HL Deb 15 July 1992 vol 539 cc220-4

3.10 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the latest figures for people now living in bed and breakfast accommodation through homelessness, and what has been the annual financial cost for the last five years.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, on 31st March 1992 there were 12,423 homeless households temporarily accommodated in bed and breakfast hotels in England and Wales. The net cost to English and Welsh local authorities of providing bed and breakfast accommodation over the most recent five-year period,1985– 90, for which figures are available, was £34 million, £76 million, £104 million, £91 million and £74 million respectively.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that very detailed reply. I am sure that he is aware of the recent report commissioned by the Association of London Authorities, which is Labour controlled, and by the London Boroughs Association, which is Conservative controlled, showing that the figure for London has now reached £200 million a year and that by 1995, at the present rate of deterioration, the figure will be £500 million. Is the noble Lord aware that £500 million could build 100,000 houses? Will he urge the Secretary of State to abandon his vendetta against local authorities and make sums available to build the low-cost housing which is so urgently required to deal with the situation?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord will be glad to know that the Government are not turning their back on social housing. Over the next three years more than £6 billion will be channelled to housing associations. This will provide more than 150,000 new homes for rent and low-cost purchase by 1995– 96.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that there is another cost which is hard to compute; namely, the cost to the nation of large numbers of children living possibly for the first five years of their lives in bed and breakfast accommodation? Does he not further agree that there are on the whole two reasons why people stay so long in bed and breakfast accommodation? The first is that alternative housing is not available; the second is that they cannot afford to rent. Will the noble Lord therefore give an assurance that local authorities will be able to keep more than 25 per cent. of the profits from selling council houses in order to build up their stocks? Secondly, will he give an assurance that the Government will reconsider the provisions of the Social Security Act 1986 under which families on income support constantly find themselves unable to pay the cost of renting—very often to the tune of £20 a week?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct to remind the House that there are costs involved in homelessness which in themselves are not easy to calculate, particularly the effect that it has on children. However, over the past 12 to 13 years there has been an increase of more than 2 million units in the housing stock, a far higher rate of increase than the growth of population. But pressure of demand continues to rise. That is caused by many factors: old people living longer; young people wanting to leave home earlier; and, unfortunately—and perhaps most important for the right reverend Prelate—a greater number of family breakdowns. That is the reason for extra homelessness. The Government are spending the money.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, can the noble Lord say why we continue to refer to bed and breakfast accommodation? Is he not aware, as I am, having visited many of these places, that "breakfast" is a gas ring on the landing shared by several families? Those landlords are taking money from local authorities—from the taxpayer or the poll tax payer—because there is not sufficient decent, regular housing? Can he do something about such abuse of public money?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be glad to know that local authorities are working more closely together than ever before so as to combat abuse by landlords of bed and breakfast accommodation and to make sure that proper cooking facilities are provided. I know that there has been bad practice in the past, but I hope that that is now behind us.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, can the Minister say how many empty dwellings are currently in local authority ownership?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, on 1st April 1991 there were 83,100 empty council houses and flats in England of which about 24 per cent. had been empty for more than a year.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, is it not a fact that more empty properties are owned by the Government than by local authorities? Having said that, is it not also true that despite the extra money now being provided to housing associations, which is certainly very welcome, the figures for bed and breakfast accommodation continue to rise? It seems daft to those of us who do not understand Treasury matters that we should be spending between £100 million, £200 million, or even £500 million on bed and breakfast accommodation when that money could go into bricks and mortar? A Conservative government once built 300,000 houses in a year. Can the present Government not try to do something similar again?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, government departments, like everyone else, are encouraged increasingly to make the best use of the properties they have, particularly if those properties are empty. The answer is not simply the building of new houses. It is encouraging the use of existing homes, which is why in the Budget we provided for lodgers to be taken in tax free. There have been a number of other initiatives over the course of the past few years; all go to help. We are open to other suggestions as well.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one practical way of reducing the cost of bed and breakfast accommodation would be to put victims of domestic violence in women's refuges rather than in bed and breakfast accommodation as they are both a cheaper and a more satisfactory alternative?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, essentially the noble Earl is right. But only 4 per cent. of priority-need acceptances are victims of domestic violence.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, perhaps I may refer back to the Minister's first Answer in which he mentioned a figure of 12,423 homeless households in bed and breakfast accommodation. That figure is a gross underestimate of the true figure. According to those who work in the field—Shelter and CHAR—the number of households in temporary accommodation is 60,000. That costs about £15,500 per household per year whereas the first year cost of building a new home to rent is £8,200. How does the noble Lord justify the lack of initiative in building more houses when the figures so obviously cry out for that result? Secondly, can the noble Lord say whether there has yet been a decision in the deadlock between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Social Security about the funding of 500 bed spaces which the housing associations agreed to undertake under the mental health initiative?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the Answer that I gave originally was the correct answer to the Question that I was asked. If the noble Lord wishes to disagree I think that he should write to me. The noble Lord asked other questions which I think are beyond the scope of the Question on the Order Paper.

Baroness Faithful!

My Lords, why are the local authorities allowed to contravene fire regulations and housing regulations when approving such accommodation?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, increasingly local authorities make sure that the bed and breakfast accommodation they use for housing the homeless comes up to the highest possible standards both in terms of fire precautions and suitable cooking facilities.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, the noble Lord is mistaken when he says that my questions are beyond the scope of the original Question. He may not know the answers but my questions were within the scope of the original Question. I asked about the cost, and the original Question asked about the cost. If the Minister does not know the answer, he should say so. He should not try to dodge it.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I always try very hard not to dodge questions, especially those from the noble Lord. I said that I had answered correctly the Question that I was asked. I made the provision that the figures I used were for the years that were the most recently available. If the noble Lord has unsubstantiated, unofficial figures, that is a matter for him.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, as the Minister has asked the House for suggestions, will the Government contemplate during the substantial Recess that we are facing a suggestion that I have made on several occasions; namely, that if the institutes of higher education would take more candidates who are based and lived locally it would release so many housing units for other people that the problem could be solved in a matter of two or three years?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting and useful point and one that I shall certainly consider in my department.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in answer to my first supplementary question, the Minister gave detailed figures regarding the Government's building programme. I believe that he talked of upwards of 100,000 units that they were funding over a period of years. However, is he aware that a report issued this morning by Shelter supports the findings of other associations and organisations dealing with the sharp end of homelessness that the target to deal with the situation ought to be 100,000 units per year? On the basis of the figures quoted by the Minister, I think that the number of units involved is less than 50,000 a year. Therefore, we are obviously running backwards.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, in answer to an earlier question I explained that the reasons for homelessness are many and varied. We must look at the overall problem and not just find a solution in terms of building more houses.

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