Skip to main content

The Social Security Advisory Committee

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 19 March 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move amendment No. 62, in page 13, line 36, after 'give', insert

'(whether in pursuance of a reference under this Act or otherwise)'.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 63.

Our long debate on the Social Security Advisory Committee's duty is not limited to matters referred to that committee by the Government. We had always intended to ask that committee and the Northern Ireland Department to give advice on matters that affected them. In these amendments, therefore, we are seeking to fulfil an undertaking which I gave during the seventeenth sitting of the Standing Committee which was to consider whether something in the same spirit as Opposition amendment No. 324 should be put down by the Government.

These amendments are purely declaratory. Their substance is already implicit in the Bill. We are adding nothing to the committee's powers, but like the Opposition we acknowledge that declaratory provisions are sometimes very valuable. These two amendments will ensure that the advisory committee's duty to give advice and assistance to the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Department is not merely limited to matters referred to it by Government.

Certainly we would not consider these amendments to be declaratory amendments. They are qualifying amendments which add some substance to Clause 9 as presently drafted, which gave rise to lengthy discussion in Committee. Whatever the assurance in the text of the debate may have been, so far as one could interpret the text of the Bill there was an implied restraint on matters which would be referred to the advisory committee by the Secretary of State

"in connection with the discharge of his functions under the relevant enactments".
I am quoting from the Bill.

To insert an explicit provision that that committee can give advice, whether in pursuance of a reference under this Act or otherwise, is a significant advance. I wish to suggest, in view of recent events, one or two matters that could be picked by the committee or which the Government could enable it to consider soon after it has been set up.

The hon. Lady and the Minister will recall that time and again in Committee—I think I made general reference to it on Second Reading—I argued for a wider approach to social policy, what has loosely become known as "joint approach to social policy", and said that a lead should be taken by Ministers at the Department of Health and Social Security even where other Departments and Ministers were involved. It was this that caused me the greatest concern, although there were other issues that concerned hon. Members. That is what I wish to see acted upon quickly.

Among some of the examples that I gave in Committee of the need for crossing the borders between the DHSS and other Departments were important housing policy matters and hostel and housing association policy matters. It turned out later in Committee that they had considerable relevance to the full debate on what might be called the CHAR—Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless—amendments, two more of which it was hoped would be reached earlier in our proceedings this evening. I do not know what my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) will have to say about the CHAR aspect, if he has the opportunity, in the context of the wider remit for the advisory committee.

The implication of Government amendments Nos. 62 and 63 is that, although its title may remain the same, the committee is becoming potentially a kind of social policy review committee. I suggested that a title along those lines should be adopted in place of the name in the Bill.

I want to refer to a matter that I believed should be urgently referred to the committee under its broader remit, or that the committee should be enabled by the Department to consider. It arises from schedule 2, which speaks of the Secretary of State's powers to establish "resettlement units", as they will now be called, or to require local authorities—the categories of which are listed—to exercise the functions of the Secretary of State in this connection. At present the Secretary of State is directly responsible for the reception centres, as they are now called, run by the DHSS. There is a widening of the scope for the future. I do not wish to pursue that matter now, because I should probably be out of order.

With the wider remit resulting from the amendments, the Committee should have referred to it, or be enabled with the Department's full support to consider, the problems of the single rootless. It should be able to consider the problems that have arisen from the initiative in London undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) and myself and then taken up by the Under-Secretary when we left office last May. That was intended to resolve the problems of the reception centres by getting people out of the DHSS sector and into the housing sector, having them rehoused by local authorities. Major problems have emerged. It is a ripe subject for the advisory committee to consider under its wider remit. What has happened over the years, and particularly in the past 12 months, which we discussed at some length in Committee, should be taken up by the advisory committee.

The advisory committee should deal with that matter against the wider background of the growing pressure of single people, particularly the poor and the rootless in the big cities. It is a major problem. It was largely that problem that gave rise to the horror of what happened in the hostel in my constituency earlier this week, in Salusbury Road, Kilburn, a horror that it is difficult to grasp even now.

I am not making any judgment on what happened. A major investigation is being carried out by the local authority, in consultation with the fire brigade. But there is no doubt that there was severe overcrowding in the hostel. It had in occupation about double the number of people that should have been provided for. Whatever else may come out of the investigation, the reason why I want the advisory committee to consider the question under its wider remit is that there is great and growing pressure in certain parts of our cities on the single rootless, poverty-stricken people—the same sort of people as lived in that hostel.

Nine people died in the horror of that fire. Another incident has already been referred to. There was a near horror in East London only a day after the fire in Kilburn. The issue should be urgently considered. There should be an investigation. In addition the adequacy of adaptation of those multi-occupied buildings—formerly described as common lodging houses—should be examined. That examination should cross departmental boundaries. The Home Office, the Department of the Environment and the DHSS are all involved. Many of those buildings have inadequate provision for fire protection, and they lack basic human living conditions.

9.45 pm

Many other incidents could be quoted. I welcome the amendment. Perhaps the Social Security Advisory Committee will take up those incidents. Some of us are in touch with specialists about the horror that occurred in Kilburn. I am in touch with the chief fire officer in London and with my local authority of Brent. That authority is mounting a full investigation. I seek something wider. I seek an assurance from the Minister that it will be possible for the SSAC to consider such incidents. A full investigation is needed, not only into the basic facts of the Kilburn and East London horrors, but into the type of legislative change required. Such legislation might involve the need for better fire protection and better adaptation and management of accommodation for the single homeless and rootless. It is most important to make a factual investigation into the resource needs of specific inner city areas. Such areas give rise to the majority of problems affecting single homeless people. By "resource needs", I mean the resources required to meet the growing housing and welfare needs that now emerge. We need hostels. Work should be undertaken by housing associations, local authorities, and the DHSS. There should be financial support for local authorities, individuals, and housing associations. The Minister will have power to delegate to local authorities, under the Bill when amended.

The Social Security Advisory Committee should use the powers proposed in the amendment to investigate what needs to be done. That investigation is urgently needed. The horrors of this week may occur elsewhere. The pressures that give rise to such horrors exist. No accommodation is available for those in need. Less accommodation will become available. The work of housing associations has been slashed by 50 per cent. this year. New buildings and conversions will be cut by 50 per cent. in 1980. In addition, local authority programmes have been cut by more than one-third. Housing associations will be unable to buy up or build the properties required. I am not discussing a national housing effort. Such problems must be debated elsewhere and at other times. I am dealing with an issue about which the Minister should be concerned.

Certain parts of our cities do not have sufficient resources, and what resources are available are being slashed sharply. Housing associations are having their programmes cut by 50 per cent. in one year. These are the organisations that would otherwise help meet the needs of single, rootless, homeless people.

The problem is urgent. The Government should base their policy on a factual investigation. I hope that the Government will enable the Social Security Advisory Committee to undertake an investigation as quickly as possible, against the background of the widening amendment which the Government moved and which we welcome.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) for giving us the opportunity for this debate. It is sad that it has taken the tragic events of the past few days to highlight the matter. I hope that the Minister will seriously reconsider the issue.

The amendment seeks to insert, after "give":
"(whether in pursuance of a reference under this Act or otherwise)"
regarding advice and assistance to the Secretary of State. Will the committee advise the Secretary of State on the problems referred to by my right hon. Friend? If so, will that advice include setting a timetable for the closure of resettlement units, to be replaced by housing units—decent small hostels—and to include access to health and social care in the community for single homeless people?

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not go into the detail of what should be done about the specific and sad incident. He should limit himself to the amendment.

I have dealt with the tragic incidents which are coincidental to the debate.

I hope that the Minister's reply will be "Yes". I hope that a timetable will he set in line with our proposals in amendments No. 40 and 60, which we shall, unfortunately, not reach. If the Minister can assure me that such advice will be given to the Secretary of State, it will do much to allay our fears that the issue may go by default.

I am surprised that our innocuous amendment has given rise to a debate on previous amendments. Our good intentions are being used as a peg to debate wider issues. I cannot speak for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment or his col leagues on housing matters. Neither would it be right for me to comment on the tragedies that occurred this week.

Following what the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) said, I remind the House of what I said in Committee, as reported in columns 1345–1350. The Social Security Advisory Committee cannot be tied down to particular inquiries. We are seeking to make sure that it is known that it will not simply investigate matters referred to it by Government but also other relevant matters. We repeatedly said in Committee that it must be up to the advisory committee to decide what it should undertake in addition to its duty to look at regulations and remits from the Secretaries of State for Social Services and Northern Ireland.

Of course, it would be possible within certain limits, for the committee to undertake inquiries of the type suggested by the right hon. Member for Brent, East if it regarded that to be one of its priorities. However, on some of these issues that have been mentioned in the debate it may be that other bodies, perhaps Committees of the House, would be more appropriate to look into such matters.

We want to make clear in the legislation that the advisory committee is not limited in the way that some Labour Members felt that it might be. Whatever the outcome of the necessary investigations into current tragedies and measures to prevent future tragedies, all of that must be a matter for the advisory committee. It is certainly not excluded, but it is a matter for another debate.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 63, in page 13, line 39, after 'give', insert:

'(whether in pursuance of a reference under this Act or otherwise)'.—[Mrs. Chalker.]