HL Deb 20 January 1993 vol 541 cc887-90

2.48 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many people are currently registered as homeless or are living rough; and what measures they propose to deal with the problem.

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

My Lords, in the third quarter of 1992, 35,520 households were accepted for permanent rehousing by local authorities in England. The latest count of rough sleepers last November found 419 people sleeping rough in central London. We recently announced that a further £86 million will be made available to help rough sleepers in central London over the next three years. My honourable friend the Minister for Housing also announced on 21st December additional measures to increase the supply of short-term leased property which will be available for accommodating homeless families.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware of the tragic scenes, shown on television at the weekend, of bailiffs smashing their way into a council property in which there was a woman and children? While the doorway at the side was open, the bailiffs were smashing their way through the window with a sledgehammer. As a former chairman of housing in Manchester, I have no time at all for people who simply will not pay the rent. However, there appear to be an increasing number of people, among the 3,000 families evicted in London, who cannot pay the rent. Can the Minister give any further hope, in addition to what he has already said, which will relieve us of seeing those distressing scenes repeated?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord was a most effective chairman of housing in Manchester. Clearly, evictions by local authorities must be a last resort. It is for those local authorities to take the action which they believe to be most appropriate in the circumstances.

Nationally, we have undertaken a number of measures over the course of the past few months to alleviate the plight of those who find themselves without a home. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced a £750 million programme to boost the housing market. Another £30 million is being made available in London and the South-East for cash incentive schemes. We are spending the money and we believe we have the problem in hand. We are consulting with voluntary organisations to improve our policies.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I understand that the £750 million must be spent by April. Is the programme of spending proceeding and will all the money be spent by the appropriate date?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I cannot tell my noble friend whether or not the money will be spent by the appropriate date. However, I can confirm that the programme is proceeding apace and it is reasonable to expect that the money will be spent.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I acknowledge the response the Minister gave to the Question. We welcome his endeavours. Does he not agree that the bulk of the problem lies with local authorities in London, particularly Westminster council? The situation creates problems for our police who nevertheless handle it well. Is it not about time that the Government, senior police officers and local authorities got together to deal with the matter on a month to month basis?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the largest incidence of sleeping rough occurs in central London. Consequently, my honourable friend the Minister responsible for housing on Monday made a speech where he launched a consultation document to discuss with voluntary organisations how best to spend the £86 million on the rough sleepers' initiative over the course of the next three years.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will my noble friend tell noble Lords what proportion of the people who are sleeping rough in our towns and cities have been prematurely discharged from mental hospitals where they were regarded as mentally ill, and what is being done about that? Will he also tell us to what extent people who are living in that way, but who are not mentally ill, have refused to accept local authority accommodation?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend an exact figure but it is understood that there are some people who suffer from mental illness who end up on the streets. I can also confirm that the Department of Health and the Department of the Environment have a number of schemes specifically aimed at counselling those people, either to find them suitable hostels or give them appropriate help.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, while I appreciate that London and the South-East are in most serious need of help and that special government funds have been made available to deal with the problem there, a similar problem exists in other areas and in other regions. Is the Minister considering grants for cities such as Glasgow and even Edinburgh or Liverpool which have similar problems that require urgent attention?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, as already stated, the primary responsibility lies with local authorities. However, this year we are providing £6.1 million of funding from the Department of the Environment for the National Homeless Advice Service to provide advice to all those who are homeless or who are at risk of being homeless and to fund 150 projects nationally run by voluntary organisations to provide direct practical help to the single homeless. We are not complacent about the matter either as regards London or nationally.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that unfortunately a large proportion of the people who are now homeless are homeless as a direct result of marital breakdown? The man of the family is forced to leave home and is often sleeping rough on the streets having lost his job.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I confirm the fact that one of the major causes of homelessness is the breakdown of relationships, whether marital or other relationship.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the measures he and his honourable friend in another place have announced are welcome but founder on the one essential fact that until we can provide enough affordable housing at the far end of the scale we will never begin to solve the problem of homelessness? All the expedients that have been announced are only scratching the surface of the problem. Thousands are trapped in hostels and are unable to escape into permanent accommodation and thereby free hostel accommodation for the homeless because no permanent accommodation is being built for them. Does not the Minister consider that such accommodation is an essential feature of any future programme?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, one problem is the increasing number of households comprising single parents and people who want to live on their own. That figure has increased faster than the level of new house building which has over the past few years been at a record level. As regards the figure for temporary accommodation, I am delighted to inform the noble Lord that it fell by 23 per cent. in the 12 months to the end of September.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, if the Minister agrees that only homes can house the homeless, will he permit local authorities to spend the £5 billion of capital receipts—their own money—on new housing, thus providing work for the workless and homes for the homeless?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, we have allowed local authorities to spend their capital receipts in the current year on providing the kind of things the noble Baroness suggests.