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Highgrove House, Ruislip

Volume 640: debated on Thursday 18 May 1961

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

10.13 p.m.

I beg to draw attention tonight to a house called Highgrove House, situated in Ruislip in my constituency, which is a rest centre for homeless families. This house, which would appear to be of Victorian origin, is a shell and consists of 20 rooms. It is used for the purpose of accommodating homeless families, and as such has been under the control of the hitherto Socialist-controlled Middlesex County Council.

Could the hon. Gentleman tell us who actually purchased Highgrove House and took it over? Was it the Socialist-controlled council?

No, it was not, but let me say that, having visited that house and having regard to the Socialist-controlled council having seen the conditions there, nothing could be more descriptive of typical Socialist incompetence, and, in regard to this particular property, sheer callousness.

It is rather a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not look at it before the Socialist-controlled council took it over.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to interrupt, either in an Adjournment debate or any other debate, he has only to rise to his feet. The fact of the matter was that responsibility lay on that council, and that it has fallen down on that responsibility in a most disgraceful manner, which I hope to describe to the House.

As I was saying before I was interrupted, there are 20 rooms in the house, and at the time the Socialists were in control of the council there were as many as 19 of 20 dispossessed families there, with about 40 adults, male and female, together with about 90 children. On 29th April, I visted the house with Councillor Leslie Freeman. I was horrified and distressed beyond measure by what I found and saw. In one room a man and his wife were living with no less than nine children. I repeat that they were living in one room.

I remember going into another room in which a young couple had arrived the previous day. The room was only 12 or 13 ft. by 14 ft. It housed a man and his wife and four children. I do not blame the council for this, but the conditions were not helped by that family, because it was a warmish day and the windows were shut tight and there was a fire roaring to the ceiling. The stench and the dirty clothing and washing were out of this century. Having visited the house or hostel which was under the surveillance and responsibility of a competent local authority, I can honestly say without in any way exaggerating that the conditions which I found there were in the tune of Dickens and a modern concentration camp. I felt bitterly ashamed.

On a point of order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but this is an Adjournment debate and the time is limited. I do not know if the hon. Member intends to give time for my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) to say anything. So far we have simply listened to a political polemic against a local authority. As I understand it, the point of an Adjournment debate is to bring out the Minister's responsibility. It looks as if there is no responsibility on the Minister if the supervision is with the Middlesex County Council.

An Adjournment debate rests on the question of Ministerial responsibility.

I knew that I should be interrupted on this, because naturally those responsible who sit opposite have sensitivity of feeling which in the short time available——

I am not responsible in any way. I do not live in Middlesex and I have nothing to do with the Middlesex County Council. If the hon. Gentleman would come off his party politics for a while and get down to the administrative problems of the area, we could get on with the discussion. He is simply abusing the Adjournment to make political polemic points.

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can advise me if there is any Ministerial responsibility.

The responsibility for the welfare of the homeless in this House rests under the National Assistance Act with my Department operating through the local authority.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I thought it right to draw this matter to her attention, because in the main in principle this was a matter for the local authority. I was asked some time ago to visit the house, because there was naturally an outcry in my constituency that such conditions should be allowed to exist in an otherwise well-run and thoroughly highly organised area or district. I was hoping that those responsible at the time would have taken action in the matter. It is only right to say that some action—I need hardly say precious little—has been taken.

The position has improved to this extent. After the outcry, and the tremendous public indignation which was felt about this hostel, which is called "Heartbreak House"—and rightly, I say, having seen it—the county council at long last saw fit to install a full-time warden in the person of Mr. Gardner, whom I saw and to whom I wish to pay tribute because, under the most difficult conditions, that man is obviously doing his very best, and has introduced some measure of order——

I think a matter of about two months, or it may be three, but I will not be pinned down——

There must be an inaccuracy in this. There has been a full-time warden for years.

There is not—I can say that with absolute certainty. That is one of the main charges I lay against the authority concerned. There has not always been a full-time warden, and that was one of the main measures that were taken——

Order. This is not the time to lay charges against the local authority concerned. It is a question of Ministerial responsibility.

I am much obliged, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Hon. Members opposite may feel indignant about what I say, but let me tell them that if they had been there with me on 29th April their feelings of indignation at what I saw would have been exactly the same. Let there be no mistake about it, I fully realise the tremendous difficulties which the local authority has to face with this type of displaced family, but if hon. Members opposite had seen those conditions I think that they would have said, "These are dreadful conditions; conditions that should never be allowed in England in the year 1961, but never in any circumstances under the auspices and cloak of authority of a body so well known and, indeed, respected as the Middlesex County Council".

It is the most pathetic thing I have seen for a very long time, and the time has come for someone in authority to decide—and eventually that supreme authority must rest with the Government—that this house of 20 rooms only is not suitable for this type of reception of this type of family.

At the time when there was no warden there—and I do not withdraw that in any way, because I am absolutely sure of my point, and I am sure that the hon. Member will accept that conditions were quite appalling—children contracted dysentery because the passages were being used as lavatories, and nothing else. Indeed, on the day that I was there at least one window was broken, and when I pointed it out to the warden, he said, "Oh, there is nothing in that. That sort of thing happens literally every day". I must say that not a single family in Highgrove—or "Heartbreak House", as it is rightly and properly known—comes from my constituency. They all come from other areas, and in my view they really are in great need of help.

I have no doubt whatever that the county council as at present constituted has begun to take steps in the matter, and it is only fair to say that once there was an outcry, as there was in the local Press—and, indeed, in the national Press—the Socialist county council did go so far as to reduce the number of families from 20 to 15, and to appoint a warden. I have seen the new conditions that have resulted and, having seen them for myself, I say again that they are totally inadequate.

This particular building should be put to another purpose. I fully understand the difficulty the county council has and I am sure that the present county council—and I do not wish to make a political speech, although I have been accused of doing so—

I know that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) will agree that every now and then one comes across a disgraceful scandal of this nature. One can raise it locally, in the county council and in the local Press, but the time eventually comes when the Minister must take cognisance of what is going on, and that, with respect, is what I ask her to do tonight.

10.26 p.m.

Highgrove House is part of the temporary accommodation provided by Middlesex County Council under Section 21 (1, b) of the National Assistance Act, of 1948, which requires local authorities to provide temporary accommodation for persons who are in urgent need of it, in circumstances which cannot reasonably have been foreseen or in other circumstances, at the authority's discretion.

The provision was primarily intended to meet emergencies due to floods, fire and similar disasters, but it has, in practice, been used mainly for families which have become homeless due to eviction for non-payment of rent, or for other reasons, and inability to find fresh accommodation. Homeless families are a major problem of the Middlesex County Council, particularly where, as in the case of most of the families in Highgrove House, they have little claim on any housing authority for rehousing at the present time.

I know, and I am aware that the council know, that conditions in Highgrove House are unsatisfactory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood (Mr. Crowder) has described. In fairness to the council which, as I have explained, has responsibility in this matter, we should bear in mind the difficulties which have been embarrassing them.

Firstly, in general the families who have to be provided with temporary accommodation in Highgrove House are, by their nature, very difficult and offer one of the toughest social problems in the local authority welfare service. There are, of course, exceptions and my hon. Friend knows of one case that was quoted at some length in the Press—and that family has shown what can be done to improve the home's surroundings for their children.

Secondly, the council has had difficulty in staffing Highgrove House, and for one recent period there was no resident warden for the accommodation. The previous warden and his wife resigned and the position was vacant from 1st January this year until 23rd February, and I think that the fact that they were without a resident warden contributed to the conditions which my hon. Friend saw when he made his visit because, without proper supervision, it is obvious that conditions in a home of this type will rapidly deteriorate.

Thirdly, the council has been working out a scheme to improve substantially the existing conditions. It will provide for additional toilet facilities, adequate hot water supply, communal kitchens on each floor, a medical inspection room, new floor coverings, fuel bunkers, and so on.

My hon. Friend will be glad to know—this is news I have for him—that we have received the council's application for loan sanction this week to do the improvements. We are studying the application at the Ministry, and I can promise that there will be no delay on our part to speed the scheme through. In passing, I should say also that my Department's officers visited the hostel in February and they have been in touch with the local authority's officers about the improvements needed. The numbers of families accommodated at the hostel have been reduced already in preparation for the work of improvement.

The council has been reluctant to embark on any wholesale redecoration of the premises until the major scheme of repairs and improvements could be completed. It has, however, continued to spend money each year on essential repairs and decorations.

The problem of dealing with homeless and difficult families is acute in the Greater London area. The county council is, therefore, compelled to use all the available temporary accommodation it possesses. This hostel was the first to be opened by Middlesex County Council. There has been increasing pressure to close it, but, while the problem remains with it, the council cannot take that step. In brief, therefore, the position is that the council cannot avoid using Highgrove House for the present. It is aware of the deficiencies and it has prepared a substantial scheme of improvements.

Criticism of the council, which my hon. Friend has voiced tonight and which I have read in the newspapers, can be only on the score of the timing of the improvements. The council knew the need; the question is whether the improvements could or should have been carried out at an earlier stage, bearing in mind the other urgent calls on the council's resources. I am sure that the council will consider carefully what my hon. Friend has had to say when it considers in its turn how it might accelerate the proposed improvements. As I have said already, we in the Ministry will do all we can to help.

It would be unfair to the council to focus attention solely on conditions at Highgrove House without referring to the arrangements made generally by the county council for the care of homeless families. In the county as a whole, the council has provided seven hostels for families including the father and three for women and children. Included in this total are two new homes recently added. About 136 families are accomodated. The acquisition of a further property has been approved for use as a rehabilitation centre where the council intends to give intensive rehabilitation to selected families. An experienced social worker has recently been appointed to help with the rehabilitation of difficult families.

I am encouraged, and I am sure my hon. Friend will be encouraged also, to learn that progress is being made also, in co-operation between the housing, health, welfare, children's and other services, not only to deal with families who are homeless, but also to prevent the deterioration of families in council houses and to forestall their eviction. I cannot stress too firmly the value of this preventive work and the hope that it offers for the future in dealing with these social problems as early as possible, before the final desperate stage is reached when families are evicted and have to be put into temporary accommodation.

On the broader front, therefore, the council's record is encouraging. The aim is to keep these families together and to sustain them, first, in the interests of the children; second, to try to ensure by preventive and educational work that the children of these families are helped to become good parents themselves in later life; third, to forestall the development of a great number of social problems, including delinquency, which can have their origin in this kind of family background; fourth, to prevent families having to be taken into temporary accommodation and/or the children into care.

I know from experience as a member of a local authority that taking a child into care, as has happened with some of the children of the families in this hostel, is the least satisfactory solution and the most costly to public funds. Again, therefore, I wholeheartedly encourage the preventive work which the council is undertaking. The council is making progress along those lines.

It cannot happen quickly because of the complex nature of the problem, the housing difficulties in the area and the urgent needs of other people on the housing lists, which must not be overlooked. It would be wrong, as all hon. Members would agree, to give priority to the families in this temporary accommodation at the expense of other people who have patiently been waiting their turn on the housing lists.

It is a challenging problem requiring infinite patience and deep understanding, but it is an important one and I am sure that the council will continue to do all it can through the coordination of the available services to develop the provision for the rehabilitation of these families and to prevent their deterioration.

There can be no doubt about the efforts which the council is making generally to cope with the problem of homeless families, in spite of the difficulties involved. My Ministry will do all it can through its regional officers to help and encourage this further. It may be that in concentrating on development of services elsewhere, with a view to reducing the numbers of families in Highgrove so that upgrading could be undertaken, the improvements at Highgrove House have been delayed longer than would have been hoped The improvement plans have now been prepared and submitted, as I have already announced in the House, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood will be able to see these improvements implemented in the near future

10.37 p.m.

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the vindication she has given of this "wicked" Socialist council to which the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder) referred. His speech was completely out of context. It was a diatribe which was quite unjustified by the facts, and I hope that he will recognise——

. The hon. Member did not even know the facts. He told me that the place was never without a warden. My hon. Friend and I have told him that it was

I did not say that the place was never without a warden for short periods. It had always been the policy of the county council to have a whole-time warden at Highgrove House. The hon. Member failed to refer to the fact that there had always been a full-time warden except for a period when we were unable to get one because one had left.

This is a deliberate misuse of the facts. I am glad that the Minister has said what she has. It has always been a matter of great concern to the Socialist county council at least, because the innovations to which the hon. Lady has referred, including the adaptations and also the work which is to be done at Highgrove House, have not suddenly occurred in the last three weeks. All this is part of the planning done by the previous council. I am not arguing that had it been Tory-controlled, the council would not have done it. The answer is that the building was acquired during the time of a Tory county council and not during the time of a Socialist county council. During the period of the Socialist council, the number of families who were there previously was reduced.

I know the difficulties that have faced the council throughout. I would not have mentioned this in a party spirit had it not been for the unwarranted attack which has been made, which even my Conservative friends will agree was entirely unwarranted. We are doing our best. We shall continue to do all we possibly can. The policy that we have established will continue to be pursued, particularly with regard to rehabilitation, the rehabilitation unit and the rehabilitation workers. It was not, perhaps, enthusiastically received at the time, but we managed to ensure that the unit should be working so that we might do something for these unfortunate families.

On the rehabilitation side, we are worried most about getting these people back into houses. It has been the policy to co-operate as far as possible with the local councils. We have cajoled and persuaded them until most of them have agreed that they will let us have one house a year for the housing of these families. In many cases, we are still left with many homeless families who are supposed to be in need of temporary accommodation and who have been with us for many years, and in some cases it looks as if they will be with us for very many years yet.

I wish to say "Thank you" to the Minister. She has set out the case very fairly indeed. She understands the problem, and she has seen to it that, at last, a fair reply has been given to some rather unwarranted accusations.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.