HL Deb 12 April 1994 vol 553 cc1506-30

10.25 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of responses to the consultation paper Access to Local Authority and Housing Association Tenancies, they will reconsider their proposals.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I regret that a subject so important to so many people has come so late at night. What are we doing with this Green Paper? Many of us will remember "Cathy Come Home". As late as 1974–75 nearly 3,000 children were taken away from their parents and into care simply because their parents were without a home. Some local authorities housed the homeless, others, as I remember, put them on a bus. Norwich ended up housing most of the homeless of Norfolk.

In 1977 the late and good Stephen Ross introduced his homelessness Bill which drew on Conservative Party drafting and Labour Government time. That 1977 Act required all housing authorities to house those who were vulnerable and not intentionally homeless. It provided the safety net for some of the most disadvantaged and fragile people in our society.

The 1977 Act was reviewed by Michael Heseltine in the early 1980s; it was consolidated by the Conservative Government in 1985; it was reviewed again by Nicholas Ridley and Chris Patten at the DoE in 1989 and at each point it was found to be working broadly satisfactorily. As Chris Patten said in 1989, We believe the Act remains important … the present terms of the Act strike a reasonable balance between the interests of the genuinely homeless and others in housing need". It concluded that current arrangements should, "remain in place".

That comment reflected a wise and humane all-party consensus; until now, when an ugly party conference in many ways made the homeless an easy political target and destroyed that consensus. The result is this Green Paper which asserts that there are grave shortcomings or "a growing belief" that there is abuse; that present methods of allocation are unfair; that homeless families jump the waiting list queue; that emergency homelessness should be met in future only by offering temporary help and that the private rented sector can and will house most families who now present themselves as homeless.

No evidence is offered for the truth of those assertions for the good reason that none exists. The AMA, the ADC and the Association of London Authorities—the major housing authorities—refuted them. Indeed, of 37 Tory shire districts whose responses we know as at 30th March, only one was in favour of the proposals; six had divided views and the remaining 28 were strongly opposed. One of them said, It is the opinion of this council that the proposals are generally ill conceived and if adopted they would cause unnecessary trauma to many families and individuals in genuine housing crisis". That was said by a Tory shire district—Suffolk Coastal, the constituency of the Secretary of State.

The professional institute of housing as of this afternoon continues to denounce the Green Paper, to say nothing of all the Churches, county councils, charities, housing associations, voluntary organisations, CABs, Shelter, MIND, the Spastics Society, Stonham, Age Concern, Barnardos, the Children's Society, the Law Society, who all insist that the proposals will worsen and not resolve homelessness. As the Catholic Housing Aid Society says: Legislation must address the long-term needs, not create them", as it believes these proposals will do.

It is sadly true that homelessness has doubled since the 1970s. More and poorer households are chasing a dwindling supply of socially rented housing. But the Green Paper thinks this is because the 1977 Act encourages homelessness by encouraging families to jump the queue—paragraph 2.7. Really? An increasing problem? Well, no, actually. The Minister has acknowledged that the number of homeless has fallen for the past seven quarters. If the homelessness route is as attractive as the Green Paper asserts, why is a reducing number of families using it? If the problem is diminishing, why change the law? But perhaps there is more abuse—families manipulating the system, as the Green Paper asserts in paragraph 2.9. Well, no, actually. Local authorities now have no duty to house those who intentionally make themselves homeless. If the Government believed that there was abuse they would tighten up the notion of intentionality. They are not proposing to do so precisely because there is not abuse. As the 1989 DoE review said: Despite anecdotes to the contrary there is little or no evidence of abuse". But perhaps the homeless are displacing equally deserving and needy people on the waiting list, as the Green Paper asserts in paragraph 2.6. Well, no, actually, As DoE research shows, only 29 per cent. of all council house allocations go to the statutory homeless. Crucially, the waiting time for a family now on the general waiting list is on average 1.8 years. In 1986 it was 1.7 years—almost exactly the same. If families on the waiting list are being housed at the same pace as always, how then can the statutory homeless be said to be displacing them?

It is of course true that the statutory homeless get: housed more quickly. But that is because their housing need is greater, as is the need of those in sub-standard housing or overcrowded housing or those with medical need. Is that unreasonable? Is the waiting list nonetheless a fairer way of allocating housing, as the Green Paper asserts in paragraph 2.4? Well, no, actually. Not according to the DoE itself, nor the Audit Commission, which for years has wisely advised local authorities not to rely on waiting lists as indicating housing need since, at any one time, under half of those on the list—43 per cent. at the last snapshot—actually want to be housed.

As for waiting lists, if the new proposed waiting list is simply in date order, the less needy will be housed ahead of the more needy. That is wrong. But if there is a points system then the homeless will be near the head of the queue, as now, and the proposals in the Green Paper will be redundant. Will the Minister please tell us what sort of waiting list he has in mind? One that is wrong, or one in which these proposals are redundant?

In any case, three-quarters of those housed as statutorily homeless are already on waiting lists. They are not different sorts of people. As the 1989 DoE study of homeless people concluded: In many local authorities, those who are homeless are simply people on the waiting list with nowhere to wait". Quite so, my Lords, quite so. Why then has homelessness increased? I chaired Norwich housing committee through the 1970s. Comparing the city's homelessness in 1977 before the Act and now, what has changed? Homelessness is still desperately traumatic: the result of a crisis; mortgage repossession; eviction, legal or illegal; marriage break-up. But there are striking differences between then and now. There are new pressures. Homelessness has come for some who have been discharged from long-stay hospitals as part of inadequate care in the community policies.

Sadly, a growing problem is domestic violence which has doubled as a cause of homelessness for women and children in my city. But above all, it is because homeless families are being evicted from the private rented sector. There were only a handful in my city in the 1970s, but now they are over a quarter of all our homeless. They have come from six-month short-hold tenancies and in any dispute with the landlord over rent or repairs, tenants are now powerless to retain their homes past the six months.

As regards housing for rent, together with adequate funding for care in the community, for the support of refuges and the increase in security of tenure in the private sector, these measures will usefully reduce homelessness. Is that what the Green Paper proposes? On the contrary; it says and does nothing about why people are homeless. It merely cuts the help which they will get. It makes rationing more stringent rather reducing the need for rationing in the first place.

Under these proposals, local authorities will aid not those who will become homeless in order to prevent it, but only those who are already roofless. As the Victorians said, it puts an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff when what is needed is a fence at the top. Any accommodation, however temporary, such as staying with a friend, will rule them out. If they are homeless and get emergency help, that will not mean a permanent roof, but merely temporary shelter. That temporary housing itself will largely be found in the private rented sector which is the very sector, incidentally, which has created much of the homelessness which it is now supposed to resolve.

What are the implications? Perhaps I may cite a very typical family and not an extreme case of hardship. It is a family which I knew in my ward in Norwich. It concerns a middle-aged couple living with their son in work and their daughter at school in a three-bedroomed council house. Their married, elder daughter had to give up her home when she and her husband could not keep up the mortgage. They had nowhere to live. So he went back, temporarily, to live with his parents and she, with their two small children, to hers—the three of them moving into the middle bedroom occupied by her brother in the past.

Separated, the couple's marriage began to crack. Meanwhile her brother had now to sleep on the sitting room sofa. Her mother's nerves began to suffer. The children reverted to bed-wetting; and the teenage daughter started staying out late at night. Stress and misery mounted. We rehoused her and her husband, and both families began to heal. Under these proposals, she would have a roof over her head but we could not rehouse her. Her parents would have to remove her by court order and those families would probably fracture. Does anyone believe that family or friends would help out for a few weeks in future if they then had to go to court to regain possession of their home? Yet if she had left her parents without a court order, she and her children would not in future be helped. What then? Would it be "Cathy Come Home" again?

One of the most chilling things about a chilling Green Paper is that the welfare of children is never considered. Indeed, children are not even mentioned. I believe that the word "child" or "children" appears once in a summary of the 1985 legislation. Their pain is air-brushed out. The Children Act 1989 is blandly ignored. How can we do this?

There are not only children but other vulnerable groups such as those living in refuges and the halfway houses of the Churches and voluntary organisations. They too will be refused help if they have a roof over their heads until they have served their time on the list. Because they cannot move out and on, other frail people in the community cannot in turn be helped and moved in. It all silts up and "care in the community" becomes even more of an empty phrase.

Even if homeless families are eligible for housing, the Green Paper says that should be in the private rented sector. Private renting makes sense for the young, mobile and childless, but most homeless families have children—although they are ignored in the Green Paper. Most homeless families are unemployed and on benefit. Many are from ethnic minorities or have special needs. Private landlords do not want them. We have all seen the adverts that read, "No DSS claimants". As the OPCS 1991 figures show, 10 per cent. of private tenants have experienced harassment.

The private rented sector is not a suitable sector for the vulnerable. It is of poor quality. A fifth of its dwellings are unfit according to the English House Condition Survey. The dwellings are in short supply, with fewer such units than in 1981, and it is hard to enter. It requires several hundred pounds of deposit and rent in advance. Think of a mother in a 'phone booth, Evening Standard in one hand, l0p coins in the other, two children at her feet and having to trail across London not once, not 10 times but perhaps 20 times to find a flat ! Private renting is costly. The average council rent is £30; the average housing association rent is £45 —but the average private rent is £105 per week. That drives up the housing benefit bill, which has already increased by £3 billion in 1992 alone to cover private sector rents, and it exports costs on to the DSS. How then can the DSS cap its budget except by cutting housing benefit for all families?

Worse still, in 40 per cent. of cases rent officers now fix ceilings for housing benefit that are well below the actual rent charged—£29 per week on average in London—and the homeless family on income support has to find the difference somewhere, somehow and does it by getting into arrears or debt, whereupon the family is evicted, again, because private rented tenancies are insecure. The six-month shorthold therefore means, for the most fragile, a revolving door, a cycle of placements which disrupts the family, uproots the children, interrupts their schooling and adds to their misery. A homeless family, already under intense strain, needs stability and security to rebuild their lives. That is what the 1977 Act, consolidated in 1985, offered. This Green Paper will exacerbate their stress and, I fear, turn homeless families into broken families.

At the core of the problem is a shortage of social housing to rent. Selling off a quarter of all council houses on the one hand while simultaneously cutting the building programme, which is down from over 100,000 units a year to around 30,000 a year now, guarantees a housing crisis—a crisis of rationing. The homeless are being forced to compete with the waiting list simply because the supply of social housing has been deliberately reduced.

What is new is that the homeless are blamed for the lack of housing, just as those on invalidity benefit are blamed for being sick and the unemployed are blamed for having no jobs. Having first made social housing scarce, the Government are now seeking to make it harder for the most desperate, the homeless, to gain access to it.

Let me give the last word to the Department of the Environment itself. As the review stated in 1989, referring to those classed as statutory homeless: That the number has been increasing is cause for concern, but this is not evidence that the legislation is inadequate or local authorities performance ineffective—rather the reverse". Quite so. If your Lordships share the view that the DoE held in 1989, you will be asking the DoE in 1994 not to proceed with the proposals in this chilling Green Paper.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, perhaps I may thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for introducing this important and timely debate—timely because we are debating the issue after the responses to the Government's Green Paper and we can properly ask them for a response to those comments. I shall do so tonight. We could talk all night about the issues raised in the Green Paper, but I do not propose to go down that path.

There are two questions at the heart of the debate. The first is to ask the Minister for a commitment that the Government are treating this consultation as a genuine consultation; in other words, that they are listening and will act accordingly. The second is to ask the Government to address the issue of supply—supply because the question of priority, of how to meet demand, would not be an issue if sufficient affordable accommodation were available.

I wondered what the Conservative manifesto for the last general election said. I looked up the index. I thought that the issue of homelessness would be in the section headed "Opportunity for All". That was not so. In fact it comes under the heading "A Brighter Britain". Half of that section is about home ownership, and the part on meeting housing need is largely about improving local authority housing. The issues are important. Of course tenant management and the improvement of stock are vital, but there was little in that quite thick document about affordable housing and homelessness.

The manifesto did, I must acknowledge, have the grace to admit that there is a need to bring into use empty properties owned by central and local government. Your Lordships will have seen the reports in today's press about the research for the Joseph Rowntree Trust on the number of homes standing empty, which in England has grown by a quarter in the past 10 years, while the number of households recognised as homeless has doubled.

Local authorities have reduced their stock of empty houses from 114,000 to 70,000. With 1.9 per cent. of their houses empty, they are described by the report as being England's least wasteful landlords. The number of empty homes in the private sector has risen by over one third. It is well known that central government, with their substantial housing stock, are one of the worst offenders in leaving housing vacant.

I turn now to the Green Paper. Some of the premises upon which it is based are questionable. The noble Baroness referred to the private rented sector. I share the wish that there should be a greater private sector contribution to reducing homelessness, but is that a realistic proposition? May not an upturn in the private rented sector be due to the current depressed owner-occupier market? There have been huge fluctuations in the property market over the past few years. The private sector is fragile. I do riot believe that we should be building a policy on a sector whose permanence is not proven.

The CML has warned that the very use of the sector as an alternative to mainstream social housing is likely to deter potential investors. That may be for the sad reason that there are negative, stereotyped views about homeless people as tenants, but I believe that its comments are realistic. In any event, rent levels in the private sector are not generally affordable. It caters predominantly for single people and for sharers, not for families.

Shelter, in a typically robust response to the consultation, has expressed concern that homeless families will be directed to a more expensive sector which it says presents two specific problems: High rents place homeless families in a vicious poverty trap". I quote the words of that organisation, and it should know. It continues: According to the Department's own figures, more than 80 per cent. of homeless applicants are eligible for housing benefit to meet the rent. In many cases, if someone in the household gets a job the problem of affordability becomes acute as housing benefit is withdrawn at the rate of 65p for each pound of increased income". I continue to quote from the. Shelter response: A second and increasingly common difficulty concerns the restriction of housing benefit by local authorities. Under Regulation 11 … local authorities have a duty to restrict housing benefit if they consider the rent to be unreasonably high, or the accommodation unreasonably large". It is invariably the tenant who has to meet the shortfall. In 1992–93, 29 per cent. of private tenants whose rents were referred to the rent officer had them reduced for housing benefit purposes.

I refer also to the response of the National Federation of Housing Associations. It refers to forthcoming research which confirms that the match, or mismatch, between supply and housing need varies enormously up and down the country. Its figures suggest that the phenomenon of homeless households dominating access to social housing in some areas stems from regional imbalances between need and supply and not from abuse of the present homelessness system.

It refers also to the supply of private rented dwellings. The consultation paper states that there are 800,000 empty private sector homes and implies that these can be brought into use instead of building new homes. But, as the NFHA states, unfortunately there is no evidence to give confidence in the assumption that substantial numbers of properties will be available. It rightly states that the paper does not address the practical problems that such an initiative would face.

It gives three examples. The first is the relationship between the distribution of dwellings arid the distribution of need. The second is the willingness of private landlords to make the stock available, in particular given anxiety about the future availability of housing benefit. The third is the suitability of stock, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The results of the English House Conditions Survey suggest that much of the vacant private sector stock is in very poor condition.

The provision of stock as between local authorities and housing associations—which should supply—is not a matter in respect of which I have a particular political hang-up but it is an issue which is riddled with political dogma and quite proper political concern. From the start there have been warnings that the right-to-buy scheme must be accompanied by the replacement of stock. I know that the Government hate local authorities having a capital base and that that is one of the reasons why there have been restrictions on the spending of capital receipts from the sale of local authority housing. But one of the pieces of economic logic that this has produced is that opportunities to create both jobs and houses have been lost.

I turn to the proposals to change the system. The question has been asked about whether there is a need. Many respondents have referred to DoE research. It shows that 74 per cent. of those rehoused as homeless had in any event been on the council's waiting list. In other words, there are not competing groups. Is there evidence of widespread abuse? Is there evidence that different categories of household are treated unfairly? I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity of producing that evidence tonight.

The Government's stated objective of ensuring that subsidised housing is equally available to all who genuinely need it is particularly, for couples seeking to establish a good home in which to start and raise a family". That is an admirable objective but, I fear, is in moralistic, judgmental language which I do not find helpful. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, it is reminiscent of the debates at last year's Conservative Party conference.

But what will be the effect on families? Proposals that somebody who is asked to leave by his family or friends is no longer automatically entitled to assistance and legislation which requires a court order to prove that family members cannot live together are likely to be divisive and will hardly unite members of a family. In the stressful situations which underlie those applications, support and keeping the family together may actually mean helping members of the family to live in separate accommodation.

There have been many comments about the need to consider housing in the broader social context. It is quite extraordinary that there is no mention in the paper of the community care legislation or the Children Act which introduced powers and duties to keep families together and to avoid children being taken into care. It does not require a great deal of imagination to see the effect if applicants must be literally roofless before they can qualify.

What about the victims of domestic violence? My noble friend Lord Russell will refer to refuges for women and their children who are such victims. It must be obvious that refuges, which are already full, will not be able to assist future applicants if there is no turnover of their own residents.

What about those who are forced to sleep rough? I spoke today to Shelter Nightline and it tells me that the demand has increased substantially. Indeed, over the past week it has been unable to find accommodation for 30 people, compared with 20 in the whole of February.

The purpose of the Government's rough sleepers initiative was to make it unnecessary to sleep rough in London. The agencies have seen the problems coming with the closure of cold weather hostels and the RSI hostel closures without permanent accommodation coming on stream. I take this opportunity to ask the Government to acknowledge the need for an urgent review of that initiative.

I make a personal plea to the Government that they should consider reviewing their use of language. I find "rough sleepers" a most distasteful term. They are, first, people, and, secondly, they are people who find themselves sleeping rough.

Removing the "cost" of homelessness and replacing it with a substantial burden through social services provision will not solve the desperate problems which are experienced in many parts of the country. The detailed proposals in the paper have provoked many expert, detailed and thoughtful responses. I may have missed those which support the paper. No doubt the Minister will tell us if there is support. By that I mean general support and not merely support for some of the more narrow proposals such as the amalgamation of the local authority and housing association waiting lists. In many places that is dealt with quite separately and those agencies do not need to be told how to behave by the Government. The Government have had since the middle of March to consider those responses and by now they will certainly know the balance of the reaction.

In summary, I believe that these proposals will do nothing to lessen the socially and emotionally damaging reality of homelessness for many thousands of people. We do not need changes in definitions or in responsibilities; we need a change in attitude towards social housing. The proposals will deprive homeless people of the existing statutory guarantee of a secure, affordable home. They do not provide an adequate safety net for people in acute housing need. Little will be gained by introducing a system which may bring more perceived fairness to the allocations process if that in itself undermines the principle of providing homes for vulnerable people.

It must be said that this is yet another centralising measure by a Government who cannot bear to allow local discretion, even by local authorities run by members of their own party. The Government seek to justify their proposals by claiming that homeless people are jumping the queue and being housed ahead of families on the waiting list who are in worse conditions. It ill becomes the Government to blame the queuers; they should shorten the queue. Again, I ask the Government to show that they do know the meaning of consultation and that they are mature enough to acknowledge that the paper is misconceived and to thank the respondents for demonstrating that that is so. Otherwise, this will be a very sad memorial to the late Stephen Ross, so soon after his death. As the noble Baroness said—and, indeed, as other speakers will say —his Bill was a landmark in dealing with the problems of homelessness. It should not be overturned in the way proposed.

11 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry

My Lords, my immediate reaction to the consultation paper can be summed up in the pithy phrase of an old Scottish friend of ours who talks about people "improving worse". That is exactly how I should like to summarise it. I feel compelled to voice something of the widespread and universal concern about the proposals which I have been picking up all over my own diocese and throughout the country.

I know that that concern is felt by the Churches and Church bodies overwhelmingly and also by secular voluntary bodies engaged in seeking to help the homeless families and, above all, the children. I can assure Her Majesty's Government that anyone involved with homeless families would want to make a plea on their behalf to reconsider the proposals radically and totally. I genuinely believe that they would represent a serious backward step for a civilised, humane society to make.

Of course, one must welcome the aim of a decent home within the reach of every family and, I would add, within the reach of every household. I recognise a benign intention here and there, amidst what seems otherwise to be a remote and forbidding document, balancing the demands of groups of people, adjudicating between the needs of households in allocating a sadly scarce resource and trying to do so by ingenious rejigging of the problem and the changing of definitions at the expense of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

That is not the way forward. The only way, as has already been said, is by ensuring an adequate supply of decent, affordable housing to everyone. Her Majesty's Government supported the Housing Corporation in its reconstruction of new dwellings and in the rehabilitation of run-down properties. However, they continue to cut the level of the housing grant. That, itself, limits the ability of housing associations to provide. I have seen evidence of that only recently. There is no sign of property owners responding to the new 1988 Housing Act provisions. Even if they do, good reasons have already been stated—to which I could certainly add—for us not putting our faith in the private sector. I appeal to the Government to allow councils to build new homes for rent, especially where the demand for such housing is high.

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 is, indeed, a landmark for all of us who are concerned about the situation. We look back on it, as other speakers have said, as an Act which established a framework which needs developing and which can only really be consolidated by the provision of new stock and an opening up of more houses to people.

It is disingenuous of the paper to try to deny the desperate need actually to build new homes, referring to the environment in that rather mealy-mouthed way, or to resort to a costly, often arbitrary and exploitative private sector. I have seen the suffering of families closely at first hand among private landlords. Homelessness has tripled since 1977. We are considering vulnerable and needy families and children, some of whom I personally know.

Research shows the importance for children to have a stable setting. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, there is very little reference to children in the document. That is part of its strange remoteness which, as I said, I found quite forbidding and daunting. There is no hint of the shattering of relationships, the shifting of schooling and the stress on parents to which many such provisions or limitations—for that is what is really involved—would lead. The proposals would have the opposite effect to what one might hope.

Families claiming to be homeless will now have to wait while inquiries are made. What happens while that is going on? That is not stated. Accommodation may well be provided for a limited time only. A drastic sense of insecurity comes through the pages of the document. There is no suggestion that temporary accommodation will be provided until permanent accommodation is secured, for instance, and I find the reference to a fixed period or limit sinister. The document seems to evoke a spectre of delays leaving families with children roofless for one or more nights and a vision of children sleeping on the streets or being admitted to local authority care. If this seems over-dramatic or exaggerated, I can only say that that is the impression which comes through the lines of the document.

Meanwhile it is difficult for any local authority to establish a need quickly enough or to assess the likely stress that will be experienced by families or friends in the search for permanent accommodation, or to assess how easy it will be for families to find permanent accommodation. We shall be confronted with private rented, costly, poor quality provision and more people will be dependent upon housing benefit. Above all, there is no real, strong, central emphasis on a permanent home with built-in safeguards. Above all, there is no suggestion that people will be kept in the locality where they need to be, or that children will not be torn from their families, their schooling, their doctor, the health service or their relationships. No overriding family needs have been taken into account in this document. The proposals would seem to deny homeless families in many places any access to permanent accommodation. The proposals seem to achieve the opposite of what they set out to achieve in that they set up the homeless in a most unhelpful way to compete with couples seeking to establish first homes.

I can see our hostels and temporary provision for families —I am personally involved with that provision —silting up in exactly the same way as has been described, because once families have any kind of accommodation provided they cease to be the responsibility of the local authority. Indeed there is a kind of encouragement to local authorities to abdicate responsibility for homeless families. The duty of local authorities in this regard is restricted to providing temporary short-term accommodation or to relying upon an ordinary waiting list which may not be accessible to many of the urgent homeless.

The views that I have voiced are shared by many others. There is a mistaken assumption that demand for new lettings can be met almost exclusively from the private sector. Many of us are beginning to fear for the state of the family in the most vulnerable sectors of our community where it is subject to so much disruption. The Rowntree Foundation has, in addition to examining housing issues, demonstrated how children whose families undergo disruption and changes of the kind that I have described are suffering from health problems and a lack of self-esteem. They suffer from all kinds of difficulties. The Children's Society has a mass of evidence of dreadful bedsitters, rented accommodation, disgusting conditions and unsuitable landlords. A picture comes to mind of a shifting and vulnerable section of our population which needs to be cared for in a different way. The document concentrates too much on toughening criteria and on reducing such slender rights as people have in this area. The proposals seem to address the problem from a bland distance and treat the people concerned as if they were not part of society and as if they were a different race. Surely we long for a society in Britain in which the least matter the most and in which those most at risk are those whom we specially care for and for a society in which the children in greatest need will be allocated the greatest resources. I can see no evidence of a plan for such a society in this document.

Housing runs through society like a luminous thread revealing all its injustices, hurts, sorrows and needs in their darkest form. The only way to begin to tackle this problem is not to alter definitions and rules in a way which leads more human beings to be exposed to insecurity and suffering, but to provide substantial help to build affordable and accessible homes and so to begin to build for a really better and brighter future for us all. I appeal to Her Majesty's Government to withdraw this paper and to think this matter right through again from the beginning.

11.09 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, is to be congratulated on asking this most important Question today.

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, while acknowledging the legitimate claims of statutory homeless to permanent accommodation, is nevertheless aware of the very real hardship faced by other groups. One of the most acute needs is that of single homeless people, who have no entitlement to accommodation. The CAB does not consider that the proposals outlined in the consultation paper will ensure fairer access to local authority or housing association tenancies. The present homelessness legislation seems already to provide stringent tests which ensure that only households in greatest need have a priority claim on permanent social housing. These include households with children, elderly or otherwise vulnerable people.

It has been found that single people in rural areas as well as in towns find that they are unable to overcome the difficulties of obtaining affordable rented accommodation in the private sector. This apparently has recently been exacerbated by difficulties faced by landlords to obtain insurance for properties let to claimants. Would the Minister not agree that there is something wrong here, and perhaps it should be looked into? Otherwise surely the accommodation situation will get worse rather than better.

Centrepoint, the charity for housing young people at risk, says that around 62 per cent. of the young people it assists come direct from their families, other relatives or friends. One-third come from friends alone. Young people move from place to place until they have exhausted all their options. The provision of short-term assistance by friends and other relatives provides a valuable safety net for young people. If the proposals in the consultation paper are implemented to eliminate young people evicted by their family there will be a real danger that they will fall through the safety net.

One other point of concern is the amount of discretion that would be given to local authorities. Centrepoint has researched into how the Children Act was being implemented and found that because of the discretionary nature of the Act some local authorities were not carrying out their duties to assist children in need. It appears that the majority of homeless young people, including care leavers, were not being provided with accommodation. I wonder why this is happening when local authorities have a statutory duty to provide such assistance under the Children Act 1989. Surely homeless young people, and particularly those very vulnerable young people who have left care, are a priority need. Can the Minister say how the Government plan to ensure that local authorities tend to the needs of these very vulnerable young people?

MENCAP is very concerned that many people assume that people with learning disabilities or mental handicap are looked after under the community care heading. I wish I could be confident of that. Perhaps the Minister could tell me that I can be.

Many people who suffer from learning disabilities live at home with their families. They therefore, by definition, have a home. Community care will provide residential homes for those with intensive support needs often only when parents become ill or die and there is a crisis. But what happens to those whose parents have become old and tired but are still trying to manage? Their son or daughter could best be provided for by their own tenancy, with their parents' continued interest and some professional support. It would appear that most community care priority lists will exclude these people as not being in an immediate crisis. They will not be on a housing list, but they are homeless in the sense of not having a home appropriate to their needs but having a roof over their heads. Therefore they would seem to fail the new test. If they should pass the new test, since they are dependent but not highly dependent, they seem to face the prospect of many short-term arrangements rather than a permanent home, which could add to their problems.

Could the Minister say in respect of people with learning disabilities who will need a home of their own one day, whether they should be put on the housing waiting list as soon as they leave school? If he is unable to answer this tonight perhaps he would write to me.

This is the International Year of the Family and attention is focused on policies to promote family life. The first step towards this is surely as permanent a home as possible so that the children will not have the stress of moving schools, having to make new friends, and the family will still have the same social work support and other welfare provision. Let us hope that this International Year of the Family will bring about less homelessness and a more stable family life.

11.15 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, in a civilised society, homelessness is a sign of failure and so I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hollis for alerting me to the Government's consultation paper that we are discussing this evening. Sadly and surprisingly, the paper proposes a radical watering down of the existing homelessness legislation.

For example, it suggests that the so-called permanent housing duty owed to those who are homeless and in priority need should he restricted to merely securing accommodation for a limited period. It recommends that even this temporary duty should only be offered to those without any form of current temporary accommodation whatsoever, and only if, in the local authority's view, there is no suitable alternative accommodation available in the region.

The consultation paper also proposes to water down the emergency, or interim, housing duty. The new temporary duty will operate only after a local authority has made all its inquiries and decided whether an applicant meets all the criteria. And, in the case of someone who has been asked to leave by family or friends, an authority might be entitled to refuse any help until it is presented with a possession order.

These are the major changes recommended in the consultation paper. According to the paper, they are justified because the homelessness legislation creates, a perverse incentive for people to have themselves accepted by a local authority as homeless". In short, the statutory homeless are said to be jumping the housing queue. As my noble friend Lady Hollis said, where is the evidence for that? Perhaps the Minister can tell us. Nowhere in the document is there any evidence to support this claim. Indeed, as is so often the case with this Government, recent research conducted by their own officials suggests quite the opposite conclusion.

Routes into Local Authority Housing is a study of local authority waiting lists and new tenancies published by the Department of the Environment at the same time as the consultation paper. This study shows that those facing the more urgent and desperate housing needs are re-housed more rapidly by local authorities, whether or not they are homeless. Indeed, there is some evidence in this research that becoming homeless is far from being the fast track to an ideal council home that the Government allege.

The pressure on local authority housing is well known. The number of secure lettings available to new tenants has declined over the past decade. On the other hand, the number of households accepted as homeless has more than doubled over the past 10 years. Yet, in 1992–93, as other noble Lords have mentioned, only 29 per cent. of secure local authority lets were allocated to the homeless, with the remainder going to waiting list and transfer applicants.

So it does not follow that the homeless are automatically housed ahead of those on the waiting list. In 1990, about 140,000 households were accepted as homeless by local authorities, and only half were re-housed in secure lets. Finding accommodation for only half the households accepted as homeless hardly supports the claim that those on the waiting list in urgent need but not homeless are being pushed behind the homeless in the queue.

The research also shows another major reason why those in more urgent and desperate circumstances are likely to be re-housed more rapidly. They are less choosy about where they are prepared to live and more likely to accept an offer. Of those on the waiting list who described their need as urgent, six out of 10 were prepared to live almost anywhere, compared with two out of every 10 of those who were looking to be housed in the future. Of those who were made an offer, people with a more urgent need were four times more likely to accept it than people with a less urgent need. That distorts the statistics.

The Government's own research shows, then, that their claims about queue jumping are not supported by the facts. The proposals in the consultation paper therefore have little to do with ensuring fairer access to local authority and housing association homes. If they had, they would look honestly at the root cause of the problem, which is the demonstrable need for decent, affordable housing. Instead, the Government blame the victims, who are the homeless, and continue their prejudiced attack on local authority housing.

Finally, the paper makes brief reference in paragraph 2.3 to the environment, and implies that building too many public and housing association dwellings could use up too much of our scarce natural resources. It is a measure of the uneven balance of the paper that it is careful not to apply this argument to the private sector also. Present and future generations will certainly not thank us if we fail to devote enough of our scarce natural resources to producing enough dwellings.

I hope that the Minister will recycle the consultation paper, and that a new version will emerge that takes account of the Government's own research and the comments and proposals that have been made in this debate.

11.21 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, for introducing this topic I do not merely make the conventional utterance. I am particularly grateful to her for starting a debate on a subject on which one was needed very badly indeed.

I remember when I was in my twenties reading an interview with my late noble friend Lord Grimond. He said that he had made it his policy never to express a stronger feeling on any issue than he actually had. That struck me as a good principle, and I have tried to follow it. But sometimes—and this is an extreme example—I have found it much more difficult to pretend to have an opinion less strong than I actually do for the sake of the decencies of debate.

This is a particularly back-handed tribute to my late noble friend Lord Ross of Newport. The matter has not been more than touched on so far, but it would also be disastrous to the future of the growing movement for women's refuges. I put this issue first because it is one that I think I can discuss on an all-party basis. It is a subject on which I have had much kindness and understanding from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, who was responsible for it before her. Refuges are vital, not only for the safety of women who are victims of domestic violence but also to their chances of rehabilitation, of getting back into normal life and regular employment.

I do not think that there is any particular desire in these proposals to put an end to women's refuges. The Government were simply thinking about something else. But the whole thrust of the proposals, and a lot of particular paragraphs, are entirely incompatible with the nature and purpose of women's refuges. I refer in particular to paragraph 10.1, which requires a local connection. I understand the point of that connection in normal homelessness. But it is essential to a woman who is fleeing from domestic violence that she should go where she cannot be pursued or recognised. That means that to be safe she must be outside her local authority area. Since local authorities are very resistant to housing people from outside their area, it is particularly important that there should be a specific duty to women in that situation and indeed to ensuring the provision of refuges within the area.

There must also be an exemption from paragraphs 8.1 and 8.3 about people not being homeless if they are required to leave. If they are required to leave at the end of a boot, bleeding severely, one cannot regard that framework as applicable.

There is a real need for an exemption from paragraph 5.2, which states that the local authority has no duty until an assessment has been carried out. When it happens—as it has done in the local refuge in the area from which I come —that a woman arrives in her nightdress at three o'clock in the morning bleeding severely, one cannot ask her to wait while an assessment is carried out. Something has to be done.

There should also be an exemption from paragraph 3.4, which excludes refugees. I do not believe that sending back a woman in that situation is the kind of thing that one should do to anyone whatsoever.

There also has to be an exemption for women's refuges from paragraph 6.1, which states that the homeless are entitled to temporary accommodation only. The danger of silting up has already been touched on. But it is also true that women who have to leave their area, contacts or any friends through whom a vengeful husband might track them lose their whole support systems. If they are to get back into regular life, they need permanent accommodation. I shall confine myself to asking the Government whether they will consult those in the Home Office who are responsible for women's refuges and ask them what they think about the impact of these proposals on refugees.

However, I cannot speak any more warmly of the proposals as a whole. In fact, they have some claim to be regarded as the worst government proposals since the poll tax. That is not just because of their inhumanity; it is also because of their immense cost, most of which will fall, as usual, on the unfortunate Department of Social Security. People know that I am prepared to spend public money for good reason. But to one who regards public money as water in the desert, it is offensive to see it run into the sand.

What has happened is that there has been a diminution of supply. Since 1981, the amount of family-size rented social housing has diminished by 21 per cent. As there is a falling supply, inevitably an increased share of what there is goes to the homeless. It is very much as though on Thursdays we had only two Starred Questions instead of four. The resentment against whoever gets the topical Question would be rather greater than it is. But the problem would not be caused by the topical Question. It would be caused by the reduction in the number of untopical questions.

In fact, those on the waiting list and the homeless are not altogether different groups. Some 74 per cent. of those homeless in 1989 had been on the waiting list. In 1979, the Department of the Environment described the homeless as, simply people on the waiting list with nowhere to wait". In 1989, the Department of the Environment was not in the hands of raging Left-wingers. It is a good illustration of how difficult it is for this Government to go on with the line of "no turning back". If one goes on to the Right from the late Lord Ridley of Liddesdale one tends to go out of sight.

The difference is not that extreme. Those who are homeless take, on average, 0.7 years to obtain permanent housing, compared with 1.2 years for those who are simply on the waiting list. And the waiting list is not just a queue; it is and has always been a points system. In that context I do not believe that that difference is unreasonable.

The Department of the Environment's press release said that homelessness was becoming increasingly "attractive". If I were redrafting the test for mental illness for incapacity benefits, I might well include in it the question, "Do you find homelessness attractive?" If the answer were "Yes", I would regard that as much better evidence of mental illness than can be obtained from many of the questions that are asked. This really is the doctrine of perverse incentive taking off into Cloud-cuckoo-land. One cannot help wondering whether they reduced criminal injuries compensation because they were afraid that it was a perverse incentive to get oneself raped or mugged.

It is proposed to deal with the problem by cutting out the homeless from the waiting lists for permanent accommodation. It is a little like 1066 and All That's description of the Zulu war. Cause: Zulus; Zulus exterminated: peace with Zulus. In using that example I must say that I hope that history is not about to repeat itself.

It leaves us also with the question of what happens to the entitlement to permanent accommodation of the 74 per cent. of the homeless who were on the waiting list. If, because they have become homeless, they are to be deprived of the priority to permanent accommodation that they had beforehand, it really will be adding injury to Insult. I hope that that is not the intention of the proposals.

The redefinition of "homelessness" is also rather curious. Anyone who is asked to leave by friends or family will now not be classed as homeless. That really is a perverse incentive. Suppose when I am 90 and am in a small flat, one of my sons becomes repossessed and asks me for shelter. If I give it to him I will permanently deprive him of his chance of being rehoused. I am being put under a perverse incentive to turn him away. Is that the way to keep families together? I cannot see it.

Under paragraph 8.3 the local authority is asked whether the people involved could continue to live together without "undue strain". I wonder whether they have any idea what they are taking on. Domestic hatred is usually concentrated on the most apparently irrational things. I do not see how anybody can come in from outside and assess it without going away with at best a bloody nose. I quoted that last night to my wife, who said that if anyone were to come to her and ask her such questions, she would slam the door in their face.

That provokes me to ask, will there be any duty to co-operate with the local authority when it turns up attempting to make this assessment? Nothing like this has been tried since the Church courts before the Civil War when they used to deal with judicial separation cases. It left us with a case like the one in which it was said that the couple were so unhappy that nothing but the power of religion could make them live as man and wife. The local authority is not equipped with the power of religion. It is being put into a situation with which it really cannot cope, and if that paragraph is not cut out, there will be murder committed.

We are told also that there is to be no duty until the local authority has carried out an assessment. That reminds me of the Englishman who dropped his hat down a well. He arranged for an Irishman who was with him to hold on to the top of the well; a Welshman should hold on to the Irishman; the Englishman should hold on to the Welshman and he could just reach the hat. But just as he reached for it, the Irishman exclaimed, "Hold on nah while I spit on me hands". So, of course, they all ended at the bottom of the well. What are people going to do while this assessment is being carried out? They will have to go somewhere else, and what they do there may not be honest. If this goes ahead the Government may find themselves labelled "Fagin's factor" and "pimp's pander". Those are not enviable titles. The Government really should think twice before seeking them.

Under paragraphs 6.1 and 6.6 of the Green Paper we are told that accommodation for the homeless shall be temporary only and at the same time that the duty could recur. The homeless are being made into sort of Flying Dutchmen. They are being perpetually recycled. This is where the cost comes in, and most of it will fall on the Department of Social Security. It costs on average £14.24 a week more in housing benefit to house privately than with the local authority. It is a lot harder to get a job from temporary accommodation, especially out of your own area, so there will be another large addition to the bill for income support. We do not need to increase that bill. There will also be a considerable addition to ill health, which is common in temporary accommodation. The Crisis survey this Christmas, reported in the Independent on 8th March, found an alarming increase in TB. In fact among the homeless it was found to be nearly 200 times more prevalent than in the general population. A representative of the Public Health Laboratory Service said: There is a danger of it becoming epidemic in hostel conditions. Hostels with poor ventilation create conditions which are absolutely right for transmitting the disease, as we have seen in New York". TB is an expensive illness. The Government are pickling another rod for the Chancellor of the Exchequer's back. I really do not think he needs any more.

The local authority is being given a discretion which creates a conflict of interest. The local authority is under very severe pressure because of shortage of housing, so it is being given a discretion which it has every incentive to use against the claimant. That is likely to lead to more judicial review; and that means more cost. It will cause a great deal of difficulty for schooling. A succession of temporary placements is very hard to combine with regular schooling. In fact, before the Government go ahead, I really would advise them to read the famous speech of the noble Lord, Lord Joseph, on the cycle of deprivation. I have not always agreed 'with the noble Lord, Lord Joseph, but he is a person whose ideas one has to take seriously. On this occasion, I very much hope that the Government will take those ideas seriously.

But what is to be done instead? Obviously we must look to supply. This is not only a matter of building —on that I do agree with the Government. Et is a matter perhaps of help with repairs; it is a matter of help with deposits; it is a matter of trying to get housing benefit to cover the whole of the rent, because if it does not, as many of us have explained, one simply sends the Flying Dutchman round the cycle again.

I wrote to Sir George Young just after Christmas to ask whether he would consider the proposal in the Shelter/NACAB report to allow a level of housing benefit to be fixed and a certificate to be given before a tenancy begins. That would suit the landlord. He would know what he was getting. It would suit the tenant. It would give him security. But the reply I received was as follows: An important principle of the deregulation measures introduced in the Housing Act 1988 is that a landlord and tenant should be free to negotiate the terms and rent of the tenancy without interference. Any prior rent fixing might be interpreted as leading the market". So, for the sake of an abstract principle, they are inflicting hardship on both parties. It makes me understand how my father felt in 1920 when he met Lenin and asked him why, in the middle of a famine, he did not allow catching fish in the river Moskva. Lenin said that he feared that this might encourage private enterprise. It is that same hard, ideological note that I hear here.

I do not usually go in for rhetoric, but these proposals have the breadth of vision of a rhinoceros, the sense of direction of a lemming, the perception of an ostrich and the financial prudence of Lambeth Borough Council and I hope we hear no more of them.

11.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, despite the hour, this has proved a welcome opportunity to give this important and very topical subject our attention and we have had interesting contributions from all parts of the Chamber. There is much for the Government to reflect on here.

The Government are clear that the prime responsibility for establishing and maintaining a home rests with the individual or family concerned. The role of the state is to assist in this, not to lead. We want to encourage owner occupation wherever it is appropriate. Where renting is the proper solution, we want to make best use of both the public and private sector to meet the housing needs of different sections of the community.

From this flows the central theme of our proposals. It is the introduction of a fairer system of access to local authority and housing association tenancies. Were it not for this objective, we would not trouble to make these proposals. And it is from this objective that there follows the need to alter the present homelessness legislation so that it ceases to be a fast track into council and housing association tenancies. So while much of the debate has been about homelessness and how the homeless would fare under our proposals, we have to see that in the context of the proposals as a whole.

Local authorities have two functions in the provision of housing. One is as provider of last resort. The other is of gatekeeper for the queue seeking a long-term tenancy in social housing. Under the present régime these proposals have become confused. There is no good reason why those who are found to be statutorily homeless within the meaning of present legislation and who are then given temporary but adequate housing should also have priority in access to social housing ahead of others who may be living in more difficult conditions.

Consider the case of two families living in similar rented accommodation who find that their landlord is seeking repossession. On the one hand, family A go straight to the local authority and apply for assistance under the homelessness legislation. They are initially given temporary accommodation in a private rented sector property found for them by the local authority and then as soon as possible they are given the tenancy for life of a council or housing association property. Family B, on the other hand, prefer to try to fend for themselves if possible. They find a property in the private rented sector, possibly no different to that used by family A, on a temporary basis, and they put their name on a waiting list—or indeed several waiting lists in the locality—for local authority or housing association tenancies. But it is in the nature of the present system that they can only get re-housed after family A has been offered accommodation. Can this really be right?

By proposing to break the existing link between assisting homeless people and the allocation of tenancies for life, we are proposing a system that is fairer for everyone. We are not turning our backs on homeless people. Throughout the consultation period Ministers have made it quite clear that we are committed to ensuring that there will continue to be a full safety net for families and vulnerable people that ensures accommodation would be available to those who have lost their home through no fault of their own. I hope that the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, understands that point. There is certainly no question of families being split up or of children having to sleep on the streets. I make that point strongly to the right reverend Prelate. Your Lordships have our assurance on that. I hope that we will have no more alarmist propaganda on this subject.

Equally, there is no question of families being given only very short-term or insecure accommodation when an authority has a duty towards them. We have not yet reached any conclusion on how a new duty to secure accommodation might be formulated, but I can assure your Lordships that we envisage that authorities would be able to secure accommodation that provides a settled home; wherever possible the family would be able to stay there until a housing association or council house vacancy came up through the waiting list.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I realise that it is late at night. However, in the light of what he has said and given his guarantees about families not being on the streets, will he explain what will happen to a family who have become homeless but when the local authority's responsibility does not start until its inquiries have been completed and those inquiries take a week? What happens in the meanwhile?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is late at night and I shall be coming to that subject a little later. I have listened carefully to what the noble Baroness has said; perhaps she will listen carefully to what I shall say during the course of my speech.

The Government feel that much of the opposition to these proposals has been misplaced. We fully respect the sincere intentions and concerns of many of those (both within this House and elsewhere) who espouse the cause of the homeless. But I have to say that there are times when their commitment to the status quo has blinded them to the opportunities that our proposals present and has led them to put the most perverse construction possible on their possible effects.

Part of the way forward lies in devoting more effort to preventive measures. Early advice or assistance in finding alternative accommodation can prevent what is a housing difficulty from becoming a housing crisis. Advisory services currently tend to receive a low priority when local authorities consider how to deploy their resources. Yet timely advice can be very cost-effective in preventing a situation which might otherwise emerge as a homelessness case, with all the cost to the authority and trauma to the household that can be involved.

We want to make best use of the whole stock of rented accommodation in meeting housing needs. For many people, particularly those on low incomes, who expect to rent accommodation for the long term, a local authority or housing association tenancy may well be the best answer when it becomes available. But the private rented sector also has an important role to play, particularly for people just starting a home of their own or while waiting their turn on the waiting list. It is quite wrong to equate the council sector with a high quality and the private sector with low —despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, says. Much of the property available currently used as temporary accommodation in the private rented sector is of at least as good a quality as the accommodation to which people subsequently move in council or housing association sectors. There are over 700,000 empty properties in the private sector, and we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to make better use of them wherever possible.

I turn now to some of the points that have been raised this evening. I realise that they are important points and I shall be as selective as I can in picking them out. I shall write to your Lordships on any points that I have not been able to cover this evening.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked, "What is the evidence? Why are you bothering to do this? Why do we have these proposals?" Let us be clear. We are not talking about inefficiency or failure on the part of local authority staff; we are talking about the constraints of working with a system that was designed in 1977 to meet a real but specific need which has now come to dominate a substantial proportion of the allocation of social housing. Over the 14 years since 1979, the number of homelessness acceptances has risen from 55,000 to 134,000, while the number of new lettings has remained broadly the same. It takes someone twice as long to get rehoused through the waiting list compared to someone rehoused through the homelessness route. Many people on the waiting list never get rehoused. Indeed, there are some areas in which it is impossible to get rehoused unless the homeless route is used. We want to introduce a better balance and give local authorities more scope for meeting real housing need.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said also, "Why not build more social housing?" Again, let us be clear. The consultation paper is about fairness in the allocation of social housing, not about how much housing there should be. Our main housing policy is that a decent home should be within the reach of every family and we are sponsoring a substantial house building programme.

The Housing Corporation expects that in the three years ending March 1995 housing associations will have built 178,000 new dwellings—25,000 more than we promised in our 1992 manifesto. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, also said that everyone opposes the reform proposals, but the reform proposals have been welcomed by the London Boroughs Association whose members include some of the most hard-pressed local housing authorities. A number of commentators are so entrenched in the present system that they cannot stand back and consider dispassionately our reform proposals.

The noble Baroness concentrated on homelessness reforms, but our consultation paper also contains proposals aimed at preventing homelessness. I hope that we all support that objective. The paper makes proposals for improving the housing waiting list system, which I think that the noble Baroness acknowledged does not operate optimally at present.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that the private rented sector will not be able to rise to the occasion. The consultation paper makes it clear that: accommodation in the private rented sector must be, suitable: the 700,000 empty private sector properties are a huge waste of resources, and the Government have a range of initiatives to bring those back into use, such as housing associations, managing agents and the flats-over-shops programme. Certainly the number of private sector tenancies has risen by 10 per cent. in the five years since the Government introduced the: deregulation of tenancies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, "Well, hostels will fill up". Of course we are alive to the good work carried out by hostels and refuges. We are aware: of the special position of refuges and other types of short-stay hostel, and of the importance of move-on accommodation for their clients. We do not see our proposals as changing the rule for this kind of accommodation. We are spending £180 million over six years on the rough sleepers' initiative in central London. The initiative will have provided over 3,000 units of permanent accommodation for people who would otherwise sleep rough in central London, and it has helped thousands of individuals to start a new life away from the streets.

A count by voluntary sector agencies last November found fewer than 300 rough sleepers in central London compared with 2,000 to: 3,000 before the initiative began. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry said that the proposals will make things worse and cause families to move from one set of temporary accommodation to another. Our aim is to make better use of the existing stock. "Temporary accommodation" is a misleading term. Many homeless households would prefer to have the tenancy of a private sector house with a garden rather than a high rise local authority flat.

The initial six-month minimum of an assured shorthold tenancy will often in practice be extended to several years, and during that period the family will gain priority on the waiting list. The noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, said, "What about young people?" We can assure the noble Lady that the proposals in the consultation paper will not disturb present arrangements which cater for such people under the Children Act 1989. The noble Lady went on to ask about people with learning difficulties. That is a matter which touches on the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health as well as of my own department. I can assure the noble Lady that I shall write to her about whether school leavers with learning difficulties should go on the housing waiting list.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned the number of secure dwellings and said that it has declined during the past 10 years. However, taking together the new lettings of local authorities and housing associations, the combined total has risen slightly during the past 10 years, from 301,000 in 1982–83 to 321,000 in 1992–93.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke of victims of domestic violence. Certainly we recognise the importance of present provisions for such victims. We assure the noble Earl that the proposals will continue to ensure suitable settled accommodation for victims of domestic violence. We are discussing proposals with colleagues in the Home Office and elsewhere.

I recognise and respect the genuine concern for the homeless and other less fortunate members of the community that has been expressed tonight. I hope that I have gone some way to reassuring those noble Lords who have spoken that we have no intention of allowing the interests of people who really need assistance with accommodation to be adversely affected. And I hope that I have shown how we hope the new proposals will ensure the fairer distribution of what people should properly regard as a valuable and cherished asset; the tenancy of a council or housing association property.

We have just completed a major consultation exercise. Ministers are still considering the 9,000-plus responses we have received and are reflecting on the points that they make. I hope noble Lords will understand that this is the reason why on a number of points I have been unable to give the detailed response that some might have wished. The discussion that we have had today gives us further food for thought. I can say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that this is genuine consultation. Several of the specific lines for modifying the proposals suggested by noble Lords deserve close consideration. We shall certainly be studying the report of this debate with interest.

I cannot at this moment say when the Government will announce their reaction to the responses that we have received but I can assure your Lordships that when we do it will take full account of the interesting and topical discussion that we have had today.

House adjourned at two minutes before midnight.