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House of Lords

Wednesday, 14th June 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.


Lord Milverton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What proposals they have for improving the provision of short stay accommodation for the homeless.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the latest homelessness statistics for England show that the number of households in temporary accommodation has been declining since September 1992. The Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, to which authorities must by law have regard, makes clear that all temporary accommodation must meet acceptable standards.

Lord Milverton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for the time he has given me. Does he agree that what is needed is for these people to feel that the accommodation in which they are placed is not just, shall we say, "parking time" but something more homelike? Therefore, does he further agree that those responsible for the conditions of such places should be made more responsible for ensuring that those conditions are reasonably suitable—and I emphasise that? Does the Minister also agree that the management of those premises is such that the accommodation can be made suitable? The Minister may agree that the conditions in some accommodation which the homeless use are not very good. Does the Minister agree with that—

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Milverton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a place for the Foyer system, which I shall bring into the debate next week? Does the Minister agree with those two points?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the Government share the concerns of my noble friend as regards the standards which are available to those in temporary accommodation. In my original Answer I mentioned the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities to which, by law, the authorities must have regard. Indeed, local authorities have significant powers and discretion to control standards of basic amenities and fire safety in such buildings. The Government also understand exactly what my noble friend was referring to when he said that these institutions should be as much like home as possible. That is why the standards and circumstances of these places are monitored very closely.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that it is entirely due to government policy that repossessions are set to rise and that that will mean

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many people who were home owners will be homeless? Does he further agree that they will be homeless because local authorities have been prohibited from using their own capital receipts to build houses and that housing associations have had their grants cut? Is that not both socially destructive and morally wrong?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is speculating as to whether repossessions will rise as a result of government policy. We have already discussed in this House at some length why capital receipts must be subject to rules and regulations. Debt redemption is possibly more important. I also point out to the noble Lord that all homelessness statistics now show a fall. That reflects the fact that the Government are targeting resources correctly in terms of their homelessness responsibilities. I further point out to the noble Lord that in the financial year 1995-96 we have committed £1.15 billion to the Housing Corporation capital spending.

Baroness Faithfull: My Lords, does not my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a very real difficulty as between the Department of Social Security and the Department of the Environment, in that the former department does not allow social security for 16 to 18 year-olds? Therefore, they cannot find accommodation; because they cannot find accommodation they cannot find a job; and because they cannot find a job they cannot find accommodation. Furthermore, does my noble friend further agree that Centrepoint has done extraordinarily good work in diminishing the amount of homelessness among young people and has set up very good accommodation for them?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising those points. I do not believe that there is any lack of co-ordination between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Social Security. There is a statutory requirement within local authorities for the housing department to co-operate with the social services department. Where their duties are overlapping in order to meet the needs of households they must have regard for each other's services. I also point out to my noble friend that the Government are helping to fund the Foyer initiative which comes from France. It is designed to help young people to find both accommodation and jobs at the same time. I endorse my noble friend's admiration for Centrepoint and for all the other voluntary organisations which have been involved in the Rough Sleepers Initiative in central London.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the Government are simply playing around the fringes of what is a great problem? Can he explain why the Government are not allowing local authorities to build houses for people who are homeless, although they are anxious and willing to do so? Precisely why do not the Government give them the power to do that?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, we are certainly not playing around the fringes of the problem. The homelessness figures for England are down by 7 per cent.

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As I said, this is the 11th quarter running that the figures have fallen. The number of families accepted into temporary accommodation is 11 per cent. fewer than a year previously. Placements in bed-and-breakfast hotels are down 12 per cent. on the previous year and are now 68 per cent. below their peak in September 1991. Government policies are therefore going to the heart of the problem. We are not playing around the fringes.

Baroness Macleod of Borve: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Rough Sleepers Initiative is a great success? Can he tell the House how much money the Government are putting into that initiative, which I understand is likely to come to an end next year? Can my noble friend comment on that point?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, as my noble friend says, all commentators agree that the Rough Sleepers Initiative has been a great success. Since 1990 the Government have put £180 million into that initiative, which aims to make it unnecessary for anyone to have to sleep rough in central London. Perhaps I can bring some comfort to my noble friend by saying that the Government recently announced that they will continue to fund a programme to help people sleeping rough in central London beyond March 1996.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, does not the noble Earl agree that one of the most destructive things for a family and for children's ability to develop and grow is to have inadequate and temporary housing? Does he agree that it is penny wise, pound foolish for the Government to concentrate solely on debt redemption if the results of that policy are that large sums of money are being paid to the private landlords of temporary accommodation and that many thousands of construction workers are out of work, with all the necessary costs that that imposes on the Exchequer, while presenting a very poor future for the housing and construction industry as a whole? Does the noble Earl agree that it would make more sense to concentrate on solving the problem instead of insisting that local authorities do more to help people who are caught up by all the problems of temporary housing?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I think that I have already demonstrated in the figures that I have given that we are solving the problem. The Government are not complacent about homelessness. Wherever homelessness occurs and for whatever reason, it is a concern of the Government. All the statistics point to an encouraging trend, however. I could not agree more with the noble Baroness—indeed, the Government could not agree more—that bed-and-breakfast hotels are unsuitable as temporary accommodation for families with children. We have issued strict guidance which is intended to discourage that practice. By law, local authorities must have regard to it.

The noble Baroness returned to the issue of debt redemption. As she knows, there are many rules and regulations about capital receipts. Their primary purpose is to ensure that local authority debt can be reduced. However, there are also incentives so that when some

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types of asset are sold by local authorities a much higher proportion of the capital receipt arising can be used for local housing.

Battersea Power Station

2.47 p.m.

Lord Gisborough asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether Battersea power station can now be pulled down and pleasantly redeveloped.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, proposals for the future use of any site are a matter for the owner of the land concerned in the first instance.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree that Battersea power station is an increasingly dilapidated eyesore across the river? Does he further agree that if someone were to apply for planning permission to build four 300-foot chimneys, it would quite rightly be thrown out, so there is little justification for keeping the ones that are there already? Furthermore, does my noble friend agree that now would be an apt time to remove listing from that building so that it can be redeveloped during the present period of fine architecture?

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