HL Deb 19 December 1990 vol 524 cc869-908

5.32 p.m.

Lord Stallard rose to call attention to the report Homelessness in Britain by John Greve and Elizabeth Currie; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before I begin my remarks to open this debate, I should first like to welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, whose name appears for the first time on our list of speakers. I am particularly pleased that he has chosen to make his maiden speech on this subject. I certainly look forward with interest to his contribution.

This debate takes place fortuitously as Parliament rises for the Christmas Recess. Given the publicity that the subject matter has had in recent months in particular, the timing could hardly have been more apposite. Shelter puts it more pointedly in the introduction to a publication by Kate Miller issued today called Wasting Money, Wasting Lives. It states: It is a damning indictment of Britain's housing policy that this year more than 43,000 families will spend Christmas in temporary housing. Worse still, much of it will be seedy and degrading bed & breakfast hotels, run-down council hostels, decaying caravans". Homelessness in Britain, which is the subject of our debate, is the result of a thorough and comprehensive examination of homelessness as a whole commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust. It was carried out by two eminent researchers in the field of homelessness, Professor John Greve of York University, who is well known for his contributions on housing and homelessness over the past 30 years, and Dr. Elizabeth Currie, another leading researcher who is particularly interested in single people and homelessness, the interaction between homelessness and health and the problems of high risk groups, especially young people.

The report was published in March of this year and I tabled my request for a debate on it almost on the day that it was published. The report is a little dated. Nonetheless the problem continues and perhaps we can update it as we go along. The report emphasises that the acute problems of homelessness are not confined to London alone nor even to the south east of England. Homelessness has become a national problem. Two-thirds of the registered homeless live outside the capital. Indeed, for the past 25 years homelessness has been growing faster outside London than in it. That point is highlighted in the foreword to the report by the two joint chairmen of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness, Llin Golding, MP, and Sir George Young, MP.

I quote from that foreword: The numbers of households accepted as homeless rose again in 1989 to record levels. At the same time, homelessness can no longer be regarded as a phenomenon of Greater London alone; throughout the southern half of England, few places are now escaping the pressures caused by shortages of homes affordable to those on lower incomes. And the problem is reaching out into all parts of the United Kingdom … We will be making the fullest use of this highly readable Report and we commend it to the attention of all those policy-makers and practitioners who share our interest". That is signed by Llin Golding, MP, and Sir George Young, MP. I need not say any more on that point.

This debate is short for a subject of such massive proportions. That inhibits the scope but I shall try to outline some of the main areas considered. Other noble Lords will perhaps make other points. It is necessary to use some statistics to explain the situation. I make no apology for that, given that they all relate to the states of misery, squalor, mental illness, deprivation and hopelessness endured by thousands of our fellow citizens, old, young, women, men and children, every day of the year and not just at Christmas. Every statistic is a tale of misfortune and hardship. This affects us all.

From the Institute of Housing we know that 1.5 million adults and 1.5 million children have been registered as homeless in the past 10 years. In the past year, 125,000 families were registered as homeless and a further 1.3 million were on council waiting lists. Greve and Currie noted that homelessness had doubled since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. They warned that homelessness would be a growing problem in the 1990s. As I said a moment ago, it is now a national problem with national causes. They argued that one of the main causes has been under-investment in house building and the operation of the policy of the right to buy for council tenants. Both those factors contributed to the problems. Where housing was available, it was often far too expensive. They estimated that up to 3 million new homes would be needed to house the likely growth in the number of households.

The report supports those arguments at length. I cannot go into the details too deeply but in an analysis of the capital expenditure in Britain it says that: Statistics for public expenditure alone show a much sharper drop—from a level which was already relatively low. As a percentage of GDP, expenditure was reduced from 4.1 % in 1976–77 to 1.6% in 1988–89. Of foremost priority is an increase in the share of national income allocated to the construction of new housing and the maintenance and improvement of the existing stock".

We know too from other sources that there are still almost 0.5 million houses in this country lacking basic amenities such as inside loos and so on. Another 900,000 houses are totally unfit for habitation. The AMC reported in 1988 that there were 2,400,000 houses in a poor state of repair. It refers to urgent repairs which would cost more than £1,000 to the external fabric at 1988 prices. A total of £86.5 billion would be needed to repair and improve housing to meet urgent needs. I do not refer to achieving fantastic standards but simply meeting needs at 1988 prices.

The report continues: By comparison, all other measures simply deal with the fringes of main problems or seek to render emergency assistance to the many thousands who become homeless each year. If Britain's spending on new building had been at the same level as that of West Germany during the 1980s—as a percentage of GDP—we would have built over 600,000 additional houses".

In a report on the housing situation published last month Shelter stated: The number of homes for rent built by local housing authorities has fallen substantially over the last ten years —from 67,377 homes completed in 1980 to just 12,851 homes completed in 1989. Housing association building for rent has declined from 13,154 homes in 1980 to 8,873 homes in 1989. Local housing authorities' new building programmes are to fall even further in the next few years, while housing associations are currently facing financial restraints on the number of homes they can start this year". I heard on the radio only yesterday that the nearby borough of Southwark is coming to the end of its house-building programme. It is completing the last 55 flats which are likely to be built in the foreseeable future. That is the problem with which we are faced.

All those factors put the Government's initiatives into perspective. The homelessness initiatives that have been announced are to be welcomed so far as they go. However, the use of expensive, poor-quality bed and breakfast hotels has increased. The Department of the Environment issued figures in September 1990. They show that by June 1990 12,170 households were forced to live in costly bed and breakfast hotels compared with 11,720 in the same period last year. The figure is therefore increasing annually.

The same statistics from the DoE also indicate that the number of homeless people forced to live in temporary accommodation increased in 1989–90 by 27 per cert. from 33,750 to 43,040, and is still growing. The total cost has been estimated at about £245 million. I am grateful to Shelter for publishing a small table of the relative costs of permanent and temporary housing. The first year revenue costs of housing a homeless family in a bed and breakfast hotel were £15,440. For a privately-leased home the cost was £10,452. For a newly-built council home, the cost was £8,200. How does one explain the discrepancy between those figures to people who are desperately seeking permanent accommodation when they know that they are feeding—some are genuine but many are shady—characters who have jumped into the bed and breakfast queue and are making a killing at our expense. For £8,200—half the price of bed and breakfast accommodation—a new council home could be built. Explain that to the homeless, my Lords, because I cannot. It does not bear explanation.

As the Greve Report rightly states, we are dealing with the fringes of the problem. We are seeking to deal with emergency assistance to the many thousands who become homeless each year. The Government are reacting to public pressure in an election year in trying to be seen to deal with the problem. Less is being spent on there initiatives than has been cut as a result of other housing legislation. The Government are dealing, with the symptoms, not the causes. The situation is similar to that of a fellow who puts a jug under the leak in the roof. When the leak becomes bigger, he changes the jug for a basin. When the leak becomes still bigger he changes the basin for a bath. When he has no receptacle large enough he has to mend the hole in the roof. It would have been cheaper to have done that in the beginning. It is the same with the government initiatives. Those initiatives are wasting money on jugs under the leaking roof instead of mending the roof which is the cause of the problem. Until that leak is mended, we shall not solve the problem—and we shall not do so until after the next election.

The report refers to the sale of council houses as a contributory factor. It recommends modifying the general provisions for the sale of council houses under the right to buy policy. I agree with it. This would not necessarily entail terminating the policy but would ensure a closer scrutiny of the advantages and disadvantages to a community of the proposed sale. There are advantages and disadvantages to he considered. However, that is not done at present. We say, "Yes, keep the right to buy, but homes sold should be replaced by enough homes to rent".

The report makes a number of other recommendations such as bringing empty council houses back into use with the minimum feasible delay and streamlining allocation procedures. I could not agree more. That is long overdue. I should like to go further and include private voids as well as council voids. While I do not make excuses for any council of whatever complexion, I also know that the Government are the worst offender when it comes to leaving properties empty. I understand that the total of empty public and private properties is 600,000 units which could be used if the goodwill, money and political will were there.

The report also suggested last March that the Government should immediately launch a programme to help single homeless people. Its aim should be to increase the supply of direct access accommodation and to provide second stage accommodation for those sleeping rough.

To his credit, Sir George Young in his first few weeks has announced some measures along the lines that I have suggested. Of course any proposals to help those people must be supported; it would be churlish to do otherwise. However, it should be noted that a survey in 1986 showed that following the closures or refurbishment of large hostels, in particular in London, there were 4,931 access beds compared with 9,751 which had existed in 1981. Therefore we are replacing only some of the beds that existed nine or 10 years ago. At the same time homelessness has increased dramatically.

I am a masochist when it comes to anything to do with housing or homelessness. I do not take lightly an article in today's Daily Mail which suggests that we ought to consider the problem relating to digs as well as hostels. When I first came to London 50 years ago it was not difficult to obtain digs. Now those digs have been tarted up and painted, and have become very respectable self-contained flats on sale for £100,000, £120,000 or £150,000. But the rooms are no longer accessible for the homeless population. The Daily Mail suggests that it might be wise to offer an incentive to people who are prepared to take in lodgers by giving them tax relief. Charging those people tax stops them from taking in lodgers. They have to fill in the forms relating to tax and so on. At the end of the day they feel that it is too much trouble; they might just as well not do so. We lose thousands of potential digs. The Daily Mail is to be commended for its timing.

After the next election we shall introduce a housing programme which is outlined in detail in our document, Opening Doors. It will include a number of measures dealing with the causes of homelessness. We recognise that the scourge of homelessness cannot be banished without increasing the supply of affordable rented accommodation. While we wait for permanent homes, we shall ensure that emergency measures are taken to improve the condition of people placed in poor temporary accommodation or who are sleeping rough. I commend that document to all who are interested in the most serious domestic social problem facing us all: that of homelessness.

I have attempted briefly to introduce this excellent and farsighted report. I look forward to the debate that is to follow. I beg to move for Papers.

5.50 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Bristol

My Lords, I ask the indulgence of the House on the occasion of my first address to your Lordships. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, for allowing me the opportunity of noting the report.

The first chapter points out that homelessness belongs to the nation as a whole and is not concentrated only in London and the North East. I wish to share with your Lordships the experience of being a bishop in the city of Bristol and experiences which are part of my daily life and that of many people within the city. The population of Bristol is 400,000. Of that number, 16,000 people live in unfit accommodation but at least they have somewhere to live. According to the last count, 1,250 people live in bed and breakfast accommodation, and we know of the effect that has on family life, especially on children. Two thousand two hundred people live with relatives and friends because they cannot find accommodation. Often homelessness is caused by people no longer being willing to have others live within their homes. There are 12,300 people on the council waiting list. I know that 4,300 of those want transfers, but 8,000 people want first-time accommodation. Those are the facts.

Because people are concerned, many of the voluntary agencies give an immense amount of time and resources to help to alleviate the distress caused by homelessness. I wish to pay tribute not only to the Church Army but also to the Salvation Army hostels. For many years they have done what the whole community has been unable to do. However, there are two smaller organisations. One is called the Julian Trust and it is run by ordinary people. Each night it provides 33 beds and more than 100 meals. That is not Monday to Friday but every day of the year. There is also the soup run. In the main it is run by students from the University of Bristol and the polytechnic and also by young people from youth clubs throughout the city. Last Wednesday evening they provided soup and blankets for 98 people who were living in the open air. If your Lordships can remember the temperature that night you will know the effects of living rough at this time of the year. I wish to commend those people for their care but I am sure that your Lordships realise that that is only the first aid and does not deal with the real problems.

Statistics tend to pass us by and therefore I wish to focus the issue on one organisation; it is the Bristol Cyrenians, who run a day centre in the middle of the city. They have considerable problems in finding sufficient funds to keep the centre going. However, people are generous and it does a good job. In 1989, 2,500 different people went through its hands. I wish to divide them up into groups so that your Lordships may see the kind of complex problems that homelessness presents at this time of year.

Of those 2,500 people, 750 are under the age of 26 years. Homelessness is a situation which affects the young, and increasingly so. One of the major concerns about youth homelessness is the cycle. They cannot obtain employment because they do not have an address. They cannot obtain medical care because they cannot get on a doctor's list. A small group of people within Bristol has tried to put together a package providing accommodation alongside skilled training. The scheme is only small but it tries to stop the cycle of unemployment and homelessness. It may well be one of the ways in which we as a society need to address the problem.

One thousand people—that is, 40 per cent. of the 2,500 people who go through the Bristol Cyrenian day centre—suffer from mental health problems. That is a growing problem. One of the difficulties in removing people from the large, long-stay institutions is that they are now part of our homeless group. Together with the Cyrenians a local housing association has put together a pilot project called high care. It is a scheme for 15 homeless men and women with long-term serious mental health problems. That means providing 24-hour care. A whole range of similar projects will be required. Homelessness becomes an issue which you cannot solve for yourself, not only if you are young and unemployed but also if you happen to be suffering from mental health problems.

Of those 2,500 people, 720 have been homeless for more than five years. It is not sufficient to provide such people with accommodation. They need to relearn the skills of running a home and living within the normal pattern of society. That requires accommodation in which there is warden control and a great deal of help with counselling to help people to gain or regain those social skills.

What of emergency accommodation? It is normally full and it is normally for males. However, approximately 530 women are among those 2,500 people. Apart from a tiny project in St. Paul's in the centre of Bristol there is no provision for homeless women. Therefore, not only if you are young and unemployed, not only if you have a mental health problem, but also if you are a woman homelessness is an issue that you cannot solve for yourself.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, drew our attention to the problems that we must face during the next 10 years. There is wide disagreement about the number of new homes or units that we shall require before the year 2000. Usually the figures show that about 100,000 accommodation units will be required each year for the next 10 years to deal with the growing requirements of our society. We are nowhere near reaching that figure. We shall require partnership and imagination in order to deal with the growing problem which s on our doorstep.

In Bristol a group of elected representatives from the local authority, local businessmen and voluntary bodies have addressed themselves to that problem. A new project is to begin in the new year. We have imported from Sweden four homes which are moveable. They look permanent but they are moveable. They come with kitchens and bathrooms and a very efficient energy input requirement. The intention is that these buildings should be erected on land w rich is not now being developed but which may well be developed during the next five or six years. We are trying to find a way of removing the problem of the cost of land so that we can have affordable housing. We are told that the units have a life expectancy of 100 years and may be moved from one site to another. That not a complete solution but it is imaginative and is intended to break the cycle of providing affordable rented housing. I hope that it will work. At least there are people who are willing to try new ways of dealing with the crisis.

We pride ourselves on being a country that cares. We pride ourselves on having a biblical tradition. Part of the Old Testament tells us that it is the responsibility of the king, the state, to care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger. There are people on the margin of our society. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that those who are homeless are at least given the opportunity of having the basic requirement of shelter. This is not merely an economic issue; it is a moral issue that we all face. Somehow we need to find a way in which a partnership can be arranged.

I should like to conclude with a quotation from an American, Reinhold Niebuhr, whose subtle theological insights have informed many a clergyman of the Church of England during the past 50 years. He said: who is better able to understand the true character of a civilisation than those who suffer from its limitations". I hope that we are not asked to live with the judgment of those who have no homes this night, for their judgment will be serious indeed.

6 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, it is my privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol and to congratulate him on his maiden speech, which has greatly impressed us. He has lived in such places as Sunderland, Wolverhampton, South Shields, Salisbury and now in Bristol. He has told us of the projects of the Cyrenians and High Care. We are particularly impressed by the temporary houses from Sweden. He must have encountered a wide range of homelessness, but in his history I see that he has been interested in the cinema and stained glass church windows. When I was working among the homeless I found that if they were cold and miserable and had nowhere to go, they went to the cinema. I wonder whether the right reverend Prelate spent time in the cinema with his homeless families. I suspect that he learnt much from them there as well as in all the places in which he lived. We are privileged to have heard him today.

Important as this debate is, I shall try to be brief. As we all know, the attendants of this House, who serve us so well, have their Christmas dinner this evening. First, perhaps I may say how grieved we all are at the untimely death of Lord Seebohm. Among many other social matters, housing and the needs of the homeless were problems about which he was greatly concerned. I know that he had intended to speak in the debate this evening. We mourn the loss of a great social reformer, an outstanding banker and a happy and contented family man—altogether a delightful person.

My noble friend Lady Blatch wrote to me on 23rd October stating that the housing association movement is playing and will continue to play a good and important role in the provision of affordable social rented accommodation. She quoted figures. I heartily agree and support the housing association movement, but I question Her Majesty's Government figures. We are told that through the Housing Corporation Her Majesty's Government are to provide 40,000 dwellings. However, due to demographic changes, the immediate need is for 100,000 dwellings. Therefore, there is a shortfall of 60,000 units of accommodation. That is not only in London and the South but in other parts of the country. Furthermore, if the housing associations are to be expected to undertake that work, they must have more resources, expand their organisation and take on more staff.

I know that local authority housing departments are not looked upon with favour by Her Majesty's Government. We know that some local authorities have been inept and inefficient. However, I suggest that that is a minority. I ask the Minister to look again at this matter so that local authorities as well as housing associations in partnership with each other can provide low cost affordable rented accommodation.

I must point out that the national health and community legislation, which is not yet implemented, will deal with patients discharged from mental hospitals, many of whom are homeless on our streets. Children and young persons in care and in penal institutions are the responsibility of the local authorities. Thirty-three per cent. of such people have no homes to go to. Therefore it seems to me that the local authorities should be used in concert with the housing associations to solve the problem of homelessness.

Other factors must be considered if we are to deal with homelessness and perhaps I may mention a few of them. One is mobility of labour. There cannot be mobility of labour if there is no low cost rented accommodation to which people can move. As the right reverend Prelate said, there are young couples who cannot get married or, if they do get married, live in appalling conditions. Therefore, I suggest also—I believe that other noble Lords will refer to this —that the health and education of our children living in bed and breakfast accommodation are adversely affected, as has been shown by the two reports just published.

Finally, we congratulate Sir George Young, who has recently been appointed housing Minister, on his swift action as evidenced by his Statement yesterday. The provision of hostels for the homeless is to be commended. However, I suggest that that is a short-term measure and, as the right reverend Prelate said, we must produce long-term affordable social rented accommodation. It may be that the length of tenancy should be limited to five years in order that tenants can move on to enable others to move in. However, people who are homeless, many of whom I know and have talked to, do not want temporary accommodation; they want a home, however simple. They want to live in the community and I know that the community is prepared to support them. Unless within a very short time we provide that low cost affordable rented accommodation, we shall not achieve a stable society. Only through the provision of such accommodation will we provide more stability in this country of ours.

6.7 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, I join in thanking my noble friend Lord Stallard for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. I join too in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol on a very thoughtful, helpful maiden speech delivered with feeling. I hope that we shall hear more from him on social issues.

I join also with the noble Baroness in saying how sad I am to hear of the death of Lord Seebohm. Whenever we debate social matters, we shall remember him; he took a very active part in our discussions. His voice was always loud and clear on such issues, and without doubt we should have heard from him today. However, I am sure that he will be with us in spirit.

One of the forgotten aspects of homelessness is the cost of health care. Last week, in the programme "This Week", Thames Television reported on a recent survey of children admitted to hospital in Tower Hamlets. The survey showed that at least 40 per cent. of the children were in hospital with complaints which could be related to their housing conditions. The connection between damp housing and chest illness is well known, but even I am shocked at the current scale of the problem.

Shelter and other organisations over the past five years have alerted the community to the health effects on families living in squalid bed and breakfast accommodation. Children living in cheap hotels suffer from a range of infectious diseases. For example, gastro-enteritis has been virtually eliminated in well-housed affluent families. However, it is endemic among those who are badly housed. Other studies have shown that children's development has been impaired. What is more, the effects of unsuitable environments will not be reversed even if the families are eventually suitably housed. That is very worrying.

We broke the link between poverty and bad housing for the majority of families in the 1950s and 1960s. But in the 1980s we re-established that link with a vengeance. In 1979 there were 57,200 people accepted as homeless. In 1990 the number is 150,000. In 1978 the number of houses built in the public sector —for local authorities, new towns and housing associations—was 112,865; in 1989 the number was 21,535. In 1979–80 government spending on housing was £10.3 billion; in 1989–90 it was £3.4 billion. There lies the difference. It is not an exaggeration to say that by the mid-1970s we could have looked forward to a time when all our citizens had a place to call home. We squandered that opportunity. Now we are paying a very high price in both human and money terms.

Paying for temporary accommodation, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Stallard, is money wasted. If we add to that the cost of keeping children in hospital and the longer term health costs the bill is even greater. Health problems also affect the single homeless. The explanation is obvious. If one sleeps outside in all weathers one's health will be affected. But some effects are not so obvious. I recently heard of a case of a young man who had been sleeping rough. When he eventually found a hostel place he refused to take off his shoes. He was embarrassed to do so. When the staff eventually persuaded him, he was seen to have what can only be described as a case of "trench foot". His feet were almost rotting.

Young people mainly wear sports shoes which are neither warm nor waterproof. Their feet get wet, but they do not take off their shoes if they are sleeping rough. The case I described is probably an extreme. But I am sure that there are many less serious cases similarly affected.

I welcome the recent announcement of the action that the Government intend to take to help the single homeless in London. But that is only a small visible part of the problem. Each town and city has extreme housing shortages. Young people sleep rough all over the country. The problems will not be solved except by a substantial new housing programme and changes in the benefit system.

I hope that when the Minister replies she will be able to tell us that local authorities can use their housing and land receipts to build new houses and repair the houses that are dilapidated. I also hope that the noble Baroness will tell us that future housing investment programmes will be at a level that indicates that the Government recognise the seriousness of the housing crisis, of which the level of homelessness is merely a symptom, and that they will do everything in their power to correct it.

6.15 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, we are all deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important report and especially at this significant time of the year. We are approaching Christmas, when we think of there being no room at the inn. It is the coldest time of the year and it strikes our consciences even more when vie think of our fellow men and women and the conditions they must endure.

I should also like to add my congratulations to my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol on his contribution this afternoon. I particularly thank him for the way in which he put the emphasis on the moral challenge coming from the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the need to care for the homeless. It may be thought a little excessive to have three Bishops speaking in a short debate. I assure my right reverend friend that that is not because we did not trust him to say all that was necessary from these Benches. He has done that. I normally hear him discoursing to the House of Bishops on questions relating to the training of men and women for the ordained ministry. It is a great relief to hear him speak on something else. Three Bishops speaking in the debate perhaps emphasises the importance that we all give to this vital question of homelessness which has now reached crisis proportions in our country.

It is very good to see that the report was produced and brought to our attention by an all-party parliamentary group on homelessness. It is also encouraging to see the parties working together, and we note that the introduction of the report was signed by two Members of the other House on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Many of us are conscious of the fact that we are sometimes too confrontational in British politics today. It was suggested that we may get on a little better if we change the ordering of the Chamber. Many noble Lords would say, "Heaven forbid!" Instead of finding constant confrontation across and between the Benches we could sit more like the European Parliament, in a circle. We could then look at some issues across the political parties. But I am not so naive as to suppose that we can escape from the party political conflict over much of our life. However, we come across some problems which are so critical that they tend to transcend the party political debate. Surely that is something of what we experienced during wartime. Is not the need for an attack on homelessness in Britain similar to the kind of challenge that we faced in the past in times of war?

Homelessness of crisis proportions, as it is today, needs the thought, hard work and perhaps one might say the prayers of all of us in our community from every side—not only from politicians, central and local, but from industry, commerce, voluntary organisations, the Churches and so on.

One of the matters the report highlights is the breakdown of relationships which contributes to homelessness; for example, the dissolution of marriage or other partnerships, or young people unable to live with their parents. That is second only to the breakdown of sharing relationships, according to the Church, which are illustrated in the report. Work in the field of personal relationships is of great importance in tackling the problems of homelessness. I confess that as far as the Churches are concerned we recognise our responsibility in that field; we also recognise our weaknesses and our inadequacies. We are attempting to give more time, with very limited resources, to issues such as family life, marriage and education. Most diocese now have FLAME parishes —family life and marriage education—in which we are endeavouring to work in the field of personal relationships. It is the breakdown of relationships which often produces these tragic results.

Conversely, nothing puts greater strain on partnerships or on marriages than problems of housing. Many years ago that was brought home forcefully to the British public in that powerful television documentary "Cathy come Home". The tragedy is that so little progress seems to have been made since the days of that programme, when we felt that it had alerted our consciences and that we would get on top of it.

However, as the report makes clear, homelessness is not just a question of irresponsible behaviour. Governments have a responsibility in the whole field. What I should like to say in the brief time at my disposal is that in regard to the partnership, or what should be a partnership, between central government and local authorities, the tension between them in recent years has been disastrous for aspects of the life of our country. That is highlighted in the housing sphere. In that respect, I was glad to hear the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. There are hopes that the atmosphere is beginning to change. I hope that what is said in the House this afternoon will encourage that change.

The tragedy of conflict between central and local authorities has arisen specifically in the large metropolitan areas. Local authorities have been expected to do many things in the field of social policy, but they have often been starved of resources and under constant criticism and lack of trust. I believe that it is true that some very good people have been lost from local authority government because of the, atmosphere that has built up around it in recent years.

I hope your Lordships will not think that I am suggesting that all the blame for this unfortunate situation has been on one side politically. Reference has already been made, for example, to the fact that the management of local authority housing stock has not always been as good as it should have been. Just the same, there are aspects which come into the realm of mythology, as the report makes clear, about the management of local authority housing. The report points to the Audit Commision's view that management improvements by local authorities would make only a relatively modest contribution in dealing with the problem of homelessness. The point that we often hear about the number of local authority houses which remain unoccupied for too long is partly because of a complex situation in which the lack of resources for urgent and immediate repairs is a major factor.

I believe, therefore, that we need this new relationship, this genuine partnership between central government and local authorities. Leaders of commerce and industry in my part of the world have often boasted that they get along better with Left-wing dominated local authorities than they do with central government. Is that true? If so, it must be put right.

The report shows that the crisis in housing and homelessness cannot be tackled except by a full and careful partnership in every sphere, and we must surely come to that. We have to push these matters right to the top of the political agenda. Although the problems of homelessness and poverty are complex, nevertheless central government policy initiatives have a vital role to play. We also need more houses—it is as crude as that. We need more local authority housing. It cannot be left entirely to the private sector; nor can it all be left to housing associations, valuable though their efforts are.

In this country we accept the right of everybody to have enough food to keep them from starving, though even in that respect arrangements sometimes break down. However, in recent years we have not been successful in making sure that everyone has a roof over his or her head. I hope that this afternoon a message will go from this House, from all political persuasions, that this is a moral challenge that we can no longer evade.

6.24 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, three features stand out in the scene of homelessness as it has developed over recent years, particularly the last decade. The first is the appalling increase in the total number of homeless people, to which reference has already been made. The second is the increase in the number of people right at the bottom of this miserable pile—those who are sleeping rough.

In a recent survey on the homeless covering the past 10 years the Whitechapel Methodist Mission in the heartland of the East End concluded that 10 years ago one-quarter of its guests slept rough, half were in hostels and one-quarter in bed-sits. Now, half its guests are sleeping rough, only one-fifth are in hostels and one-fifth in bed-sits. The third feature is the even bigger rate of increase in the number of young homeless people to whom the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol referred in a most welcome and compassionate speech. At next week's Open Christmas in the Old Kent Road I expect to find nearly one-quarter of the people to be under the age of 25. That is a vast increase on the figures for last year and for two or three years ago. Forty per cent. will be suffering from mental disturbance.

Young people are becoming homeless at an earlier age. Between 1983 and 1988 the proportion of people attending the Soho Project who were under the age of 18 rose from 25 per cent. to nearly 90 per cent. Teenagers receive a very low priority in terms of support—very much less than young children. A higher proportion of young people are leaving home earlier. That is fine. That is a healthy development provided they have somewhere to go when they are in trouble or need help; but for thousands leaving home means homelessness, absolute and complete.

One hundred and fifty thousand young persons between the ages of 16 and 19 experience homelessness each year—for a few days or even months. As has been said already, only one-third of them are in London. Homelessness among young people is not just a big city phenomenon. It is not a London phenomenon but a national phenomenon. Some of these young people come from troubled families and some from residential care. One-third of homeless young people come from residential care, although between 1 per cent. and 2 per cent. of children and young people are in residential care. Many leave care by the age of 16 or so. They are in bed-sits, are lonely and cannot cope very well. However, they are a great deal luckier than the rest, who receive no assistance in finding accommodation.

Local authorities are unable to help even vulnerable young people who have no parents and no support. As has been shown by a recent study by the National Children's Home, that applies to young people and even young girls, who are open to sexual exploitation. The reason is simple. Local authorities are under enormous and increasing pressure from homeless families. In my area—an opulent area of Epping Forest in Essex—in recent months there has been a threefold increase in the number of homeless families seeking help. As the number of homeless teenagers has risen, the amount of available housing has gone down. Consequently, the homeless are trapped on the streets and open to robbery, assault and harassment, particularly girls and ethnic groups. Their plight is compounded by poverty.

I very much welcome the statement yesterday by the housing Minister that he will give sympathetic consideration to the case for benefit changes. That case is very strong indeed. The current system is based on three assumptions. First, that 16 to 17 year-olds should be at home with their mums and dads. That is fine and splendid; of course they should. They should be and must be encouraged. However, 80,000 young people leave local authority care each year. They have no mum or dad to go back to. As has already been said, there are many others who dare not go back home because they would not be welcome.

The second assumption is that homeless young people have the knowledge and confidence to make claims; but many of them are unaware of what support is available or how to go about getting it. Many of them see the system as hostile to them. The third assumption is that young people do not need as much to live on as older people.

It is easy to say that they should find work, and that is fine and splendid. They should be encouraged to do so. However, when jobs are scarce one does not stand much chance if one has no qualifications, experience, references or fixed address. It is small wonder that some young people turn to begging, some to petty crime and others to prostitution. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol rightly drew our attention and paid tribute to the work of voluntary organisations for seeking to provide assistance to teenagers. Full marks should be given to the churches and voluntary organisations which provide projects for the homeless, advice centres for independent living, training and so on.

The problem is that many of the voluntary organisations are facing a fall in voluntary giving. The so-called and much vaunted trickle-down phenomenon is not working. The organisations are also facing cuts in local authority funding, apart from the impact of the community charge. The Minister's new proposals are welcome. However, as has been said al ready (and I echo the comments), we need a much more radical and fundamental approach involving support, finance and housing for young people.

First, young people need help when they are thinking of leaving home. Often the very best advice they can receive is not to do it. They should be given advice on what has happened to other people from their area who have left home. It may involve family conciliation. If there is no alternative, young people need advice about what independent living means, whether it concerns budgeting or washing socks. They also need continuing support to help settle them into the community.

Secondly, they need enough money to enable them to live independently, and preferably that means a job. If not, then it means improved benefits. I repeat that a 17 or 18 year-old has costs which are no less than those of a 25 year-old. The distinction should be abolished. They may also need assistance to help to pay deposits or for an advance on rent and furniture.

Thirdly, young people should have the right to be housed when they are genuinely homeless. That means giving young people the right to register on local authority housing lists when they genuinely have no other option. For example, there may be no possibility of returning to a caring home. As many previous speakers have rightly said, in its turn that means providing more accommodation at affordable rents, whether by bringing in empty properties, refurbishing or new building. We are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, for giving us the opportunity for this debate. As has been said so often, there is only one way of solving the problem of homelessness and that is by rutting roofs over people's heads.

6.34 p m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, for introducing this debate so forcefully today and particularly for his choice of timing. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester pointed out, we are just a few days before the commemoration of the birth of the Son of God in a stable. For the first period of His life thereafter He was homeless in Egypt. The only compensation I can offer Him is that His family would have qualified as a priority family for bed and breakfast accommodation under our current regulations.

There is another reason why the timing is so apt. There are changes happening virtually every day and seen either in notices from the Government or the activities of voluntary agencies. It seems that every two days during the past week I have had to change some of the points I was contemplating making in the course of this debate. I also wish to add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol for his very interesting and admirable maiden speech. I found it very helpful to have a picture of what was going on in one specific locality put so clearly before us and in such a memorable way.

As the right reverend Prelates have said, this is a moral issue. With three right reverend Prelates speaking in this debate, that illustrates the point. I very much welcome the fact that there are three Prelates taking part in the debate. It is very good for us to hear the representatives of the Church of England speaking on this issue. With my own diocesan bishop to follow me in a few moments, I shall say what has been in my mind during my preparation for the debate. We from the Judaeo-Christian background are commanded to act justly, to love mercy as well as to walk humbly with our God. I believe that the subject of homelessness is one on which we in Parliament can be judged. Therefore it is very important that we look at justice and mercy. I believe that is what noble Lords on both sides of the House are doing in this debate, and I welcome it.

I wish to make one comment, which has not been made as yet, to ease the position of my noble friend the Minister when she comes to speak. This is not just a national issue: homelessness is an international issue. There has been much in the newspapers about the problems in Europe. I had tea here on Monday with someone who is resident in Canada. He said to me that there are 100,000 homeless teenagers throughout Canada who are sleeping rough and that most of them are suffering from the effects of drugs or alcohol.

This is an international problem. We are quite rightly concentrating on the national issue here which we can do something about. We are not in a position to do anything about Canada or Europe, but we are in a position to do something about the problem in London and the United Kingdom generally. It is very good that we have this opportunity to do so, particularly at this time of year.

There are so many points that one could draw out from this excellent report Homelessness in Britain. I wish to comment on a few of them which have been mentioned less by other people. There is one very interesting fact on page 20 which I have seen highlighted elsewhere, though I do not think that sufficient attention is being paid to it. The number of new households is increasing three times faster than the population. That obviously means that there is a decreasing average number in the size of households. I regret the fact that we have far more of the nuclear family living on its own in contrast to the extended family. Ideally, I believe that many nuclear families would benefit enormously from having a grandmother, aunt or uncle or similar person living with them.

There is a great richness in what I call the three G family. Having experienced it myself. I believe that while there are problems concerning relationships there is great richness in it. I bemoan the passing of the extended family. It is not just the nuclear family. As we hear so often in this House, we now have the one parent family and also far more individuals wishing to live on their own. This is a major social factor which is causing this problem of homelessness, because we need more homes than we did before for the same number of people. I believe that more help is needed both in regard to government policy in keeping families together and in the whole issue of divorce, which I am sure will come before the House afresh in the not too distant future.

We need action not only by the Government but also by the Churches and the voluntary sectors. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, together with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, talked about the work of the voluntary sectors. The Churches and the voluntary sectors need to keep on expanding the help which is afforded to families in order to keep them together. As has already been said, one cause of homelessness—I have mentioned this before in your Lordships' House—is the fact that teenagers get kicked out of the family home, all too often by a stepfather or the man living with the mother, who will not tolerate them. The more the Churches can do to help families to stay together the better it will be for this factor and many others.

Secondly, I should like to turn to page 24 of the report, which refers to the need for debt counselling and domestic financial management. These things are highly relevant to homelessness, because debt problems often cause homelessness. So often those without a home are suffering financial problems. I should like to see much more work being done about community banks and credit unions. Where a group of people can be brought together, all of them perhaps with financial problems, and where they can give mutual support, encouragement and help, there is scope for real progress in helping them. Groups of people could perhaps get together in a locality and really help each other, especially in regard to debt problems. There are banks in various parts of the world which are flourishing because they lend only to one category of person; that is, those who are highly impoverished. They work together with community support and community groups. I should like to see this form of credit union practised much more widely in this country and I should like to see more research done on that.

Next, I should like to refer to the need for cheap accommodation and I would ask my noble friend the Minister to note what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, about the need to meet the problem of decaying houses. If there are 600,000 houses that are empty, whether they are local authority or privately owned, could not my noble friend the Minister say that the accumulated funds of local authorities arising from the sale of local authority houses may be used to put back into operation these decaying houses, of which there are so many? It seems to me criminal that there are so many houses which cannot be used because of disrepair when there are so many people who are homeless.

Lastly, I should like to mention the need for hostel accommodation and to welcome the provision for local charities to provide hostels and beds, as has just been announced. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to say that a great deal more will be done than she indicated in her Written Answer yesterday.

6.44 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I am pleased to be taking part in the debate so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Stallard. I was interested to hear the observations of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, in talking about "Cathy Come Home". At the time of that programme I was chairman of the Birmingham housing committee. I did not think I would ever live to see the same problem occurring perhaps 30 years later.

No doubt some people will always be homeless for a variety of reasons, but we have to ensure that policies do not force them to become homeless or to stay homeless. In this context we should look at the effect of the Government's policies. When government policies are pursued, little thought is given to their impact on other policies which another government department might be operating. If the Government cut social benefit for young people and abolish wages councils which used to protect wage rates for young people under 18, should we be surprised that young people are penniless and on the streets?

As my noble friend Lord Murray said, is there not something wrong with child care facilities in the country if we have young people leaving care and being thrown out on their own: no father, no mother, no brother, no sister, no aunt, no uncle, nobody to keep a watchful eye on them? If people are forced to live in bad housing, as the noble Viscount has just mentioned, ought we to wonder that marriages break down? Obviously that will happen. There is nothing worse for destroying a marriage than to live in bad housing conditions.

If we look further at government policies, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol mentioned how poverty arises from unemployment. It is also a cause of homelessness. The Government do not have a very good record on employment issues. We went through one traumatic recession at the beginning of this Government; we are now entering a second recession, with unemployment figures creeping up again. Government policies are obviously a factor if we accept that unemployment causes poverty.

Then there is the Government's policy on the closure of mental hospitals. The Government may have thought that if they closed down mental hospitals people would be cured as soon as they went out of the gates. The National Schizophrenia Fellowship speaks not only of the danger to members of the fellowship but also of the anguish and despair they suffer when left on the streets. Instead of putting the problem on to the local authority or relying on the poor community care money which is allocated, why could not the National Health Service use part of its funds for small hostel-type accommodation for patients who need constant treatment in and out of mental hospitals for almost the whole of their lives? The problem is placed on the backs of local authorities. Alternatively, mental patients are left to be dealt with in the prisons. A report just sent to the Home Office shows that one-fifth of sentenced prisoners are in acute need of psychiatric treatment and have already received treatment in mental hospitals. Obviously, closing mental hospitals has caused a problem of homelessness.

Will regard to the Housing Corporation, I was rather disappointed when the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said that she accepted the good work that was being done but asked the Minister to answer some of the questions that were being raised. I feel rather like the noble Baroness about the Housing Corporation. Let us recognise that it is an agency for the Government: purely and simply, an agency. It is a way of giving the Housing Corporation more money than is given to local authorities, because the Government do not really like council properties. When I was chairman of a housing committee they were called municipal properties; now that they are up for sale, they are called town houses. They are the same properties; that is, those which were supposed not to be good enough.

When figures from the Housing Corporation are produced, can the Minister say whether they feature new homes and new properties being built, or do they relate only to existing properties? I shall give your Lordships an example. If the noble Baroness, Lady Denington, was here, she would be able to enlighten us on the matter. The GLC retirement homes which were built at the seaside were taken over, but they were not new properties. Are the figures which apply to the takeover of local authority properties, or any other properties, really a credit to the Government? I say that because there are no new properties.

Local authorities are also called upon to pay debt on their housing capital. What a difference privatisation made to the water authorities! In most cases, the DoE was prepared to write off all the debts to the Treasury—a total of £4.4 billion. The Government are now saying to local authorities, "Put your rents up so that you pay off the debt for local authority housing."

Noble Lords have said that the problem is not one which concerns London alone. I come from Birmingham. I am fully aware of the problems in that city. Only last week I took part in a sleep-out in aid of St. Basil's, one of the largest hostels catering for thousands of people every year and well known to the department. The hostel's problem is not only that of raising capital. It is also one of raising revenue to keep itself going. It is rather sad when people like myself have to take part in a sleep-out in order to try to raise funds. To be perfectly candid, I believe that I was the oldest person taking part.

However, if we look at the figures for Birmingham, it will be seen that in the first year of this Government 8,700 families were homeless. Today there are three times that number in Birmingham. That is a threefold increase in 10 years. Birmingham is in a peculiar position. It has many hostels to which it can send people. Moreover, we have always had hostels to accommodate women who have been subjected to violence. We have many voluntary organisations, such as the Salvation Army.

At present there is no one in bed and breakfast accommodation in Birmingham. But the city is not praised for that fact. Indeed, it received no homeless score at all last year. It may interest noble Lords to know that not one authority in the West Midlands conurbation received a homeless score, except Solihull. I shall leave the matter there. Quite obviously all the other areas in the Black Country and Birmingham have one political party. However, I do not think that the fact that some areas received such a score was a political matter. I do not know what their homeless figures are, but they are not comparable to those of Birmingham and other areas.

I turn now to the housing investment programme. That entails permission to borrow money. Birmingham has already received its figures for next year. The council put in a bid to the Government to borrow £67 million. The Government said that it could only borrow £62 million—that is, £5 million less than requested. Moreover, it suffered a decrease of £5 million the year before.

I support everything that other speakers have said. To my mind there will be no solution to the housing crisis unless the Government accept the fact that local authorities must be enabled to make their full contribution. If the Government do not want local authorities to do this, then there are co-operative housing associations, other housing associations and the private sector. People need housing and that paramount need is not being met at present. It is not being provided at affordable rents.

In conclusion I shall quote words used by the Prime Minister only a fortnight ago when speaking about need. He said: For a genuinely compassionate society … some people do need a special helping hand to help them enjoy a full life of choice and independence". In order to fulfil that ideal, I say to the Prime Minister that we must recognise the fact that a good home is necessary for everyone who needs one.

6.55 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Chichester

My Lords, my two colleagues from these Benches have spoken very eloquently about the general considerations and the moral issues involved in this question. At this late stage of the debate I do not propose to go over the same ground. I should like to speak especially about what I have observed in Sussex; that is, the problem along the south coast. As has already been said, the problem is not confined to London or to the big cities. Indeed, it exists all along the south coast.

In Brighton, for example, in August of this year the council had to accept 60 new families as homeless. That is a far higher number than has ever occurred before. We have a redundant church in Brighton which is used by the Brighton Housing Trust as a day centre for the homeless. At present over 150 people a day use that centre. That is an increase of 30 per cent. over last year. Those are indications of the extent to which this is a rapidly growing problem.

The Housing Act 1988 led to an increase in the number of private lettings available in Brighton, but the rents are too high. For example, you can pay £100 a week for a one-bedroomed flat, but to that must be added the deposit and rent in advance. That means that no one can start to look for a flat without £400 in his pocket. That rules out a very large section of the homeless.

Other speakers have referred to the increasing number of young people who have not been able to find employment and who are therefore not able to secure housing. That is a big problem along the south coast. The effect of the vicious circle of not being able to gain employment because you do not have a base, or not being able to get a base because you have no employment and finally not being able to obtain housing benefit drives young people to move on from town to town. That is an enormous problem. It seems to me that it is high time that there was a real reconsideration of the regulations which govern the availability of housing grants to those under the age of 26 years.

It is good to see that more support is now being given to housing associations. They are finding it much easier to obtain grants than was the case a few years ago. The associations are one of the bodies to which it seems, in the absence of other provision, we must look more and more for low cost housing. However, I do not exclude what other speakers have said about the importance of local authority housing being provided to a far greater extent. Nevertheless, there is a difficulty which these associations have to face. I refer to the rule that grants must be spent within the year in which they are made. For example, in the financial year from 1st April 1990 to March 1991 our diocesan housing association was asked to provide a 12-bedded hostel for single homeless people under the age of 26 years in Hastings. That is being undertaken with the YMCA providing the day-to-day management. But to put such a development on paper, to get it approved by the local authority and the Department' of the Environment, to secure safe and secure funding for at least five years ahead and to carry out the conversion of an existing building all takes longer than one financial year. That hostel, upon which work started in April this year, will probably be opened in June 1991—well outside the year for which the grant was made. The project has fortunately been underwritten by the Hastings local authority.

This is a problem which shows that there is a need for greater flexibility. Obviously public money must be accounted for and carefully controlled. It suggests that the time allocated for the provision of good quality long-term housing for people in need should be extended so as to allow the bodies skilled in undertaking such developments to do the job properly.

I turn to West Sussex. Reports which I have received from the seven district councils confirm what Professor Greve says on page 7 of his report about the South East, especially his point that homelessness is a rural as well as an urban problem. If anything, rural areas are suffering more than urban areas from the disappearance of council housing for rent. As has been said, there is a problem in providing support and housing for the mentally ill—those who are leaving psychiatric homes. It is clear that that is adding to the housing problem, but it is also adding—this is not always realised—to the burdens placed upon the police, who are responsible for dealing with those people when they find them wandering in the streets. It is an extra burden being placed on an already overstretched and undermanned force. As the police come in for a great deal of criticism nowadays, I should like to say that I am most impressed by the number of policemen I come across who spend their time doing social work of one kind or another.

All the authorities and organisations that I have consulted agree that the homelessness problem has also been exacerbated by high interest rates. Worthing District Council is approached by people who are about to become homeless through mortgage default at the rate of between one and four families a week as against one family in three months a year or two ago.

Housing associations do their best to help in those circumstances. I have tried to mention some of the difficulties that they face, but I shall add one more point in relation to which the Department of the Environment might be able to help: housing associations can often convert existing buildings, including redundant churches. In Brighton we have a large 1930s brick-built church whose conversion into low-cost flats is nearing completion. We have been able to do that only after a long-running battle with three or four of the amenity societies. It was a battle in which we were strongly supported by the local authority and in the end, I am thankful to say, by the Secretary of State. In the face of the crisis that is revealed in the report I hope that the amenity societies will consider social needs much more carefully than they sometimes appear to do, and that in relation to the conversion of any listed building the two sections of the Department of the Environment (that concerned with the heritage and that concerned with housing) will work together so that proper and adequate consideration is given to social needs.

When I was an undergraduate, I spent part of my vacations in an unemployment hostel in Tredegar in South Wales. I have never forgotten the appalling conditions under which so many people were living and the state of mind that those conditions induced. It is a terrible comment upon our society that 50 years later we should still be facing the same problem. We must remember that homelessness is a symptom of many other ills in society. We need to think hard about what those ills are, what policies have produced those symptoms and what are the moral, spiritual, and economic factors behind them all.

7.5 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I hope that I shall not be misunderstood if I say that it is a long time since we have heard three such notable speeches from the episcopal Bench, including the powerful oration of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, who made one of the most effective maiden speeches that I can remember for a long time. The last time that we had a big debate on a social issue (education) there were no speeches from the Bishops Bench, and I made some adverse comment. That has been put right. I cannot claim any credit of course, but it worked. It has all turned out happily.

I make a point of taking part in any debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Stallard. There is only one problem. He covers the subject so comprehensively that I feel inclined to say, "Ditto", and abandon my speech, especially when other effective speeches from the right reverend Prelate, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull and others follow. I usually—perhaps too often—refer to the New Horizon Youth Centre for the homeless which I helped to found many years ago and which is now going strongly. Some of the young people from there have sent me their thoughts. I shall not communicate them at length, but I shall read a quotation from one of the homeless: It seems ridiculous that the question of homelessness comes to public attention only seasonally. From March to November you hear very little about the plight of us, the homeless population. We do not go away ever. We would love to leave the streets behind, but there simply are neither the opportunities nor sufficient services to help us. The problem is here the year round and will be unless some positive steps are taken". That quotation has the advantage of coming fresh from the homeless.

I shall speak for only a few minutes because, apart from the ground having been so well covered already, an important event is to take place not 100 miles from here in which we all take a sympathetic and admiring interest. We are anxious to hear the Minister. This is one of the hardest tasks upon which she has embarked in her career. We know that she is not just a sincere person; she is a skilful debater. I have not given her notice of this point, but the whole debate is notice of it. Can she think of any possible defence of the Government's housing record? If she can dredge up one, she is not merely a skilful debater; she is a mad genius.

Homelessness is worsening. I shall not cover that ground again. We are all agreed about that, and yet the Government tell us that the economy has been —lately talk about a miracle has been played down a little—successful for the past 10 years. I do not doubt that the average income today in this country is higher than at has ever been. That is so in every Western country. It would be amazing if the Government managed to prevent that happening in view of the advance of science. But how does the Minister reconcile the fact that although this country is richer than ever homelessness is worse than ever? How can she square those facts? The obvious answer is that it is due to the Government's policy. It is too much to expect that she will throw away her brief and say, "Well, I suppose, on reflection, it has all been a tremendous failure, but we shall do better. We have a new caring Prime Minister and a new Minister".

We all agree that Sir George Young is a fine man. An expert, a fine young fellow from Centrepoint has been called in. I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, who pleads for a non-party approach, will not condemn me. I ask for a temporary dispensation on this. Sir George Young and the Government, and even the noble Baroness, have a problem. We can all agree that the Sunday Telegraph is a leading Conservative newspaper, thoroughly orthodox and sound. No one can say there is any revolutionary flavour to it. Perhaps I may call the attention of the noble Baroness to something unpleasant. I gather she does not wish to hear it but I must draw attention to the leading article in the Sunday Telegraph, the great Conservative organ. These are not my words, the newspaper states: Mr. Major plays to the gallery. There is something distasteful about the new Prime Minister's tactic of currying favour with the media and public opinion by posing as more compassionate and caring than his predecessor … [He] was the loyalest Thatcherite of all". Perhaps we may put aside the Sunday Telegraph, repudiate it and repudiate Thatcherism. That is what I ask the noble Baroness to do. Until Thatcherism is repudiated there will be plenty of homeless, more and more of them. It is unfair to place all the burden on the noble Baroness, but she has been so successful that to give her a little extra difficulty seems harmless enough.

7.11 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, Shelter reminds us that it is not difficult to become homeless. Almost everyone moves house at some point in their lives: when leaving home, losing a rented flat or starting a family and needing somewhere larger. However, homeless people are those who have nowhere to move to. They have become homeless because family and friends can no longer put them up. They remain homeless because there is not enough decent, permanent, affordable rented housing. They are mostly families, as has been said, and outside London. The homeless also include the young, the disabled, the poorer, the jobless, the vulnerable, the institutionalised and the handicapped. When the local authority has to fail them, they have nowhere else to go. Some want and need family homes; others sleep rough, wanting and needing other kinds of support; still others belong to the ranks of the hidden homeless in substandard and squalid accommodation.

The DoE recently published its revised 70-page draft code of guidance to local authorities on homelessness. It is a decent, humane, civilised and compassionate document. It asks local authorities to provide a sensitive and speedy service; it encourages them to have a more generous reading of what it means to be both homeless and vulnerable, in its words, to take, a wide and flexible view". Migrants, immigrants, mortgage defaulters, former inmates of institutions, the institutionalised, the homeless—the circular presumes in their favour. It is enlightened and humane about what it is to be homeless. It says that local authorities should offer self-contained accommodation with adaptations for the disabled. It should be close to friends and relatives, have a minimum quality and give some security of tenure. We all say yes to that, but when we look up the philosophy of the code and see it measured against the reality of the Government's housing policies, we see the gap in housing today.

The code insists that local authorities retain a statutory responsibility for homelessness even when they have sold or transferred all their stock. It asks them, for example, to prevent homelessness occurring by preventing rent or mortgage arrears arising. Yet the code recognises that the source of those arrears is very often the repayment of social fund loans, payment of the community charge or water rates or in future maintenance payments. All of those will top slice desperately low income support wages.

Secondly, it says that local authorities should use their own housing to house the homeless. We say yes to that too, except that, as many people have said, local authorities now have 20 per cent. fewer houses to let than 10 years ago. Local authorities are now building each year not enough houses even to meet the emerging need of homeless families for one month. That is the situation we face.

What else does the circular suggest to local authorities? It suggests that they should meet the philosophy of the code —a decent one, as I emphasised—by looking to other local authorities which have spare houses. Apart from women suffering from domestic violence, I have to say that that objective is fantasy. It suggests also that local authorities should turn to housing associations, but, as we have heard, those offering general housing have for the most part closed their lists. Many others offer specialised housing for the elderly or for young, single people. In any case, their finances have been undermined by the lack of capital finance in recent years.

Then the draft government circular examines the possibility of the private sector meeting the needs of the homeless. It suggests the further use of private renting, of shortholds, but it recognises that they push the problem of homelessness to the other side of winter, into springtime.

The circular looks at private leasing: 17,000 private leases have come into the market, 13,000 of them in London, I suspect 15,000 in Docklands. That is a welcome initiative but one which is currently undermined by the Government's policies if they insist that financing be part of local authority overall spending limits and if they do not allow housing benefit fully to meet the cost.

Central government also suggest that local authorities should turn to temporary accommodation —bed and breakfast accommodation. The DoE said in 1989 that over half of all temporary housing is below the minimum acceptable standards. The Audit Commission said that it offered the lowest standards at the highest cost. One sees half a dozen families sharing a lavatory, and sharing gastroenteritis.

The circular suggests two more options for homeless families. First, the local authorities should help them to become owner-occupiers at the very time when one homeless family in 10 is homeless precisely because it cannot pay the mortgage. Finally—and here one detects the draft circular moving into a note of despair—it suggests that mobile homes, caravans and prefabs may offer good, permanent accommodation.

If one works through the 70 pages of this new draft central government circular to local authorities, it is transparently obvious that those who drafted it realised that the Government's sensible and civilised policies towards the homeless have been made impossible by their grudging, punitive policies towards local authority homes. Therefore all it can offer, I fear, is a litany of dead-end policies. Why? —because, as virtually every speaker in your Lordships' House tonight has insisted, only houses can house the homeless. We see around us the failure to invest in housing for a decade. At the moment investment in local authority and social housing is about one-third in real terms what it was a decade ago. The witnesses to that are in bed and breakfast accommodation or on our streets and I know on our consciences.

Others have mentioned that there is a new team in another place in addition to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. We know that she cares about homelessness. We welcome the new initiatives by the new Secretary of State and his team, even though so far they do not represent new money. We recognise that the Department of the Environment and the housing department pick up the responsibility for new and worthy initiatives that have been pioneered by other government departments. Do the Minister and her team believe in the philosophy of their own draft circular to local government, which is that they allow local government to have the resources—the cascade finance, if one wishes to call it that—of their own capital receipts? I hope the Minister can give us an undertaking that new finance will be made available. If not, homeless families will become the problem families of the next generation.

7.20 p.m.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who has now left the Chamber, reminded us, there is a compelling reason why it is desirable to make short speeches this evening. If I do not consume the whole of my allotted time of nine minutes, I hope that will not be taken as a sign that I somehow underestimate the importance of this vital subject. No subject could be more important than this one. I believe that our present housing situation is endangering the nation's health and is contributing to the breakdown of law and order and the escalation of vandalism and crime. It is deepening the gulf between rich and poor and is condemning millions of citizens to live in conditions which should not be tolerated in a developed, industrial nation. The subject is as important as that. I, like other noble Lords, am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, for giving us an opportunity to debate this subject at such an opportune moment.

Strictly speaking, we should direct our remarks to the excellent report named in the Motion on the Order Paper. I hope the authors, John Greve and Elizabeth Currie, will forgive me if, like other noble Lords and in view of the opportune nature of this occasion, I say a few words about the subject in general. Many reports are written on this subject, as homelessness has been with us for years. A report has been published by SHAC on the so-called new homeless. That report underlines the fact that homelessness has now become a problem for the young. It now affects a different age group from those affected in the past. A report has also hen published by Shelter. As I have said, this subject has been with us for years. It is now almost exactly four years since I had the privilege of introducing a debate on this topic in this Chamber. A number of noble Lords who are speaking tonight took part in that debate.

We get reports on homelessness but no action. However, I am beginning to think that perhaps at long last we shall achieve some action on this matter. I see that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has returned to the Chamber. I am sometimes suspected of being rather naive in occasionally accepting the good faith of Ministers when they tell the House of their intentions. Perhaps I am being naive again when I say that I feel a little optimistic at the moment as we now have a Prime Minister who, whatever else he may have done—he played cricket—spent nine years working extremely hard for a housing association in a deprived area. That means he understands homelessness and what it entails. The fact that we have a Prime Minister with that kind of background is a cause for hope.

I have worked extremely closely with the Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Heseltine, in his efforts in Merseyside. He has a deep understanding of the nature of inner city problems. I believe he has some of the solutions to the housing problem. I accept what Mr. Heseltine has said about his intention to reverse some of the less desirable steps taken by the previous Minister responsible for housing, Mr. Michael Spicer, particularly with regard to the Housing Corporation and leasing arrangements. I accept those statements in good faith. I also accept what Sir George Young has said. I accept him as a person who is wholly committed to doing something about the housing problem. I believe he really understands it. Now Sir George Young is in a position to do something about housing, I am prepared to believe that he will do what he has said he will do.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, am I not right in saying that no new money will be made available?

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, the noble Earl must reserve questions of that kind for those who can answer them. I hope that new money will be made available. However, it is possible—this has been suggested by other speakers—that the money factor merely deals with the symptoms rather than the underlying disease. Perhaps new money will be available. I am merely saying that it is very welcome that someone is tackling the business of people sleeping out at night in our cities. I hope that something comes of that. I shall return to that matter in a moment.

I should have said a little more about the speeches that have been made this evening. I cannot comment on them all, but I must say how nice it was to hear three Bishops speaking with one voice. I wish to say a few words about the truly excellent maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, particularly as he comes from Bristol. I acknowledge that that city has taught us many lessons on this matter. The right reverend Prelate referred to the health aspects of this problem. He referred to the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation in Bristol. That is not a very high number. The right reverend Prelate may know that an article appeared in Health Trends only last week. I believe that magazine is published by the Department of Health. The article stated that a general practice in Bristol had taken steps to ensure that homeless people were registered on a general practitioner's list. I understand that a higher percentage of the homeless are on a general practitioner's list in Bristol than in any other city in Britain.

I realise, however, that other doctors have tried to make similar provision for the homeless. In his London general practice the son of the late Lord Stone —Lord Stone sat in your Lordships' House—has tried to help the homeless. I hope that the Minister will take note of such people as Dr. Stone and will ensure that those examples are followed all over the country. The health aspect of this problem is of immense importance.

I have said that I accept that there is a clear intention to tackle the symptoms of this problem. That is fine, but what are the Government going to do about the underlying disease? The underlying disease is a somewhat different matter. At the moment the real need is for houses and flats to rent. To provide such accommodation we need a rent structure which aims to cover costs with the help of a much fairer distribution than we now have of the total financial support for housing costs. I refer to statutory subsidies and benefits. Our absurd system of housing benefits is in an appalling muddle and it needs to be sorted out.

However, there are many other things that need to be done. There is the constant problem of what happens to the capital assets of housing authorities that have sold council houses. I accept what Sir George Young has said. He has said that in many cases capital sums have been accumulated in areas which do not have the most desperate need of new houses. However, the fact remains that all that money has gone into the public purse. It has not just disappeared. It must come out of the public purse, by whatever route, and be used for building the houses for rent which we now need. I do not know how that is to be achieved, but I hope that it will be achieved before very long.

We must remember that at the moment the Government face another problem connected with homelessness: increasing unemployment. I do not have all the figures for this matter. When the debate that I have referred to took place four years ago I obtained lots of figures from the Government by putting down Questions for Written Answer. Therefore I was able to provide government figures and the Minister who replied to the debate could not contradict them. I did not repeat that exercise on this occasion. I realised that all the figures would have increased and some of them are meaningless. Four years ago the number of people on council house waiting lists was 1,400,000. It is meaningless to state that the figure has or has not increased between then and now. The fact remains that when a waiting list becomes very long—this has been shown to be the case in the health service—people do not bother to register. Therefore it is meaningless to state the number of people on waiting lists.

However, I can say that there are considerable numbers of unemployed construction workers. I do not have the precise figure for unemployed construction workers at the moment, but it is a fact that house building is, on the whole, a labour intensive occupation, as are house repairs and renovation. The part solution to the unemployment problem is staring the Government in the face; it is a vigorous attack on the housing problem. I hope we can proceed from a short-term measure to a long-term measure which will achieve what is necessary; namely, provide accommodation at affordable rents. I do not mind who provides that accommodation so long as it is provided.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I have the privilege of replying to a very important debate on one of the worst social problems that face us today. First, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Stallard for initiating the debate. That comes as no surprise to me, because I have had a long association with him through organisations dealing with the problem, such as CHAR.

Like other Members of your Lordships' House, I was saddened by the passing of Lord Seebohm. I did not know about that until it was mentioned in this debate. The debate gives me a feeling of dÉjà vu, because we have dealt with the subject annually. The first debate that highlighted what would happen if the Government did not change their policy was initiated by Lord Seebohm following the publication of the report of the Duke of Edinburgh's commission on housing in Great Britain. It was followed intermittently by a series of debates in which it was pointed out what would happen if the Government did not alter their policies. The Government did not listen.

I should like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol on a magnificent maiden speech. I shall not go into details about other cities because the case was put perfectly by the right reverend Prelate and what he said about Bristol applies to all the other major cities in the country. The sad fact is that the problem is now spreading much wider than the cities which most of us have come to associate with the problem of homelessness.

Mention has been made today of cures for the problem. However, we have to ask ourselves what brought us to this situation. I do not have the same optimistic view as the previous speaker of the actions of Mr. Heseltine now that he is back in the Department of the Environment. Nor do I share the optimism about the new Prime Minister now that the ice maiden has gone, in view of his replies yesterday to the Leader of the Opposition when Mr. Kinnock questioned him on the housing situation.

Let us have a look at where it all started, taking the London boroughs, which are the pressure points. In 1978–79 the London boroughs and the GLC combined received £1,785 million pounds of government money to help deal with their housing problems. By the time Mr. Heseltine left the Department of the Environment in 1983 that had been cut to £965 million. The latest figures, for 1988–89, show that the amount was cut further to £413 million. That is an enormous cut.

On a global basis, when Mr. Heseltine took control of the Department of the Environment last time, the aggregate national figure for local authority housing was £5.266 billion. It is now down to £1.127 billion. As Mr. Kinnock said yesterday (and he included other figures), the Government have cut £6 billion from public sector housing during their term of office.

Why do I say that I am not keen on the new Prime Minister's outlook on housing? The previous speaker referred to the fact that the new Prime Minister had connections with housing associations in the past. I understand that he was also chairman of the Lambeth local authority housing committee for a time. I also know that he was a defeated parliamentary candidate in the constituency of the noble Lord who has sponsored this debate, my noble friend Lord Stallard.

Let us see what the Prime Minister had to say yesterday. The Prime Minister was asked: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the number of homes being built in Britain is at a lower level than at any time since the First World War? The Prime Minister answered: I confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that over the recent few years more people have moved into home ownership and we have had a higher quality and standard of housing than ever before".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/12/90; col. 151.] Would he dare tell that to the increasing number of homeless people? The lack of compassion from a new Prime Minister, to whom we are looking for hope, is towering. I do not believe that housing policies will change at all.

The discussion continued. Mr. Kinnock asked: Will the Prime Minister then acknowledge, first, that during the time that he has been Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and now Prime Minister, the Government have made huge cuts in housing budgets? The Prime Minister replied: In his list the right hon. Gentleman wholly overlooks the remarkable changes made to the voluntary housing movement, housing associations and action on homelessness". We all know that the voluntary housing movement's building programme is declining. So where is the optimism there?

There have been suggestions about what ought to be done about the problem. One can only repeat the arguments that have been put in the past. I wish that the Government would ditch the policies of the last Prime Minister. That request comes not only from me; it also comes from some Members of your Lordships' House in her own party who have been involved in local government. It has been said that the Prime Minister who recently resigned has a pathological hatred of local authorities, and that view is shared by some of her own supporters.

It is no good the Minister, Sir George Young—for whom I have a great deal of respect—saying that the Government are still looking to the voluntary agencies and housing associations to solve the problem. In his maiden speech the right reverend Prelate talked about there being a need for 100,000 new properties for letting in the public sector a year, which means 1 billion new properties by the turn of the century. There is a government report in being which says that double that number is needed to deal with the problem and eliminate homelessness in that time. In the present situation there is no possibility of achieving that.

Various figures have been quoted tonight. I recall that last year or the year before figures were produced by a charitable organisation which deals with homeless people in London showing that 10,000 people were sleeping rough in London. It was predicted that unless the Government took serious and immediate action and pumped huge sums of money into a building programme for rentable housing 30,000 people would be sleeping in the streets of London by the turn of the century.

It would appear from what the Prime Minister said yesterday that the housing situation has improved. I recall that when I first became a Member of Parliament I used to stay near St. Pancras. I often used to come down the Strand, and I do not remember seeing anybody sleeping in a box at that time. When I was the chairman of housing in Manchester there was a population of over 600,000 people; I do not remember seeing anybody sleeping in a box in Piccadilly. The population of Manchester is now just over 400,000 and there are hundreds of people sleeping rough. The same can be said for every city.

The fact that resources have been cut is not the only cause of the problem. Other causes are the demographic changes, the fact that youngsters want to leave home earlier, broken marriages, and so on. However, the Government must take a heavy responsibility for the situation.

Why has the problem now developed a high profile? For two or three years I have been saying that the Government were getting away with it because we had mild winters. According to all the predictions we now face a severe winter. In my opinion, although the Government are taking action now, even that may he too late to prevent some of the carnage that will happen in London and our other big cities as a result of the Government's policies. Will they change them and let the local authorities resume their historic role of building houses for their own people to live in? I remind the House that 15 years ago more than 6 million families were living in local authority housing. Most of them were well housed and most of them were satisfied. It is about time that the Government threw away their political shackles and dealt with this social problem instead of running on political tramlines.

7.40 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, I should be one person in the Chamber who would not be forgiven, or perhaps would be misinterpreted, if I were to cut short my reply because there is to be a party for the staff in the House. I give my apologies to them, but I feel that this is an important debate. Perhaps I could also join with other noble Lords in offering sincere congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol. His was an excellent speech, delivered with great sensitivity and skill. He has brought to this Chamber his enormous experience and detailed knowledge of Bristol and brought to our attention some of the imaginative things that are taking place there. We look forward to hearing more from him in the course of our deliberations.

Homelessness is an important subject, the causes of which are many and varied. As has been made clear throughout the debate, the solutions are indeed complex. However I want to start by referring to the announcement which was made yesterday by my honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Planning about accommodation for people sleeping rough on the streets. I am sure noble Lords will agree that it demonstrates the Government's determination to tackle the problem.

Before I address the detail, however, I want personally to pay tribute to Mr. Spicer. He was the predecessor of my honourable friend the Minister for Housing and laid much of the foundation for yesterday's package of measures. He secured the funding for it and in his absence I wish to recognise that in the course of this debate. The most serious aspect of homelessness and the most urgent is the problem of people sleeping rough on our streets, particularly in London. The Government have taken a number of steps to deal with this.

Perhaps I may make a passing comment to those who somehow or other believe that the problem is being neglected elsewhere. It has to be said that, yes, one-third of the problem is in London but it is concentrated in one place, whereas two-thirds of the problem is scattered throughout the country. If one has to target and determine a priority, at this moment the priority has to be those who are sleeping rough on the streets of London. There are now some 23,000 hostel places in London but they are almost all full. It is to the blockage in hostel places that our present initiative is directly targeted.

There are estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 people sleeping on London's streets. The Government have allocated £96 million over three years to provide additional accommodation to deal with the problem. The resources will be used to pay for short-term direct access hostels and permanent accommodation for people in hostels to move on to. That was a point well put by many noble Lords. It is urgent to get roofs over heads. However, my noble friend Lady Faithfull reminded the House that one has to think long-term about the accommodation needs for those people.

The main points of my honourable friend's announcement yesterday were: 320 new hostel places in direct access schemes to be run by housing associations and voluntary groups, some of them still subject to local authority agreement, bringing the total of hostel places so far under this initiative to 460—and more will be announced after Christmas. These places will begin to become available over the next few weeks. Seven hundred places will be provided by housing associations in shared and self-contained flats and houses for people in hostels to move on to, becoming available in February and March. That adds up to a total of more than 1,100 additional bedspaces for people sleeping on the streets. These schemes will absorb most of this year's £15 million. The rest will be allocated to schemes that we shall announce after Christmas.

We are working with the specialist associations which will provide hostel accommodation to ensure that people sleeping in areas such as the Bullring at Waterloo, the Strand and Victoria use the hostels. The hostels will provide not only accommodation but counselling and advice as well. That was another point which was very well made in the course of this debate. Outreach workers will be dealing directly with the people on the streets.

My honourable friend also announced that Nick Hardwick, the director of Centrepoint at Soho, a voluntary body dealing with young homeless people, will be working with him on the initiative over the next six months. The intention is that the department and the voluntary groups together will develop strategies to deal with specific areas. St. Mungo's will focus on the Bullring, Church Housing on the Victoria area and we are discussing other areas with other associations.

We have a further £81 million allocated for the next two years, of which £60 million will be for capital expenditure and £21 million for running costs. The capital allocation will be spent largely on permanent accommodation for single homeless people. These resources will be allocated to housing associations in London through the Housing Corporation. They are separate from the Housing Corporation's main programme.

We are also working up a pilot scheme for a rent deposit fund to enable single homeless people to gain access to private rented housing. That was the point made by the right reverend Prelate. The fund will be administered by a voluntary agency on behalf of my department.

Those new hostel places will begin to become available in the next few weeks. The housing associations and voluntary bodies concerned are working flat out to get them ready. We are concentrating for the moment on central London because that is where the problem of rough sleeping is at its worst. But my honourable friend has made clear that the programme could be extended to other areas if necessary. Indeed, what is happening in London does not preclude any imaginative scheme anywhere in the country where that is a particular problem. The immediate objective is to reach a position in which it is unnecessary for people to sleep on the streets of central London.

Noble Lords will be aware that the organisation Crisis will run its Open Christmas from 22nd to 29th December. Again I pay tribute to a number of noble Lords in this House who have an involvement, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, and my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve, who is not present in the Chamber this evening. The accommodation will be provided for up to 800 homeless people at 6 Pages Walk, S.E.1. It is my understanding that in the course of a week as many as 1,800 people will in fact pass through the doors. I pay tribute not only to those noble Lords in this Chamber who work so closely with that organisation but to everybody who works for it. I hope that by next Christmas our initiative will mean that demands on them will be significantly reduced.

I should also mention the Department of Health initiative for mentally ill homeless people. The Parliamentary Secretary for Health announced plans on 12th July to offer accommodation and psychiatric care to mentally ill people sleeping rough on the streets of central London. The programme will include the funding of additional specialist short-term hostel places and new community-based psychiatric teams, with the provision of longer term accommodation through the Housing Corporation. We are confident that this initiative will make a significant contribution towards meeting the needs of central London's homeless mentally ill population. We also hope that the approach developed will prove a useful model for other parts of the country.

Perhaps I may just add a few words here. My memory does not give me specific recall on this matter, but I know that I personally was responsible for taking through the code of practice for discharging mentally ill patients into the community where the arrangements for those people have to be much more rigorously provided for than they have been in the past. Again my hope is that the system is being well scrutinised and that it will be effective.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, criticised considerably the housing policy of the Government. Most people want to own their own home and our policies have brought home ownership within the reach of more people than ever before. There is no overall housing shortage. However, we recognise that there is a need for additional subsidised housing in some areas for those who cannot afford to buy or who cannot afford private rented accommodation. That need not mean building more council houses. We have encouraged authorities to investigate alternative ways of increasing the provision of rented housing rather than themselves building. Those include the sponsorship of housing association schemes and promoting the expansion of the private rented sector through assistance to private landlords and developers.

The Government see housing associations replacing local authorities as the main providers of new subsidised housing. We have reformed housing association finance to allow the maximum use of private money to supplement public funds. Public funding for the Housing Corporation will increase from £1.1 billion this year to over £2 billion by 1993–94, providing for a sustained increase in output of subsidised housing for rent by housing associations.

The total housing public expenditure programme remains very large. Next year around £3 billion is likely to be available for local authority housing capital investment, of which over two-thirds will go on the repair and maintenance of the existing stock. Another £1.1 billion will go on subsidising local authority and housing association current expenditure. Together with the increased capital resources for housing associations, that represents a very substantial public investment in housing in addition to the £3.5 billion a year spent on housing benefit, and the £7 billion a year in tax relief to owner occupiers.

The first priority in addressing the problem of homelessness must be to try to prevent it. Again it is an important point which was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest. Many people, both individuals and families, become homeless because they do not seek or receive suitable and timely advice to help them sort out their financial difficulties and explore further the employment opportunities and housing options available to them. In the past, housing advice has been provided on a somewhat haphazard ad hoc basis, variable both in quality and accessibility around the country.

In response to this need the Government have taken Positive action. The sum of £2 million is being made available to voluntary organisations this year, increasing to £4.5 million next year, specifically to provide special support and help to the homeless. Around half of this year's money will go to set up a national homeless advice network, run through citizen' advice bureaux, with expert support and training from Shelter and SHAC, the lead housing advice agencies. The remaining £1 million or so has been allocated to some 27 voluntary groups around the country, offering young homeless and rough sleepers practical help and assistance to find accommodation. Those include the excellent project —praised by the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Bristol—by the Bristol Cyrenians.

We expect that these projects will enable around 5,000 single homeless people to find temporary accommodation, and more than 1,500 to secure permanent housing; and the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux (NACAB) forecast that, in a full year, the CABs will provide advice to over 80,000 households who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. These resources are, of course, additional to the £11 million core funding given by the Government to NACAB and its Scottish counterpart in support of their general advice service. Many local authorities also operate advice services to people threatened with homelessness.

We hope that the emphasis we are giving to prevention means that, in future, fewer people will find themselves homeless without having first had the opportunity to explore other housing options available to them with the help of expert advice, and —dare I say it, since the noble Lord, Lord Murray made the point? —of being warned what electing to leave home can involve.

Good management in terms of making best use of occupied stock is also clearly vital. A disturbing finding emerging from recent research is that around two-thirds of local authorities (and 70 per cent. of housing associations) simply do not maintain records in a form which enable them to know how their stock is being occupied and thus what potential there may be for better management in that area, in particular to minimise under-occupation of stock. Clearly more could be done in that area.

The Audit Commission's 1989 report on homelessness pointed out that some hard-pressed authorities, even with the most efficient management of stock, required extra resources to help them meet their statutory homelessness duties. Professor Greve's report echoed that, calling upon the Government to release new money to authorities to improve their service to homeless people. That we have done.

The homelessness review recognised the need for extra targeted resources to assist in pressure areas. The sum of £300 million is being allocated this year and next to local authorities and housing associations in London and the South East. Our first priority has to be to reduce the use of bed and breakfast hotels for families. The additional funds will therefore go to schemes to provide additional permanent lettings for homeless people, thus reducing local authorities' dependence on temporary accommodation, particularly on bed and breakfast. Much of this money is directed at bringing empty local authority and housing association properties back into use.

The sum of £227 million has been apportioned to local authorities and £73 million to housing associations via the Housing Corporation; £148 million-worth of schemes have gone forward this year already. We expect around 7,500 new lettings to be created as a result of this year's programme and we shall be looking to local authorities and housing associations to deliver the maximum output possible next year with realistic and cost effective schemes.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, asked; why London? We accept that the pressures are in London. I have already explained why we have targeted London first. But my honourable friend has already announced that the factor for homelessness in grants to local authorities is to be given added weight and that that will be fed into the system in the coming year.

The other main focus for the additional homelessness allocations will be cash incentive grants to encourage tenants to move into owner occupation. We gave local authorities power, under the Housing Act 1988, to pay grants to help their better off tenants to buy homes on the open market, thereby releasing vacancies for re-letting to the homeless and others in need. Registered housing associations can give similar grants to their tenants under the Housing Corporation's new tenants' incentive scheme, which was launched this summer. These schemes offer a very cost-effective way of securing vacancies, and further increasing the supply of rented accommodation for those in priority need.

So far this year, my right honourable friend has given approval for 95 local authority cash incentive schemes. If fully utilised these could create up to 2,500 vacancies for reletting. A similar number of housing association vacancies could be released this year under the tenants' incentive scheme.

Finally, I must mention the important question of the service that authorities provide on a day to day basis to the homeless. Much of the stress caused by homelessness can be relieved by sympathetic and efficient handling of applications by local authorities.

The right reverend Prelate spoke of the sluggishness in the system and about how long it can take to get such schemes off the ground. The DoE research has shown enormous variations in the interpretation of duties and treatment of applications. Therefore, following the homelessness review, my department undertook to revise the code of guidance on homelessness to try to establish guidelines for consistent and fair treatment. That we have done and are currently consulting the local authority associations on a draft revised code.

This has been a brief tour of the initiatives that we are taking to help relieve and reduce homelessness. My intention tonight has been to demonstrate that the Government are taking action to help all homeless people and that we indeed care.

I was challenged by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who stated that if I could defend government policy I should be something of a mad genius. That is something that I have never been called before. However, there is no complacency on this side of the Chamber about these problems. I was attracted by the comment made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester: it is a problem that has affected all parties over many years and we need a consensus approach to the issue. What can be said in defence of the policy is that owner occupation runs now at 69 per cent. It has increased by 3.7 million since 1979. The condition of housing has improved substantially over those years. The number of houses classified as unfit has declined very substantially. The number of houses lacking basic amenities has also declined substantially.

The policy now is to direct what public money is spent at those most in need. The sum of £300 million has been allocated to local authorities for that purpose; and £96 million is being spent nationally by Government on direct intervention. We are deeply concerned about the increasing number of households accepted as homeless by local authorities and the number of families forced to live in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. That is why in the areas where pressures are most severe we have responded positively by allocating £300 million to local authorities.

In addition we have recognised the importance of helping those at risk before they become homeless by funding the national homelessness advice service. For those who are homeless, and in particular young single people who despite such assistance eventually become homeless, we have greatly increased funding to those voluntary organisations working in the front line to help them find temporary and permanent accommodation.

I wish again to emphasise the package of measures announced yesterday, which represents positive and urgent action to speed up the system to serve the needs of people living on the streets of our city of London.

I have not referred to many other detailed points. However, one that arose time and again related to local authorities spending capital receipts. I must respond to that. There is a simplistic view that, somehow or other, if local authorities could spend their capital receipts these problems would be resolved. It is a matter of fact that where the receipts are greatest the needs are least. The problem is that the receipts are not where the needs are greatest. In order to achieve that, local authorities will spend 25 per cent. of their receipts, leaving three-quarters of the money allocated through the HIP allocations. Therefore, the Government can direct HIP allocations to the authorities in the greatest need. That will allow those authorities whose receipts are high and which have more disposable income to use their own moneys to fund their housing programmes. The important matter is targeting, and that is being done.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester undervalues the House of Lords in its ability, and the frequency with which it exercises it, to take an apolitical view of any issue. I believe that this issue is a candidate for an apolitical approach.

Our current initiatives are not and cannot be a panacea to solve once and for all the problem of homelessness. However, they represent a determined step in the right direction. The need to reduce and relieve homelessness underpins all our housing policies. We are deeply conscious of the misery and degradation that many people experience as a result of homelessness. Contrary to what our critics might say, we care. My aim this evening has been to show the extent to which expressions of care and concern are being matched by concrete action.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, in the few seconds left in the debate I wish to associate myself with the tributes paid to the late Lord Seebohm by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. We were all stunned and shattered by his tragic death earlier this week. Ever since I have been a Member of this House, and particularly during the past few months, I have worked closely with him on another project. Only as recently as last Thursday we were making plans for a meeting today.

I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate, particularly the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol. His maiden contribution was excellent. We thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to hearing many more contributions in the same vein.

I should like to give in to the temptation to make an off-the-cuff response to everything that the noble Baroness said. I recommend only that she reads some of the Shelter publications. The recent publication, No New Homes, and today's publication, Waste Money Waste Lives, answer most of the points that she made. It is a sad fact that the initiatives have not worked as they were intended to. There is something wrong in that they are not being taken up by the people at whom they are aimed. The noble Baroness should look at that problem.

I shall return to the subject at the earliest possible moment after the Recess. I intend to maintain pressure for changes in the appropriate legislation until we rid this country of the scourge of homelessness and bad housing. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at four minutes past eight o'clock.