HL Deb 19 October 1999 vol 605 cc1012-29

7.40 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they have taken to increase the availability of counselling for young homeless people.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am pleased that we have three maiden speakers tonight and I look forward to hearing their contributions. Earlier this year, I was a volunteer in a winter hostel for young rough sleepers. Since then, I have volunteered at a hostel for newly homeless young people in Soho. Previously, I have worked on several London housing estates, again with young people.

The timing of the debate could not be better. Louise Casey, responsible for achieving the Government's target of reducing to one-third the number of rough sleepers by 2002, will publish her strategy for the next three years in November or December. Louise Casey is determined that the most vulnerable are helped off the streets and do not return to them.

Counselling can help to achieve that. Indeed, without the insights that counselling provides into the emotional world of the hard-core of young homeless people, no appropriate, realistic programme can be undertaken. Young people who have never been made to believe that their parents care for them feel empty within. They feel responsible for their parents' negligence. They believe that they are guilty of driving their parents from them. So they believe that they deserve poor treatment. Why should we care for rubbish?—which is what they feel they are.

They forget their emptiness with the aid of drugs and alcohol, in frenetic activity or by eternally moving on. Those who offer kindness, they reject, attack and disappoint, just as their parents once did them. So often a relationship that might have saved them is thrown away—witness the number of good foster parents some have run through.

Evidence that many young homeless people have had the experience of inadequate parenting is abundant. Among the present intake of one hostel is a young woman whose parents had pinned her down while her hair was cut. They did not approve of her lover and wished to make her unattractive to him. Another resident in the same hostel was recently intentionally scalded by her mother.

Centrepoint's research paper, Safe in the City, reveals that in the poorest wards of 14 London boroughs, young people were four times as likely to become homeless if they reported being hit frequently; six times more likely to become so if their mother was aged under 25 at the birth of her first child; and 13 times more likely to become homeless if they reported not getting on with their mother. Nearly one-quarter of homeless people have spent time in care.

So. to capture the hard-core of damaged young rough sleepers and keep them from the streets is as much about equipping the people who deal with them with the means to cope with challenging, distressing behaviour as about providing suitable accommodation, clean clothes, food, education, training and employment.

There are heroic people working in this field: for instance, the woman with a legal training who forgoes a lucrative career in order to create a superb training and employment centre for young homeless people; and the woman who once slept rough herself and now works with a passion in a shelter. There are too many more to acknowledge here.

However, commitment alone cannot ensure that the most damaged young people do not fall through the cracks. There is no recognised national preparatory training for those who staff hostels. No educational qualifications are required. We must support hostel staff if they are to hold on to the most vulnerable young people. They must be properly prepared; they must have frequent supervision from a more experienced colleague; and at least one member of staff should be able to ask to see a counsellor from outside the hostel organisation on a weekly basis. In this way, more staff will be strong enough to be efficient gatekeepers to prevent young people who do not need help from exploiting the system. More staff would be able to enjoy and learn from their work, rather than feeling exhausted by it and eventually burning out. More emotionally literate staff would be able to avoid being placed in situations where they have to evict those who most need help.

Supervision is already widespread. There is at least one good example of hostel staff making use of a counsellor and benefiting immensely and passing that benefit on to their residents. Training, too, is available piecemeal and examples of best practice need to be applied generally. Is the Minister satisfied that the need for increased supervision, preparatory training and, if wanted, counselling for hostel staff will be addressed in Louise Casey's policy document.' Have he and Louise Casey met the foremost child psychotherapists—for instance, Peter Wilson, the director of Young Minds—in order to consult about the implication of parental neglect on policy towards young rough sleepers?

I have strayed from the ambit of the debate; I have talked of counselling for those who work with young homeless people rather than for the young people themselves. But if these young people are not to be disappointed again, if they are not to have their distrust of others reinforced, we must better support the staff who work with them.

7.46 p.m.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for promoting the debate and for the profound insights he has offered us tonight. Before contributing to the debate, I want to place on record my thanks to many Members of this House who have already offered me support and friendship as a new person coming to it. That has been greatly appreciated. My thanks extend also to Black Rod, to those who work here and, lest one forgets him, to Garter himself. Who could ever forget Garter?

The debate gives me an opportunity to revisit early experiences in my career in housing aid. It is salutary and sobering to sense how 25 years on, with a society that is 50 per cent more wealthy, many of the problems still exist and are in some cases compounded. The noble Earl clearly set out some of' those problems. Fundamentally, for many young homeless people it is more than just lack of accommodation.

When we began work 25 or 30 years ago, one tended to believe that by providing housing all would be well. Perhaps that was a counter-reaction to social workers at the time. The noble Earl made clear that many, if not all, young homeless people suffer a compound of problems: for instance, no educational attainment; low incomes; low life skills; and, in some cases, emotional damage to themselves caused by bad early rearing experiences. I endorse what he said in that respect.

That places a major problem on how government bodies engage in solutions to address the situation. It is not simply a technical problem of providing more housing. I do not want to speak about national strategies because I am sure that others will do so more thoughtfully. Perhaps I may reflect on how we can promote effective local strategies. The lead role outside government and outside London will fall on local authorities. The Government, through the youth homeless action partnership, is seeking with voluntary organisations and local authorities to explore how local authorities can be stimulated to develop effective strategies.

Therefore, there is a consensus that the development of effective local strategies is central to how this matter is approached. By that is meant housing authorities, social services, the youth service, the education service and the voluntary sector developing collectively their plans for what needs to be done and putting in place action to implement them. Time is too short to illustrate what that means, but it would effectively address three elements: prevention strategies, more sophisticated assessment processes, and action to address the problems identified.

Local authorities will require support at national level and locally to implement that change. They are being offered a significant challenge to demonstrate that they can address deep-seated intractable problems in society by adopting a much more participative style. It is of course fundamental that they do so, otherwise the lives of many of our young people will be potentially blighted.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, it is my privilege to congratulate on behalf of the whole House the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, on an extremely skilful maiden speech. It is relatively easy to give a 10-minute maiden speech; to say so many important things in three minutes requires consummate skill.

The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, comes to this House with a distinguished career in housing in local government. What he has said shows me that he knows and understands deeply the problems that damage young people and how they relate to housing. It is good news for us to welcome new Members to this House who have expertise in child and family related problems. I hope that the noble Lord will work proactively in those areas, not only to support the Government in the many excellent things they are doing but also to prompt them to do more.

I have only a short time, but I should like to make the following points. Like old age, homelessness does not come alone. I was going to quote to your Lordships one or two facts, but possibly I shall leave them out. Many of the young people of whom we are talking have been deeply damaged by their early experiences—a point made by my noble friend Lord Listowel. Abuse of children in all its forms can cause deep wounds which affect the child's ability to cope normally as he grows up with the problems of life.

The Government have identified the problem of excluded young people who are not participating in education and training. They have written an interesting and important Green Paper on the subject. However, they have not so far linked that problem with the problem of housing. That remains to be done. There is an old saying, "No job; no home; no hope", and indeed many young people identified as not being involved in education, training or work are the same young people who are either permanently or periodically involved in homelessness.

In the time left to me I should like to make one point: such young people can be very difficult to contact. They have moved out into the world, they have left school; indeed they hate the schools because the schools forced them to go over hurdles which they could not take. How do we contact them? I urge upon the Government that the voluntary sector has an enormously important part to play in that context. In many cases the voluntary sector has, or can acquire, the confidence of those young people. It can make contact and build that confidence to give continuity. Young people appreciate that voluntary service is being given voluntarily, which makes it easier for them to relate to the people involved.

Finally, I agree enormously with the noble Lord that training people to operate in that sphere is of absolutely primary importance. No project will succeed unless enough money and effort are put into proper training of workers and volunteers to work in that area.

7.53 p.m.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, I am a very recent addition to your Lordships' House. I was gazetted on the last day before the Recess and introduced on the first day back. I therefore spent the summer in a strange limbo, with mixed emotions of anticipation and apprehension, rather like a character from "Black Adder" awaiting my big scene.

During that time, I received many warm messages of congratulations and support, not only from the Benches on which I now sit, and I appreciate those greatly. In addition, the kindness and efficiency with which officers and staff of the House assisted my family and me through my introduction were exemplary. It was a marvellous day for all of us, and there is now a school in Lancashire where small children are being regaled with tales of Black Rod, Garter King at Arms and a wonderful palace in London which has an endless supply of little cheese biscuits.

I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, whose detailed knowledge and active concern about the problems of homeless people is well known in this House and has enabled us to discuss this important matter this evening. All my working life has been spent within the voluntary sector, and whenever I have spoken to colleagues working in that field two issues emerge time and again. The first is the many different reasons why young people become homeless: poverty, violence, physical and sexual abuse. Each one is in itself traumatic. The effect of two or more of those factors is for most of us, thankfully, unimaginable.

Perhaps the most difficult problem is that of emotional neglect. Young people who have never been properly cared for and have no concept of what a safe home is do not know what a safe home would look like and have no idea how to go about creating one. The second issue is the amount of time needed by young people leaving care or trying to get off the streets to get to grips with the demands of daily living. At a comparatively early age, and without the basic stability and social skills which most of us enjoy, the task of establishing a secure home becomes inordinately difficult.

Many young people in such a position have access to professional help from a plethora of sources, but few have an advocate or simply one sympathetic person with whom they have had time to build a relationship of trust. The problems of housing benefit and jobseeker's allowance in those circumstances tend to exacerbate those problems.

To provide young people leaving care or leaving the streets with accommodation and no support is rather like presenting a 17 year-old with the keys to a vehicle but no driving lessons, and wishing them many happy years of accident-free motoring. Such a strategy is highly unlikely to work and is best not pursued. I support the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in his efforts to achieve what I believe is a socially and fiscally prudent policy of ensuring that young homeless people have adequate access to an appropriate counsellor.

Given time and understanding, young people can create safe and secure homes. They deserve the opportunity to do so and they deserve our active support.

7.57 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House it is my great pleasure to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, on her excellent and very interesting maiden speech. She has had a most distinguished career as a member of the Liberal Party, holding various important appointments, and in her work for Age Concern since 1983. We wish her well and look forward to her future contributions in your Lordships' House.

My noble friend Lord Listowel is to be congratulated on introducing a debate on such an important subject. Many young people arrive in London today and have no idea what to do or where to go. Some manage to find out by word of mouth from other young people, others through organisations which have outreach workers. Those outreach workers work in central London at night, meet homeless young people and direct them where to go, often to direct access hostels. There are other ways of finding out about hostels. Some young people spot others who are homeless and tell them what to do and where to go. So they often help each other.

Berwick Street is a direct access hostel for newly homeless. Once they are there, usually for a short time, they are helped to find a hostel where they can receive support, especially emotional support. Various methods of counselling are used by different charities. In some cases, counselling takes several years before a young person can look forward to a future with hope.

Homeless young people are counselled in various ways once it has been discovered why they left home in the first place. There are various causes, such as sexual, physical, verbal and mental abuse. In some cases there is abject neglect, such as being left alone in an empty house for hours at a time. That is obviously frightening for a very young child. They are usually in need of emotional support so that they can focus on the future. It is found that unless they can put the past behind them, focus on the future, have an idea of what a safe home is like and live an independent life, they will become homeless once again.

Local government supports crisis counselling provided by the Alone in London Service through the London Borough Grants Unit. Will the Minister say whether central government support counselling financially or in any other way and whether they recognise it as an important part of helping homeless young people?

There is a need for more workers in this area. There are already volunteers working with many charities. Some counselling can take a long time. It is necessary to gain the confidence of a young person. Once a young person trusts a counsellor, he will often tell of his harrowing experiences, very often from a very young age. Those working with these, young people often feel traumatised themselves and may need advice on how to manage.

In many cases there is need to discover the reason for the misuse of drugs and alcohol. It would appear that the treatment for misuse addresses only the addiction and rarely the reasons for how it arose. This needs to be examined.

Alone in London, based at King's Cross and Lewisham, focuses on solving the immediate problems of young homeless people, such as finding a place to sleep at night. It then recommends the most appropriate services to help to discover the underlying causes of the young person's homelessness. Many people are needed to help with those services and volunteers provide valuable experience and knowledge.

Are the Government considering by what means the number of counsellors can be increased? A year or two ago I went to Berwick Street where I had coffee with some of the young. It was very interesting. I spoke in the debate on charities and described the problems of one young person without giving the name. The person recognised herself when she saw Hansard. She was thrilled and said, "Oh! They really do think of us."

8.2 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, it is a great honour to be a Member of this House and, indeed, to be addressing it for the first time. I too have had a summer in limbo and can say quite confidently that I have had nothing but kindness from the Members of this House and from everybody associated with my peerage from the moment it was announced to me up till now. Long may it last!

As leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council and a former chairman of the social services committee, I am conscious of the problems of the young homeless. Kensington and Chelsea has been one of the boroughs most affected by the arrival of unaccompanied refugee children over the years from most parts of the world but recently from Kosovo. Currently we are caring for 139 young people under the age of 18 who are either in council accommodation or being looked after by foster parents. Homeless on arrival, they will receive support until the age of 18 if they need it. As the council has an excellent care leavers' scheme, those young people will continue to receive support after that age, being provided also with housing and practical guidance if they require it.

Whatever their misfortunes when they arrive, those young people will be kept warm, fed and educated by the council and will not, by and large, suffer the depredations of so many other young people under the age of 25, who, for whatever reason, find themselves homeless and on the streets.

London has too many such people. While only 5 per cent of those sleeping rough in Kensington and Chelsea are under 25, in Hammersmith and Fulham the figure is 46 per cent, and that will be reflected across London. That is an horrific waste of young lives. They are vulnerable and alone at a time when they should be cared for and welcomed in a loving home. Those on the streets need help if they are to be saved from a life of permanent degradation. They need practical help to find housing, which has been mentioned by other noble Lords, access to education and entry to jobs, for without that they are not eligible for benefit and have no money. Kensington and Chelsea, with the City of Westminster and the Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster Health Authority, has a joint homeless outreach team to do just that.

I am certain that the Minister will wish to encourage that and other initiatives, such as Centrepoint and the foyer schemes. Local authorities are well placed to support and provide those and other initiatives, and can provide the basis for those and any other proposals which the Government may have if they are funded and if they are encouraged to do so.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House I congratulate the noble Baroness. I was presented with a copy of her CD—CV, rather! That is the sort of faux pas which should not be made at this point in a speech. The only thing I can say about such a distinguished leader who is active in local politics is that I wish she was joining our Benches because that depth of knowledge would certainly be of benefit to our side. I hope that the whole House will benefit from it for however long this transitional House lasts.

At present, the word "counselling" tends to be misused. It seems to be said that there is counselling for everything. When it comes to the young homeless, we talk about counselling to accept help. Every single speaker so far has mentioned the problems that lead to people being homeless. Those problems tend to be abuse, breakdown and mistrust. The idea of never being at school—the initial form of authority—is one that many people come across. There is also the idea that anyone who tries to give instructions from a desk immediately becomes the enemy. That is a discovery made by anybody who has been involved with the young homeless or those people who are at risk of becoming young homeless. The idea that parents are things to be avoided, fought against and hidden from is something which leaves one with a major problem.

For a few years I have had contact with the young homeless through working with the Apex Trust. We have tried to get young offenders into jobs. If one made contact with the very young people, it was an incredibly difficult situation. There was a core of resentment and fear, wrapped around with machismo, and then one had acne draped across the top of it. Those were probably the most unattractive facets of people one could deal with. But those young people had real problems. As has already been mentioned, if those problems are not addressed, then you are storing up trouble for the future because these people may become long-term offenders.

If you are on the streets, you do not have access to housing, to support and thus to a way of earning a living. You cannot be offered a job if the prospective employer does not know where to send the application form. You have to try to drag those young people in. The only way in which that can be done is by starting to build up some communication. That communication will not be established unless counselling and training in their true sense are taken forward here, both for those people who are homeless and, probably more importantly, for those who have to deal with those very vulnerable groups of people. It does not matter what else is done because it will not be possible to access the help that is needed. Counselling and communication are vital. I believe the noble Earl has pointed out a very grave problem.

8.8 p.m.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, I join in congratulating my noble friend Lord Listowel on his sterling works since taking his seat in this House last year and on his enduring work in raising the awareness of your Lordships to the plight of young homeless people.

Many noble Lords, including myself, spoke in the debate introduced by my noble friend about the causes of homelessness and the threats of increased drug misuse and alcohol consumption, in many cases causing young people to have a major physical, but also mental, decline in their general state of health.

However, today's debate focuses more on the need for innovative solutions, more particularly counselling, for these young people. It is a well-known fact that most of the young homeless are aged between 18 and 25. Working next to Centrepoint in the West End, I have had regular contact with many young homeless people who cluster behind our building. Many are hardened drug addicts. It has become clear to me that escaping homelessness is not straightforward.

Time restricts me from giving individual case studies. Few of those to whom I regularly speak are aware of the availability of counselling. Several complain that they have difficulties in finding a general practitioner who will take them on and, in the case of drug addicts, prescribe methadone for them.

Several of them feel that the police could be more constructive. They feel that often their problems are worsened by being prosecuted for possession of drugs and in many cases being sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

I have received the clear message that most young homeless people want help and ideally want to lead normal lives, away from the streets, with more opportunities to find gainful employment. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that young homeless people need emotional help and emotional support.

One of the most resourceful research reports that I have read on new approaches to meeting the long-term needs of single homeless people is the recent publication by CRISIS, headed A Future Foretold. Among its many findings, it highlights the fact that homelessness is a people problem and not just a housing problem.

One of its many recommendations was that all local authorities should undertake an annual survey of the needs of single homeless people in their area so as to attempt to deliver solutions for the homeless. It also recommended that a national network of family mediation services be established for single homeless people run by the voluntary sector.

In conclusion, even though the Government have shown their commitment to trying to reduce the numbers of homeless people through their Social Exclusion report on rough sleeping, as well as in the consultation report published last year, Supporting People, which addressed professional support for vulnerable people, there does not appear to be sufficient counselling facilities for young homeless people.

In winding up the debate I hope that the Minister can enlighten us on what plans the Government have to address and promote this need.

8.12 p.m.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving us an opportunity to debate this important subject. I am sorry that he decided to build the debate around the subject of counselling, which for most of his speech he wisely avoided.

My concern is that counselling can be very dangerous unless it is, as my noble friend Lord Addington said, a direct communication which validates the person being counselled so that they feel that they are a person.

Turning to the speech that I had prepared, the Medical Journal of Australia dated 24 March 1979 contained a report of a study entitled Hazards of Therapy. Although the subjects of the study were adults and we are talking about children, the clear connection between a therapy session which created a state of emotional arousal and inappropriate expression of the emotions so generated suggests that psychological counselling which attempts to do more than address the real needs of the people concerned could do more harm than good.

As we have heard and as we know, many of the problems of the young homeless are exacerbated by addiction to alcohol or various kinds of drugs. In society we are doing things that make that kind of problem more likely and worse. I want the relevant departments to look very carefully at the prescribing policy and the way that children in school are labelled with things like attention deficit disorder and then prescribed drugs that are addictive and drugs that cause terrible problems when the children try to withdraw from them. As one noble Lord has said, I am sure that we are storing up more problems for ourselves which will make the situation more difficult to solve.

8.14 p.m.

The Earl of Iveagh

My Lords, I want to thank and congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on an excellent topic for debate tonight. It is also an important debate. I want to congratulate the three maiden speakers who have so ably contributed to tonight's proceedings.

Youth homelessness is an enormous problem. CRISIS estimates that in Britain 32,000 16 to 21 year-olds do not have a home. I shall bring to your Lordships' attention some concerns expressed to me by those working in this area.

The short-term nature of funding for organisations dealing with youth homelessness is one such concern. Of course, many such organisations have uncertain funding in that they have a one-year budget and they badly need to give those without homes a consistency of service. It is important that the homeless get the support that they so badly need.

I draw your Lordships' attention to one or two matters of particular merit. Increasingly, youth homelessness is considered to be worthy of formalised training. Indeed, the University of East Anglia has created the first postgraduate accredited course on youth counselling.

I also draw attention to the position of Youth Awareness, the national body supporting and promoting information, advice, counselling and support for young people. The Government have increased the funding of the organisation to £80,000 per year. I fully support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in his view that the voluntary sector needs to play a full part in helping with the problem.

However, we should contrast that small contribution with the £13 million support that is given to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. I do not deny the extremely important and good work done by CABs up and down the country, but I believe that there has been some oversight as to the importance of specialist provision for the young.

8.18 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, we have had an excellent debate. I join others in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for initiating this relevant issue today.

I also want to compliment the three new Members of this House who have made their maiden speeches this evening. Each has been distinctive, each has shown a wealth of expertise, and we welcome them and their expertise to the House.

Six months ago, on one of the chilliest spring nights this year, a young woman, alone, hungry and ill because of repeated use of drugs, lay down and died beside the telephone exchange in my home town of Guildford. Many people passed by the bundle of blankets, rags and plastic bags. Eventually, the police, in trying to move her on, discovered that she was dead. British Telecom have now blocked off the warm air ducts around their building with wire grilles to stop a similar occurrence.

The young woman in question was in her early 20s. She had had a good education, but she had failed to get a job, had become depressed, taken drugs and slipped into the "revolving door" cycle of homelessness. Life on the streets was punctuated by periods in a hostel when things seemed to be getting better, and then failing again and in one way or another falling back and sleeping rough again.

As anyone who walks down any London street knows—and as this debate made very clear—that young woman was no exception. Sadly, all too many young people are homeless—32,000 according to the briefing we received from Shelter. One in two of the homeless aged 16 and 17 come from an institution of some kind; they have lived in care. Two out of five of 24 year-olds come from an institutional background. It is a scandal that as a society we know how vulnerable young people are and yet again and again we fail to do anything about it. Not only have we done nothing about it, but we have passed legislation which has made the situation much worse.

We have removed their right to social security benefit. We have restricted housing benefit. We then imposed the final ignominy of the single room rent restriction. What have the new Labour Government done, dedicated as they are to helping the chances of young people? They have been in power for over two years. They established a homelessness Czar—actually it is a Czarina—Louise Casey, and others made mention of her. She is about to publish a report which we hope will stir the matter up. They also put a duty on local authorities to help vulnerable young people. But they have done nothing to make sure that those fine words are translated into practical help. Too much is in terms of strategies—"Let us do this; let us do that"—and not enough practical help. My noble friend Lady Hanham gave us an example of some of the good things coming out of Kensington.

The reason is that we are constantly looking at multi-agency care. Like the problem with old people of bed blocking, it is a question of pulling together the social services, the youth services, the National Health Service and the voluntary sectors. Many agencies are not only strapped for cash, but are also strapped for people. It is time to give consideration to this. It is too easy to pass the buck on to somebody else because we

feel they are dealing with it. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister that there is more joined-up thinking on this issue and the resources to back it up. It is the lack of resources as much as anything else that creates the problem. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I add my welcome to the noble Baronesses, Lady Hanham and Lady Barker, and to an old friend, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. He was secretary of the Association of District Councils when I was chairman of the Association of County Councils. I enjoyed our acquaintance and look forward to it continuing.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, as he always does on this subject, introduced an interesting debate for which the House is extremely grateful. Among so many people who have direct experience in this field—I freely admit I have none—it would be superfluous and invidious of me to try and make too much of the detail of the debate. But in my reading prior to the debate I came across the paper mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso—A Future Foretold, by CRISIS—which had a slightly provocative thought at the end and it is worth touching on. It said that if the opposite of hopeless is hopeful, surely the opposite of homeless is more than a roof over the head. But absolutely certain and true though that statement is, the opposite of homeless can still only be homeless if there is no roof to put over someone's head.

The problem of availability of suitable and affordable housing is, and has been, with us for a long time. I suspect that it will be with us for a long time to come. It is not just a question of the physical supply of houses, although it is noticeable that in the allocation of government moneys to help in this field, the vast bulk of the money has to be allocated (rightly) in the southern rather than in the northern part of the country, where there is a physical surplus of housing, much of it cheap and easily available. That is a harsh reality and one that cannot be overcome.

The other point that is perhaps worth making in my last 60 seconds is that the tragedy of so many young in a homeless situation arises either from a breakdown of the family in some shape or form or, worse still, in those cases where we have some opportunity to help, from a breakdown in the wonderful multi-agency assistance that we provide through the local authorities. In both situations we need people who understand and who can project that understanding sufficiently so that the homeless do not leave to go into these situations. Without that we have no hope of curing the problem; it will remain with us. If we can do more in the field of prevention, we may need to do less by way of cure.

8.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, first, I express the thanks of all noble Lords to the noble Earl for instigating further debate on the issue of young homelessness. It is a matter of tremendous importance which the Government are wholeheartedly committed to tackling.

The number of speakers in this short debate perhaps leaves us a little short of time and I apologise if I do not cover every point raised. I begin by paying tribute to our three maiden speakers. I suspect that not every noble Lord is able to congratulate a Conner landlord on making his maiden speech. But my noble friend Lord Filkin was director of the Association of District Councils when I was director of the National Association of Health Authorities. We rented accommodation from him. I like to think that that was a symbol of co-operation and partnership between the NHS and local government, which is but one essential strand in ensuring that we get practical services in the right places to help homeless people.

I was struck also by the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and particularly her point in relation to the role of the voluntary sector. Equally, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, with her vast local government experience, showed how much local government has to offer in this area and how much responsibility we place on them to lead the strategy at local level.

All noble Lords made the same point; that is, that this is a matter which needs co-ordinated action across different government departments, in partnership with non-government agencies. There is no doubt that within government the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has a leading role to play. However, it is not just a question of homelessness on its own, as so many speakers said. Young homeless people are vulnerable to many other problems relating to mental and physical health, drug and alcohol misuse. The Department of Health clearly has major responsibilities in those areas. I hope to come back to a number of points raised in relation to the support that the National Health Service needs to give in this area.

I want to say, first, that I agree that homelessness is so often a symptom of wider social exclusion; the unacceptable effects of a whole complex web of causes. My noble friend Lord Filkin said it is not just a housing problem. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, described it as a "cycle of homelessness". That is the reason the Government's Social Exclusion Unit is looking at a range of issues dealing with excluded young people. Noble Lords have already mentioned its report on Rough Sleeping and its Bridging the Gap report on 16 to 18 year-olds who are not in education, employment or training. Both of these, together with the unit's work on the exclusion of young people in deprived neighbourhoods, are, if I may say so to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, an indication of the priority that we are giving to tackling the social exclusion of young people. Within this agenda, youth homelessness must receive close attention.

Noble Lords have also pointed out that there are many reasons why young people end up homeless. Those reasons can include relationship breakdown, or having a very structured background which, perhaps, makes it hard for them to cope on their own—for example, having been in local authority care as a child or a teenager or having been in a young offenders' institution, having poor mental or physical health, suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and perhaps persistent truanting or exclusion from school. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, had some very important points to make in this area.

Of course, the problems experienced by young homeless people vary and, consequently, their needs also vary. But the one thing which all young homeless people need in one degree or another is support, as the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, so eloquently pointed out to us. Indeed, in many ways becoming homeless is a symptom of a breakdown in the support mechanisms that would normally be available to young people from their parents, extended family, friends, and other normal contacts such as educational professionals and advisors. That a young person has reached the point of homelessness is symptomatic of the fact that he or she often feels that there is nowhere to go and no one to listen. This is precisely why it is so important that support services, including counselling opportunities, are available to young people.

I very much agreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said about the core of resentment among so many of the young people about whom we are talking. We need to build communication and ensure that that becomes a key part of what we are trying to do within the counselling arrangements. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNair, that counselling comes in many shapes and forms. At the end of the day, it has to be effective and must be what is suited to the young people concerned.

Much work has been done by different government departments to make existing local authority support mechanisms more effective. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, pointed out, some of those most dependent on local authority support—those in care—are at their most vulnerable and at risk of homelessness when leaving care. This highlights the importance of the Government's Quality Protect programme for the reform of children's services, which has made care leavers a priority group—£19 million has been allocated this first year for leaving care services.

However, there is no doubt that there remain barriers which prevent existing services from working most effectively. In the Bridging the Gap report, the Social Exclusion Unit identified three main barriers. The first—and I return to this point—is that departments often work in a fragmented, non coordinated way. Secondly, insufficient preparation is taking place in schools for choices available to young people after the compulsory school leaving age of 16. The third barrier is the lack of comprehensive support services for 16 to 18 year-olds who are not in school.

The report demanded a new approach to the way in which government, and their partners in the voluntary sector, in business, and in the community, deliver services to vulnerable young people. It recommended that more needs to be done to ensure that support is

both accessible and co-ordinated. This included building on good practice where it exists, particularly across current service boundaries, and, more fundamentally, to implement the proposal of the Department for Education and Employment to create a new support service for young people, announced in its White Paper in June and entitled, Learning to Succeed.

The new service is to build and ensure coherence in the support to be given to young people aged 13 to 19 in aiming to ensure that no young person should get "lost in the system". Often, falling out from education is the first step to becoming excluded from society, and sometimes a significant step on the road to homelessness; the proposed treatment schemes, with those who are hard to reach and most vulnerable, being a priority.

As far as concerns alcohol misuse, we are currently developing a new strategy to tackle this in England. One of the aims of the strategy is likely to be improving the quality, accessibility and effectiveness of alcohol advice and treatment services for alcohol misusers, potential misusers and their carers or families and to ensure equitable access to the full spectrum of required services for all. Of course, this will include how service provision can best be extended locally better to serve young homeless people.

The mention of drug and alcohol services, brings me to issues in relation to the National Health Service. The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, raised the issue of access to primary care services, and especially to general practitioners. I know that this is a matter which often causes concern. I want to make it clear that all persons are entitled to register with a GP. Of course, this can sometimes be difficult, but it is the responsibility of the local health authority to assist young people where this is proving to be difficult.

I should also like to say a little more about some of the developments that we intend to take forward to ensure that there is more access to primary care services. By April next year there will be 300 pilot schemes across the country which will provide GPs with a flexible alternative to the current national contract. We see this as an opportunity to concentrate on traditionally disadvantaged groups in their area. For example, there is a salaried option, which means that GPs can now be employed by other doctors or trusts in areas where recruitment has been difficult in the past, like inner-cities or sparsely populated countryside. We believe that this has enormous potential.

If one looks at the current pilots, up to 87 of them have actually involved working with young people as one of their key priorities. Of these, 48 specified teenagers and 39 specified children. Moreover, 29 pilots have indicated that working with homeless people is a key area of their work. To take up the point on refugees, I should tell noble Lords that 29 of these schemes are focusing on refugees. Clearly the importance of pilot schemes is to enable the whole of the health service to learn from that experience. We will be very interested to ensure that the points which are learnt along the way will be spread more generally among the National Health Service.

Many noble Lords talked about prevention. We all recognise that, as well as ensuring that advice and support is available when young people are on the verge of homelessness or already homeless, more needs to be done to prevent homelessness arising in the first place. We must find ways appropriately to balance crisis intervention and advice with appropriate support and help, together with preventive approaches. Mediation services can often help in looking at difficult family dynamics and towards understanding and resolving family tensions before a young person decides to leave home. Many young homeless people are still in touch with someone in their families and it is in everyone's interests to strengthen those bonds where possible.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and many other speakers referred to the role of the voluntary sector. Clearly, it has a very key role to play in providing support to vulnerable young people. We can see the extraordinarily varied and innovative projects around the country which testify to the value of the voluntary sector and the lifeline for young people it can provide by offering advice, support, counselling and direct practical support.

I have been asked about funding. Many of these projects do of course receive support from government funds but I have noted the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Iveagh, on the importance of secure funding. It is something that both national and local government must take to heart.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred specifically to the role of local authorities, which is an important one. They already have a statutory duty to ensure that comprehensive advice and information about homelessness and the prevention of homelessness is provided free of charge to any person in their district. Again I noted the comments and helpful remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, on that matter. We are currently revising the statutory guidance we issue to local authorities to impress upon them the need to take a more strategic approach to discharging this duty. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that of course taking a strategic approach means nothing if it does not then lead to practical action. I am sure that there is little point in our pressing the point to local authorities on strategy unless positive, practical action results from that.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred to the London Rough Sleepers Unit headed by Louise Casey, former deputy director of Shelter. This has an integrated budget over the next three years of £145 million to combat the complex and concentrated problems of rough sleeping in London. Both the noble Earl and the noble Lord in referring to that then referred to the important issues in relation to training, support and supervision. I could not agree more with those comments. It is a matter that I shall certainly want to take from this debate in terms of ensuring that it is part of the various programmes that we shall fund in the future. That is absolutely crucial and goes back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about the quality of counselling in terms of being able to communicate with young people who often find it hard to relate to current statutory services.

As regards financial support outside London, I refer to the Homeless Action Programme launched by the DETR which will provide £34 million over the next three years to help voluntary organisations outside London tackle and prevent single homelessness and rough sleeping. Inevitably within that programme support for counselling will be available.

Time moves on and I have exceeded my speaking time by a few minutes. I do not apologise for that. This has been an extremely important debate where I think we have all shared a common concern. We can see our way through to the practical solutions that are undoubtedly necessary.

There is no doubt that at the end of the day a partnership approach both at national and local level is the key to success. I hope that your Lordships will recognise that this is a priority for the Government. There is no place in Britain at the dawn of the 21st century for social exclusion and homelessness. We shall continue to work hard towards the eradication of both.

I conclude by thanking again the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his initiative in securing this debate. I end as he did in paying tribute to the heroic people who counsel, support and help homeless people.