HL Deb 17 January 2005 vol 668 cc531-3

Lord Laming asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to secure the well-being of children living in temporary accommodation provided for homeless families.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

: My Lords, we are committed to ensuring quality services that strengthen support to children in temporary accommodation. The children's national service framework recognises those children as being in special circumstances and the Children Act 2004 requires housing authorities and social services to focus on such children. Also, the increasing number of children's centres will enhance services to families who have typically been difficult to reach, and therefore to support.

Lord Laming

: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply. Did he notice the statistics produced by the Deputy Prime Minister, which show that the number of homeless families, or families in accommodation for the homeless, is now at a record level of just above 100,000? Bearing in mind that only families with children qualify for that accommodation, it is likely that the number of children involved may be 250,000 to 300,000—the size of the total population of a city. The Minister will know that Victoria Climbié was one such child. What action are the Government taking to secure the well-being of those children and to minimise disruption to their young lives?

Lord Filkin

: My Lords, we are doing a lot and have done a lot. First, we have virtually eradicated the use of bed and breakfast accommodation, except for very short periods; we have reduced that by 99 per cent. Secondly, we have committed to increase the supply of affordable homes by about 10,000 a year during the next three to four years, which will help us to reach our target of reducing by half the number of families in temporary accommodation. I should point out that almost 90 per cent of families with children in temporary accommodation are in self-contained accommodation, with all amenities. The issue is more about its temporary nature than its quality.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

: My Lords, does the problem still exist where a council has responsibility for a child but the child then has to be housed in a different area? There was always great difficulty with the social worker or education worker moving between the boroughs. Does that situation still exist, or can the Government do anything to ensure better working between the boroughs? I am talking about London, which is the only area with which I have direct personal experience. It is always a problem to get that linkage. The other problem is when the child is moved from place to place, which means that educational provision can change.

Lord Filkin

: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right on both points. We are quite clear that it is in the interests of the family and the child to be rehoused, wherever possible, in their home borough, for all sorts of practical reasons: that is where the responsibility lies; and that is more likely to keep the child at the same school, if the child is of school age. On the second point, the noble Baroness is also right: one reason for trying to reduce the amount of temporary accommodation is that we can thereby reduce the likelihood that the child will have to change schools, which obviously disturbs the child's education. That is why we are committed to increasing the pressure on local authorities to house locally and increasing the supply of housing to reduce the use of temporary accommodation.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, according to the Treasury's child poverty review of last July, only 29 per cent of children whose households are in temporary accommodation attend school regularly? As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, implied, that may affect about 150,000 children. What proposals do the Government have to ensure that those children do not suffer as a result of being in temporary accommodation?

Lord Filkin

: My Lords, the central aim is that as soon as a housing authority has accepted responsibility for a family, it is desirable that that family is housed, and housed permanently. That avoids the problem of moving from one form of temporary accommodation to another and then to a settled tenancy. I repeat that that is why we are committed to massive investment in increased social housing during the Spending Review 2004 period, increasing the number of homes by about 10,000 a year, and why we believe that eradicating the use of temporary accommodation by local authorities is the correct approach. In large part, local authorities strongly support that.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

: My Lords, to what extent, if at all, is priority given to families where the homelessness is due to domestic violence, where the need is clearly acute? If it is, what is the average time taken to rehouse those families into good quality, self-contained accommodation?

Lord Filkin

: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right: domestic violence cases are among the most serious and difficult situations in which a housing authority has to provide accommodation. In some cases, the accommodation may be only temporary, because the mother may decide that she wants to return to the original home. In others, there will be a need for permanent accommodation. I do not think that average figures make much sense in that context, because there is such a diversity of experience between different authorities. However, the noble Baroness is undoubtedly right: domestic violence is one of the serious causes of homelessness in our society.

Lord Elton

: My Lords, do the Government statistics for domestic violence include, in particular, children recognised as being at risk of non-accidental injury—children of the Climbié definition? If so, what special means of protection are extended to those families and those children, especially when they move, as my noble friend said, from one authority to another?

Lord Filkin

: My Lords, we are moving off the Question slightly; nevertheless I shall seek to respond. First, it is good practice in many authorities, whenever, for example, the police or others come across a case of domestic violence, to think about what might be happening to the child. Therefore, many police authorities notify social services that they have been called to such a situation. Secondly, recognition that the mother is the victim of violence should put social services on strong alert to the risk that the child might be vulnerable. That ought to be one of the risk factors that social services take into account when making a statutory assessment of need for that child.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

: My Lords, since the noble Lord believes that the best way to deal with homeless families is to put them into social rented accommodation, does he think it wise for the Government to consider extending the right to buy to housing association accommodation?

Lord Filkin

: My Lords, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading the specific speech, reported in the Sunday newspapers, to which the noble Lord refers. There are two essential issues. First, looking at the most cost-effective way of helping families, an increase in rented housing is vital; that is why we have committed to it so strongly. The other point advanced in the speech is that there is a vast difference in the transfers of wealth between different parts of society depending on whether that family owns a home. It was a sensible policy concern about the increasing differential wealth in society between those who own homes and those who do not. That issue was rightly raised as a matter of public concern and public policy.

Back to