HL Deb 21 February 1990 vol 516 cc274-7

2.52 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester asked her Majesty's Government:

What is their estimate of the number of people who are sleeping rough in London and what they are doing to alleviate the situation.

Lord Reay

My Lords, reliable, firm estimates are not available, but the most recent count was carried out in 1989 by Surrey University for the Salvation Army. It reported 753 people sleeping rough in 17 boroughs. The measures announced last November by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will help relieve homelessness in the pressure areas like London but we are looking further at the way responsibilities of different government departments work and further announcements will be made in due course.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful and optimistic Answer. Does he not agree however that the programme "Newsnight" last night highlighted the fact that many of those who are sleeping rough are young people or children? Of those, 61 per cent, are estimated to have disappeared from any lists. Will the Minister therefore reassure us that among the resources which the Government are making available there will be personnel to help those people get back on lists so that they can receive the benefits to which they are entitled? Will the Minister also ensure that a computer is provided so we may know how many young people are missing at any given time?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate puts his finger on a problem which is also causing the Government concern. I take careful note of the pertinent points he made. The Government are looking at how existing services measure up to the needs of the problem of the young homeless and hope to be in a position to make announcements in the not too distant future. The right reverend Prelate referred to children. That is a field in which good work is being carried out by the Children's Society among other organisations. The Department of Health provided £115,000 towards the establishment of a Children's Society London refuge and is currently considering a request for a second related project. The right reverend Prelate also asked me about a computer. I understand that the Home Office is considering whether a national bureau with standardised referral criteria and procedures should be established.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, is it not a disgrace that £450,000 of official funds are reported to be ready and available should the temperature drop so low that people are in danger of dying of cold? Should those funds not be spent now, regardless of the temperature, to help not only the young people to whom the right reverend Prelate referred but also other vulnerable groups such as ex-psychiatric patients and ex-prisoners?

Lord Reay

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hooper replied to a Question on Monday which concerned the mentally ill. She gave some figures with regard to spending on hospital and community health services. That spending grew by 20 per cent, in real terms between 1978–79 and 1986–87.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that apart from the young homeless people there are a great number of middle-aged people, especially men, who are living rough as a result of broken marriages? Is he aware that that number unfortunately is increasing all the time? Those men are on the streets because they have no fixed abode. They are therefore unable to obtain jobs. That position is serious at this moment.

Lord Reay

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw the attention of the House to that problem. The problem of the homeless is a complex one. It does not of course concern only the young single homeless.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that this problem is not merely confined to London but is stretching out to major cities throughout the country? Is he not therefore prepared to seek consultation with the police, who know a great deal about this matter, and with the Salvation Army and the social services of local authorities? They together could paint the full picture which would then enable the Government to take appropriate action.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that the problem is not confined to London. However, the Question on the Order Paper is confined to London. There are of course a great number of departments involved in this matter and the Government recognise the need for all departments to be consulted. Following that consultation announcements will be made.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will my noble friend refer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, from the Cross-Benches? This is not surely a matter of temperature; it is a matter of principle. Many of us are anxious that the Government should be prepared to look at the whole matter not simply in terms of a cold winter or a colder winter but of getting the homeless resettled and under control.

Lord Reay

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. I hope that I have made it clear that the Government are looking seriously at this problem and will make an announcement shortly.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the forbidding statistic which arose in a programme last night that the right reverend Prelate referred to; namely, that the Children's Society which carries out such a large amount of work in looking after children who run away from home and from care is in the red to the tune of £ 1 million? Does not the Minister think that is a serious situation?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I saw the programme to which the noble Baroness refers. It painted a disturbing picture. It is difficult to get a true picture when dealing with what is a mobile population, which includes, sadly, children who may have run away from home and who may be trying to avoid being taken into care. Therefore, they are trying to avoid being discovered at all.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, while we must be grateful to the Salvation Army for initiating the university inquiry, what is disquieting is the lack of precise information which the noble Lord on behalf of the department is able to produce to the House. Is he aware that the problem, as my noble friend has said, is not concentrated in London but exists also in other major cities and rural areas? Will he give the House an assurance that his department will look into the matter rather more carefully and ensure that it can produce a more comprehensive picture of the problem which is growing worse at the present time?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I have given the only firm figures that are available. The 1991 census will include a full count of those who are sleeping rough and will produce information on age, sex and location. There are other estimates and I have commented on how difficult it is to be sure what the figures are for the reasons I gave. I hope the noble Lord will accept that the Government are treating this problem seriously.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of the considerable amount of residential accommodation over shops that is unused. What steps are Her Majesty's Governments taking or considering taking to bring that unused residential accommodation back into use?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the homeless initiative which the Government took in November when they agreed to provide £250 million over two years for schemes to help the homeless in London and the South-East was especially designed to provide up to 15,000 new lettings, mainly as a result of bringing into use properties which are currently unoccupied.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I am sure the House will welcome the concern that the right reverend Prelate has shown in this matter. Will the Government approach the Church of England Estates Commissioners to make sure that the substantial property interests of the Church of England are being fully utilised to help solve this problem?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am sure that the Church has a role to play in the matter.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend assure us that in looking at the problem the Government will also consider its causes, which must surely include the instability of marriage, the instability of so-called stable relationships and the fashion for single-parent homes?

Lord Reay

My Lords, my noble friend has raised some very important and relevant issues. It is extremely important that the Government should not do anything to encourage young people to leave home and to discourage them from taking up work or full-time training.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I am grateful for the fact that the Government are to make a Statement about the homeless young. Will they see that the authorities do not prosecute the older people who are sleeping rough under the Vagrancy Act 1824?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I should like to look into that point.

The Lord Bishop of Chester

My Lords, would the Government be prepared to consider the appointment of somebody who could act as an overseer or co-ordinating officer? Various organisations are involved in the relief of the homeless and the Church is a major participant in that work. It has clergymen in all those areas working in that field. However, from what has been said today does it not appear that there should be a co-ordinator, that an officer should be appointed or a small department set up temporarily to co-ordinate the work to relieve the desperate situation of the homeless in the cities of our country?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate that there is an important role for the voluntary organisations. I have referred to the role of the Church and of the Children's Society. Following the homelessness review last year the Government are tripling their grants to voluntary groups assisting the homeless from £680,000 in 1989–90 to £2 million next year.