HL Deb 02 July 1992 vol 538 cc873-6

3.12 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their estimate of the number of people currently sleeping rough in central London each night; and what plans they have to address this problem.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, there were 440 people counted sleeping rough in central London in the latest count in March this year. Under the Rough Sleepers Initiative, we are spending £96 million over three years to provide a total of 900 hostel places and 2,900 places in shared and self-contained houses for those in hostels to move on to. We are also spending £20 million over three years under the Homeless Mentally Ill Initiative to provide accommodation and psychiatric care to mentally ill people sleeping rough in London.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I appreciate what the Government have done and are doing, as well as the work of the many voluntary organisations. Is he aware that there are still many young people at risk, sleeping in doorways? There is also the escalating problem of begging on our streets. Is it not time that the Government set up an inter-departmental committee at a high level to solve this terrible problem?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the £96 million Rough Sleepers Initiative has resulted in a visible reduction in the numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets. It has been particularly successful at reducing the numbers of young people sleeping rough. The government departments whose policies have an effect on rough sleeping are already working closely with each other. The Departments of the Environment and Employment, for example, are looking at the possibilities for enhancing employment prospects and job readiness of people accommodated under the Rough Sleepers Initiative.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble friend really saying that we are spending £96 million on 440 people? That would pay my Lloyd's losses several times over, and buy me a house and a new estate in the country. That seems to me to be mildly ridiculous.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am not saying that. The £96 million is largely being spent to prevent people becoming homeless and sleeping rough.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that over a prolonged period before the last general election, Members from all parts of your Lordships' House persisted in raising this subject? I do not disagree with the figures given by the noble Viscount, but he must be aware that there is great disquiet at those figures. If we walk round London at night we find that the numbers of people sleeping rough are far in excess of the figures given by the Minister. Is he aware that I too support the Government's Rough Sleepers Initiative which has dealt with a difficult problem? He must also be aware that the situation is deteriorating. Will he respond to the request of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, for an urgent review of the situation in order to introduce further measures adequately to deal with the problem?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dean, for his question. We recognise the significance of the problem, but the count by the voluntary organisations taken in March revealed 440 people sleeping rough on the streets of central London.

We have provided 700 places in direct access hostels, 700 places in leased move-on accommodation and will be providing 2,200 places in permanent accommodation. Without these initiatives, the problem would be much worse.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that a certain amount of overnight accommodation is still vacant?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my information is that the new hostel places which have been provided quickly become full.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the Government for the initiatives they took last year, for which the Minister with responsibility for housing deserves credit. Perhaps the Minister could confirm what I heard today, that some night shelters have recently closed. That includes those for people who are mentally retarded and are now back on the streets. May we have an assurance from the Government that those night shelters will be funded so that they may re-open before the winter sets in?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the main responsibility for the provision of services for the mentally ill rests with district health authorities and the local social services authorities to whom the Government issued guidance in 1988. From 1991, each authority should have a programme to provide co-ordinated care for people chronically disabled by mental illness and who live mainly in the community.

Psychiatric in-patients are discharged on the advice of a consultant psychiatrist and discharge should only take place when suitable arrangements have been made for their accommodation and welfare outside hospital.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government have spoken to any under 16 year-olds sleeping rough on the streets of central London? If so, what accommodation can be provided for them now that the main project for housing under 16 year-olds in central London has closed?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Government work closely with the voluntary sector on the matter of young people sleeping rough in London. Also, under a Department of Health scheme, £3 million is being provided over three years through the Single Young Persons Initiative to address youth homelessness and prevent young people drifting to London. The initiative funds 14 projects to work with young people outside London.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that his figure of £96 million, to which I must refer again, would, if invested in the acquisition of property at an average of £50,000 per house or accommodation, provide for possibly 1,920 people? We are talking of 440. It seems strange to me.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, as I said earlier, we are not talking about the 440 people. There are over 23,000 hostel places in London. The 440 people are those still out there, homeless.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, while we all welcome the initiative taken, can the Minister say whether the initiative and the expenditure which he quoted are confined to inner London or to London? What steps are the Government taking to tackle the same problem which exists in many provincial cities?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the figures I mentioned relate to central London. Nationally, the Department of the Environment also gives grants under Section 73 of the Housing Act 1985 to voluntary organisations concerned with the single homeless. This year, resources of £6.1 million will go to nearly 150 organisations, including over £1.7 million to the National Homeless Advice Service which aims to ensure that timely and expert advice is available to homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, surely the Government cannot be satisfied with the increase in begging on our streets?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, there are some beggars on the streets of central London who deliberately take on the appearance of rough sleepers to play on the public sympathy. Some engage in aggravated begging which is not far short of robbery whereas others prey on rough sleepers for protection money. This is known as taxing and is extortion. The police take a strong line on such practice. In the past police involved in such operations have found that over a third of the beggars arrested had fixed addresses.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one does not have to sleep in a cardboard box to be sleeping rough in central London? Does he recall that last year the Salvation Army conducted a survey that identified 75,000 visible homeless people in central London? Is the Minister aware that government policies, namely, the changes in the social security system in the mid and late 1980s, the move towards market rents in 1988, and the stricter restraints on local authorities' role in housing provision, have all contributed to what is the main cause of homelessness which is a critical shortage of affordable rented accommodation? Will the Minister reply to those questions?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Question deals specifically with those sleeping rough in central London. Housing associations funded via the Housing Corporation are now the major suppliers of new social rented housing. Housing Corporation resources will total £6 billion over the next three years with a forecast output of over 150,000 dwellings in that period.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Viscount rightly came under fire from his own Back Benches for contrasting the tip of the iceberg, which is sleeping rough in central London, with the considerable sums which are expended on housing problems in Britain as a whole. Does he agree with me that a joint report produced by the Labour and Conservative boroughs in London, the Association of London Authorities and the London Boroughs Association, and by Single Homeless in London—the latter body is the best informed of the bodies in the voluntary sector—takes the view that we require now 10,000 extra units of permanent accommodation in London whereas government plans only provide for 1,500?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, by common assent the problem of sleeping rough is most acute in central London. That is why we have chosen to concentrate our considerable resources of —96 million there.