HL Deb 18 January 1995 vol 560 cc647-9

3 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednalasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will examine the operation of their programmes for the young homeless, including counselling and resettlement schemes, to ensure that assistance is given where it is most needed.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have a number of programmes which provide assistance to young single homeless people. For example, the Government's £180 million Rough Sleepers Initiative in central London is focused on the largest concentration of people sleeping rough. Grants are also available to voluntary sector organisations across the country which offer direct, practical help to single people in housing need. The Department of the Environment will shortly consult relevant bodies about what will happen when the Rough Sleepers Initiative ends in March next year.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that reply. Does he agree that the Rough Sleepers Initiative only operates in the London area and not in the rest of the country? Will he accept that last year there were approximately 3,000 young homeless people in Birmingham who had to be catered for? Can I inform him that the majority of them use the St. Basil's homeless organisation, which has been going for 22 years, and as part of its resettlement scheme has a resettlement centre to which people who have passed from them can return when they have not found a job or have other problems or difficulties? There is also a supported lodgings scheme. Can the noble Viscount tell the House whether any other part of the country has a supported lodgings scheme in operation? Will he accept that in Birmingham the scheme has made permanently available 65 beds in private homes for people from St. Basil's, the residents having taken those people into their families?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. The Rough Sleepers Initiative is for central London. I know that she is a patron of St. Basil's centre and is obviously concerned with it. It is one of the centres funded by a Section 73 grant. I am afraid that I cannot tell her whether the innovative scheme of supported lodgings is repeated elsewhere in the country. I note that St. Basil's is one of some five projects funded in Birmingham to assist with the problem.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House how the figures compare in relation to rough sleepers in London and the accommodation available to provide them with sleeping accommodation if they want it?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the Rough Sleepers Initiative has been enormously successful. We have provided some 3,300 units of permanent accommodation, fund outreach work and resettlement support by voluntary organisations. The RSI has also significantly reduced the numbers of those sleeping rough in central London. The latest voluntary sector count in November 1994 found 288 people sleeping rough. That figure is down by more than three-quarters compared with similar estimates of over 1,000 before the RSI began. I am afraid that some people who sleep rough are very difficult to place.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in his reply the Minister emphasised most the London problem. Will he accept that it is a core problem for young people who make their way to London? My noble friend and colleague Lady Fisher mentioned the good work that is being done in Birmingham through local initiatives. She mentioned that there were 3,000 homeless youngsters in that city. Can I tell the noble Viscount that in my own city of Manchester there is a similar problem, as there is in other conurbations outside London? Does he agree that we must help those youngsters, give guidance to them and not lose control over them, or they may drift towards the less desirable parts of society? In those circumstances, if people come forward with schemes to look after such youngsters, will they receive the fullest government encouragement, both in a material and financial sense? Will they also receive encouragement at ministerial level?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, we have undertaken a recent evaluation through York University of the effectiveness of the Section 73 programme, since it has been running in its present form unaltered since 1990–91. We sought recommendations on its possible future direction. We received the University of York's report only in October. Ministers are anxious that the implications of the report should be fully evaluated before decisions are made on the way forward. I might add that well over 100 projects around the country are likely to receive funding throughout 1995 and 1996. That is in addition to continuing support for the national homeless advice service.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the former Westminster Hospital stands empty and that it is likely to be subject to long delays with regard to planning permission and redevelopment? Would not this hospital provide an excellent base for housing, counselling and resettling young homeless people?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the noble Lord raised a very interesting point. However, experience from the Government's winter shelter programme has shown that cellular office space is more suitable than hospital space for use as temporary accommodation for the homeless. This year we are funding over 330 places in seven shelters in central London from December until the end of March, with around 200 further bed spaces available in the event of severe weather.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient co-operation with police authorities throughout the country?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I do not believe that I should stand at this Dispatch Box and say that we are satisfied. It is a very difficult problem which, in some instances, throws up hard problems to solve. I have tried to indicate the initiatives that the Government are taking to try to alleviate the problem where it exists. Co-operation between the local authority and the police is a matter at which we need to look. I certainly could not say that we are satisfied.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many young homeless people are still to be seen begging on London's Underground? Would he consider commissioning a study to find out the causes that drive young people to need to beg, so that passengers on London Underground and others who may be solicited by such beggars know whether or not they are worth helping?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion. It would appear from some newspaper reports—I do not believe everything that I read in the newspapers—that some of those who beg are not in fact in need of help.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, are the Government aware that some local authority housing departments go beyond their responsibility for housing homeless families and extend a useful service to young people who are homeless? The City Council in Manchester is an instance of that. Will the Government consider laying that as an obligation on all local authorities? If the Government are not prepared to lay such a responsibility on local authority housing departments, would they at least encourage them to engage in that useful work? I am thinking particularly in terms of the Westminster local authority, which has caused some concern around the country because of its housing policies.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the homelessness code of guidance issued by the Department of the Environment, to which local authorities must have regard, advises local authorities to consider whether young applicants may be vulnerable and at risk as a result of being homeless. Therefore the legislation provides an important safety net for those who are most vulnerable in our society and who are homeless through no fault of their own. But it does not and cannot provide a universal right to accommodation.