 year-olds. If they are forced on to the streets we shall get dirt and squalor; increased unemployment and unemployability; an increasing number of people without skills; and an increasing number of AIDS cases. There will also be more family breakdowns as people who have lived in such a way refuse to take on the responsibility of having families and holding them together in what is regarded as a civilised and decent manner.

There is no way in which the Government can overcome the problem unless they are prepared to find the money. That is a long-term investment which will pay off. I have talked about the rise in criminality. The noble Earl knows very well that it costs £300 a week to keep a person in prison. If a person was saved from going to prison and the money put into housing it would be better used all round.

I beg the Government to accept the fact that the problem is of the greatest urgency. I should like to follow the noble Lords, Lord Pitt and Lord Henniker, in saying that we must cut the cackle at the centre and not carry on with absurd conflicting government departments. We must recognise that there are many able, concerned, competent local authorities which should be given the resources—which are their own but which have been locked away so they are not allowed to use them—so that they can be allowed to get on with the job. In that way we shall reduce homelessness and its hideous associated problems.

The Lord Bishop of London

Before the noble Baroness sits down——

7.30 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am sorry that I cannot give way to the right reverend Prelate but I am short of time now if I let the Minister rise at the appropriate time. I believe that it would be rather unfair if the person replying for the Opposition did not have his allocated time.

I should like to express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Ross, for initiating this debate. However, in listening to it I almost had a feeling of déjà vu—in colloquial terms, here we go again. Since I have been in your Lordships' House no facet of housing has taken up more of our time and received more support from all corners of the House than the plight of the homeless. However, we do not seem to be able to get across to the Government what has been happening or to get them to deal with the situation with the urgency that they should. I shall not go into details but I have been given figures by noble Lords who have spoken in the debate which show that over the past 10 years homelessness has doubled, and those figures do not include the people who sleep rough and who are not registered. I believe that that figure is in the thousands.

The debate on the Order Paper concerns London. Your Lordships may recall that some months ago I asked a Question on the problem of homelessness in London. Figures were produced by a non-political organisation, a Church organisation dealing with the problem, which showed that there were 10,000 people sleeping rough in London who were not registered homeless. It also predicted that if the present trend continued, by the turn of the century there would be 30,000 people and mostly young people, sleeping rough in London. In fact, it termed it as the "New York dimension".

In his excellent speech the right reverend Prelate referred briefly to a point which has not been taken on board. He talked about a particularly bad winter two or three years ago. We have been blessed this past winter with one of the mildest in living memory. But if the forthcoming one is the opposite and we suffer a severe winter what will be the consequences? People will die of hypothermia on the streets of London. Who will care for those homeless people as the cold overtakes them? In London we shall be faced with a disaster that the authorities will be unable to cope with because they are already overburdened and underfunded. I do not know what will happen in that situation.

I have copious reports which I shall not read. They are from a variety of organisations showing the concern of people over this facet of housing and homelessness. There is a report from the London Boroughs Association, the National Housing Forum, Shelter, the Housing Institute and the Association of District Councils. All those bodies have issued reports which show in varying degrees the problem of homelessness. They all finally come to the same conclusion as the Policy Institute Studies Group reached some time ago. I accept that a building programme will not totally solve the housing problem. However, it is fundamentally agreed by everybody, including Members of your Lordships' House in a debate on the most reverend Primate's report, Faith in the City, that unless there is a massive increase in a public house-building programme the situation will continue to deteriorate.

I believe that that is undeniable. As other noble Lords have said, local authorities should be allowed access to more of their funds to deal with the situation and to put an enhanced housing programme into being. We hear about the hundreds of thousands of houses which are empty. I believe that if the authorities were allowed access to the funds, the situation would be resolved.

I now come to the Minister himself. He will recall that less than 12 months ago when we were in the final stages of debating the Housing Act he was pressed on the question of homelessness. His view was that the legislation would open up the private sector, which would mean that there would be more houses for rent. At that time rents were quoted of £150. I asked him whether, if a homeless person negotiated a private tenancy of £150 a week, the Government would help with that. Eventually I concluded that he said they would. I should now like to ask him a specific question. Is there any evidence yet that homeless people have taken advantage of, if the advantage is there, negotiating a private sector house for rent and being funded for the market rent being asked? If that has not happened, the whole exercise has been a waste of time, as I and other Members of your Lordships' House said it would be.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, among others, referred to the enormous cost of bed and breakfast accommodation. The funds spent on bed and breakfast should be released into the public sector, not only to local authorities. I believe that housing associations can also provide housing for rent, and they do that very well and get on with the job if they have the resources to do so. However, nothing of the sort is happening. We appear to be a debating Chamber which makes very good points, and everybody says the case is overwhelmingly proved, but the Government are not delivering the goods.

My noble friend Lady David surprised me when she talked about the number of school children in London living in hotel accommodation in a single room with the rest of their family. Let nobody say that that is a good start in life. It has been proved conclusively that with bad housing almost certainly goes bad education. I believe that that is a perfect example.

A previous speaker—I believe it was the noble Earl, Lord Longford—referred to the Minister as compassionate. I have used that term in the past and I congratulated him when he was made a Minister with special responsibility for housing during the final stages of the Housing Act. However, his lustre is wearing rather thin in view of what the Government are not allowing him to do. I urge him, if he wishes to retain his reputation of being a compassionate and caring man, to plead with the Government to make available resources in the public housing sector on the same dimensions as Mr. Paul Channon has announced for a road building and improvement programme. If the Government are not prepared to do that, we can only draw the conclusion that they are more interested and concerned with cars than people who may die next winter of hypothermia on the streets of London. I hope that he can persuade his colleagues this time to do something about this terrible and increasing problem.

7.38 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ross, for initiating this debate and to all your Lordships who have taken part. I am afraid that I shall have to gallop because we are short of time. As your Lordships will know the matter of homelessness is a particular concern of mine. It has been consistently on my desk since I took over the housing portfolio. What particularly interests me today is the emphasis laid by so many of your Lordships on the need to build houses and yet many of your Lordships who spoke in favour of that are also in favour of the very societies and organisations that have objected so consistently to any proposal for development of new housing. It only serves to confirm, if we did not know it already, that this is a complex problem and a set of problems for homelessness that lacks any simple solution. There is no magic wand to wave.

We all share a concern about the kind of issues and problems that have been discussed. Homelessness is, rightly, an issue of parliamentary and public concern. It is an issue in today's society which requires a response from all parts of our society.

Your Lordships may be aware that the Government's concern is such that we have been undertaking a thorough review of the legislation introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Ross, and on which he commented. Our review is not yet complete. I make no apologies for the time we are quite properly taking to look at these issues and to identify appropriate solutions, in the light of a series of important and useful independent reports. As my noble friend Lady Faithfull reminded us, there is more than one department involved. I have carefully noted what has been said today and I hope to be able to let your Lordships know soon the outcome of our review.

We are faced with a changing situation on homelessness. Back in 1977, the noble Lord, Lord Ross, and his supporters in all parts of Parliament did not envisage the numbers of homeless acceptances we have today and the extensive use of bed and breakfast accommodation. I feel sure he accepts that the Act he saw through in another place is under some stress and strain from the demands of today.

It may be helpful if I comment on the nature of the figures which have informed much of today's debate. As your Lordships will know, my department publishes figures quarterly which are obtained from returns given by local authorities. The information covers a broad range of matters including, for example, the numbers of applicants under the Act, and acceptances; the numbers considered not to be homeless; the categories of people accepted by local authorities, showing for example the numbers of people in the different groups of "priority need" as specified in the Act; and the numbers given help and advice rather than accommodation. This is not a complete list, but it will be clear that there is no single or simple figure to illustrate the scale or degree of the homelessness problem, or to indicate the success of local authorities in tackling it. Indeed, I have to tell the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that the one figure most commonly quoted today, and the one he used—that of the number of households accepted as homeless by local authorities—is not a reliable measure of the size of the problem. It is not a record of the number of people without a roof over their heads—it is a record of the numbers provided with somewhere to live.

Noble Lords are quite right to point out that we must be concerned at the increase in this number. We agree, and that is a major reason for our current review; but I do not think that the number of homeless acceptances quoted here today is in itself evidence either that the framework of legislation is inadequate or that local authorities' performance is ineffective. Indeed, the reverse may be the case.

I should say one thing more about these statistics. They do not tell the whole story in another respect—they do not encompass all those people in our society who are in need of help and shelter. The noble Lord, Lord Ross, will I know agree that the Act is now what it was intended to be; that is, a longstop mechanism, designed to deal with the most urgent of cases. The legislation therefore requires local authorities to judge whether people are in certain defined categories of priority need and the homelessness figures that we publish reflect this important feature of the Act.

This debate has a particular reference to London and we must accept that there are distinctive London features of the problem. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, reminded us that one of them perhaps is the number of homeless people sleeping rough in the capital. Of course, there have always been such people in London and they can also be found on the streets of the other major cities of the Western world, but that is no comfort to me. The estimates of numbers vary widely, but perhaps the consensus of them suggests between 2,000 and 3,000 in this city. I look forward to the results of the recent survey mounted by the Salvation Army. I remind your Lordships that there are over 4,000 emergency beds in London provided by the DSS resettlement units and by voluntary organisations. Unfortunately many of those people who sleep rough do not use these facilities.

We must accept that, in examining these problems and issues, we are facing the consequences of a long-term decline in an effective market in rented housing. The homeless acceptances are the acute symptoms of this long-standing problem. This country has the highest proportion of its population dependent on state provision of housing of any country in the Western world. Thirty per cent. of our housing stock is in municipal ownership. We have therefore placed substantial reliance on bureaucratic decisions to get the right dwellings provided in the right places, and to get the right tenants into them.

At the same time, we have run down the private provision of housing for rent to an insignificant 8.5 per cent. of the national housing stock; so local authorities have an effective monopoly in many areas of the country. Anyone who needs a home of his or her own, and cannot afford to buy, is forced to rely upon the local council's system of housing allocations.

Indeed, rented housing is the only area of our everyday national life where we have still a rationing system operated by bureaucracy. Is it surprising, therefore, that we have a supply of rented housing that is neither appropriate nor adequate, and that access to it for people is difficult and usually involves queueing? As your Lordships know, it is a vital part of the Government's housing strategy to revive the private rented sector and radically increase its contribution to our housing needs. But until our new policies have their effect, the local authority sector must continue to cater for most people who need rented housing.

Since those accepted by local authorities as homeless under the Act must be those with the highest priority housing needs, it is not surprising that they are getting a rising proportion of new council lettings—from 20 per cent. to 31 per cent. in the last five years, with higher proportions in parts of London. This is an inevitable trend, and also the right one. It shows that subsidised public housing is increasingly made available to those with the greatest needs.

It is worth noting that overall we do not have a shortage of housing in this country but in certain areas, like London, we do. Due to changing social and employment patterns, reduced numbers in individual households, greater longevity and high divorce rates, the normal demands for housing are accentuated and problems created.

The noble Lord, Lord Henniker, reminded us that the problems are not confined to London. However, I was surprised that he did not mention the changes announced in the Budget by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the release of land at less than market value or the planning and housing changes announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, my honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, and myself. We have to come to grips with these problems.

There is action that central government can take to stimulate the provision of low-cost housing. We have taken a number of important steps to stimulate new provision in the private rented sector. I know that my noble friend Lord Selkirk welcomes that. We recognise that there is a continuing need to help the provision of further, subsidised rented housing for people on low incomes. In future, the main providers will be housing associations, and the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, will be delighted to hear that the Government plan to more than double the resources for new housing for rent at affordable levels within the next three years. The new mixed funding rules will ensure that private finance is drawn in to supplement public investment. The housing corporation's programme makes clear that providing for the homeless will be a major priority for the housing association movement from now on.

In advance of the conclusions of our review, we have taken other specific steps within our overall housing policy. Cash incentive schemes have been introduced, with appropriate resources, to help free additional vacancies, especially in London where these imaginative schemes were pioneered. The Estate Action programme has been expanded by 36 per cent. and these further extra resources will help bring empty properties on estates back into use to help the homeless. In the current year London boroughs will benefit from an additional £32 million of Estate Action resources.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, and others, mentioned the Audit Commission report. The noble Lord quoted selectively from it. However, central government alone cannot solve this problem and we should not lose sight of the local authorities' responsibilities. The 1985 Act gives responsibility to local authorities for assessing homeless applicants and then helping accommodate those they judge to be within the criteria of the statute. The sense of this is that councils are in the best position to assess individual cases and then to provide for them.

Some local authorities perform well within the terms of the Act and more widely—and I congratulate them—but others have the potential and the need to do more. Most important of all—the noble Lord, Lord Ross, was right to stress this—it is vital that they make optimum use of their stock. The story of housing management in London and elsewhere is, sadly, not entirely a good one.

It is vitally important to reinstate void properties wherever this can be achieved economically; to remove squatters; to relet properties more quickly and ensure that under-occupation is kept to a minimum; and to collect rent arrears, which are scandalously high in some boroughs. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was right to mention the importance of repairs. The English house condition survey shows an improvement over its recent five-year review, but I accept that there is more to do. These may seem very obvious steps to your Lordships, but I can assure you that they are ones that remain vital initiatives to take in some parts of London. By "vital" I mean vital to the homeless. I must also urge London boroughs to use and develop the cash incentive schemes to which I have already referred.

For local authorities, it will be important to distribute resources better in future according to need. The proposed new capital control system embodied in the Local Government and Housing Bill shortly to come before your Lordships will meet this purpose. But it is important to stress that we have already taken significant steps to redress the deficiencies of the existing system. In the past 18 months, for example, the Government made available an additional £74 million specifically to help authorities in areas of homelessness under pressure to secure more rented accommodation. And over 50 per cent. of these additional resources went to London.

I accept that it will continue to be necessary to use temporary accommodation for the homeless, particularly while they are being assessed. But bed and breakfast hotels should be a last resort. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, is right. They represent bad housing practice and bad value for money. A good deal of the evidence in recent reports shows the wide differences in the way authorities interpret and implement their duties under the 1985 Act, and the speed at which they do so. Why can Greenwich meet its obligations without recourse to bed and breakfast accommodation for the homeless while neighbouring Lambeth makes use of such accommodation to a wholly disproportionate extent?

I have spoken about the role of local authorities and central government in tackling homelessness. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned the article by Professor Griffiths. I cannot quote what I wanted from it because I have not got time. Professor Griffiths rightly stressed the importance of the Churches in helping to maintain the permanent values of families and schools and the whole unity that we so desperately seek. It was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London who reminded us of the voluntary sector and of the role of the Churches that are of course on the very front line.

They can and do give vital help and support to those in housing distress in the capital. The Churches and voluntary bodies run hostels and advice services; they provide some overnight accommodation and food for needy people. These are vital functions, part of the traditional role in society and in the capital of the voluntary movement. People and society will continue to need such help, which is direct, street-level, immediate, caring. It must expand and I am sure that the Churches will wish to play an increasing role.

The Government provide grant aid through various channels. Hostels receive capital and revenue support. Under Section 73 of the Housing Act 1985 we give grant aid of £700,000 to some 20 voluntary organisations for advice and other services to the homeless. We are looking at this programme and its effectiveness as part of our current review. My noble friend Lord Brentford asked me to look at the regulations concerning hostels which he says are responsible for reducing the number of bed spaces. Of course I shall, but I know that he would be one of the first to chastise the Government if there was an unfortunate accident in a hostel due to overcrowding. As regards the community charge, I remind him that we exempted such hostels as those of the Salvation Army. That was widely welcomed, even, I think, by my noble friend.

Some noble Lords have mentioned the support given to young people in the capital. In paying my tribute to this vital, sympathetic help, let me add an important comment which the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, mentioned. Young people and their parents need to be aware of the serious implications of leaving home without somewhere to live or a job which gives them a realistic prospect of finding suitable accommodation. It is in the role of counsellor and adviser that both the Churches and the voluntary sector can and do make a real contribution highlighting the likely difficulties of securing accommodation, helping to find housing and supporting young people in the difficult and emotional task of making contact once again with their families.

With young children of my own, I so agree with the noble Baroness, Lady David, that education is vital. The Department of Education and Science is discussing the future of the unit that she mentioned with ILEA and the boroughs and looking for appropriate arrangements. I shall pass on to my right honourable friend how she sees its future.

The noble Lord, Lord Ross, quoted the figure of 40 per cent. of the homeless being discharged from care. The Government have recognised the difficulties faced by this group of youngsters. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security announced on 13th March improvements in benefit for youngsters who are forced to live independently.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, raised the question of housing benefit. I repeat the commitment that I gave him before. Housing benefit will meet market rents unless the costs are unreasonably extravagant for the individual circumstances.

I began these remarks by referring to the complexity of the issues and the lack of simplicity in solutions. I believe that this debate today has underlined both points. That is why the Government undertook their review of the homeless legislation and it is also why they are treating it seriously and with care and attention to detail to bring about lasting change for the better.

This debate has mirrored some of the ebb and flow of thinking within government in recent months. I can assure your Lordships that all these contributions represent timely additions to the weight of evidence that we have gathered in the course of our review. Homelessness is an issue which confronts and concerns us all. It is placing burdens on our cities and their local authorities. Many of the remedies and resources needed are already available; and many councils are implementing and using them. It remains essential to make the fullest use of our housing stock and I must urge authorities, particularly in London, to give this the highest priority. Unnecessary delays and empty properties are an offence to the homeless people that the authorities have a duty to serve.

My noble friend Lord Selkirk said that homelessness has been the Achilles' heel of housing policy. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, will agree with the right reverend Prelate that all we are doing is tinkering with existing policies. We have given them a new engine, and only by ridding ourselves of the old Achilles' heel is there the best hope for the homeless, and that lies in the full and effective implementation of the Government's new housing strategy. That is our goal and intention in co-operation with other agencies and authorities involved. We must all work together to relieve and reduce the problems so eloquently discussed by your Lordships in this important debate today.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very detailed response. I am sure that he will be the first to admit that he has left a number of questions unanswered, but nevertheless we understand what is going on. We hope very much that this debate will strengthen his hand in his department. As the Minister for Housing, he has an onerous responsibility, and we recognise that. It is a tremendous job and we believe that he has fights on his hands in the department to hold is own. We wish him well. I hope that he will listen to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and to some of the people whom she would like to bring along. If she cannot persuade the Treasury and others to listen to them, at least I hope that he will.

I also suggest that he might go to Glasgow, where I believe the city council has been very successful. I am assured that there is no one there in bed and breakfast accommodation. It may be that more money goes into Scotland than into England. I believe that a little more goes into Wales. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.