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Hostels And Lodging Houses

Volume 974: debated on Thursday 29 November 1979

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton].

10.2 pm

I am extremely grateful to the House for giving me the opportunity to debate the conditions in the lodging houses and hostels in this country, conditions which have such tragic and appalling consequences for people who have to live in this type of accommodation.

I make it clear from the outset that this is not a political attack on the Government. These conditions have existed for far too long for me to lay that charge. I lay the blame at the door of successive Governments who could have legislated in a mandatory manner to make local authorities carry out certain functions instead of giving them the option to use their powers if they so desired. In the main they have not used those powers and this has resulted in some dreadful accidents, the consequences of which have been terrible for those involved.

I shall draw attention to some of these conditions and their results. I shall list one or two cases that have occurred in the past 12 months. I shall not accept that the fact that there have been deaths by fire in three large cities in this type of establishment is the end of the story. Unless a start is made now—I know that it cannot be done overnight—to eradicate these conditions, I have no doubt at all that at some time in the future there will be reports of more tragedies in the press.

First, I shall deal with a fire that took place in the city of Leeds last year. I represent a constituency in Leeds but I must make it clear that the establishment concerned is not in my constituency; it is in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Mr. Cohen). Before I go any further I shall pay tribute to the organisation CHAR, which formulated these reports and which is the mainspring behind the ideas that we want to put across in this House. We have formed an all-party committee, which has been looking at this problem for some time.

I now start the catalogue of tragedies that have occurred. Grove hostel, Leeds, a privately owned hostel with 55 beds, was in a disgusting state of disrepair and mismanagement, with a leaking roof, broken flooring and no proper heating. It was utterly filthy and damp. Despite the repeated warnings by the West Yorkshire branch of CHAR during the first halt of 1978 about the health and safety dangers to residents, the Leeds city council declined to take any urgent action to tackle the conditions, finding the existing standards to be "satisfactory". But the Leeds environmental health department made no fewer than 108 inspections of the hostel between December 1974, the date of the last fire authority visit, and June 1978, which was the date of the hostel fire.

The cost of these inspections to the ratepayers of Leeds must have been enormous and would have been avoided if the council had carried out its responsibility towards hostel residents from the start. Yet the secretary of the local community health council observed, after her visit to the hostel in 1978:
"I worked in South East Asia at one time and stayed in very poor 'hotels' with bedbugs on occasion and without sanitation, but I think the Grove is the dirtiest place I have seen".
The community health council visit found that two of the residents were seriously ill and required hospitalisation, and that no arrangements had been made for general practitioner cover for the hostel. The fire that destroyed the Grove hostel in early June 1977 killed two elderly residents—a 77-year-old retired caretaker and a 67-year-old labourer.

The subsequent coroner's inquiry revealed an official muddle over fire precautions legislation. It is a tragic irony that many of the residents made homeless by fire were then offered satisfactory council flat tenancies. The seeming impotence of local authorities to tackle shockingly low hostel standards is by no means confined to Leeds; it can be encountered in practically every major town and city.

I give as an example the Zambesi café, in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, a privately owned café with six or seven bedrooms, Following a complaint from CHAR at the end of last year about the unhygienic conditions and severe overcrowding, Birmingham environmental health department made 37 inspections in 1979. There is a long article in the current issue of Shelter's housing magazine, Roof. It shows that a follow-up investigation conducted by Roof found that the conditions were virtually unchanged. It found the same degree of overcrowding, the same dangerously exposed wiring, particularly in a bathroom, inadequate fire precautions, and so on.

I turn now to an example in Everton, Liverpool, where a 200-bed privately owned lodging house had to be taken over by Liverpool city council at the beginning of this year. Prior to the council takeover, conditions, in the words of the local community health council's secretary, "defied description". Lavatory facilities consisted of external stall privies in a disgusting state. Inside, open buckets were placed in dormitories. There was a lack of washing facilities and of heating, suitable lighting and mains drinkingwater. The floors were mainly uncovered boards, and the basement was infested with rats, yet the owner claimed, in late 1978:
"We have conformed to health building regulations and fire standards."
I pay tribute to the publicity that the Daily Star has given in highlighting the conditions and profiteering that exists in some of those establishments. Conditions in some are beyond belief. Other surveys have been taken which show that there are high statistics for bronchitis, tuberculosis, and lung cancer among those subjected to that type of accommodation.

It is about time that we gave priority to the major cities and densely populated conurbations, where the problem lies. Although major cities still have a housing problem, we have started to erode most of the squalor inherited after the war. Most of the larger cities are well on their way with their major slum clearance programmes. However, if the problem is not highlighted and if a start is not made now, there will be serious consequences. There may be a repetition of the three disasters that killed and maimed people last year.

The Government may think of increasing penalties for any contravention of certain Acts. They may think of increasing subsidies in order to eliminate those conditions. A strange comparison can be made. Under the Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963, the maximum fine for an offence is £25, or three months' imprisonment. It is a measure of the obsolescence of the 1936 Act that some of the penalties imposed under it amount to £5 in relation to human beings—against a £25 fine for offences relating to animals in the 1963 Act.

If that is allowed to continue, society will be standing its priorities on its head. The age of the two casualties involved in the Leeds fire was no coincidence. A survey, commissioned by the DHSS and published in 1976, showed that one in five of all hostel residents is over retirement age. The report expressly excluded specialist hostels for the after-care of ex-psychiatric patients from the survey but revealed that at least 5 per cent. of residents have undergone recorded spells of mental hospital treatment. It estimated that 38 per cent. of residents had experienced some form of mental illness.

Of the nine victims involved in the Clacton hostel fire last Christmas, five were former psychiatric hospital patients and one was a former patient of a hospital for the mentally handicapped. The Essex divisional fire officer said after the fire:
"These people need not have died. There were no proper fire precautions at all. If there had been, I am sure the victims would have been alive today."
I shall refer to some comparisons in surveys made between those living in normal accommodation and those who have the misfortune to live in this type of accommodation. The national dwelling and housing survey of the Department of the Environment revealed in 1978 that 91·4 per cent. of all households had sole use of the basic amenities in their homes; 94·3 per cent. of all households had sole use of a bath or shower in their home and 92·9 per cent. of all households had sole use of an inside closet. Let us compare those figures with the Government survey. The 1976 Government survey of hostels and lodging houses covered 674 establishments providing 31,137 beds. By the very low standards of the 1962 Ministry of Housing interim lodging house standard, they were as follows: five beds to every washbasin, eight beds to every toilet and 12 beds to every bath or shower. The standards therefore assume that no one has sole use. The Government survey also found that 51 per cent. of those beds fell below all three standards and 78 per cent. fell below one of the standards.

The situation has existed for far too long. Local authorities have a complexity of public health and fire precaution measures that they may use to deal with the problem, but the system is far too complex and unwieldy and ought to be discarded.

I should like to put some suggestions to the Minister. On the enforcement of standards, local authority confusion about whether to apply the Public Health Act 1936 or the Housing Acts 1957 and 1969 to these premises is not helped by an apparent inconsistency in the Department of the Environment's position. Does the Minister expect authorities to apply the outdated but mandatory duties of the 1936 Act or the permissive powers of the Housing Acts? If the latter, what guarantees of decent housing standards can those living in these places expect?

As the Department of the Environment is reviewing the operation of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, what will the Minister do to ensure that vulnerable people who have priority needs under the Act are found decent accommodation and not left at risk in these slums?

Finally I wish to refer to the question of exploitation. Contrary to the usual attacks on claimants for being scroungers, we now have mounting and disturbing evidence of homeless claimants being exploited by ruthless, uncontrolled owners of premises. Has the Minister any plans to investigate that abuse and to stamp it out, in co-operation with the Secretary of State for Social Services?

I started by thanking the House for giving me an opportunity to debate a tragic situation. I close by thanking the House sincerely for giving me a fair and wonderful hearing.

10.17 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) for giving me the opportunity to take part in the debate on this important subject. We could probably sustain a full-day debate on the conditions that are to be found in some of the hostels of which my hon. Friend knows and those of which members of the all-party CHAR group know in their constituencies.

I wish to mention just one hostel, a few minutes' drive from the House, on the other side of the river. The Tower Bridge hotel, in Southwark, is privately owned and the property is leased from the City of London corporation. It was once a pub and is now an extremely dilapidated lodging house providing 50 to 60 beds in small overcrowded dormitories.

The owner has been prosecuted twice by a concerned environmental health department in the borough, yet earlier this month CHAR investigated conditions at the hostel and found them to be utterly squalid. There is no other word for it. The squalor and filth were indescribable. The rooms were damp and had no proper heating. The lavatories were in disrepair, the passages were badly lit, the fire exit was obstructed, and there was severe overcrowding. That situation exists only a few minutes from the House.

There are no canteen at the hostel and no tea-making facilities, and the rent is £7·50 a week. Is it any wonder that many of the homeless to whom I speak—and hon. Members on both sides of the House are acquainted with the problem—prefer to sleep rough? They argue, with some justification, that it is more comfortable to sleep rough because some streets are cleaner than some hostels—and car ports, and even park benches, are warmer. We have to look at the problem in that context if we are to do anything about it.

I am sad, as I mentioned this confusion about fire hazards to the Secretary of State in a recent question. He compounded the confusion that existed about whose responsibility it was to enforce the fire hazard regulations. Is it a fire authority or local housing department responsibility? The Minister said that it was not his responsibility and that fire precautions were a matter for the Home Secretary. That was another confusion. The fire brigades, the housing departments and the Home Secretary are involved. Is it any wonder that there is confusion and an urgent need to tidy up this matter before there are further disasters?

One Minister with whom we discussed a recent attempt to introduce legislation on this matter told us that there were sufficient rules and laws, if implemented, with which to deal with the problem. I asked him a number of specific questions about the numbers of houses in this condition that were registered and the number of hostels in the London and other areas. He said that he did not keep figures. How can he justify the statement that there is sufficient legislation if, in the next breath, he says "We do not know about the matter, as we do not keep figures"?

I asked the Minister what plans he had to simplify the procedures, which, without doubt, are very complicated and scattered all over the statute book. He said that he had no such intention at present. We do not think that that is good enough. We, the members of the CHAR all-party parliamentary group, together with our organisations in the field, consider that this matter is of sufficient urgency to merit consideration now and not at some future date. I hope that the Minister will give us some hope when he replies to the debate.

10.22 pm

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are most grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) for initiating this debate. I certainly endorse most warmly the importance of the subject that he raised. Both he and the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) highlighted what are certainly some of the worst housing conditions faced by those who undoubtedly are amongst the most deprived and the most vulnerable. I also appreciate that other hon. Members on both sides of the House—and indeed others outside the House—have also recently been highlighting the bad conditions in certain hostels and lodging houses. I have also been concerned to read what was written by CHAR. I have also read the articles in the Daily Star and elsewhere in the press.

The central question relating to the proposals put forward by the hon. Member for Leeds, West is whether, given the enormous range of hostels and lodging houses, the range of conditions, the range of ownership and the range of people being accommodated, one should provide a basic statutory framework within which local authorities have discretion to deal with local circumstances as they see fit, or whether one should impose a universal statutory set of obligations on local authorities regardless of local circumstances. The present legislation, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is based on the former concept. Although local authorities certainly have discretion, there is no doubt that the existing legislation is very wide-ranging and far-reaching.

If I may summarise it briefly, the present legislation contains a very wide range of provisions that govern virtually every physical or structural aspect of the occupation and management of houses in multi-occupation, covering repairs, cleanliness, basic amenities, means of escape from fire, overcrowding, and good order. Where, in the view of the authorities, some or all of those matters are unsatisfactory, there are powers to require action, to penalise managers where the required action is not taken and, as a last resort, to take over management. The powers are certainly wide-ranging. The issue focused on by the hon. Gentleman, very properly, is whether the powers are being used sufficiently rigorously and extensively.

It is the case that for 18 years, since the passage of the 1961 Act, successive Governments have taken the view that the monitoring of this is the responsibility of the local authority. That is the explanation of the matter referred to by the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North—the lack of the kinds of statistics that he was anxious to establish.

It is evident to us, from the information that we have, that certainly the powers are being used by those authorities with which we have been in contact. The hon. Member for Leeds, West is well aware of the answers that I gave to him on 27th November, giving details of the 38 authorities that have been setting up registration schemes.

Let me turn now to the question of fires, to which the hon. Member for Leeds, West referred. I can assure him that I have personally examined the summaries that are available in the Department of fires that have recently taken place in hostels and boarding houses. I have also looked in some detail at the circumstances of the fire to which the hon. Member referred at the Grove hostel in Leeds.

I understand that evidence was given at that inquest that it was not the absence of fire precautions in the hostel that caused the problem but rather that the precautions had not been properly complied with. For instance, I understand that fire doors were left open. But I fully accept the seriousness of the point that the hon. Members for Leeds, West and St. Pancras, North have made.

In the few remaining minutes I shall set out some of the areas in which we wish to take further action. There are eight points in all.

First, since 1974 local authorities have been empowered to offer a grant called special grant to the owners or managers of houses in multiple occupation to assist them in meeting the costs of putting in extra basic amenities. It is proposed to extend the scope of special grant to cover work needed to secure means of escape from fire. Since local authorities have the power to require these means of escape, and such work can be quite expensive, it seems to us right and proper that authorities should be able to offer grant to enable the work to be done.

Second, the 1976 survey indicated that basic amenities were missing in many hostels and houses in multiple occupation. So, in addition to providing grant for means of escape, I intend to extend special grant further to include a contribution towards the cost of repairs which may be associated with the improvement work involved in installing these missing amenities. Where work is required by the authority, I propose that the offer of grant will be mandatory and not merely at the local authority's discretion.

Third, on another point to which the hon. Member for Leeds, West referred, I am considering with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary whether there is a case for updating the penalties provided for in the Housing Acts where owners or managers fail to register a house or to give information, permit overcrowding, or fail to comply with management regulations. I have been investigating the current level of penalties. I find that they are generally fines in the range of £20 to £100 and have not been updated in most cases since 1961. Therefore, I entirely take the hon. Gentleman's argument.

Fourth, it has been said that the existing legislation is complicated and difficult even for professional local authority officers to understand and implement. At my request, therefore, my officials have been in touch with the Law Commission, and I can tell the House that it has confirmed that the question of consolidating the Housing Acts is a priority item in its second programme of consolidation and statute law revision.

On the fifth point I agree with the two hon Members. It is clear to me that up-to-date information on the scale of the problems associated with hostels, lodging houses and houses in multiple occupation is sketchy and inadequate. For many local authorities involvement with this type of accommodation will either be non-existent or minimal because they do not have those problems. Others, I believe, will have built up substantial experience and expertise through their housing and environmental health services. So, to improve the information available, I have asked my Department's housing services advisory unit to visit a number of local authorities to discuss their problems and their use of existing legislation, and in the course of this to see conditions in a variety of hostels and lodging houses.

Sixth, there are encouraging signs that housing associations are becoming more active in the provision of hostels. The availability of housing association grant and hostel deficit grant has stimulated much of this activity, and the lever of financial support offers local authorities an effective and direct means of improving conditions themselves which they should use.

Seventh, the House should be aware that my Department is sponsoring a major research project on the accommodation problems of disadvantaged single people. The emphasis of the project is on single people's accommodation—their experience and preferences. I expect to receive the results of the report next year and I will arrange for them to be made available.

Finally, the visits being made by the housing services advisory unit, the work being done on our research project and the material being provided by outside bodies like CHAR and by hon. Members will all provide much better information. In the light of that, I will certainly give consideration to whether additional guidance needs to be given to local authorities or further action taken.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.