HL Deb 09 January 1996 vol 568 cc5-8

2.59 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Department of the Environment will be revising the level of resources available for the rough sleepers' initiative in England from April 1996, in the light of the widely predicted rise in rough sleeping following housing benefit restrictions to be implemented this month.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the Government do not expect changes to the housing benefit scheme to increase the number of people sleeping rough. The Government plan to make available £73 million over the coming three years in order to continue the rough sleepers' initiative in central London beyond March 1996, when it was due to end. Development of a similar approach in areas outside central London will also be assisted where rough sleeping can be shown to be a major problem.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am pleased that he seems to have increased the funding to £73 million from the £50 million which appeared in the September Budget statement. While I accept that the rough sleepers' initiative has helped to reduce the numbers of people sleeping rough in central London, I am sure he will agree that there is still a continuous flow of newly homeless people arriving on the streets. Sadly, far too many of them are from Scotland. The original RSI was funded for six years at £182 million. I understand that that has now been reduced to £73 million, which is almost a 50 per cent. reduction over the period. What research was done to justify the reduction of the provision by that percentage and were the anticipated effects of the changes in housing benefit taken into account, for instance the housing benefit restrictions; the withdrawal of benefits from asylum seekers; the reduction of benefits for the under-25s; and the payment of benefits in arrears? All those changes were bound to put more people on the streets. How did the Government's research lead them to the position they have taken?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, has asked a number of questions. I shall do my best to answer them as succinctly as I can. He is perfectly right to say that the rough sleepers' initiative has been a great success. In 1990 about 1,000 people were sleeping rough and in November of last year it was determined that about 270 were sleeping rough, only three of whom were under 18. That is a reduction of some 75 per cent. Of course that was just a snapshot result on one night but it shows that the scheme has been successful. The noble Lord referred to the figure of £182 million. That was the amount of money that was spent over six years. Some £96 million was spent between 1990 and 1993. Some £86 million was spent between 1994 and 1996 and it is anticipated that £73 million will be spent between 1996 and 1999. I remind the noble Lord that out of the original £182 million over six years, 3,300 units of permanent accommodation have been built—that is, all but a few hundred have been built—and the rest will be completed in the near future.

As regards the important point on housing benefit, I remind the noble Lord that the new arrangements will only affect tenants in the private sector. They will not affect those in local authority accommodation. The new arrangements apply only to new claims and to existing claimants who change their address in the private sector. Housing benefit will meet in full any rent up to the general level of rents in the area. Above the local reference rent, housing benefit will cover half the difference between the reference rent and the full rent charged. I do not think those measures will be likely to result in an increase in those sleeping rough.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, how many of those people will eventually become homeless as a result of the withdrawal of benefit from asylum seekers? What representations has the Minister received from local authorities, and from the London Borough of Westminster in particular, about the increase in costs which they will incur as a result of this homelessness? Where will the additional sums of money come from to cope with this?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I believe that the question of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is directed principally at or about asylum seekers. As he will know, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is considering the representations which are being made to him at the moment. I remind the noble Lord that in 1995 40,000 people were asylum applicants. There are 41,600 asylum seekers who are currently on income support. Of those who in 1994—those are the most recent figures—applied for asylum, 4 per cent. were granted refugee status, 17 per cent. were granted exceptional leave to remain and 79 per cent. were refused refugee status and yet those are the people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, seems to consider the Government ought to continue to give housing benefit.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we welcome any financial resources being made available to deal with this problem? Has the Minister had time this weekend to learn of the appalling situation that has developed on the east coast of America where the kind of people we are now discussing are dying because of the horrendous snowfall there? History shows us that often the weather that hits America arrives in this country shortly afterwards. Will the Minister give an undertaking that if that happens the Government will have in place an emergency programme with increased funding to deal with that situation as regards the people we are discussing?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have tried to point out that those who are normally caught under the rough sleepers' initiative have been dealt with. Those who are left are the most difficult to deal with as they have drink, drug and mental health problems. There is a cold weather shelter scheme in central London which operates from early December to the end of March and which is open to people who would otherwise be at risk from sleeping rough over the winter months. I suggest to the noble Lord that he does not let his imagination run away with him too fast as just because America has severe weather it does not always mean that it will happen here. If we do have that severe weather, it does not necessarily mean that we will have more people sleeping rough.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am sorry that because I have mentioned people who are dying in America as a result of severe weather that could occur in this country, the Minister thinks I am letting my imagination run away with me. If that situation occurs here, it will be the Minister and his Government who are at fault.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is perfectly appalling that people in America are dying under the circumstances that have arisen there but that is something over which we in this country have no control. I was merely suggesting that we should not necessarily assume that that situation will be transposed from America to here. I hope I may be permitted to say in parenthesis how glad I was to see the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in the Chamber. He has lost none of his sting, fight and charm.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in spite of the improvements that have occurred under the rough sleepers' initiative which are widely recognised, there is still a huge problem which will never be solved until we build enough affordable rented accommodation to house people? In the meantime does he agree that those organisations and individuals who organise Crisis at Christmas deserve our thanks for that? Does the Minister realise that all the organisations in this field are strapped for funds at the moment for a whole number of reasons? Will he therefore initiate some review of the funding of the organisations involved in Crisis at Christmas so that they can maintain the improvement they have achieved throughout the year?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, makes a valuable point. People who operate Crisis at Christmas have done a tremendous job of work for the public good and for those who are in distressed circumstances, as have a number of other organisations such as the London Connection, Thames Reach, St. Mungo's and the Salvation Army. What we can do is to provide the money to enable those organisations to undertake outreach themselves. About two-thirds of the money that has been allocated pays for capital costs and about one-third pays for running costs. Having spent the money to build 3,300 units, there is obviously more money available for running costs.