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Homelessness (Young People)

Volume 79: debated on Friday 24 May 1985

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1 pm

I am very glad to have had parliamentary time allocated to me for this important debate. My concern to secure the debate derived from the ever more disturbing evidence of homelessness among young people in Manchester; from my work as a trustee of the Disabilities Study Unit which, under the leadership of Duncan Guthrie, has worked so hard to focus attention on this grave and growing problem; from my knowledge of its consequences for some of the most vulnerable young people as a trustee of Crisis at Christmas; and from the powerful submissions to right hon. and hon. Members of this House from such widely respected organisations as Shelter, CHAR and MIND.

As the House rises for the Whitsun recess — and families unite for a holiday weekend together—it is not inappropriate that we should be debating this major social problem here today. The Government stand accused of giving the problem of the young homeless—or, as they are known in other countries, "street children" and "street youth" — scant attention and of showing little understanding of the human suffering involved. As the House knows, the Government have not entirely overlooked the problem. They recently introduced new rules for board and lodging payments, which are expressly designed to make it more difficult, not to say impossible, for young people to move into areas where they believe that employment may be available to them. First, they were advised to get on their bikes and look for work. Now they are punished for doing so.

SHADES, an excellent youth advisory project deeply involved in seeking to assist homeless young people in Manchester, see and work to help young people from my own constituency. With an increasing number of other youngsters they end up in the inner city, homeless because there is simply no suitable housing provision for them in their own localities. Some make their way to London and. when the lure of the bright lights fades and they have to face the harsh realities of the London streets, the lucky ones make their way to Centrepoint, which works, with all too limited resources, in the centre of Soho, providing emergency night shelter facilities as well as hostel accommodation and a small number of flats. The less lucky ones arrive at the accepted meeting places of the young homeless; in cafes and bars and at street corners where, in the company of other young people in the same predicament, they often take the first steps to drug dependency, crime of all sorts, including prostitution, both male and female, as rent boys and rent girls, and the general despair of homelessness.

The plight of the youngsters is now made worse by having to move from area to area to retain benefit. Unable to return to any particular area for six months, they are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) has said, almost driven into crime and prostitution. In this International Year of Youth, they become even more vulnerable to abuse. Young people who are handicapped, either physically or mentally, are the most vulnerable of all.

If anyone sees this as alarmist, they should reflect on the trial of Dennis Nilsen with its grim revelation of multiple murder. Even when the problem was less serious than it is today, Nilsen admitted he had no difficulty in picking up 22 young men where street youth congregate in London. They were lured to his flat and he murdered 15 of them. His young victims were unemployed, mostly homeless or at best living in squats and only too pleased at the prospect of a bed for the night. Recollection of the horror of that case, among others, must inform our judgment of the Government's decision to make it more difficult, not easier, for the young homeless to obtain safe lodgings.

Turning again to my own city, I am very strongly advised from Manchester—this is the view of the city's officers most directly concerned with their implementation — that the new regulations on board and lodging ceilings must be urgently reversed. One consequence of the regulations is that they will make young people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation homeless, and will therefore put them in the highest priority group on the rehousing list. This will put extra pressure on the local authority and have knock-on effects for other applicants.

Let me quote from the advice I have received from

"The impact in some places will be horrific. Young single homeless people may well be competing with other priority groups, for example, the elderly and medical priority cases, for a limited supply of small-sized dwellings…An ironic consequence of Manchester's humane and positive attitude could be to make the situation worse by making the city a centre to which young people will flock. At the same time, there is the danger of a backlash from other people on the rehousing list against the young people who are victims of the Government's new regulations."
All informed opinion believes that the Government are contributing further to the housing crisis and, because of the vulnerable age group on which they are picking, they could rapidly create major social tensions as well. The whole proposal is badly thought out. The levels of benefit are inadequate. They provide £55 for full board or £70 for hostels in Manchester, yet research carried out as long ago as June 1983 showed that £80 was a realistic figure for Greater Manchester. The Social Security Advisory Committee has admitted that the charges now payable are likely to create
"a class of rootless young people unable to find accommodation in one place, unable to find a job, and obliged by benefit rules to move around the country constantly."
This is a case where the Government are returning to pre-Victorian values. The proposals are a re-enactment of the old poor law which allowed parishes to send "sturdy beggars" on their way. It is not the way that any Government should treat our young people.

Last October, in reply to a parliamentary question that I put to the Secretary of State for the Environment, he informed me that there was no information available on the numbers of homeless adolescents and young people in London and the other major conurbations. I was given a similar reply by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. Figures are still unavailable, and I must now press the Government to obtain them. It must be a very mistaken sense of economy that leaves the statutory and voluntary sectors with no figures from which to work. Of course, all who work in the area know—as I was told by Shelter yesterday—that the numbers are increasing, especially among youngsters, boys and girls alike, under 16 years of age. More and more of them sleep rough in the streets.

In a further parliamentary question, I asked whether the DHSS would support a study being mounted jointly by the Disabilities Study Unit and European Research on Consumer Affairs to collect information on the voluntary organisations concerned with "street children" and "street youth" in the countries of the European Economic Community. The aim was to learn more about their objectives, their modus operandi and their sources of funding. In reply, I was told that an application would be considered on its merits. But when Duncan Guthrie, as director of the Disabilities Study Unit, submitted a proposal to the DHSS he was told:
"This Department's responsibilities in the area of homelessness are concerned with special care and support needs rather than homelessness per se".
This could only have meant that the DHSS was not prepared to take steps to cure the disease, only to treat some of the symptoms. I am glad to say that the Disabilities Study Unit has now been able to raise funds, partly from voluntary grant-making bodies and partly from the EC, and that this important study can now be put in hand. Sadly, however, a great deal of time has been spent in seeking financial support which could otherwise have gone into constructive research.

I must ask the Minister whether he agrees that the present piecemeal approach to the problem of homelessness among young people is hampering other valuable work in this sector? The DHSS, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of the Environment, the Home Office and local authorities are all involved in different, but not very clearly differentiated, aspects of the problem.

The voluntary organisations are often at a loss to know which Government Department they should contact. They are often at a loss, too, to understand what the Government are expecting of the voluntary sector and in what areas Government, both central and local, are likely to provide a grant-in-aid.

Again, there are reports of important differences of opinion between the DHSS and the Department of the Environment. What exactly are the differences, and to what extent do they concern the new regulations? As the Minister must know, the Minister responsible for home affairs and the environment in the Scottish Office, speaking to the Shelter conference on young people's housing needs in Edinburgh on 26 October 1984, made a statement on homelessness in Scotland which many in the voluntary sector would like to see endorsed by the Department of the Environment Minister. Will the Minister, in replying to the debate, endorse his Scottish colleague's statement?

There are some other specific questions that I must put to the Minister. First, can he tell me what evidence, if any, has been given to adjudication officers on how to determine whether someone under 26 claiming a board and lodging allowance is so disabled that it is unreasonable to expect him to be in accommodation other than as a boarder? Secondly, will he look very urgently at the effect of the new board and lodging regulations on disabled claimants?

In Shelter's experience, much difficulty has been caused by the way that DHSS offices have sent out notices to claimants informing them that their benefit will be reduced unless they can show that they fit into an exceptional category, without the Department having any adequate information to make such an assessment. To put the onus on, for example, people who are mentally, ill to show that they fit into an exceptional category is clearly highly unsatisfactory. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me on that.

Such people may not understand that they fall into the category of "mentally ill or disordered persons". Even if they do understand, they are likely to be reluctant to provide the DHSS with detailed evidence to prove the case. The implementation of the regulations raises important questions of privacy of information which I should like the Minister to address himself to when he replies.

MIND and CHAR have said in a joint statement:
"Government policies on hoard and lodging charges are creating even worse homelessness among single people, including those with mental health problems."
They also state—and I hope that the Minister will share my concern about their findings:
"Many people are forced to live in appallingly overcrowded conditions, often with poor sanitation, and certainly with little support or help if they have additional disabilities."
In other words, handicap piles on handicap for the young disabled people concerned.

A third specific question concerns the initiative of the Children's Society to make contact with the parents of the children of youngsters who have left home and to whom the society gives temporary shelter. The Minister will be familiar with this and will know that there are legal difficulties. The initiative puts the Children's Society in what has been called
"a grey area of the law"
and I shall be grateful if the Minister will both comment on the initiative and say whether the Government have any plans to change the law to protect the society which, as he knows, wants to be helpful to both child and parent. How does he react to what has been achieved, and is there any possibility of state funding for this and other initiatives? I regard it as a bold and innovative action by a well-respected and responsible voluntary organisation.

The House is, of course, aware of the United Nations projected convention on the rights of the child. Since 1979, a working party has, at the request of the United Nations General Assembly, been drafting a text for the convention. The United Kingdom's contribution has been minimal and this country is not among those which have submitted either amendments or addenda for the working party's final meetings. The answer may be that the Departments concerned are already fully satisfied with the text as drafted. Is that so?

The Government's attitude to the convention contrasts sharply with that of the voluntary sector concerned with homeless youth. In Strasbourg recently, voluntary workers from this country drafted with members of the European Parliament a motion which, in less than 24 hours, had been accepted for tabling in the European Parliament and was subsequently debated there.

It is now 10 years since the DHSS published the report of the working party on homeless young people set up in the wake of that frightening television documentary, "Johnnie, Go Home!" What has happened in those 10 years? The number of homeless children and young people has increased dramatically and is still increasing. The Government should now set up an independent working party to look again at the position of homeless youth in our large cities. I hope that they will be pressed to do so from both sides of the House. Even the briefest look at Times square in New York shows what can happen when too little is done too late.

The time has come to call together in a working party all the voluntary organisations with an interest in the young homeless, and that working party should be enabled to use the best tools of scientific research to look at the problem, its causes and ways in which it can be solved.

The problem can be solved. To govern is to choose and the problem is basically one of priorities and resources. If nothing is done and if the DHSS continues to penalise young people for growing up — for that is what it amounts to when they are forced on to the streets because they are young, out of work and looking for independence—we could soon find ourselves in deeper crisis.

As I have said, this is the International Year of Youth and 1987 is the International Year of the Homeless. What preparations are the Government making for 1987? What plans are there to reduce the cruelty of homelessness among young people? This debate gives the Government an opportunity to show that they appreciate the increasingly widespread concern about the young homeless. I implore the Minister at least to give them some hope. What hope can he offer to the "street children" and "street youth" in Britain today?

1.16 pm

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) has raised the subject of homelessness among young people. In doing so, he drew on his extensive background of personal knowledge and commitment and made a substantial case. This is a matter of public concern and it is right that the House should have the opportunity to review the present position.

I will begin by considering the situation in Manchester, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech I was interested to read the report of the director of housing entitled, "Strategy for housing single people in need", and I believe that that report has been adopted by the council. I was interested to see the proposals now coming forward from Manchester to try to deal with homelessness. At this stage, there is a problem about the cost of the submissions put forward. We have made it clear to the council that we have no objection to what it proposes to provide. It is simply a matter of the cost of the particular propositions before us. I believe that the strategy adopted by the council is correct.

It is interesting to note that on the general needs index Manchester did not score at all on the homelessness indicator in 1984–85 and scored only 0·5 on the weighted homelessness indicator for the current year out of a total weighted GNI score of 499. That may indicate that the problems of homelessness in Manchester are less severe than in other parts of the country.

I was also interested to see that the housing corporation in Manchester provided housing associations in the area with £665,000 last year for hostels, mainly for the single homeless, and that in the current year £654,000 is being made available for further hostel provision, with an additional £800,000 for hostels for the young homeless. It seems, therefore, that a substantial attack is being made on the problems of homelessness in Manchester.

Towards the end of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman made some interesting comments about the need for more research into the causes of homelessness. I believe that something is happening in our society causing people to leave home in greater numbers than before. This may be to do with the incidence of marital breakdown, or there may be other reasons. Certainly, we need greater insight into the causes of homelessness as well as to find better solutions.

The right hon. Gentleman also touched on what he described as the piecemeal approach of Government to the single homeless. He knows as well as I do, if not better, that Government Departments are based on services. They provide for education, social services, transport, health, and so on, and at any given time an individual member of the public may be looking to a number of Departments for help. As the right hon. Gentleman said, if the single homeless have drug problems that is a matter for the Home Office. If they are on supplementary benefit or if they are ill, it is a matter for the DHSS. Their housing needs are the concern of the Department of the Environment.

The right hon. Gentleman may have been implying that Government Departments should be rearranged so that there was for example, a Department for the single homeless, a Department for the elderly, and a Department for the disabled. That would create some difficult administrative problems as each Department tried to provide services for its client group in isolation, when the services required by all the client groups — such as hospitals or a supplementary benefit system—might be identical. I think that it would be better to retain the present system, with better co-ordination, than to appoint Ministers for individual client groups. I know that this is a sensitive subject, because the right hon. Gentleman has been the Minister with responsibilities for the disabled and appreciates better than anyone else the problems of trying to deal with a single client group within Whitehall or local government.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that the homelessness statistics that we collect from local authorities do not include any age breakdown. We are currently talking to the local authority associations about the possibility of including such a breakdown, so that we would know how many young people there were among the homeless. We may well wish to return to that point when our research project on how authorities record their statistics on activity under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 has been completed. The project is due to start later in the year.

At the moment information on homelessness among young people is patchy. However, I would not deny that the evidence from all sides — advice agencies, local authorities, supplementary benefit figures and one's own constituency advice bureau — suggests a substantial increase in homelessness among young people and a disproportionate representation of ethnic minority groups. Given the importance of the home in providing a background of security in people's lives, and given the serious and lasting effects that homelessness can have on people's development, especially when those effects are felt at a young and impressionable age, that is certainly a situation that the Government are concerned about and are anxious to improve.

There are many reasons why a young person may become homeless. Often a combination of factors are involved. The decision to leave the parental home will not always be the result of some crisis or problems; moving away from parents and setting up independently is after all very much a part of growing up. But likewise so is learning to be realistic, and it is only reasonable to expect young people to take account of the availability of accommodation before deciding to leave home.

There are occasions when it is difficult or impossible for young people to remain in the parental home, and local authorities need carefully to consider such special circumstances when dealing with homeless young people. Research published by my Department in 1981 as "Single and Homeless" identified a number of important factors contributing to homelessness among young people. When asked why they had left their last settled base, 29 per cent. of those under 30 gave family break-up or marital dispute as a reason, and this was a particularly important explanation in the under-20 age group, in which the figure was 43 per cent. Disputes with parents accounted for 22 per cent. of those under 30. Other important reasons related to employment—nearly 20 per cent.—or entry to or discharge from an institution—12 per cent.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the new supplementary benefit board and lodging regulations that came into effect at the end of April. They have aroused widespread concern, especially the aspects that affect young people aged under 26. The right hon. Gentleman asked me a number of questions about adjudicators that would fall more appropriately to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I shall ask my right hon. Friend to write to the right hon. Gentleman.

In a lengthy debate on 2 April, my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security explained the changes involved and the reasons for them. At the end of the debate, the House approved the changes. I do not wish to cover all the ground again now. The important point is that the DHSS is carefully monitoring the effects of the changes and Ministers are prepared to consider whether further changes should be made in the light of experience. I know that Shelter, CHAR and other voluntary bodies concerned with homelessness are also monitoring the position from the point of view of homelessness. My Deptartment will keep in close touch with the DHSS as experience of the new regime grows.

On the practical side, I commend what the voluntary bodies are doing. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some in his speech. I commend what some local authorities are doing to inform existing supplementary benefit claimants in board and lodging of the effects of the new regulations, the accommodation options open to them and their rights under the 1977 Act. One must be clear that authorities that have a minimum duty under the Act to provide "advice and appropriate assistance" to homeless people should not interpret that simply as giving lists of bed and breakfast establishments with charges that are above the new ceilings for board and lodging payments. That would not count as appropriate advice or assistance.

With regard to investment in housing, the right hon. Gentleman knows that difficult decisions on priorities have to be made, in terms of what we can make available. However, on the homelessness factor, we already take into account in the capital allocations to local authorities and in the allocations to the Housing Corporation, the incidence of homelessness in a particular area. We are reviewing with the local authorities the possibility of altering the weighting—currently 10 per cent.—or the form of the homelessness indicator so that it reflects needs more fairly. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have also asked authorities to concentrate their available resources on those in the greatest housing need and, of course, that must include the homeless. Then it is up to the local authorities to decide how to use the resources that are available.

We have tried to help with the hostels initiative, which I hope the right hon. Gentleman knows about. That involved a major expansion in the provision by housing associations of small modern hostels, often providing care and support. Since May 1979 some 11,000 places have been approved. Young homeless people will certainly be among those who have benefited. Under the housing association grant arrangements, associations that provide accommodation in hostels, other forms of shared housing, and self-contained dwellings for renting are supported by my Department with capital and, when necessary, revenue finance.

We are sending a circular to local authorities next month advising them how to introduce better housing management measures, which will reduce the number of empty dwellings. It is a scandal that so many local authority dwellings remain empty while the numbers of homeless people increase. On 1 April 1984 more than 25,000 dwellings had been empty for over a year. We must have another blitz on that figure if we are to make progress with the numbers of homeless people.

We are also looking at several other initiatives. Perhaps more should be done to encourage people to transfer out of under-occupied houses to the smaller homes that might suit them better. Perhaps the Government or local authorities should take further steps to encourage householders to take in lodgers, either directly or through special local agencies. We are looking at several initiatives to encourage the private rented sector at this stage to see what might be done to get private resources into housing.

With regard to preventing the existing housing stock from deteriorating, we recently published a Green Paper on improvement grants. Last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met some voluntary bodies concerned with homelessness including the Shelter Housing Aid Centre and CHAR. As a result, we are having another look at our policy on homelessness to see whether fresh initiatives might be introduced to tackle the problem mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman.

We reviewed the 1977 Act three years ago and decided against any extension. However, we monitor the position through the statistics that we collect and the information that comes in from a range of sources. I hope that local authorities will interpret sensitively their obligations under the Act. They can treat as vulnerable some of the young people about whom I know the right hon. Gentleman is concerned—those who are at risk of financial or sexual abuse. The Department's code of guidance encourages authorities to secure accommodation wherever possible for those groups of young people. I welcome the fact that some authorities at least feel able to do that or even more.

I know that I have not answered all the questions asked by the right hon. Gentleman, but I shall write to him. However, I hope that I have said enough to make it clear to him that we are seriously concerned about the increase in homelessness, particularly among young people. At the discussion last week the voluntary bodies made a number of useful points. We are taking a fresh look at this problem and are looking at a range of measures which I hope will relieve the situation described by the right hon. Gentleman.